The last time I saw Vice Cooler, mastermind behind one-man electro-punk act Hawnay Troof, he was hugging and kissing all the young folks (this writer included) standing in the front row of an all-ages hardcore show. Cooler was dishing out the Xs and Os midsong, in between shrieking and leaping around the floor with his spazzy hardcore band, XBXRX. This sort of public display could seem contrived or cheesy (like the jockish pep-rallying of "posi-core"), but Cooler's unbridled enthusiasm and affection seemed like just the genuine outpouring of emotion from someone whose life was saved by punk rock.
Born Christiana Vincent Richards-Touchstone in Mobile, Alabama, in 1984, Cooler found salvation in punk at age 13, when he saw Unwound, Deerhoof, and This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, and decided to start his own band, XBXRX. Parents of the world just don't understand, but some parents understand less than others.
"I was raised by pretty extreme and strange Christian parents," says Cooler from on tour in Berlin. "We weren't allowed to watch Fresh Prince ('cause it was a 'black' TV show) or The Simpsons (because it 'destroyed family values'), but we were allowed to play with realistic toy rifles and machine guns. My favorite band was Nirvana, [but] I wasn't allowed to listen to them because Kurt Cobain did an interview with the Advocate. My family thought he was satanic and evil.
"But I never believed in those ideals. I was searching for something—similar to the way Christians describe looking for and then finding God—to give life meaning. What I found was acceptance, hope, and what I feel is the correct and respectable way to live, through the punk scene."
Indeed, Cooler took to punk prolifically and with an almost born-again zeal. By the time he turned 15, his band had recorded two DIY albums, Greatest and Love Songs for the Blind. By the time he turned 17, XBXRX had recorded a "proper" album, Gop Ist Minee, with Steve Albini, released it on defunct Kill Rock Stars subsidiary 5RC, and toured with inspirations Deerhoof and Unwound as well as Dischord band Q and Not U. Around this time, Cooler moved to Oakland, California, taking up residency at a warehouse space dubbed Club Hot!
"I moved to California from Alabama as soon as I could," Cooler recalls. "I identified more with the people who lived there than with the bitter and aggressive people in the South."
At age 19, Cooler began recording as Hawnay Troof (originally billed as Da Hawnay Troof on debut CD Who Likes Ta?), a one-man lo-fi electro act fueled by (computer sequencing program) Fruityloops and dedicated to the down and dirty. The name is a cartoonish Southern drawl of "the horny truth," the debut's title track asked, "Who likes to fuck?" and follow-up full-length Get Up! Resolution: Love! featured songs like "Boyz Get Hard" and "Dry Hump 2002." These records are fun and sometimes funny, suitable for filing alongside fellow Bay Area raunchers Zeigenbock Kopf or Gravy Train!!!!, but Hawnay Troof was by no means a joke.
"I never meant for my records to be novelties," says Cooler. "[Those] first two releases came from a Southern teenager with a lot of repressed sexual feelings. The idea behind the records was that through expression I could create a fun way for other teenagers to have something to hold on to and not feel as strange. I used to play in underwear, 'cause I thought that it would be this liberating thing for people to see. But then I sort of turned into this clown character for a lot of people."
He adds, "This was a good two years before electroclash and all of that shit hit the fan and made what I do look less legit."
As Cooler approached, then eclipsed, drinking age and toured the world with both XBXRX and Hawnay Troof (travels documented in the Dollar and Deed Tour photo book), his lyrical horizons naturally expanded.
"I try to write about whatever is going on with me at that time," he says. "The first album is about sex, for what it is, [2005's] Community is about alienated kids, [2006's] Dollar and Deed is about travel and growing up, [2008's] Islands of Ayle is about the feelings and emotions behind one-night stands, heartbreak, moving forward, and feeling empowerment through those things."
So, too, have his production skills progressed from early experiments, which leaned clumsily on easily identifiable punk-rock samples and rudimentary beats, to the more finessed but still frenetic style of Islands of Ayle.
"The songs on the first EP were made the first day that I ever used Fruityloops," Cooler admits. "Working on Ayle, I borrowed a synth from a friend of mine [and] realized that I had never had any bass lines. I had never used equalizers, compressors, or effects on any of my past albums. I revisited my old albums while mixing this one and was really embarrassed at the quality of the mixing and recordings."
Ayle's 13 tracks range easily from classic boom-bap to G-funk synth melodies to glitchy sample-mangling to upbeat club bounce. "Underneath the Ocean" marries a tense bass pulse to a melancholic female vocal melody. The spare verses of "Two Week Bruise" erupt into choruses of dizzy vocal gibberish. "The Gods Are Crazy" pins the Pixies' "Hey" to eerie electro R&B. "Out of Teen Revisited" updates a Dollar and Deed track (featuring Jenny Hoyston of Erase Errata) with eight-bit synth bleeps and white-noise beats.
Throughout, Cooler raps with cadences that fall somewhere between the drill- sergeant breakdowns of hardcore, the motivational rhymes of MC Hammer, and the breathless, too-many-syllables-per-beat sputtering of Cooler's anticon or Definitive Jux contemporaries.
"I never claimed to be an MC," says Cooler. "I look at what I do vocally [as] closer to musicians like BARR or Kate Nash than Juvenile. But I guess since I can't really sing and it comes across as fast talking, it could get confusing for people."
Not at all confusing, though, are Hawnay Troof's live shows, which may no longer feature near-nudity, but still showcase Cooler's insane live-wire energy and undeniably sincere positive vibes.
"The idea is to express real feelings and hope that it identifies with someone," says Cooler. "I want people to leave our shows feeling good and happy. I feel like I was bummed out so much growing up, that now it's my job to try to save kids from feeling the way I did."