The Hardest Hard-Luck Band Ever
Sub Pop Rescues Aussie Rock Demons feedtime from Obscurity
If feedtime's music were a person, you'd cross the street to avoid walking by him. Theirs is utterly primal, gut-slugging rock that's free of all pretense, seemingly composed out of the most abject desperation, spurred by an urge to locate the primordial grunt that's fueled the rawest, most powerful music from the first blues artists to the Stooges to the Stones circa "Street Fighting Man," which feedtime cover.
Few bands in the history of music have ever pushed such a downward-plunging sound as feedtime. (Don't even think about capitalizing the name, either.) They can be phenomenally speedy or oppressively heavy. But in their vicious descent to rock and blues' white-hot core, feedtime paradoxically uplift the listener through the empowering, relentless intensity of their bulky riffage, the manic repetition of which triggers a wired sort of trance state. They achieve a hard-won catharsis, although these humble blokes—Rick Johnson (guitar, vocals), Allen Larkin (bass), and Tom Sturm (drums)—would scoff at the use of such a hoity-toity word.
The Australian trio hadn't played together live in 22 years, until S.S. Records honcho Scott Soriano asked them to perform at the label's 10th anniversary party last May, and feedtime haven't released any music since their 1996 reunion album, Billy. But on March 13, Sub Pop, in a move deserving of a Nobel Prize, is issuing a four-CD/four-LP boxed set covering their peak era: 1985–1989. Titled The Aberrant Years, after the Aussie label that released feedtime's best work, the retrospective encompasses feedtime, Shovel, Cooper-S, and Suction, all of which come with bonus tracks.
"[Sub Pop owner Jonathan] Poneman got interviewed by a local radio station one time," Johnson says via e-mail, "and of the five albums that he said he would have liked to release, he mentioned Shovel. Bruce Aberrant contacted him and said, 'If you wanna, then you're welcome.' And that was that. We were very surprised by the ensuing offer."
Johnson, who sings as if perpetually rankled, catalyzes feedtime's uncontrived sense of extreme agitation. The band's guttural orneriness steamrollers over just about any punk group you can name. Occasionally they let in shafts of light, slivers of sentimentality, hints of fragility, teasing bits of accessible melody (hear "Motorbike Girl" for the most obvious example). But the prevalent style is white-knuckle, vein-bulging aggression. There's a genuinely scary intensity here, a ferocity that appears to want to escape the frame of the recording or the stage and do actual harm to listeners—and that, of course, is what makes it so thrilling.
"The intensity in the playing and yelling comes from the then-held belief that the world—insofar as we had experienced it—did not like us, and we were simply returning the insult," Johnson reasonably explains. When he sings, "We're all dead crazy" in "Dead Crazy," Johnson's not fronting.
The band emerged from Sydney's late-'70s music scene but failed to make much headway there or anywhere in Australia. The country's most brutal groups—Birthday Party, the Scientists, and the Moodists—had to break out of Australia to get significant attention. Did people heckle feedtime mercilessly or run screaming from the venue?
"The music scene in Sydney in '79 was unremarkable," Johnson says. "Soon after we started playing, we got to see X and Rose Tattoo, and everything else sort of became meaningless pap.
"We didn't play to big crowds," he continues, "but some people liked it. I remember we had a girl who used to come and see feedtime each Saturday, and when she went into palliative care, she continued until just before she died. We got yelled at quite a lot and, yep, some people ran away. Sometimes violence erupted—it was endemic in Sydney for some years—and that'd be its own problem."
Perhaps this response isn't so surprising. Their phenomenal, buzz-saw guitar and bass lines often cascade like tsunamis of tar and tension (check "George" and "Gun 'Em Down" for proof). Johnson's guitar is downtuned and the timbre thickened to an obscene degree, while Larkin's bass practically has a motorboat quality to it.
"We didn't use tuners," Johnson says, "so wherever the guitars got tuned, then that's where they stayed until some other time. One thing that we didn't like was fake sounds, so if we wanted it to be brutal and hard, then it had to be physically done by striking downstrokes wherever possible, until the pick fell from your fingers. It was systemically very similar to martial training, if you look into its practice."
Plagued by internal strife and unpopularity, feedtime split in 1989, just as momentum was peaking for them abroad; people were hungry to see them play live.
"Feedtime broke up because I was having a breakdown," Johnson says. "That's all. There was a lot of anger and darkness that underlaid a lot of feedtime's makeup. I had to remake myself or die. Allen felt that he might have to do some repair work as well. Tom was fine just as he was."
After listening to feedtime, you want to give these strapping lugs a hug—but you don't, for fear that they'd squeeze the life out of you. Johnson concludes, "Some stuff about feedtime involves very hard stuff and needs to be left alone."
As feedtime sing in another Rolling Stones cover, "This could be the last time," so don't miss one of rock's greatest and hardest hard-luck bands.