As dusk settles on Madrid's Tres Cruces Street, tourists have been replaced by furtive characters speaking in low tones in every language but Spanish under the cheap neon yellow glare. Stringy-haired prostitutes sulk in doorways, wearing fishnet sleeves and pleather boots up to their thighs. Men with greasy ponytails and arms covered in disturbing tats slouch over 40s and scruffy dogs. It's here, at Madrid's Wurlizter Ballroom, that the punk rock noise-merchants of Detroit's Human Eye are slated to take the stage.
Fire. Paint. Noise. Those are my memories of the Human Eye show I saw at MOCAD last winter. So a little part of me is terrified about their gig tonight in Spain.
The ballroom is actually little more than a small, narrow club with red walls, a low ceiling and a large sound booth anchored next to the bar. Silver tubing litters the tiny stage; a hand-painted "Human Eye" sign is appropriately duct-taped to the back wall. Cigarette smoke hangs so thick in the air that I have to open my mouth to breathe. But fuck ventilation and eardrums. This is Spain's first taste of alien punk straight from the Motor City, at least the type Human Eye produces.
With the exception of frontman Tim Lampinen, Human Eye is composed of some of the most unassuming, laid-back dudes on the block tonight. (After all, it's hard to rock wearing space monster costumes when you're living in foreign lands out of a suitcase). Bass player Brad Hales is a man with an encyclopedic passion for funk and soul music (and owner of Detroit's godhead Peoples Records store). Johnny Lzr, meanwhile, studies astrophysics back home when he's not busy synthesizing the group's alien beats. And drummer "Hurricane" William Hafer is a painter with an MFA who recently resettled in Chicago.
Lampinen (aka Tim Vulgar), Human Eye's mastermind and singer-guitarist, has a mop of blond hair and sideburns, dressed in short, ripped jeans and a paint-splattered T-shirt. His striking features and fire-eyed stare elevate his walking and talking "art-punk lunacy" presence. It wasn't until this tour that he realized the mammoth fan base his former band, the Clone Defects, has in Europe; he's been caught totally off-guard by hordes of Europeans freaking out at the sight of him: Timmy Vulgar, rock 'n' roll star.
The fans tonight are dark and alluring, many dressed in short jackets, tight clothes and thick-rimmed glasses. The place is also brimming with All-Star shoes and Mahou beer. There's a bundle of young, anemic girls in patent-leather spike heels. In fact, there are a lot of girls here tonight, which the band says is quite rare at most of their American shows.
Two minutes into their set, the front row has all but crawled onto the speakers in front of the stage. Human Eye hurls a raucous jolt of experimental punk rock at them, and everything feels locked in noise. Lampinen's guitar is absolutely alive. It seemingly moves independently of him, sending him shattering into remarkable backbends. More than once, he looks like he's been electrocuted. He howls about dinosaur bones, liquor stores, Detroit. At one point, he stands on a speaker at the front of the stage. Illuminated in the spotlight, Lampinen towers over the crowd, staring, like a madman, at absolutely nothing.
Everything onstage is propelled in light-speed fast motion, except for Lzr. Wearing a silver spray-painted jacket and sunglasses, he retains spaceman cool behind the synthesizer. Hafer, a soft-spoken intellectual in person, attacks his drums in surges of animal energy. Layered with heavy, raw bass lines, this is a punk rock baptism of unrestrained madness. It's the loudest thing I've heard in Madrid since I've been here.
The show begins before 1 a.m., which seems terribly tame for a country where midnight's fine for dinner, and diehard Madrilènos don't arrive at the clubs until dawn. Shortly after the band finishes its set, however, someone from the club urges them get their shit out, fast, because the place will soon be too packed to move gear. The rock 'n' roll dance party crowd pours in minutes later; Lampinen mentions that many of their European gigs have been followed by everything from funk and rock to hardcore punk DJ's. "I haven't seen people in Detroit dance to rock 'n' roll this way in a long time," he adds.
Someone along the tour said to Hales: "Your music is where the avant-garde meets the stupid punk rock." And, indeed, fans have interpreted their music as being everything from '40s blues to noise to soul. Chiara Niccoli, who booked the Human Eye show in Florence, Italy, gushes with a thick accent: "Their sound reminds me of everything. They are pow-er-ful. People in Firenze [Florence] were really hot on them." Tonight, a Spanish guy tells them: ¨You are my Jimi Hendrix Experience" — whatever that means.
Indeed, Human Eye's fluid style cuts into many genres, resulting in what the band calls "alien punk" or "experimental psychedelic punk" with roots in classic rock 'n' roll. Lampinen emphasizes the importance of studying a broad scope of music, from which his vision of the band emerges. "We want our stuff to be original," he says. "I like to mix [musical genres] all together, as if making a nice Mexican dish. Bands from both the past and present are like spices on the rack that you can add."
The Human Eye guys have thus far largely been satisfied with the quality of their European tour. They've experienced warm hospitality, good pay and skilled sound technicians. Since their first night in Europe, they've been fed dinner (usually homemade) at every club they've played. They've gone swimming in the Mediterranean and slept at many strangers' houses (and even at an abandoned school). They breakfasted in some fan's grandmother's garden. They played two shows on boats. They opened for a goth DJ at what was formerly an insane asylum in Florence — a show staffed almost exclusively by lesbians. They've played a total of 10 countries in little more than a month, with only a few days off. Not bad for a band whose members continuously insist they're "just not good at touring."
Perhaps Human Eye's most outrageous visit on the tour, however, has been to Marseilles, France, where they played and slept at a squat characterized by what the band calls, "a creepy, crusty political punk vibe." They tell tales of the place's "violent art, things in jars, petrified rats ..."
Hafer nods. "It was the only place where I was too scared to leave the compound and walk the streets."
Grisly French punks had seen the band's MySpace photos, and misinterpreted "outrageous" for "evil." Human Eye was apparently the only rock band ever to pass through that squat, which offered the denizens an unwelcome break from "noise music and naked people throwing feces at each other." They were especially disappointed that Human Eye showed up sans props, which Lampinen describes as "totally stuff we couldn't fly on a plane with."
So what sorts of props would those be? Rumors have made it to the American West Coast that Human Eye throws live frogs, snakes and even electric eels at their audiences. That's all exaggeration, although seafood does make regular appearances on the Eye stage. Lampinen tells of buying a whole frozen octopus at Detroit's Eastern Market and bringing it to Chicago for a show. "I marinated it in lemon juice to kill the germs," he assures me. Hafer snickers, "Amateurs wouldn't know that trick." Lampinen wore the dead creature on his head for a while, its juices dripping into his mouth, before the thing was doused with green paint onstage and later thrown into the crowd. (Hafer mentions that it may have hit his mother, who was in the audience that night.) Lampinen choked up octopus slime after the set. In addition to cephalopods, the band believes that feathers, lights, masks, long poles, cow's tongue and machines (including a computer and Lampinen's beloved vacuum cleaner) lit on fire are all good stage accessories.
The band has a new album in the making, although they are currently without a label. Their first, eponymous album slithered out on In the Red, a label that turned down their latest songs for being "too weird, too progressive."
So what will they do when they get back to the D? "Start a series of paintings 10 feet tall," Hafer says, looking solemn and excited. "Buy a 'bridge card' and have a Mexican feast," Lampinen answers.
Human Eye returns stateside to play the Bohemian National Home (3009 Tillman St., Detroit; 313-737-6606) on Saturday, Dec. 29.Laurie Smolenski is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]