Posts Tagged ‘Witch Hunt’

…on how a chance encounter and short-term friendship with a female bassist in early 1993 led to important life lessons, not to mention a two-degree separation from a popular CBS reality show.

Witch Hunt, six incipient months into existence, finally graduated from playing the Teen Hut in Quantico, Virginia to an actual club gig. Witch Hunt, still consisting only of me and my brother Ben, got slated to play an uninspired venue called the Tiki Fala sign 1994Tiki Fala in the dingy ville of Dumfries in February 1993. A novice at these things, I’d assumed locking down the chance perform there would be a touch more complicated than actually ‘twas. And yet miracles of the metal variety transpired on a frequent basis in those olden days of my teenage years: verily, indeed, I called the club, spoke briefly to the manager, and while pitching her on the virtues of our fine musical ensemble uttered a word meant to penetrate profoundly into her cheap-ass soul: FREE. Yes, Witch Hunt would perform for FREE. That Witch Hunt was an underage death metal band lacking a complete lineup, with but a single poorly-recorded demo tape to our name, and zero profile outside of the Marine Corps base on which we lived, mattered not to the madame of the Tiki Fala. And bless this woman’s bottom-line scrutinizing soul, she booked us to play two sets on Tuesday, February 23, 1993, opening for an all-female act out of Minneapolis cleverly called No Man’s Land. A short article on them ran in a recent issue of the then-reigning supreme overlord of American monthly metal publications, RIP Magazine. So I justifiably considered the metal stars shining upon Witch Hunt, for our first real gig would be sharing the stage with people mentioned in a major music publication.

We played the show, but despite our efforts failed to deliver the goods in a fashion that would bring new fans a-calling. We had so few songs down at that point that we had to play all of them twice each during each set. But on the fundamental assumptions that no one pays attention to opening bands (who opened for Motley Crue at the Blaisdell Center Arena in Honolulu in 1990?), and no one knew our songs in the first place, we worked through numbers like “Cryptic Death” and “Nothing Survives the Fallout” a baker’s dozen times, taking the precaution of introducing them under different titles every No Mans Land 1993time we recycled the songs. To no small dismay of the club’s manager, who heckled me between sets about why we didn’t have a full lineup, I had nothing to offer by way of excuses beyond shrugging shoulders and faking the sudden sickness of an imaginary bassist who hadn’t been able to make the date. But professionals that we were, I explained, the show must go on. As for No Man’s Land, they signed my issue of RIP Magazine in which they were featured, took photos with me, and handed us a free copy of their debut album. They spoke to our parents – our immensely supportive mom and dad who made it to every show we played in the early days – and provided advice about how Ben and I could beef up our musical chops. Sarah, No Man Land’s bassist, took a particular interest in us and I remained pen pals with her for a short period after the show. Sarah’s sudden presence in Witch Hunt’s death metal micro-galaxy quickly shaped one of the innumerable tangents we would take over our eventual decade of existence: I decided what we really needed was a girl in the band.  (Keep mind mind, this was well before it was common for women to be in death metal bands: Anneke hadn’t yet joined The Gathering (who were hardly death metal, but still…), Angela Gossow wasn’t even a mere itch in Arch Enemy’s crotch, and groups like The Agonist might as well have been the Jetsons.)  And so we’d find a female bassist… Who was around our age… Who could play death metal… Who had her own transportation… And could drive 2-3 times weekly onto the Witch Hunt First Club Show at Tiki Fala 1993military base where we lived to practice with two underage boys writing songs about slaughter and pillage.  Despite what you accurately assess as a broad base of inhibitors to pulling off a plan as zany as ours, the decision wasn’t entirely a senseless one. I believed then, as I do now, that sound logic undergirded that fateful choice taken in early 1993. First, prospects for a two-man band were limited. This was well before Local-H and the White Stripes blazed a new minimalist path in the alternative universe. And anyway, neither of those groups was metal. So I knew we’d need to flesh out our lineup if we were ever to be taken seriously as a contender to our local metal throne, let alone attain recognition on a grander scale. Second, watching No Man’s Land’s sound check and the first song or two of their actual set, I took note of something: people pay more attention if you have a chick in the band. It’s not like No Man’s Land had sold a lot of records, and in fact the band didn’t even have a proper record deal with tour support and promotion. And yet the Tiki Fala was gills-stuffed with bikers and all manner of local machista rabble that I estimated were not there to absorb the ethereal quality of No Man’s Land tunes. This newfound mission in mind, in March 1993 I fleet-footed my way to Music City in Woodbridge and posted a small ad on the musician’s bulletin board seeking our bassist. And right below ours was one posted by an 18-year old female bassist, into metal, seeking to join a band.

So I made note of the number, rushed home, and excitedly dialed. She answered. We talked. Jennifer Arroyo was a blend of contradictory elements. She was of Puerto Rican ancestry but did not speak Spanish. She was legally a Virginian who considered herself spiritually an offspring of Brooklyn or maybe Queens (though realistically any of the boroughs would do). Such was her mania to pass for a New Yorker that after seeing Biohazard live on the Urban Discipline tour a few months prior she even began feigning a New York accent identical in octave, attitude, and vehemence to that spoken by Evan Seinfeld himself. A few weeks before we met, Jennifer quit a northern Virginia-based hardcore/metal crossover outfit dubbed Open Defiance, hence the posting of her ad at Music City. I am not falling prey to selective memory when I say that Open Defiance were outstanding. As Jennifer played me the band’s first demo over the phone during our initial conversation, I sensed that had it not been for what I later learned were the exceptionally conflictive differences of personality betwixt the band’s members, Open Defiance could have risen to the top of the heap. With cutting thrash guitar work and thuggish, skippity percussion set against socially conscious lyrics about judicial corruption, the deplorable treatment of Native Americans, and decriminalization of cannabis, Open Defiance were a musical force of nature, the likes of which I scarcely imagined possible in suburban Virginia.

We never actually brought her over to practice with Witch Hunt, but did develop a friendship of sorts in the coming weeks. In March 1993, she took me to an Open Defiance house party, where I witnessed a young pre-While Heaven Wept Tom Phillips jam with members of a long-defunct called Parasitic Infestation. I took Jennifer to my high school’s Sadie Hawkins dance in Brian with Jennifer Arroyo at Quantico HS Sadie Hawkins Dance 1993April 1993. We talked of bands and compared notes, and I went to see Open Defiance play live when possible. Ultimately, in summer 1993 Jennifer brought me into the band’s fold as a second guitarist. I even disbanded Witch Hunt to do so, playing two shows with Open Defiance in June 1993 before they imploded. Thereafter, Jennifer and I attempted putting our own project, but my lily-white vision of our shared musical affinity vanished into the thin air once we attempted jamming in the utility shed behind her mom’s townhouse. We just couldn’t write music together: it was as though I was auditioning for Testimony of the Ancients-era Pestilence, and she for any era of the booty-licious Suicidal Tendencies side project Infectious Grooves. Our musical collaboration would not, sadly, be a long-enduring one.  It did not matter, however, since Open Defiance reformed yet again in August 1993 and did not invite me along for the ride. Which was fine by me, as I’d opted to get Witch Hunt rolling anew, laying all my chips on Ben and myself. Open Defiance’s unpredictable on-and-off shenanigans, volatile personalities, and wanna-be thuggish hangers-on were apt to drive me into premature baldness were I to stick around a moment beyond my tepid welcome. I learned to appreciate the simplicity of Witch Hunt while I was away from it. It was much easier practicing with Ben at home than having to borrow our mom’s Jeep Cherokee and drive into Woodbridge for a rehearsal that may not happen if the members of Open Defiance blew it off. I liked the music Witch Hunt was doing more, preferred playing my own songs over someone else’s, and most importantly, loved my brother and trusted Ben intrinsically to do the right thing by me and our band.

Thus it was that both Jennifer and I settled happily into our respective grooves. There existed a certain kind of interaction between our bands over subsequent years, and we supported each other mutually. In early 1994, we invited Open Defiance to play with Witch Hunt at the Teen Hut in Quantico (though it being a military base, I had to make vocalist Chris Briton Jennifer Arroyo with TattoosPROMISE he wouldn’t swear or promote marijuana legalization in his between-song banter).  Once Witch Hunt completed its lineup mid-year with the addition of Erik Sayenga on bass, we began playing throughout the northern Virginia club circuit, and in September 1994 our two bands shared the bill one evening at a club called Maxim’s in the fine Nascar-supporting semi-metropolis of Manassas. By then, Open Defiance had a radically different lineup and was musically all over the map; they’d even re-written their “classic” demo-era songs in a manner that struck me as blatant pandering to the rap-metal style soon to become the rage du jour.  When I graduated high school and began university studies in autumn 1995, Jennifer and I fell entirely out of touch, the unintentional byproduct of people with different lives and distinct priorities.  From then on, we saw each other sporadically. In 1997, I ran into Jennifer at Ozzfest at the Nissan Pavilion in Manassas. In 1998, before I flew to Guatemala for a summer of volunteer work, we had a chance encounter at a Taco Bell in Fairfax. In 2001, fresh upon my return from Peace Corps service in El Salvador, Ben and I went to see Vince Neil play a solo Jennifer Arroyo livegig at Jaxx Nightclub in Springfield, and spoke fleetingly with Jennifer as she passed out fliers for Spine, a industrial metal band she joined on bass. Whether owing itself to so much time passing or my appearance being very different than in my metal glory days I will never know, but at the Vince Neil show Jennifer didn’t seem to remember me, even when I reminded her that we had once played in a band together.  That was the last time I saw her in person, though periodically I glean metal grapevine tidbits suggesting that “Lady J” (one of her multiple self-nominated noms d’guerre) has done well for herself, achieving on some level the success and recognition we both dreamt of a decade prior. While in graduate school in Ohio in 2004, I snatched a copy of Metal Maniacs at the university bookstore. And in its glossy pages, who should be photographed slapping away on bass for Canadian all-female band Kittie but Jennifer herself. The article mentioned that she had moved to New York, started her own music production company, and even joined a side project band formed by one of Biohazard’s guitarists. In 2008, after returning home from a tour in Iraq, I watched the Get Thrashed documentary – suitably titled for its long-form telling of the history of thrash metal – and noted Jennifer’s inclusion in one of the interview segments.  I looked up her awhile back online and learned Jennifer was on season 14 of CBS’ flagship reality show Big Brother.  And last week, while getting my daily dose of Blabbermouth.net news, I saw her featured in an ad for the Kickstarter campaign supporting Kittie’s 20th anniversary biopic documentary, currently being filmed for eventual DVD release.

In April 1993, I was a 16-year old high school sophomore perusing an issue of Northern Virginia Rhythm. My area’s best (and if I remember correctly, only) free monthly music newspaper, I’d picked up the latest edition at Music City       Chainletterin Woodbridge, a few miles up the road from where I lived. In those pre-Internet days, reading the music circulars – always available in awkward stacks at area music stores – was the single reliable, surefire avenue to keeping one’s finger on the pulse of the local scene. Normally, Northern Virginia Rhythm, dealt in the rather vanilla wares of whatever the pop rock flavor du jour: and in the early 1990s, this meant predominantly alternative music. Yet and still, the Rhythm occasionally still ran quickies on select area’s glam/hair metal bands, those helium-throated remnants of the previous decade’s withered musical era, despite the tectonic plates of pop culture shifting brutally under their fairy-booted feet. Those infrequent news bits provided me just enough hope to pick up a copy of the Rhythm every month, praying that eventually the paper would pony up useful info about real metal of some variety. And so ‘twas that in April 1993, I found myself chuffed to spot a full-page article about a Maryland-based fanzine called Chainletter. The ‘zine dealt exclusively with all the most extremes subgenres of metal: thrash, death, grindcore, and black. I read with no minor dismay that editor Mark Gonce had already published 12 issues – entire multi-page issues packed with info about the latest and greatest in extreme music worldwide – without my knowledge.

Now, THIS was NEWS. I’d never heard of anything called a “fanzine”, but reading the article aptly surmised the essence of these homegrown fan-driven publications: cheap, photocopied, poor (or non-existent) copy editing, yet packed with information useful for networking with bands, record labels, and other publications, ‘zines were labors of immense and unabashed love by people who sought to connect other people of a community of very few people who were spread over an immense geographic area, i.e. the entire Planet Earth. The dedicated fans-turned-editors producing ‘zines wrote the articles and reviews, transcribed band interviews, and managed the type setting and layout all on their own. Their technologies were typically nothing more than a typewriter, Scotch tape, Elmer’s glue, and a Staples copy machine. The ‘zines served as focal point and clearing house for underground bands, record labels, publications, radio programs, and fans alike. The ‘zines brought people from different walks but common musical interests together through the global postal network: like the demo review you just read? Here’s the band’s address, and you can contact them directly. Practically whizzing my trousers with newfound metal animus as I finished the article in Northern Virginia Rhythm forthwith, in all haste I rushed two bucks out the door in a discreet white envelope.  A short week later, I encountered a brown manila envelope in my mailbox containing Chainletter #12. The handwritten letter of thanks penned by the editor himself immediately imbued me with a sense of belonging, since I knew I’d never get that sort of note from, say, a major publication’s editor upon purchasing a subscription

In the three months that followed, I continued faithfully purchasing the ‘zine every month, and by summer 1993 I’d formally dubbed Chainletter my lifeline to the metal scene. It provided my band Witch Hunt’s first exposure outside my high school, publishing a lukewarm review of one of our demo tapes, an enthusiastic two-song recording Witch Hunt first review ever Chainletter Magazine 1993derivatively entitled Born Dead. The ‘zine also provided info on death metal tours passing through the Washington, Maryland, and Virginia region, timely and immensely helpful since you’d be hard-pressed to acquire that info anywhere else. Editor Mark Gonce played drums for a band called Corpsegrinder, at the time fronted by and up-and-coming singer named George Fisher who was dual-hatted as a member of Monstrosity and would later be catapulted into death metal’s pantheon of deities as vocalist for Cannibal Corpse. If not for Chainletter, I’d never have gone to see Corpsegrinder play at one of the greatest death metal lineups ever to defile a Bathe in Entrails demo inlay cardstage: Suffocation, Dismember, Vader, and Virginia’s own Deceased in Manassas, Virginia in June 1993. But most crucially, the ‘zine raised my awareness of the talent in my own backyard, for it was through Chainletter that I learned of a Maryland-based band called Dying Fetus, then feverishly promoting their Bathe in Entrails demo. I wrote the band offering a demo trade, bassist/vocalist Jason Netherton dubbed me a copy of their material, and I sent the Witch Hunt stuff in return. Jason was a few years older than me and we lived a state apart; in teenage terms these both constituted a chasm between us, thus Jason and I didn’t run in the same circles in those days. But the pen pal contact we entertained did help us develop a relationship over time and, ultimately, we did each other mutual favors: Witch Hunt brought Dying Fetus to play their first-ever Virginia show in December 1994; and Jason invited me to road trip with Dying Fetus to Quebec City for a show in July 1995.

September 1995. It was early in my first semester of university at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in those days a foggy retirement town famous primarily for its Civil War history and useful as a stopover between the national capital and Richmond, nearly a decade before the Beltway’s hegemonic creep rendered Total Metal at College in VA 1995Fredericksburg a suburb of the Washington, DC. I should have been studying but was having none of it. Instead I was wholly distracted from all matters academic by the fact that after a protracted and awkward puberty during which girls pretty much kept their distance and there as no “getting lucky” to be had, now I lived in a co-ed dorm with semi-nude women routinely gallivanting in the hallway. And so I hung out in the women’s wing as often my hectic work, band, and class schedule permitted, praying to make the acquaintance of someone who might provide me company during the humid, pollen-rife evenings of the late Old Dominion summer. Aside from a few hookups, all of which were inconclusive by any standard, I speedily gave up the ghost and settled on having normal female friends: ‘twas far easier than evaluating every woman I met as a potential conquest, the eternal error of countless hormone-charged young men (and, unfortunately, plenty of old ones). And so I began frequented and spirited conversation with a gal named Becky. Preppy yet bizarrely inclined to speak to The New Long Haired Guy, it turned out Becky boasted a bona fide metal connection: her sister was in a relationship with a dude named Kelly, whose agonized throat provided the acrid pipes for Long Island-based ensemble Death Rune. I had never heard Death Rune’s music, but knew of them tangentially through tape traders I’d dealt with in the preceding two years. Both our bands – Witch Hunt and Death Rune – had been reviewed in a handful of the same fanzines, and had received occasional Voracious Contempt album coverairplay on the same late-night college specialty radio programs, the ones run by freakish metal kids playing violent music quite incongruous with the alternative tastes dominating modern rock’s airwaves throughout the ‘90s. As it turned out, within a few weeks of meeting Becky, Witch Hunt accepted an invitation to play Long Island. We’d been asked to open the show at Internal Bleeding’s Voracious Contempt album release party in November, which we readily accepted. Witch Hunt had been trying to get out of state, but unforeseen obstacles conspired to shaft our out-of-state tour ambitions. In September 1995, we’d been booked to play in Saginaw, Michigan but the gig was cancelled after pissed off parents picketed the venue when the occult imagery one of the other bands offended their religious sensibilities. The Long Island show opening for Internal Bleeding would therefore be our first “real” travel gig. I asked Becky to pass word to Kelly that he ought make it to the gig. Come November, we traveled to New York, played the gig, I met Kelly, and a friendship ensued.

Fast forward about a year, to summer 1996. I’d barely croaked through the final throes of my freshman year at university. I was still playing for Witch Hunt, and our debut CD, Prophecies of a Great Plague, was pending release Prophecies of a Great Plague album coveron Mexico’s X-Rated Records. But as would happen routinely with Witch Hunt – both during and after my tenure with the band – at the precise moment when things seemed on track, something always set the band back. In this case, the problem was mine. My college dorms were closed for the summer, so I had to rent a room from a family friend locally to remain in the area, that I might stick around to practice with the band. But due to a domestic violence situation involving the family I was renting from, I thought it better to move out. There was nothing else around for $25 per week, and so I was compelled to move to my parents’ place in North Carolina for what remained of the summer. I ended up spending the entire summer of 1996 at my parents’ place. Which meant I wasn’t rehearsing with Witch Hunt, and the other two guys unexpectedly had a lot of idle time on their hands. Witch Hunt’s drummer and the band’s primary talent, Erik, was looking for something to do. He’d been working at the Midnight Video Club, a porno video emporium in northern Virginia with a standing selection of 50,000 skin flicks at all times. Erik was making double minimum wage, wore metal shirts to work, and frequently served as chauffer to starlets in town for autograph sessions. Essentially, he was our hero.

Yet his sights were set on musical grandeur, and when Erik leaked word that he would be unencumbered during summer 1996, he didn’t wait long before opportunity came knocking. Dying Fetus asked him to sit behind the kit for a handful of American east coast and Canadian shows they’d scheduled to christen the release of the first full-lengthPurification Through Violence album cover album, Purification Through Violence, set to hit the streets in summer 1996 courtesy of Illinois’ Pulverizer Records. Erik did not have to be asked twice. And rightly so, since even a metal dufus could see Dying Fetus was on the cusp of something big, a breakthrough of some kind. Articles on the band featured routinely in all the most important underground metal publications, and even in a handful of the glossy-covered ones available in major bookstores chains like Borders, no petty accomplishment for a brutal death metal band in the mid-1990s. Yet despite the band’s brilliant songwriting intertwined with their high/low vocal interplay and John Gallagher’s arpeggio-sweep solos, percussion was persistently Dying Fetus’ weak link. Correctly sensing this was the only serious obstacle between their band and greatness, the band placed a call to Erik as they got ready for the album’s release and subsequent string of shows. Two weeks into Erik’s time with Dying Fetus, he called me excitedly, splooging into the phone that what was originally designed to be just a few shows had morphed into a full North American tour supporting Canada’s Kataklysm and Florida’s Monstrosity, easily two of Erik’s favorite bands. The tour was slated to run July-August 1996 and would see the band performing roughly 30 shows in the United States and Canada.

The day after speaking to Erik, I got a call from Kelly, who phoned me from Long Island. Unaware that Erik had joined Dying Fetus, Kelly dropped a serious knowledge bomb on me: he was tour managing for Kataklysm on the upcoming North American jaunt about which Erik had spoken. But apparently, Dying Fetus’ inclusion on the bill was Erik with Dying Fetus 2001not set in concrete yet, and a very animated Erik had committed the musician’s cardinal sin of prema-tour ejaculation when he called me. As it turned out, Kelly said, they hadn’t determined who would open the show yet, but had whittled the list down to two possibilities: Dying Fetus and a band from Ohio called Decrepit. Seeing the opportunity to help shore up the tour for Erik’s sake – and to repay the favor Dying Fetus had done me when they invited me to travel with them to Quebec the previous year – I recounted in lurid detail to Kelly my earlier chat with Erik and explained to him in no uncertain terms that, honestly, I probably wouldn’t be with Witch Hunt much longer, and wanted Erik to have other opportunities since he likely wasn’t going to acquire them through me. Kelly, ever a bro, decided then and there that the tour’s opening honors would thereby fall to Dying Fetus. And that, all ye death metal faithful, is how Maryland’s finest landed their first North American tour.

A few moments ago, I received an e-mail from a kid in the Washington, DC area who’s a fan of my old band Witch Hunt’s music. We were active when he was barely a first grader in the early-to-mid 1990s, but all the same he’s a metal fan with a taste for the “classic” and discovered our stuff through trial-and-error online. He has his own band now, and I told him I’d go to see them play soon. And here is what he wrote to me today, amazingly and absolutely unexpectedly, which illustrates how our small garage band somehow created a legacy far out-sizing our actual accomplishments:

“Just thought that you would like to know that my friend tried to buy your ‘Darkened Salvation’ demo from a mail-order Swedish distributor. After he sent for it, he received a letter telling him that it was out of stock [author’s note: I’d like to think this means we finally sold out of something]. He found another one for $20 plus another $20 for shipping but isn’t sure if that is what he should spend $40 bucks for, but he is really debating it. I was wondering if you have a physical copy or any mp3’s of the ‘Darkened Salvation’ demo or the first three demos that came before it. I know a couple guys that would go crazy for those; especially since you can’t hear any of it you YouTube. I told that same guy thst you might come to the show and he was psyched.”

Is it cliche to say it’s an honor? Then I’ll be cliche: it’s a f***ing honor to be remembered. When me and my bro Ben did our first show as Witch Hunt in October 1992, until four years later when I played my last gig with the band in October 1996, it never occurred to me that moving into the second decade of the new millennium people would still be trying to get hold of our material, much less being “psyched” about anything related to us.

Attached is the flyer for that first show in October 1992, when it was still just Ben and I, before the arrival of Erik Sayenga (who later went on to play for Dying Fetus and Warthrone) to fill out our lineup in 1994. Also, here’s a photo of the cover of the “Darkened Salvation” demo to which the kid in the e-mail was referring. And finally, a photo of me, Erik, and Ben the last time we played together as the “classic” lineup in June 1995, before Ben moved to North Carolina with my parents; and a photo of Ben behind the kit blasting away at that gig. Raise the horns, little bro: in our own small way, WE DID IT, and we did it our way without bending our knee. No compromise. Forever METAL.