A guy I used to know, John, once told me that Memphis is a cursed town with a haunted river running through it. My map tells me it’s just the Mississippi, but as John explained it, the Memphis stretch for some reason exudes a thick miasma of voodoo vibes that infects the local rock scene with a gloomy, despondent attitude.
I probably don’t have to tell you that it’s very difficult to confirm this kind of thing with a city’s Chamber of Commerce—“Hello, Memphis? I’m calling to ask if your town is cursed”—and not the easiest thing in the world to put to the average Memphis resident, either. But ask I do, of everyone else I’ve ever met from Memphis, because I’m genuinely interested to know if anyone else who lives there feels the same. Alicja Trout, who plays guitar and synthesizers and sings in Memphis band the Lost Sounds, says, um, not really, no.
“I don’t think Memphis is creepy at all,” she tells me via cell phone from Texas, where the band is trudging through the southern leg of a tour that will also bring them to Missoula. “It’s a really pretty town, for what it’s got around it, though of course it’s never going to be as beautiful as the West Coast or something. But it does have a vibe of oppression, of poverty and ignorance. I think it’s getting better—or at least it could be getting better if the national political situation wasn’t quite so Republican. Basically I get a good vibe, but when people are ignorant and uneducated and it’s hard to find a good job, there’s generally some angry folks walking around. But no, I don’t get any voodoo vibe or anything.”
Of course, my old buddy John would probably point to the Lost Sounds—currently a five-piece with Trout, her boyfriend Jay Reatard (formerly of a band called The Reatards), a drummer named Rich and two other guys named Jon and Jonas—as proof of his assertion that Memphis is a kind of Superfund site for unfiltered mojo. It all star-ted four and a half years ago, Trout says, with three people who just wanted to play rock’n’roll. And black metal. And something along the lines of Gary Numan and the Tubeway Army. Kind of all at once.
“It started with Rich, Jay and I,” Trout recalls. “We wanted to play together in a band that had a sort of ’60s Nuggets garage sound with keyboards, but that also had a kind of Killed by Death punk influence to it. And I had all these keyboards left over from being in another band that used them. It just started getting weirder and weirder from there.
“We had no idea when we started out that it would turn into what it’s turned into,” she claims (and really, how could they have?). “We were also listening to a lot of black metal at the time. We were hoping to incorporate the speed and the blast-beats and the organ sound—like [Norwegian black metal band] Emperor has—and really scary vocals into the structure of music we were more familiar with, which was more rock’n’roll.”
Most people probably don’t readily associate Memphis with black metal, but Trout maintains that Memphis has a “fairly decent,” semi-overlapping metal and hardcore scene. Memphis bands like Cop Out, Adios Gringo and His Hero is Gone released records of metallic hardcore to great acclaim in the pages of zines like Punk Planet and Maximumrockandroll in the mid- to late-1990s. In fact Trout says that, to a certain extent, metal is the coin of the realm in underground Memphis.
“For the size of the city, the metal and hardcore scene is pretty good,” she says. “And a lot of the hardcore in Memphis is very metal, in the sense that it combines the real fast thrash guitar with doomier kinds of metal elements.
“But it seems like hardcore is so underage-kid-oriented,” she laments. “And you kind of have to wonder if those kids really know what they’re seeing, because it definitely took me until past 21 to understand music that was that heavy and had that many changes. I don’t know how a lot of 16-year-old kids can get into the music that came out of the His Hero Is Gone-type scene. A lot of them sit around staring like they don’t know what to do.
“It’s a really weird state for Memphis right now,” says Trout, noting that attendance at hardcore and emo shows is generally up, while the bottom seems to have dropped out of the market for trashy rock of the kind perhaps best exemplified by now-defunct local heroes The Oblivians. “I try not to get frustrated about it, but in Memphis—which is at least supposed to be a rock’n’roll town—we’re a little bit too weird for most people. We’re supported in Memphis, but I think we make more sense to people on the West Coast, or in Chicago or New York or something. It’s good to get outside the city and meet people who can understand something a little stranger.”
Trout says that some of their most enthusiastic audiences have been in smaller cities like Missoula, adding that the Lost Sounds had a pretty good time last time they found themselves here—at Jay’s Upstairs, natch. Co-headliners Fireballs of Freedom couldn’t make it, she recalls, but people still stuck around to see the lesser-known Memphis quantity—partly out of musical curiosity, she thinks, and partly just for something to do. Which reminds me: My buddy John also told me that there are shows in Memphis where a clean-cut (and so handsome!) guy like me probably wouldn’t be welcome because I didn’t have enough Conflict and Rudimentary Peni patches holding my grubby drawers together. Certain Memphis scenes, Trout admits, can get pretty insular—and not, I gather, altogether hospitable to people who don’t dress the part.
“I think when you’ve got a smaller town, where people just want to hang out with their friends and do something interesting, scenes tend to overlap and cross over into each other. People there just want to see what’s new. Memphis used to be like that, and now it’s more sectioned out.”
Lost Sounds, it seems, are still kind of a scene unto themselves. How does Trout describe her band to people like her grandparents, who probably don’t share precisely the same set of musical reference points with the younger, difference-between-black-metal-and-Gary-Numan-knowing Memphis musical cognoscenti?
“I just say it’s rock‘n’roll with keyboards,” she says, laughing and listing off a litany of Granny-bewildering modifiers. “It gets to be a big ol’ mess, talking about ‘thrash-funk analogue-synth art-damaged black-metal-influenced’ blah blah. You can’t even say ‘punk rock’ anymore without people thinking Limp Bizkit. Say ‘New Wave’ and they think A Flock of Seagulls. The terms mean nothing to most people anymore.
“So I just say it’s rock’n’roll with keyboards,” she repeats breezily. “If they go, ‘Oh, yeah, like what?’ then I’ll say, oh, like analog synths, a Moog sound, you know. Sometimes they understand and sometimes I lose ’em right there.”