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As members of the Oklahoma City noise-rock band Chat Pile humored me with answers to my questions about how they got started and how the nation’s deadliest domestic terrorist attack happening in their own backyard may have influenced their terrifyingly great new album, God’s Country, I found an opening to ask a question that had been burning in the back of my mind. “Can you tell me about the influences behind the song ‘grimace_smoking_weed.jpeg’?”
Before the song ended up as the closer on their debut full-length, it started as a joke on the band’s Bandcamp page, with that URL tucked away underneath the band’s bio and contact information. That later morphed into an amazing T-shirt idea, with the red-eyed McDonald’s character clutching a bong in a field of cannabis plants. But what the song achieves as a final casket slam on the album is nothing short of monumental. The record is full of warped and ugly narratives that draw from not only Chat Pile’s unique experiences as “Okies,” but also from a world that can no longer keep its cruelty hidden. So when I ask the question after becoming familiar with the nightmarish nine-minute epic, I ask it in all seriousness, expecting a serious answer.
The song, the band tells me, deals with a phenomenon that happens in many cases of extreme abuse where victims lose memories, only to replace them with fantasies that they use to explain their loss of time and trauma. The victims live with those stories before eventually having their true memories of the abuse come flooding back. A huge film buff, Chat Pile lead singer Raygun Busch explains that he used Gregg Araki’s 2004 film Mysterious Skin and the 1986 film In a Glass Cage by Agusti Villaronga as reference points for the protagonist’s unraveling mind in the song. As in the former film, alien abduction is cited in many cases of this kind of trauma-related memory loss. With the song, however, Busch chose to use the image of “Grimace Smoking Weed” that the band had joked about for so long as the song’s central demonic tormentor.
“My challenge to myself was to write the darkest song possible with that title as a springboard,” Busch says, after appropriately taking a bong hit just slightly outside the frame of our Zoom chat. Busch’s willingness to dissect these real-life horrors has made the band such an alluring dark cloud in their short existence. The balance of the band’s hard-hitting brutality and Busch’s naked lyrics and visceral vocal delivery is what has made Chat Pile such a fast-rising sensation in the world of heavy music. With vinyl preorders for God’s Country selling out and going into second pressings of certain variants, the record is already destined to be one of the bigger underground successes of the year.
All four members are old enough to where they have real-life responsibilities outside of the band, so each has adapted a stage persona to keep their work in Chat Pile secret. This cover—which they’ve asked me to honor—allows them the freedom to dig deeper into their at times confrontational approach to hot-button issues without the worry that nosy co-workers at their day jobs will catch on. The band’s sibling rhythm section consists of Stin on bass and Captain Ron (who was present in our Zoom chat, but remained silent) on drums, while Luther Manhole is responsible for the band’s sour guitar riffs. Stin and Ron had played together for years in a local band called Found Footage that was, according to Stin, “completely ignored by all of humanity.” That band took a more cleaned-up approach to noise rock, similar to bands like Failure or Barkmarket, with conventionally sung vocals and a respect for pop structure. The two brothers befriended the slightly younger Manhole about a decade ago, with their friendship solidifying with a weekly board game night that started in 2017. That weekly hang originally took place at Manhole’s cousin’s house and eventually moved over to Stin’s to become a “bad movie night.” As they got to know each other, they realized none of them had been in a band for a few years.
The three had all decided independently to “quit music” to some degree. Despite their wounds still being fresh, the three still thought it would be a fun idea to get together to get stoned and pound away on riffs in the garage. Once they realized they needed a vocalist and lyricist to helm the sludgy brand of noise-rock they were cooking up, Stin knew immediately to call Busch, whom they had known for close to 20 years both in and out of the OKC music scene. From there, Chat Pile was born into the world, kicking and grunting.
The sound they landed on is a gnarled mixture of the anguished, bass-heavy noise-rock that was coming out of Chicago in the mid ’80s and early ’90s from bands like Big Black and The Jesus Lizard, and the d-tuned sound of nü metal. This ferocious combination was intended all along, as the band makes it completely known that bands like System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine were just as big of influences on the band as Godflesh and Unwound. But for Stin, Korn is the one band that he is willing to play hopscotch off a cliff for. “It’s not a joke,” he says as Manhole laughs. “Unironically, I’ve seen Korn probably 15 to 20 times. I’ve traveled out of state to go see them. They are my favorite band, straight up.”
“That was very conscious when we were writing. We joked around saying, like, ‘Let’s do some Jesus Lizard shit, but with Korn riffs!’” adds Manhole. Given that Korn’s debut came out in 1994—only seven years after Big Black’s Songs About Fucking and Godflesh’s gamechanging self-titled debut—the band views both the noise-rock and nü metal movements on the same continuum. “Korn riffs or Godflesh riffs. It’s a snake eating itself,” Stin concludes.
Having been burned before by the inevitable pitfalls of having actual aspirations in the music biz, Chat Pile emphasized being realistic about what they wanted to achieve. The goal was to never spread themselves thin with lengthy tours, but to figure out a way to record enough songs that they could book shows in the area. The band worked up a batch of songs and went into the studio to record their self-released EP This Dungeon Earth in May of 2019, releasing follow-up EP Remove Your Skin Please quickly after in November. “No one knew who we were [and] we didn’t really have any goals to try and get popular,” recalls Manhole. “It was basically [us thinking] we want to play some shows, we should probably put something on Bandcamp that shows that we are an actual band so a place would book us.”
But traction for the band grew at a rapid rate, and after a year of playing shows, Reptilian Records offered to release both EPs on one LP. They then released a split 7” with the equally visceral and punishing Texas band Portrayal of Guilt last year. These releases paved the way for the band to sign to the San Francisco-based experimental metal label The Flenser, which has released albums by goth/post-punk sensations Have a Nice Life and the one-man black metal and shoegaze project Planning For Burial, among others.
Chat Pile’s DIY approach runs deep, as the band recorded and mixed all of their releases, including God’s Country, on their own “cheapass gear.” It’s a spirit that was crystallized for the members after seeing Doug Pray’s 1996 documentary Hype!, based on the Seattle punk and grunge scene. The doc highlights local bands like Mudhoney and Screaming Trees booking their own shows and, in the case of Fred and Toody Cole of Dead Moon, actually cutting their own vinyl records, which gave Chat Pile the idea that they didn’t have to wait for anyone else to create the band they wanted to see in the world. Busch recalls a specific Hype! scene in which K Records noise-punks Some Velvet Sidewalk perform their confrontational love song “Mousetrap” as being a particularly big influence. “That is everything I wanted to be onstage,” he says with a laugh.
Busch’s lyrics often leave themselves open to interpretation and are another alluring aspect of the band’s quickly earned mystique. When discussing whether certain songs on God’s Country could be referencing how our nation has neared a ravenous boiling point in recent years, he explains that he doesn’t read that much into it. While certainly some of the band’s economically depressed surroundings and overt religious imagery seeps into his writing—like the massive cross Busch mentions that casts shadows on I-35—the band tends to write songs culled from long improvisations, with Busch doing the same with his vocals. In a few cases, he has asked his band members for subjects to dig into in order to finish a release. Like “Grimace,” films are a huge part of his process. For instance, he cites Lynne Ramsay’s 1999 film Ratcatcher, which showcases the horrendous poverty in Glasgow in the early ‘70s, as a huge influence on his writing in Chat Pile.
“It just fucking sears your soul forever,” Busch says of the film. “I just remember being like, ‘This is the heaviest movie I’ve ever seen in my life.’ That movie inspired the song ‘Davis.’”
But this element of his lyric writing has also drawn members of the band to online discussions with fans who misconstrue certain song’s meanings. “Rainbow Meat,” from This Dungeon Earth, is a prime example in Manhole’s eyes. In the song, Busch demands that his body be sent to Arby’s to be sliced into thin cuts of meat, and later reveals that he sees no reason to believe he shouldn’t “get down on my knees / and suck my savior’s gun / and drain him of his cum.” Some fans have found the song to be humorous in the Steve Albini-edgelord tradition, taking its lyrics at face value. But at its core, the song is a slap-in-the-face look at a poisoned country that values the right to bear arms over actual human lives. The same goes for “Garbage Man” from Remove Your Skin Please, which Manhole points out is a metaphor about climate change and not some literal “garbage monster.” It’s exactly why he is a fan of Busch’s direct writing on the album’s second single, “Why.”
“There have been some dorks online that are mad about the lyrics because they’re too simple or whatever,” Manhole says in disbelief. “They don’t all need to be fucking veiled behind tons of metaphor.”
While “Why” may be simple in its narrative execution, you would be hard-pressed to find another rock song this year that is quite as affecting and unflinching in its messaging. Choosing to cut away any poetic wordage that could be distracting, Busch indicts our collective complacency when it comes to the growing houselessness epidemic in our country, with a force that compels the listener to face the issue at hand as if he’s dragging you down to skid row by the collar himself. “Why do people need to live outside?” he asks repeatedly, sounding more disgusted each time. He mentions vacant office buildings that keep the heat on at night with no one in them. Why can’t they sleep there? We clearly have the resources to let such spaces exist, he considers. Why can’t we level the scales of comfort for the thousands on the streets we choose to ignore day in and day out? “Real American horror story / And it’s a fuckin’ tragedy, everyday,” he snarls in frustrated defeat.
“It’s something that really fucking bothers me,” he explains of the song. “We may not ever have another album. Who knows? Who knows if we’ll have another record, or if The Flenser wants to put out the next record. I thought this is the one people are gonna hear, so let’s do something on this one. Let’s not just think about what would make me look cool, or whatever.”
Speaking about the song, you can feel the unbelievable sorrow behind Busch’s words. This is all on us as a society. We’ve allowed this to happen. It’s time that we stop pretending that what we’re doing with our meager donations and sporadic streaks of volunteered time is going to help in any meaningful way. We may have our tote bags as performative gold stars, but the evils of capitalism are rotting at the root, and we can’t hide from those we turn away from the life raft everyday when we know there is plenty of room onboard.
“I just want to say something that I feel like needs to get said,” Busch continues. “If people don’t like the lyrics or they don’t like the song or whatever, I challenge them to write a better song about the same topic. I fucking wish other bands would have other songs about this. It sucks that we’re one of the only bands that talks about that kind of thing or that has. I think it’s been good to see people talking about it and stuff. I just wanted to make it as simple as possible so there’d be no mistake about where I was coming from.”
While the band’s success thus far has surpassed all of their low expectations, they still stand firm that the prospect of hitting the road for extensive touring is of little interest to them. But that hasn’t stopped the big offers from coming in.
“Here’s the thing, we’re all a little bit older. We all have real lives, real jobs and stuff,” says Stin. “Even though Chat Pile is doing very well by any metric we ever started out with, we’re just not in a position to drop our real lives or our personal lives to hit the road for a long period of time or anything like that. That’s actually been the weirdest part about all this, is that it’s not that there’s pressure to tour or do anything like that, but there are offers and there are people constantly reaching out to us, and we have to say no. Which I mean, again, it’s a great problem to have. It’s not necessarily a complaint, but we just don’t know what to do with this, because it was never part of the plan.”
“I hate to make it a money thing,” Manhole agrees, “but you simply don’t make enough money. Unless you have someone to help fund you, a successful touring band that plays the type of music we play, you’re breaking even. So, if we go out and do a thing and break even, and we take off three weeks of work, breaking even means that I just missed three weeks of pay. My parents can’t pay my rent. If we were 20 and all living in the same house and none of us had serious partners or jobs, it would be way easier. We could just be like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s just be road dogs!’”
But to that point, Busch shuts down any hypothetical situation of a lengthy tour, even if it promises to be anything close to prosperous. “It will never happen, though, because I would never do it. I hate to be the one that’s saying that. But if we do five dates or whatever, I’m like, ‘I gotta go home and be alone.’”
The idea of doing the occasional run of coastal shows here and there seems to interest the band, but they stress that even those would be rare going forward. “If we’re playing in like, Albuquerque, come to the show, because we may never come back,” Busch says, half-jokingly.
A few weeks after our chat, it was announced that the band was booked at the legendary Brooklyn punk and metal venue Saint Vitus this October. Their first-ever East Coast show is billed with Flenser labelmates Scarcity, who will also be celebrating the release of their new album, Aveilut. The gig sold out so quickly that the venue invited Chat Pile back for another show a couple of days after. If the band is true to their convictions, these shows could have an added level of importance. Who knows which bow will be their last?
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.