'Hot Box' highlights both the rock side and the weird side of Destroy All Monsters

Destroy All Monsters didn't just make uncompromising and ridiculously forward-looking, sprawling art music 40 years ago, they were each ridiculously talented visual artists – Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Niagara, and Cary Loren – who went on to different levels of international fame. After Shaw and Kelley moved to California, the band took on the Miller brothers from the infamous band Sproton Layer, and then Ron Asheton from the Stooges and Michael Davis from the MC5 joined, turning the group into a juggernaut of kick-butt super-Detroit-y rockist rock. We spoke with Loren (who owns Book Beat in Oak Park) about the release of the group's first career-spanning set, Hot Box 1974-1994, assembled by Niagara for the Spanish label Munster.

Metro Times: Your early guerilla style shows, playing along frat row in Ann Arbor in the early 1970s – what were those like? That sounds like so much fun.

Cary Loren: Those were party pranks, didn't happen too often. We'd splash Niagara in fake blood, scream, and make some noise. The frats would pull the plug immediately. Then we'd go load up on free food and hit the beer kegs.

MT: How did you meet the members of Destroy All Monsters in the first place?

Loren: I met Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw at an apartment I shared with Niagara in Ann Arbor. They came over for a visit one afternoon, and we struck up a conversation. I met Niagara at Berkley High School around 1971.

MT: What was your guys' music-making process like?

Loren: When we played as a band, it was mainly long, extended jamming. That would go on for an hour or more. I'd record everything on cheap cassette tapes. When we finished recording, we'd go upstairs and go over every session to see what was working or not. When the material involved a song, I'd work it out beforehand, and then bring Niagara down to the basement to sing it.

Sometimes we'd play covers like "Iron Man" or "Wipeout," but they would veer into other dimensions. The drum machine would go into a 10-minute solo, or we would just play tape recorder loops and squeeze toys, or play along to sci-fi films or big-band records. Every session was an experiment — it was all instinctive. Jim's guitar was the secret weapon. Exciting band moments would happen around a new piece of equipment – like when we got the drum box, or when Jim Shaw got hold of a used echoplex – that changed our sound completely.

MT: The Miller brothers, who'd been in the pre-Mission of Burma band Sproton Layer, played with you after Jim and Mike left. How did you meet those guys?

Loren: After Kelley and Shaw went to grad school in late '76, I went through a difficult period, recovering from a prank dose of LSD. A mutual friend put me in touch with the Millers. They had seen some early D.A.M. shows. Their brother Roger was D.A.M.'s first drummer and played with us at the infamous Ann Arbor comic book convention on New Year's Eve. We got thrown out after playing 10 minutes of "Iron Man." This was one of my favorite periods – very anarchistic/psychedelic. We practiced on their dirt-floor basement.

MT: And then how did Asheton and Davis come to join? Had the sound begun to become more straight-ahead before they joined, or did that happen after?

Loren: We were all big Stooges fans, and I felt determined to get Ron to attend one of our practices. I felt if he heard our material, he'd be hooked. His band New Order had just broken up, and he was in a depression, moping away at his mother's house, listening to Coltrane and Hendrix. He came to one of our shows that was packed with friends at the Underground Bar. I started picking him up and bringing him to practices. We both convinced Michael Davis to join. And Asheton also knew Rob King, who became our drummer.

This was '77, the rise of punk rock. The idea of merging a psychedelic/experimental sound group with a high-energy format was maybe too much. It was a seven-piece group, and Asheton wasn't very compromising. He wanted a straightforward rock band, and that's where it went. I was voted out of the band. And then the Millers and Rob King left about a year later. Niagara was the only original member left, and she and Asheton continued in the rock format.

MT: How does this archival box set Hot Box on the Spanish label Munster differ from the 1974-1976 one on Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label, then?

Loren: These were two completely different bands and projects. The Ecstatic Peace box was a document of what early D.A.M. was all about. It gave a collective view of our songs and experimental side. When I first heard about this new set, I wanted to stop it. It seemed unnecessary, and I knew it would be a mess. I think they called it Hot Box because they just ripped off the material without asking anyone –Jim Shaw, the Mike Kelley Foundation, and I were never contacted about the project. I found out about this through a distributor, late in the summer of this year. Munster was already into manufacturing. But I talked it over with them, and they made adjustments.

The vinyl in Hot Box does not hold up well. The sound lost its sparkle in this new pressing. The packaging and surface looks beautiful, but the content is flat and lost. The CDs seem fine and there's little wrong with the fidelity, except for the editing, clipping and occasional sampling, which adds a layer of manipulation that's distracting and disrespectful of the early music.

MT: Is there anything particularly notable in the set, and what?

Loren: Ron's guitar work is the main attraction, as are the early D.A.M. singles. Some of the material has been difficult to find except on obscure releases. The double CD set is recommended, and has a brighter sound. If you're interested in the early experimental side of D.A.M, stay clear of this, and get the Silver Wedding Anniversary CD – or wait 'til the '74-76 boxed set is re-released on vinyl or CD (possibly soon by West Coast label Superior Viaduct).

D.A.M. was part of an invisible avant-garde in the mid-'70s; the LAFMS, Nihilist Spasm band, and Coum Transmissions were around, but we didn't know them yet. When we did this work it felt like we existed in a test tube – or a total vacuum. Nothing was out there. Our music came out of a state of joy and ignorance and I'm glad the work has been reconsidered and redeemed as an art work, because that's exactly how we thought of it.

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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