- Fionn Reilly
- Jon Duelks, Evan Schlomann, Mike Shaw, and Annie Terror of the Casket Architects.
Orange County is one of New York’s most beautiful areas, home to lush Harriman Park, Sterling Forest, and the southern end of the Shawangunk Ridge. But under an ash-gray April sky, parts of the region can take on a sinister, otherworldly hue. Wend your way up through the mountains on Route 17A and you pass one creepy, craggy rock formation after another. The twisted trunks of still-leafless trees crouch above the roadway, their gnarled, spindly branches edging toward your windows as you descend into the village of Warwick. And just beyond the far edge of town is the hamlet of Pine Island, once called “the drowned lands” and home to the famously surreal black dirt tilled by the immigrant Polish onion farmers who settled here.
“Yeah, the black dirt,” groans Evan Schlomann, the shaggy-haired, 26-year-old bassist of Warwick’s explosive punk quartet, the Casket Architects. “In the summer, if it’s windy out, everyone has to keep their windows shut because it blows right in. Right through the screens.”
In performance, Schlomann is an angst-seething dynamo, pounding the strings of his instrument and occasionally bellowing into the microphone. Off stage, however, his personality is largely that of a silent observer, a man of few words—and dry, sarcastic words, at that. But the story of the black dirt is clearly one that interests him. “There was a lake here, formed by glaciers that melted [12,000 years ago]. That hill with the pine trees over there actually was an island. The farmers drained the lake to make the fields but they kept the name Pine Island. It’s a weird place.” He’s right: The blackened soil makes the valley look like an alien landscape.
Perfect, then, that the locale should also be the breeding ground of a band whose music its members describe as “sci-fi death rock.” It’s a term that fits well. The Casket Architects—Schlomann, singer-guitarist Mike Shaw, drummer Annie Terror, and keyboardist Jon Duelks—play a futuristic, wildly abrasive brand of post-hardcore that takes the basic punk platform and bolts on elements ranging from thrash metal to art rock to industrial electronica. The final product is much akin to cramming Slayer, Frank Zappa, Devo, Black Flag, and Stockhausen into a trash compactor—with the controls cranked to loudly grind everything to a fine powder. The group’s lyrics, written mostly by Shaw and delivered in his corrosive, gravel-gargling shriek, are screen grabs of a bleak, postapocalyptic world, a realm in which half-homo sapiens/half-machine cyborgs lock horns in a battle for whatever’s left of humanity; think Mad Max versus the Terminator in a fatality-strewn demolition derby. Welcome to the future. It’s hell.
But what’s it like to be a punk band in Warwick, New York? “It can be hard at times,” says Shaw, 27, over chips and salsa in the kitchen of the two-bedroom ranch Terror shares with her mom and two shy cats. “Other than the Tuscan Cafe, there aren’t many places to play,” the lanky front man continues. “But it’s a nice area, and there’s definitely a punk scene here. Though it’s hard to keep it going.”
Thanks to their previous bands’ having shared bills at all-ages shows they put on at nearby community centers, Shaw, Terror, and Schlomann had already known each other when the band formed as the Night Terrors in 2003. After undergoing some lineup changes (Terror was originally a guitarist) and learning that there were already several other Night Terrors in the world, the group pared down to a trio, taking its new name after “Casket Architecture,” an early tune. The outfit’s debut album, Dance on the Death Nerve, was released in March of 2005 on Poughkeepsie’s Glacial Records. Clocking in at just under 20 minutes, the volatile disc drew raves from the underground press for its adventurous balance of fast, hard rock and avant experimentalism. It was time to take the show on the road, an endeavor the threesome took to like sharks to a shipwreck. And on their own terms.
Eschewing the standard grind of playing for one parasitic, non-all-ages-show-friendly club owner after another, the band plugged right into the burgeoning circuit of D.I.Y. house-party venues that has exploded in recent years. A natural outgrowth of MySpace’s direct band-to-fan networking phenomenon, kids across the country have put together a viable, alternative system of performance spaces for below-the-radar acts like the Casket Architects. In most cases, the open-to-everyone gigs take place in the basements of private homes, where no alcohol is sold, and are promoted via e-mail lists and the bands’ MySpace pages. It all might sound iffy to musicians used to the more traditional touring route, but consider this: Through direct donations and formidable merch sales to fans who aren’t paying high door or drink prices, the bands usually drive off with far more money than they’d make at a “legitimate” venue.
“At most clubs you play at, the money from the door has to first go to pay for the P.A. rental and, probably, the soundman’s cocaine habit, before the bands get paid,” says the bespectacled Terror. “At the house shows the sound-system situation can be sketchy, but the money goes right to us. Plus, they’re way more fun because we’re only playing for people who are really into it.”
Although each of the three had dabbled in contributing keyboard tracks to the first CD, after they recorded the synth-centric Electrical Skeletal, a six-song seven-inch EP on Warwick’s Caterwaul imprint, it became clear that the eerie, monster-movie keyboard lines they were making were becoming an integral part of the group’s sound, one they wanted to recreate live. So Duelks came on board in March of 2006 for more touring and the recording of Skull Persuasion, the band’s new album for Altercation Records, an Austin, Texas, label with roots in the Kingston area. (Deulks left and was replaced by Justin Morrow, who appears on the album; Deulks returned to the lineup early this year.)
“I first saw them when they were still called the Night Terrors, on a bill in Poughkeepsie, and I really dug their energy,” says Altercation chief Justin Habersaat. “But, even then, there were hints of something really different there. Their music has a lot of weirdness to it, it’s not easily digestible compared to your typical, straightforward, one-two-three-four punk rock band. But the audiences that are into them are really into them, totally diehard. Plus [the band members are] hard working self-starters, absolute road dogs.”
Its most recent excursion saw the group on the road with Kingston duo Dead Unicorn, blowing egress doors off their hinges all the way down to Austin’s March South by Southwest industry showcase and back. “Touring with the Casket Architects was great,” says Dead Unicorn drummer-vocalist Zack Shaw (no relation). “They’re all really great people and each of them is insane in their own way, which is very cool. But they’re reaching a point where they’re gonna have to play bigger venues. The crowds are getting bigger and crazier, and their sound is getting bigger than any living room or basement can hold.”
Of course, outside of a live set, a spin of Skull Persuasion is the next best way to get your head in the middle of the Architects’ massive, bludgeoning, and unpredictable ruckus. Tracks like “Electroid Contortion” and “Distortion is a Sunbeam” brim with all-over-the-place tempo changes, while Shaw’s lyrics are packed with enough cartoonish violence to make Sin City look like a Disney feature. A hard music for the harder days ahead? Damn straight: It’s 2007 and there’s a war on. If you’re a teen or twenty-something with a brain, what do you want, The Cranberries?
But what does the future hold for the Casket Architects? For the moment, more mileage. As this goes to print, the band is gearing up for a two-month headlining tour—its longest yet—in support of the new record. “After this tour, what we really want to do is get on some bigger tours, opening for bigger bands,” says Shaw. “From there, it would be cool to get our records released in Europe so we can tour over there.” Knowing how the eminently hip European audiences go crazy for similarly inventive American bands, the quartet should have no problem finding legions of new fans on the continent.
True, their songs frequently depict the harsh, desolate future of their favorite science fiction films, stories that seem only to blur the lines between fantasy and reality ever more as the years elapse. But as the group’s members continue to work hard and to tear ferociously at the edges of the artistic envelope, they’re inventing a brighter future not only for their band and its swelling fan base, but for punk rock as a creative, vital genre.
For the Casket Architects, the future is now.
The Casket Architects’ Skull Persuasion is out now on Altercation Records. www.casketarchitects.com. The Casket Architects will perform at the Tuscan Cafe in Warwick on June 30.