photo by Trisha Cluck
Before a show at New York City's famed CBGB this spring, three of the four members of Chokebore--vocalist/guitarist Troy Miller and brothers Jon (guitar) and James (bass) Kroll--are talking about their home state of Hawaii. Chokebore's drummer, called Johnee Kopp when he isn't known variously as Jungle Boy, Rice T or Rice Cube, isn't here to weigh in on the issue, but that isn't unusual.
Kopp pretty much goes his own way in the band--literally. Because of a back injury he sustained in his skateboarding days, Kopp needs to sleep upright in a car while on the road. The other three band members share a van while Kopp follows in his Mitsubishi. The arrangement seems to suit everybody; the van is less crowded and Kopp gets to search for places to brush up on his tennis.
Kopp's a little camera shy, too. No known picture of Chokebore includes an identifiable image of his face. On the latest Chokebore album, Anything Near Water, drums are credited to "None." Not that Kopp is unapproachable. In fact, many a show he can be found in and around the venue in a lawn chair he brings on tour. Talk to him. He's a very nice guy. It's just that, like the rest of the band, Kopp isn't particularly bound by the rules of convention. And right now, the rest of Chokebore isn't too concerned about the convention that says you don't stray from the subject during an interview.
"I don't want to get technical on you, but it is the most isolated spot on earth," the bass-playing Kroll explains about the forty-ninth state. "The main islands are farther away from any other major land mass than any other thing in the world. Hawaiians are savage people. The ancient Polynesian people were very war-like, that was their whole thing."
"But they were being attacked by whitey," Miller insists.
"No, no, before that," Kroll continues. "I mean, have you ever seen something Hawaiian that wasn't a club? Go to a museum in Hawaii and there'll be like a couple of fucking helmets, a boat, a fucking hut and 80 different clubs and spears. And a pot. For cooking people."
He's kidding of course. When pressed, the members of Chokebore express affection for their original Pacific home, even if it's a lousy place for a band to try to get a gig. Chokebore's only real opportunity to play there recently was last summer's Grand Mellee festival on Oahu, alongside mainland imports like Porno For Pyros and NoFX. As much as Kroll complains about there being too many clubs in Hawaii, they're not the kind indie-rock bands play in.
The whole deprecation of tropical paradise is for my benefit. It's the kind of conversation you hear from folks who've spent a long time on the road. The kind of wink-and-nudge talk that isolated stretches in a van produce. It's not that they ignore my questions exactly, more like they're so far into their own individual orbit that communication with the outside is fuzzy at best. It's a "problem" the band is well aware of.
"We were gonna work on our own language, but we were too lazy to even do that," Miller confesses.
"Do we seem like an unfriendly band?" Jon Kroll asks. "Because we really don't understand why we don't seem to get interviewed very much."
Unfriendly, no. Unusual, yes. But when you make music as good as Chokebore does, all is forgiven. Or should be. It seems most press-types are too challenged in the taste and imagination departments to appreciate Chokebore. Too bad for them.
Aspiring rockers, on the other hand, could do far worse than to emulate the foursome, though the recipe's a little hard to replicate. First, find four guys who are tired of the dead-end grind of teenage punk bands in the decidedly unpunk state of Hawaii. Then, move them to California. Have them spend about a year writing songs and gigging around San Francisco. Finally, move them to Los Angeles. At least, that's Chokebore's story. Your results may or may not be similar, depending on your ability to write some of the best songs around.
Of course, talent alone doesn't write its own ticket, so you've got to do something to showcase yourself. For Chokebore, that meant some of the band's earliest work was playing soundtracks to skateboarding videos for companies like Vision and Acme. Perhaps that's not so surprising given that Kopp (the No. 2-ranked skateboarder in the world a few years back) and Miller were both sponsored by Vision. Those days are far behind them now, and though there is a skateboard in the Chokebore van, James Kroll says, "Let's put it this way, no one in the band has gotten air in the '90s."
The skate videos couldn't have hurt too badly, because after about a year and a half in Los Angeles, the band was signed by Amphetamine Reptile Records. Since then it's been the usual tale of hard slogging told by every under-appreciated band in the country: Tour as much as you can and for as long as you can. Sometimes, you'll just get lucky, or find a fan who transcends luck. For Chokebore, it was a little of both when Kurt Cobain (who'd been known to wear a Chokebore T-shirt on occasion) helped to get the band 10 shows opening for Nirvana on the West Coast.
"That was really bizarre," Miller recalls. "I had to block it out of my head completely, because I was standing up there thinking, 'Oh my god, there's 15,000 people here and I'm playing my song to them.' It was actually really fun. Because, I mean, this life is to experience things, to do things. So just to know that I played at the Oakland Coliseum is a great thing."
Most of Chokebore's touring is a little more low key. Far more typical is the criminally sparse attendance of a couple all-ages shows Chokebore played during a two-month tour with Samiam and The Goops earlier this year.
"Touring is boring," Miller says. "Twenty-three hours out of the day you're bored out of your fucking mind. The music is the only salvation. You're driving in a van with guys. But the half-hour is worth it."
The 30 minutes Miller is talking about is Chokebore's set. And if you've never lived the Chokebore experience, consider yourself a rock and roll virgin. Few bands ever display the untrammeled energy and controlled exuberance Chokebore serves up as a matter of course night after night, show after show. No Chokebore show is complete unless Miller throws his bony frame into an impossible stage-shuddering backflip. This is a man who once hurled himself the not inconsiderable distance from Philadelphia's Khyber Pass stage to its floor without the benefit of intervening hands. One man's painful thud is another man's exuberant showmanship, I suppose.
In more relaxed moments, Miller is composed and thoughtful about what it means to be a creator and an artist in the Chimera that is the music business. Gone is the wild force of the performer, replaced by a soft-spoken, even mellow personality whose agile mind ranges quickly over a wide variety of subjects. The overwhelming impression is that this is a man who lives to create. When Miller's not talking about the songwriting process, he's comparing his music to his literary output. Although he's quick to caution that most of his writing is for personal edification only, Miller is pleased to report that a story sent on a whim to Seattle artist Pat Moriarty is scheduled to form the basis of a future issue of Moriarty's BigMouth comic book. "I take a lot of inspiration from my mother," says Miller. "She's been a painter and a poet all her life. People say you burn out from writing too many songs. For me, it just keeps getting easier. I hope I'm still doing this when I'm just a brain in a tank hooked up to machines."
Miller remains philosophical about the less than sold-out shows his band still plays. Not only does he consider some of these shows the best, but he reckons the lack of instant gratification has improved the band's performance and stiffened its resolve. "After a certain number of times with nobody there, you either quit and say, 'Fuck, something's wrong,' or you just say this is what we're doing and we're going to do it because we love to do it," Miller says.
In truth, to get the kind of exposure needed to deliver sheer numbers Chokebore would probably need more promotional muscle than the band's label, the thoroughly independent AmRep, can deliver. But if some would consider that kind of obscurity a burden, Chokebore revels in the freedom it affords. "I think a band should have control over everything they do," Miller says. "From artwork to everything else, because everything counts. It directly reflects on yourself. If I let somebody else mix even a part of a song down it's not me anymore. It should just be Chokebore. Even if it sounds like hell. I think Tim Mac (who produced the band's 1993 debut album, Motionless) is a great producer, but I don't believe in outside producers. I just don't think that's right."
For Chokebore's second full-length the band put its philosophy to the test and the result, entitled Anything Near Water and released this spring by AmRep, sounds nothing like hell. Miller and Jon Kroll produced the album on a $3,000 budget in a Los Angeles studio. The 15-track LP isn't so much a repudiation of the sound Chokebore showcased in its excellent debut album as a subtle refinement. There's still something positively compelling about Chokebore's signature warbled-singing-over-haunting-heavy-riffing song.
About that singing. It certainly gets my vote for the most distinctive voice in rock today. There's something so strangely incongruous about the simple, sometimes bludgeoning melodies paired with a vocal style that can only be described as a yodel that takes a bonghit and then decides it's not worth the effort and comes out underachieving. It's kind of an undulating, cynical sneer that can do the quiet thing well enough but would rather be let loose on songs like anthemic "Lemonade." The band's sense of fun is intact on Anything Near Water, too. While there isn't anything as brazen as when Chokebore stole Rod Stewart's lyrics to "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" wholesale on "Hit Me" from Motionless, there are enough odd breaks and strange interludes to keep the proceedings from becoming stale.
Anything Near Water is a glaring counter-example to the simple-minded notion of the sophomore slump. Few bands produce artistry with such a cohesive vision. The entire album is sequenced with an ear towards a grand journey of emotion without the pretentiousness of an overt concept. For Miller, such attention to detail is what makes it all worth the hassle.
"It seems like right before we went into the studio this last time we had a big change in the band somehow," he says. "Something just felt different, which is nice. We just suddenly said, 'Holy shit, now we know what we want to do.' I think we matured as a band. The day I realized that music was everything I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I changed."
And how long does he think Chokebore will be making music?
"As long as I have arms," is Miller's reply.