It Lives! The Kustomized Story
"I'd like to think that you don't have to turn crappy as you get older."
-- Peter Prescott
Your third or fourth band isn't the same as your first.
You're older, yes, wiser, maybe, but at least you know what to expect. And isn't that really the problem with third or fourth bands? We all know what to expect. Kustomized determined from the start to upend expectations, including our own.
For one thing, there was no Hey-gang-let's-start-a-band moment. Peter had some songs. I wanted to rock again after some experimental wanderings. Ed and Kurt worked with Peter at Mystery Train Records, and Pete knew Kurt had been a drummer at one point. Casual. Just some friends getting together to work out some ideas.
That went out the window because it worked, and worked quickly. And because we inspired early curiosity based on previous bands. Peter Prescott drummed for the once-and-future archetypal art-punk band, Mission of Burma, then followed that intense creative outburst with Volcano Suns, which, given its many recordings as well as label and line-up changes, counts as three or four bands itself. Kurt Davis, though briefly a drummer growing up in Indiana, introduced himself to the world shredding his vocal cords as Yukki Gipe, lead singer and manic front man of Bullet LaVolta. Ed Yazijian was the violin player in High Risk Group. And I played guitar with Busted Statues, among others, one of the many local stalwarts who thrived in post-Burma Boston with its gentle ecology of college radio, accessible clubs, independent record stores and supportive press. An intriguing history with a ready audience anticipating a BurmaSunsLaVoltaHighRiskStatues experience.
But we shuffled the deck.
It Lives! The Kustomized Story
Peter stepped out from behind the drums to wield a guitar, which gave him more vocal room and put his songs at center stage. Kurt retreated behind the drums to add a four-square pounding and was otherwise silent. I discovered that as a guitarist I was actually a bass player. And Ed continued his rock investigations by handling the lead guitar and Farfisa organ. It was more than a stunt, and we were accomplished enough musicians to move quickly beyond the novelty. The instrument swaps meant that we left behind past roles and habits, and had to create a new way to approach songwriting and performing. The result was leaner and more elemental, perhaps reflecting the joy in discovering new sounds on our instruments. After noting the band members' history, most reviews would point to a Joy Division or Wire influence. Fair enough, though we were also looking past our punk roots to surf and hot-rod rockabilly, lounge-y instrumentals and jazz standards. We would fall in love with grooves, take Peter's twisty arrangements and stretch them without losing the propulsion. While keeping punk's drive and volume, we wanted to swing.
Just a few months after first trying out Peter's songs, we got in a rented minivan and headed to Steve Albini's house in Chicago where Bob Weston -- friend, Albini's partner in studio and Shellac, Pete's former bandmate in Volcano Suns and future bandmate in the reunited Burma -- recorded our first EP. Released by Matador in 1994, The Mystery of Kustomized picks up some threads of Peter's writing for the Suns and gives it a pure-Kustomized thrashing good humor. "Big Trick" and "Overnight Namedrop" capture the wallop we were after, and, to my ear, "It Lives!" is at once a biting portrait of over-30s rock, and a song the Rolling Stones should have come up with and didn't. The set closes with Joy Division's "Dead Souls," a dark excursion that shouldn't be attempted by the insincere. I think it's one of Pete's most compelling vocals, and the raw emotion in the performances live and on disc certainly cemented the association with Joy Division. I remember moving quickly through the material, though Peter was sick, which I believe you can hear in the gruff, low-end growl of the vocals. Bob was a steadying influence, Steve was around periodically, full of wry anecdotes, and Dave Grohl came by one afternoon. The session felt family-style and documented a band hopped up on its first rush of energy and discovery.
We played frequently and practiced often, keeping pace with Peter's prolific songwriting, and we were now creating material specifically for the sound and personality of Kustomized rather than adapting songs Pete had been saving. I especially recall shows with The Fall, and a Matador event at CBGB with Chavez, Helium and Pizzicato Five, who were being followed by a Japanese tv crew that projected live images on a screen behind the stage as the band exited their limo and went backstage to prepare. We followed that multimedia event feeling a bit underdressed.
It Lives! The Kustomized Story
The next recordings for what would become The Battle for Space were again produced with Bob Weston, though this time on home turf at Q Sound in Boston. The tracks show more cohesion and at the same time a more expansive definition of the band's sound. "The Day I Had Some Fun," which Matador first released as a single in 1994 b/w Wire's "Surgeon's Girl" and the Saints's "(I'm) Stranded"), and also on their Extra Cheese compilation, amplifies a raucous humor. But tracks such as "Phantasmagoria, Now," "The Place Where People Meet," and the truly odd "La Geune" display our fascination with extended riffs bouncing off the bass line, and with the 50s and 60s sound effects and exotica records that Peter and Kurt were devouring. A Kustomized song, circa Battle for Space, announced its intentions as to key and rhythm with a chord or two, and then slammed into fourth gear. The record was well reviewed, including a three-star review in Rolling Stone (which has become a four-star review online! Like fine wine...) My favorite song to play live and on the recording is "The 5th." Pete reaches for something different with his vocals (which were pushed even further on "Air Freshener"), the lyrics are great, and it swings to the point it's downright danceable. There's also a real gem hidden within "Air Freshener": a straight-ahead rock ode to romance called "I Love You So Much" that occurs at 4:59 in the track. I don't remember why we buried it. Perhaps it was a gift meant for only a few.
We also released "They Call It Sleep" b/w our cover of La Peste's "Better Off Dead," a staple encore, on a Mag Wheel Records 45. The single contains another oddity, an instrumental called "Determined Porpoises" that Ed insists is one of his favorites. Kurt adds: "The title 'Determined Porpoises' came from a minor obsession that Pete and I had with a writer who wrote the most insane descriptions in his music reviews. If I'm not mistaken, the phrase 'Determined Porpoises' came from a James Brown review, of all things. It was recorded on Pete's four-track and was an extended jam that we just ran out into a lock groove." I believe these tracks, with the exception of "Determined Porpoises," came from the same sessions as Battle for Space as they were also recorded by Bob Weston.
We taped a video for "The Day I Had Some Fun," directed by David Kleiler, who had been in both the last version of Volcano Suns with Peter and Weston and the last version of Busted Statues with me (hmmm...). We even had a choreographer, though judging by the video above, it didn't take. I play an evil CEO type (David used me again as a bad guy who tortures Mary Timony in a Helium video; not, I hope, typecasting, but, rather, reflecting my ownership of a pin-striped suit). Kurt and Ed portrayed military officers for whom waterboarding is mere child's play. The scenario has something to do with diverting Peter's mind from reveries about gorgeous women feeding him grapes to marching in lockstep with our fascist dictates. We appear pleased when the result of Pete's electrifying experience is a happy band playing rock.
It Lives! The Kustomized Story
After a one-day studio trip to record Wire's "A Question of Degree" with Pete Weiss at Zippah, which appeared on the Wire tribute record Whore, we quickly got back to work on the aptly named At the Vanishing Point which Matador released in February 1996. The competing demands of family and frequent shows, and our desire to tour further afield, led Kurt to bow out, yielding the drum throne to Malcolm Travis, another long-time friend and the power behind Human Sexual Response, the Zulus, and most recently, Bob Mould's Sugar. Malcolm and I locked into a real dialogue, and I know his solid time and steady hand lifted my playing a few notches. Where we had been a loose, loud punk-rock band with some interesting twists, we became a rather powerful, tight band that could handle the curves. As a result, we chose to record quickly and nearly live in the studio, again with Pete Weiss, joined by engineer Brian Charles. We mostly agree that Vanishing Point is our strongest sustained work, and the spare recording captures the swagger. (Our friend Izumi says that a record-shop owner in Tokyo described it as sounding like, "The Fall, The Dead Kennedys and a big explosion.") The instrumentals -- Pete's menacing original "Handcuffs" and our surf-twang version of the standard "Harlem Nocturne" -- display the band's growing confidence. Check Ed's guitar freak out in bongo- and organ-mad "The One That Got Away." The locked-in rhythm of "Film." The clenched fist of "Permission." Solid.
And the band picked up steam on a farewell tour down the East Coast. But, after a final show at the Middle East in Cambridge, Malcolm and I exited and we both moved away from Boston. Peter played two more Kustomized shows with Ed, Nick Blakey, and Tim Morse, which, when Ed departed, with several line-up changes, metamorphosed into The Peer Group. Nick remembers:
"Once I was sitting behind you guys on stage at TT's. Some guy in the audience shouted 'Hey, Peter, who is that dude?' Peter's response was: 'That...,' pointing back to me sitting snug between Malcolm's drum kit and Ed's amp '...THAT is Syd Barrett!' Awesome."
It Lives! The Kustomized Story
A few years later, Burma surprised one and all and reunited, launching Peter into the worldwide, richly-deserved attention that Burma never received the first time around. Last winter, Matador released the first three Burma records in remastered, definitive editions. In January, Merge will release Volcano Suns's first two records, Bright Orange Years and All Night Lotus Party, for the first time on CD.
Kurt can be seen and heard in The Konks, singing and playing "two lousy drums." So, he managed to combine his talents in one rowdy band. Kurt's also working at Harmonix, the makers of the wildly popular Rock Band game, and he managed to get some of his drawings in the last release. Check it out here.
Ed moved to South Carolina, returned to academia, but did not stop his restless musical wanderings. He's released a solo instrumental recording titled Six Ways to Avoid the Evil Eye, and it's a fascinating document of Ed's instrumental talent and interest in Near East culture. He's scheduled to release a follow up on Feed and Seed Records in March.
Malcolm moved to Nashville, added some country chops to his repertoire, then headed back to Providence, RI, to play with alt-country outfit, Lucky 57.
I moved to New York, produced books, a movie, MTV's first magazine, opened a design studio, and created Smoke. I continue to play bass (and some mandolin at one of Brooklyn's many bluegrass jams).
In the end, I think we avoided crappiness. Kustomized existed at perhaps the post-Nirvana, pre-Napster high point of indie, college-rock, as radio, press, retail, MTV and audiences turned to see what became of punk rock. Though perhaps swamped by the sheer volume of good and bad music made at the time, Kustomized created an adventurous sound that combined the genre re-discovery of the 90s with the joy we felt in our first bands 10 years previous.
The Battle for Space
All Music Guide
It riffs, it rolls, and it makes noise. If Kustomized's debut album isn't the greatest thing since sliced bread, it isn't bad or unworthy either, and relistenings help to bring out the qualities of both group and record even more. The Battle for Space tries to aim for some of the thrilling post-punk power of both Prescott's earlier stint in Mission of Burma as well as the nervous, fractured energy of the likes of the Gang of Four and Joy Division. That the band had covered "Dead Souls" on a previous EP was something of an indication, since songs like "Throw Your Voice" aim to one extent or another at that song's gripping, rolling power. Drummer Davis keeps things moving with the hints of flair that made John Maher such a great drummer for the Buzzcocks, for instance, while Prescott's guitar keeps a tightly wound feel throughout. However, there's also a rougher, looser edge that suggests the more ragged pop edge of the punk explosion. The music can and does a more sprawling feeling at points, but it's the rough voice sing/shout-alongs that really add the wild card to the proceedings, like if a bunch of Replacements fans suddenly aimed for something more. Things really pick up for the latter half of the album, with songs like "Phantasmagoria, Now" and "33 1/3" striking a perfect balance of art and power. The hands-down winner, though, is "The Place Where People Meet," with a nagging, fierce guitar line that's one of Prescott's best ever which combined with his passionate, commanding vocal and a tight band performance makes for one hell of an undeservedly unknown anthem. Yazijian's touch of adding flute parts via Mellotron or a similar source makes for icing on the cake.
At the Vanishing Point
All Music Guide
Recorded live in the studio with a minimum of overdubs, At the Vanishing Point is Kustomized's most effective outing yet, its stripped-down, visceral sound proving an ideal fit not only with solid Peter Prescott originals like "The One That Got Away" and the menacing instrumental opener "Handcuffs," but also with covers ranging from the surf obscurity "Yacky Do" to Government Issue's "Bored to Death" to the standard "Harlem Nocturne." As they did in Sugar, new drummer Malcolm Travis' piledriver rhythms keep the music spiralling forward at all times, forcing guitarists Prescott and Edd Yazijian to keep their more indulgently noisy impulses in check -- At the Vanishing Point is lean and mean, all muscle and no fat.
The Battle for Space
While Boston is now better known as the home of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, in the '80s it was a veritable punk-rock mecca. At the forefront of the Beantown music scene were Mission of Burma. Burma merged punk fury with angular art damage, making prescient forays into funk and noise while dipping their toes into the waters of pop hooks on tracks like "Academy Fight Song" and "That's When I Reach for My Revolver." Their legacy proved highly influential, with bands ranging from R.E.M. and Soul Asylum to Big Black and the Spinanes left holding the torch after Burma's demise, in 1983.
Drummer Peter Prescott, often responsible for Burma's most out-there material, resurfaced with Volcano Suns, who combined his former group's experimentation with louder, trashier thrills. In 1991 the Suns, too, disbanded, just as punk rock was beginning its ascent into the Top 40. Prescott, however, has returned to fill any void he might have left, moving from drums to vocals and guitar for his newest sonic-assault project, Kustomized.
A Boston post-punk supergroup of sorts, Kustomized feature ex-Bullet LaVolta singer Kurt Davis on drums, with the other members - bassist Bob Moses and guitarist Ed Yazijian - hailing from unsung combos like Busted Statues and High Risk Group. On their first full-length LP, Prescott and crew strip down the music to its most brutal common denominator, which results in the jackhammer stop-start hooks of "The Day I Had Some Fun" and the raw rockabilly guitar stylings of "33 1/3" that teeter between the lunatic and the sublime.
Befitting their roots, Kustomized rock with an almost anachronistic set of '80s post-punk influences, indicated in the three-chord monte of "Puff Piece," with its yelled chants of "1-2-X-U" that come direct from Wire's punk-era masterpiece Pink Flag. Yet this doesn't feel like nostalgia; instead it seems more like a natural continuation of values and styles that Prescott and company had a hand in forming.
In terms of influence, however, post-punk avatars Joy Division - more than any other group - loom over The Battle for Space (Kustomized, in fact, covered the gloom kings' "Dead Souls" on a previous EP). The Joy Division legacy comes to a head most powerfully on "The Place Where People Meet," a song that faithfully replicates that band's thundering bass drones and haunting guitar spirals to great effect. Peter Prescott doesn't approach Ian Curtis' profound angst in his frivolous lyrics - "You were even cuter than a test pattern" is a typical line - yet the primal propulsion of the music more than compensates.
Ultimately, Kustomized's music proves more satisfying than that of their arena-ready neopunk contemporaries: While maintaining an almost savage drive, the band is unafraid to wander into the bizarre areas outside rock convention. With the recent onrush of over-30 bands like Kustomized and Guided by Voices providing real innovation in punk-derived music, those Young Turks in Green Day and the Offspring better watch their backs. (RS 706)
The Mystery of Kustomized EP (Matador) 1994
The Battle for Space (Matador) 1995
At the Vanishing Point (Matador) 1996
HIGH RISK GROUP
Running Among the Sevens EP (UK Blaster) 1991
With the once-mighty Boston art-noise scene threatening to recede from the world's consciousness, ex-Mission of Burma/Volcano Suns drummer Peter Prescott launched this fun-spirited ass-biting quartet in which he sings and plays wiry guitar. Kustomized's drummer, Kurt Davis, sang in Bullet LaVolta (where he was known as Yukki Gipe); guitarist Ed Yazijian and bassist Bob Moses complete the loose-fitting lineup. Keeping it all in the family, former Volcano Suns bassist Bob Weston, now of Shellac, produced the first two records, honing a serrated Chicago edge onto the band's casual stylings.
If Steve Albini hadn't actually produced a Fleshtones album, some of the six shitty-sounding tracks that comprise The Mystery of Kustomized would at least give some indication of how that pairing might work out. "Big Trick" and a cover of Joy Division's "Dead Souls" are strictly windswept exercises in venomous guitar slashing, but the racing "Overnight Namedrop," "Nothing. Not One," "It Lives!" and the goofy "Full" have rock'n'roll hearts ticking beneath the band's burly aggression.
While 22 minutes of adrenalized slop is no hardship post, a full-length album of Kustomized's loud nonsense is a lot to sit through. Elaborating on the EP's vintage garage-rock essence, The Battle for Space benefits from sharper studio fidelity and a fatter rhythmic core, winding up shifting a latter-day New York Dolls through '90s equipment. Still, Kustomized's work habits -- dazed fuzzbusters on a high-speed chase under the watchful eye of a critical noise expert -- don't do any favors to songs ("The Day I Had Some Fun," "Puff Piece," "33 1/3" and the unlisted bonus cut appended to the final track) that would have benefited greatly from being put up on blocks and stripped down.
With Malcolm Travis -- recently freed of his rhythmic obligations to Bob Mould in Sugar -- taking over from Davis and Weston out of the picture, Kustomized shifted gears for the better on At the Vanishing Point. Diverse in tone, less prone to self-defeating indulgence and equipped with more generally reliable material, the album reveals the quartet's stylish side in "The One That Got Away," economically driven by two-fingered organ until a flamethrower guitar break, a properly noirish version of "Harlem Nocturne" and the opening instrumental, "Handcuffs." Elsewhere, Kustomized joyfully overkills simple tunes like a cover of Government Issue's "Bored to Death" with delirious power. So much for suave bachelor pad music -- this brings it all back home to the crash pad floor.
Before Kustomized, Ed Yazijian played lead violin (!) in Boston's excellent but little-known High Risk Group. Running Among the Sevens contains the five songs from two late-'80s singles released in the US on Harriet and adds an extra track, "Dull Stare." A third single, "Pulsed," was produced by Come's Thalia Zedek, whose voice has a lot in common with HRG guitarist Debbie Nadolney's low-pitched rasp. Come's sound, in fact, has a lot in common with the droning, muscular throb that characterized High Risk Group.
Ira Robbins/Douglas Wolk
All songs Peter Prescott; all arrangements Kustomized.