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The Carsinogents: Running with the Bulls

 
story by tim mcmahan


 

 

Lazy-i: March 5, 2003

The Carsinogents
w/ The Lepers, The Miscasts
March 8
9 p.m.
Sokol Underground

13th & Martha
Omaha

$5

There were a ton of ways to begin a story about Omaha's best undiscovered rock property -- The Carsinogents -- but no matter how I tried, it was impossible to avoid the most obvious.

For this band, Rhode Island changed everything.

Because if there was one thing the Carsinogents is known for besides its break-neck horror-billy sound, it's their stage show. You see, these guys like fire. They like it a lot. It all begins with their props -- flaming Tiki skulls, a keyboard cover shaped like the butt-end of a Chevy complete with smoking exhaust pipe, spinning flaming garbage cans, '60s-era B&W skank movies projected behind the stage. Each show includes an element of danger, especially when they're rocking a full house at a cramped club, where a bouncing onlooker could get slammed in the head with a microphone stand or doused in high-octane alcohol.

Perhaps their most notorious stunt is the moment when drummer Eldon Vampola emerges from behind his trap set, grabs a torch and spits a mouthful of Bacardi 151 over the glow-skull, creating an enormous ball of heat and light. There's a good picture of it on the back cover of the band's new CD, Ole! Study it closely, because it's the only place you'll see that stunt again. Flames are taboo after the indoor fireworks display by now-infamous '80s hair band Great White during a gig in Rhode Island last month that went horribly wrong, killing 98 people in what will be remembered as one of the greatest tragedies in rock and roll history.

The word went out almost immediately afterward -- there ain't gonna be any open flames at Sokol Underground during The Carsinogents' March 8 CD release show. The band quickly realized their days of open flame are now over.

 

 

 

From the band's standpoint, dousing those flames was a long-time coming. The pyrotechnic stage gimmicks which helped define them were getting long in the tooth anyway.

"It's not something that makes or breaks us," said lead singer Dave Electro. "We've done lots of shows without the fire. I was a little relieved to end it. I was sick of it."

"It's not exciting to us anymore," said guitarist Vig Brooks said, "and I don't know how exciting it is for anyone else, really." But as quickly as he said that, he added. "Locally, I don't care that it's over. On the road, I wish we could still do it. One of the worst bands of the '80s fucked us."

"Rhode Island set a precedent for club owners," said bassist Handsome Marc. "It validated their worst fears."

"We still have our video projector," Electro said, thinking of new visuals to add to the act. "Maybe I could attach a set of bull horns to my organ."

The death of their old stage schtick was just another rite of passage for a band that's desperate to escape its Omaha entrapment, and unlike most of its peers, has the firepower to do it.

The Carsinogents formed in September 1999 out of the wreckage of a number of busted-up local bands. The line-up: Vig Brooks (ex-Glance to the Sequel) on guitar, Handsome Marc (ex-Row 8 Plot 30) on bass, Arizona transplant Eldon Vampola (ex-too many bands to mention) on drums and guitar, and Dave Electro (ex-Full Blown) on organ and lead vocals. (And yeah, I know those aren't the band members' real names, but this is rock and roll, remember?).

The band carved out its reputation with big, chunky guitars, horror-movie keyboards and a tight-as-a-tick rhythm section playing blazing electrified punk with a tinge of vintage surf rock underlying all of it.

On Ole!, recorded at Lincoln's Presto! Studios by local legends A.J. and Mike Mogis, the band cranks it up a notch or 20. Each song is caste in stylish grime, impulsive speed and giddy fear, like watching a stripper do her thing in the back seat of a '71 GTO moving at 110 on a county road. The guitars glow red hot -- one part '50s racecar movie, another part bare-knuckle '70s head rock. Drums and bass are little more than a grinning kick in the groin, begging you to get up so they can drop you again. Electro doesn't sing as much as spit out the lines in a cocky strut like a weird morph of cool Elvis and angry Joe Strummer.

And forget about all the instrumentals. This time 'round it's stories taken straight from Electo's dark, seedy, alcohol-fueled past (and present). He gave a run-down of what inspired a few of the CD's 10 tracks:

--"Justice Served" -- "That's a vendetta fantasy about my lawyer."
--"Rope Burn" -- "Inspired by a guy I knew who dealt acid who hanged himself rather than face jail time."
--"Full Time Lover" -- "About the time I lost my job and got unemployed for six months. It's something a friend of mine used to say -- 'I quit my job to become a full-time lover.'"
--"Taking Francesca Out" -- "Based on a true story about an acquaintance who was involved in a grave robbery."

Obviously the names have been changed to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent, but don't worry, the degenerates involved know who they are (and should be ashamed).

 


"Rhode Island set a precedent for club owners. It validated their worst fears."


 

 


"We have to go out and play these key Midwestern cities -- St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City -- and then play them again and again."


 

Ole! is easily the best thing the band has ever done, and they know it. They also know the clock is ticking on their careers. Two years ago, they thought they were on the verge of breaking out of the local gig scene and going national with a brand new EP and lots of plans for touring. Nothing was holding them back.

But two years later, here they are, right back where they started, in a situation that's oh so familiar. For many, the Carsinogents are the most frustrating band in Omaha. Anyone who's heard them and seen their stage show knows they could be huge if they could only get on the road. Unfortunately, that never seems to happen.

"The band was being pulled apart before that first CD was even released. After we got it done, none of us were completely satisfied with it," Vampola said. "Still, it sold surprisingly well. We never went on tour, had no distribution, and still sold between 600 and 700 copies. That's a lot to sell in your home town."

It's not as if the band can't catch a break, it's more like they can't seem to get the ball rolling. Every time they open for a national act, they win over both the act and the crowd. Last September the Carsinogents got the opening slot for rising indie-punk stars ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead when they played at Sokol Underground. Theirs was a particularly hot set, flames and all. As the band cleared their gear off the stage, Trail of Dead's Conrad Keely took the mic and said, "Trail of Dead won't be playing tonight because we don't think we could follow that last band."

"They were like 'Give us a CD and we'll give a copy to our booking agent.' That's what we were most excited about," Vampola said.

But of course, nothing ever came of it, which was no surprise to the band. "It seemed flattering at the time, but it didn't seem real," Marc said. "They had just been signed to a major label. I didn't think they were in a position to really do anything."

"We had a European promoter express interest in us when we opened for Nashville Pussy," Electro said. "Their road manager had worked with The Gories and the Oblivions and Guitar Wolf. He appeared to be very excited about us."

But again, nothing. In fact, the band never got a response after sending demos of Ole! to a number of labels, including In the Red (Bassholes, The Dirtbombs, Boss Hogg), Sympathy for the Record Industry (The White Stripes, Les Sexareenos, The Muffs) and Estrus (Fireballs of Freedom, Man or Astroman?, The Mooney Suzuki) -- all labels the put out music with a punk-a-billy flair.

Enter local label Speed! Nebraska, home of The Monroes and the Carsinogents' old incarnation, Full Blown, who agreed to release Ole! under its moniker. "They have a catalog and have something of a reputation," Vampola said. "We're going to send this CD out everywhere. Most magazines won't review it if it isn't on a label."

In addition to the CD, Vampola said Speed! Nebraska also will issue a 7-inch single later this summer. He said he knows that touring is the key to making it to the next level. "Getting on the road is all a matter of getting it done," he said.

"We have to go out and play these key Midwestern cities -- St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City -- and then play them again and again," Brooks said.

All say they could either arrange something with their employers or would just up and quit if given the chance to open a tour for an established act.

As if on cue, Electro's cell phone rang. It was one of they guys from Saddle Creek Records band Cursive, calling to see if The Carsinogents were interested in hitting the road with them for some dates in early May. The gigs were confirmed a couple days later, and the band said it will augment the Cursive dates by booking a few of their own.

It could be the break they've been waiting for, or at least a good start. Only time will tell. One thing's for certain. Regardless of what happens this time, The Carsinogents aren't giving up.

"If this CD fails to take off, it's not gonna keep me from playing," Marc said.

"I've been getting my hopes up since I was 16. I'm 28 now," Vampola added. "I want it to happen and it would be great if it did."

Electro flipped a copy of the new CD over on the table and looked at the cover, which bares a picture of a bull fighter staring down a bleeding bull with three spears in its back. If it's a metaphor, which one represents the band -- the matador or the unstoppable bull? Electro just shook his head: "Failure isn't going to end our existence."


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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader March 5, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Top photograph copyright 2003 by Bill Sitzmann, used by permission.