Monday, March 5, 2007

Raiding the Playboy Mansion & Other Stories: A (Not-So) Brief History of THE SIXTH CHAMBER

Please allow me some self-indulgence here.

Since the weather here in NJ has been absolute shit lately, I find myself becoming increasingly nostalgic for my old stomping grounds in Los Angeles. So, I figured I'd wax nostalgic for a bit and write about the greatest musical experience I've ever had – The Sixth Chamber.

Raw Meat, Necrophilia and Bobby Steele

Back when I was college in 1998, I kept seeing copies of a zine called Raw Sewage around campus. As the name implies, Raw Sewage wasn't exactly a P.C. publication – actually, the editorial typically ranged from interviews with the likes of Mentors frontman El Duce to stories on serial killers to comic strips devoted to necrophilia. The text was equally nauseating and awe-inspiring, and I knew that whatever sick fuck was behind it was somebody I had to get to know immediately.

Eventually, I figured out that the publisher of Raw Sewage had to be that skunk-haired punk that sat next to me in Journalism class. One day, I ended up chatting with said gentleman, and it came as little surprise that we shared many of the same interests in book, music, film, etc. Before long, it was obvious that this budding literary sociopath, Rahne Pistor, was a total smart-ass – someone who loved to screw with the status quo as much as possible. At the time, he fronted a band (name withheld to protect the guilty) that had been banned from virtually every venue in the state (which, if I recall, had a lot to do with public nudity and raw meat.) He was also one of the most interesting and intelligent guys I ever met, someone who could quote William Blake and Jim Goad in the same breath.

Simply put, the guy was a walking "fuck you" – overly intelligent with a knack for challenging people's belief systems and generally being a contrary little prick – but always with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Having gained so much insight into Rahne's personality, I knew there was one thing I simply had to do.

I gave him Bobby Steele's phone number.

Rahne soon joined The Undead on bass, and this particular lineup worked together for the next year. Putting Rahne and Steele together was always interesting, and it came as little shock that this lineup caused a fair amount of fun (read: trouble). One time, Bobby and Rahne almost caused a riot when Bobby – suffering from a particularly nasty chest infection and fed up with people refusing to put out their cigarettes after repeated requests – stopped a show we were playing at a typically yuppie-ass NJ shithole and went on a tirade about how "punk rockers" are so anti-establishment, yet so willing to shell out their hard-earned money to major tobacco companies. Naturally, Rahne egged him on, telling the crowd, "Yeah, it's called Sin Tax!" ("Oh, great," I thought to myself, "Heckle and Jeckle are gonna get us all killed.") People booed, threw ice and gave us plenty of "Fuck You"s, but we nonetheless finished the show. To this day, I'm still not sure what kind of fall-out occurred immediately following the show, since I was already outside having a smoke…

Our Friend, the Urinal

When that particular lineup of the Undead had run its course, Rahne began discussing plans to relocate to Los Angeles. He told me of his ideas for a new project, named The Sixth Chamber (a Blake reference), and how it would be like nothing he – or anyone else, for that matter – had done before. By the fall of 2001, Rahne was in the land of sunshine, and I couldn't wait to hear what the guy came up with next.

A few months later, Rahne called and filled me in on what was up with the band. While out and about, he had crossed paths with Kjehl Johansen, a founding member of the seminal '70s minimalist punk trio, The Urinals, who eventually morphed into 100 Flowers (best known for their contribution to the classic 1982 compilation, Hell Comes To Your House.) It turned out that Kjehl (who had also served time as leader of the SST Records act, Trotsky Icepick) had really hit it off with Rahne, and the two had started banging some musical ideas around under the Sixth Chamber banner. I was thrilled for Rahne, since The Urinals had always been one of his biggest musical influences, and I told him that I had to use my upcoming vacation time to fly to LA and check things out for myself. Hearing the news, Rahne wasted no time in booking two shows for The Sixth Chamber and drafting me in to play drums. This was all fine and good, except 1. I hadn't played drums in a long time and 2. I would only be in LA for a week, and I hadn't even heard a single note that Rahne had written!

Of course, those slight dilemmas didn't faze Pistor in the least, and he mailed me a CD of some drum ideas he was throwing around. (In addition to being a great guitar and bass player, Pistor's a pretty fine drummer.) When I hit "play," I was immediately beside myself. What a fucking mess! Imagine Atari Teenage Riot's drum machine madness mixed with PiL's early tribal beats and you're still nowhere near understanding the complete and total cacophony that greeted my ears. "Typical Rahne," I thought to myself as I began piecing together this rhythmic nightmare. Somehow, I managed to turn the racket on the CD into something a human being could play, and off to LA I went.

I think I was off the plane all of 10 minutes when Rahne handed me a CD of more drum tracks to learn. After all, the first-ever Sixth Chamber show – a live on-air performance on KXLU, of all things – was a mere four days away. With only two rehearsals, The Sixth Chamber (augmented by yet another NJ escapee, second guitarist Carlo Dean) played our debut live show on KXLU. The show went really well until Pistor somehow busted a bass string, which led to Kjehl, Carlo and me improvising a 15-minute version of The Urinals' "Hologram," which was only about 50 seconds long when The Urinals first recorded it in the late '70s.

Yes, The Sixth Chamber was a clusterfuck from the "go," but it was an absolutely beautiful one.

Two days later, The Sixth Chamber performed its first proper live show. For some inexplicable reason, we had been booked to play a SPORTS BAR IN INGLEWOOD. Even more inexplicable was the fact that the other bands on the bill were Saccharine Trust and The Chuck Dukowski Sextet. Saccharine Trust was one of the original SST Records bands, and Chuck Dukowski (of course) was the original bassist in (and conceptual mastermind behind) the legendary Black Flag. Now, maybe you can imagine what it was like for me, someone who grew up in suburban NJ listening to as many SST albums as possible, to be sharing a bill with these guys in LA during my vacation. What a trip!

Thankfully, The Sixth Chamber's set went very well, and it was a great pleasure to be in the same band with Kjehl – if only for a week. Chuck Dukowski was an incredibly friendly, down to-earth guy, and his band was as great as you'd expect. Saccharine Trust was…indescribable. The 40 or so minutes those cats were onstage will stay with me forever. The Sac Trust fellows were also incredibly cool to us, and I hopped on the plane the next day still shuttering from such a memorable experience.

And it really sucked to know I was going back to NJ. By the time the plane landed in Newark, my mind was made up – I was moving to LA as soon as possible, and I finally moved to the Land of Insecurity (Oops…I mean Opportunity) on June 2, 2003.

Blood, Sweat and $1 Tacos

In the ten months between the Inglewood show and my official move to LA, Rahne had reshuffled the Sixth Chamber lineup. Because Kjehl and Carlo were never meant to be full-on members, Rahne was on the lookout for good players up for a little experimentation. Along the way, he struck up a friendship with a brilliant 19-year-old singer/guitarist named Sevan Kand. Sevan had grown up in a musical family, as both of his parents had served serious time in the legendary band, Christian Death. By 19, he had grown tired of the trappings of the then-floundering LA "Goth" scene and was looking for something new. He proved to be a great match for Rahne, and the two of them (along with occasional help from Carlo and Kjehl) quickly recorded a full-length album, with Rahne either programming the drum tracks or recording them live. By the time I made the 3000-mile trek to LA, the album – Molded Truths – was already starting to appear in area record stores, and Sevan and Rahne were hot to play live shows to promote the release.

Before I could say, "But I just moved here!" I was rehearsing with Rahne and Sevan for hours (and hours) at a time. You see, Rahne already booked a slew of shows long before I even packed the car to leave NJ. So within two minutes of meeting Sevan for the first time, there I was learning songs for a show that was only two weeks away. At the same time, Rahne was in a rush to start work on another album, and already had time booked with the local production team of Louis Castle and James Bairian (both members of the great band Dirty Little Secret and the team behind Giant Drag's recent, Rolling Stone-applauded album.)

Fortunately, we learned the Molded Truths tracks in time to play the already-booked shows – which included another fantastic Sixth Chamber/Chuck Dukowski Sextext/Sac Trust triple-header, this time at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. (For the record, the Knitting Factory boasts the nicest stage crew in all of LA. Three cheers for Bruce Duff!) Before we knew it, the LA Weekly had dubbed us "netherworld visionaries" (I love that!), and we were soon playing more LA shows than any just-got-here-from-Joisey transplants should ever be entitled to play. (I'll never forget playing the Sunset Junction music festival alongside The Circle Jerks and Guided By Voices – if for no other reason than because parking was insane, and I had to lug my snare drum and hardware under my arms for a mile in the scorching heat before hitting the performance area.)

But those times were also pretty tough for me. I went to LA without a job, and really had to live hand-to-mouth for quite a few months. (Work in publishing and want to live in LA? Here's a tip – Stay the fuck away!) I mainly survived by selling off cherished possessions, and usually only had $2 or $3 a day for food. We were rehearsing in Rahne's ridiculously cramped Silverlake apartment at the time, but the Mexican roach coach at the bottom of the hill sold incredible soft tacos for $1. I basically lived on those fucking things for a whole summer. As far as Rahne's apartment, well…let's just say he was sharing it with a female roommate who (although quite attractive) had quite possibly the worst hygiene habits of any person alive. I can still remember always having to maneuver the drums around the six-foot pile of dirty panties and other feminine trinkets that sat right smack in the middle of the "living room."

Possibly because of all the stress I was under (coupled with the sheer force of the music we were creating at the time), my drumming during this period was particularly violent. Every show I performed with The Sixth Chamber left me dizzy and completely drenched in sweat, plus my hands were often blistered and bloody from hitting the drums so hard. Playing in the band served as intense therapy for me at the time, and the other guys kinda liked having a complete loose cannon maniac behind the kit.

As far as our music goes, well…it was a complete nightmare! As he had done with the Kjehl/Carlo incarnation, Rahne encouraged Sevan and me to add whatever we wanted to each song. Rahne was (and still is) a major Pink Floyd/Syd Barrett fan, and that certainly inspired his musical aesthetics at the time. I was going through a very heavy SWANS/PiL/Pussy Galore/Killing Joke phase (what else is new?), so I incorporated many of these influences into my playing for the first time, since most of my previous bands had a particular structure that didn't allow for that to happen. Rahne had his whole Syd Barrett thing going on, and Sevan's voice was sounding more and more like Jeff Buckley all the time. As I had already learned the previous summer, The Sixth Chamber was all about innovation, and none of us were afraid to try things out for the sake of trying them.

So imagine Jeff Buckley singing Syd Barrett' lyrics over Filth-era SWANS, and you'd still have no fucking clue what our mess sounded like.

Not surprisingly (and despite some very nice nods from the local press), the vast majority of people we played to didn't get it. I remember we did a swell job of clearing out a particularly hip LA hotspot on Halloween '03, but that was actually great since I couldn't be bothered playing for people who honestly thought a band as dull as The Strokes were the new saviors of rock and/or roll. Considering our complete disinterest in growing our hair, buying trucker hats and playing for Trust-fund hipsters (who the fuck else could afford one of those stupid hats anyway?), it made sense that our biggest supporters would not come from the more "precious" elements of the city's music scene, but from the Venice Beach art community. Before long, we became regular guests at the Sponto Gallery, a longtime artists' hangout in Venice that regularly drew the likes of cult filmmaker Curtis Harrington and experimental photographer Leland Auslender. Shows at Sponto were always a fantastic experience, as the crowd (comprised of everyone from 12-year-old skate punks to 90-year-old beat poets) applauded our work as a form of art. Finally, we had found a home.

Gimme Gimme This, Gimme Gimme That

Of course, being a working band in LA meant that we were sure to have some memorable run-ins with certain "known persons." One night, we shared a bill with a Stooges cover-band called The Raw Power Rangers, whose drummer happened to be ex-Germ Don Bolles. I had briefly met Don months earlier at a Rebekah del Rio show, so I looked forward to touching base with him again at our show. Well, I suppose our live show left an impression on him, since he promptly walked up to me and said, "It sounded good…like the washing machine was broken" or something like that. He then said he was "a pretty hot producer" and wanted to work with us. When I asked him what he had produced, he said, "Well, Throbbing Gristle and a bunch of other stuff." I'm guessing he meant Mission of Dead Souls, a TG live album he was the soundman for back in 1981. Although I'm still not quite sure how one even produces a TG album, I found Don to be totally fun and charming in a completely-out-of-his-fucking-mind sort of way. I'm not quite sure whatever happened to the whole "produced by Don Bolles" idea, but he was kind enough to offer us his, um, "house" to rehearse in. (I use the quotes because Don's living quarters were basically a small house straight out of the Blair Witch Project. Its amenities included a door with no hinges, a few tons of trash, a couch…and about a million dollars' worth of rare vinyl.) If I recall, we paid Don back in pizza. Although the Bolles/Sixth Chamber union petered out after a short time, he was a cool guy (if a bit wacky) and it was really great of him to take such an interest in the band.

Another great run-in occurred when Rahne, through his work at a hip Venice arts newspaper, made friends with uber-producer Geza X, the man behind early recordings by Black Flag, The Germs, The Bags, etc. As we continued work on our album (which was to be called Crippled Souls), Geza came on board as a "mixing consultant," showing Rahne the ropes on how a professional mix job was done. To illustrate his techniques, Geza mixed our song, "Possessed," from start to finish. From Day One, "Possessed" had always been my favorite Sixth Chamber song. A sinister, creeping number that always reminded me a lot of PiL's "Another," it was the first song I ever recorded in Los Angeles. Thanks to Geza's magic, it also became the most powerful drum track to ever have my name on it. For once, someone KNEW the kind of drum sound I've always strived for! After Mr. X was done with them, the drums might as well have been recorded at the Townhouse! Hearing that finished track for the first time still ranks among my proudest moments as a drummer. Geza is my hero!

Go Your Own Way

I've always believed that, in order to be a successful artist of any kind, a person needed to have a healthy ego and whole lot of passion. Of course, all three of us in The Sixth Chamber had an overabundance of both. By the time early 2004 rolled around, it was obvious that a band comprised of three alpha males wouldn't last forever. Regular "band planning meetings" had become shouting matches, and the ideas weren't coming as easily as before. We were also being haunted by three words that any new band loves to hear, but should ultimately avoid at all costs: Major Label Interest. While all this was going on, I had settled into a fairly decent job running a newspaper, so I wasn't about to risk starvation again by giving 100% of my time to the project. Understandably, my reluctance to "go the distance" caused some stress for Rahne and Sevan, who were grappling with a fair amount of their own inter-personal issues at the time. With the album still incomplete, I reluctantly gave Rahne and Sevan my notice. They were saddened by the news, but remained committed to finishing the album before my departure. Over the next couple of months, I went back and finished my drum tracks. Then, I was hit by huge surprise – Sevan had also quit. Within a year, we had gone from three people creating music that was fresh and exciting to a one-man show (Rahne) left alone to finish a once-promising album. Although I remained friendly with both of them (especially since I no longer had to deal with them as a band member!), I was sad to see the band die. Rahne, always the most determined cat of our bunch, drafted a local guitarist named Palo Mayoba and finally finished the album in July, 2004. Of course, since there was no band left to support the damn thing, any plans to release the album were promptly abandoned.

Hangin' With Hef

By year's end, Rahne had decided to keep The Sixth Chamber going. After drafting Palo and me for two shows (including one show opening for Geza X), Rahne moved to guitar and brought in drummer Hunter Crowley (formerly of another SST band, The Leaving Trains) and an exceptional young bassist named Joshua Soto. With the new players came an almost complete evolution in the band's sound – although still dark and brooding, The Sixth Chamber's music became more streamlined and (dare I say it?) listenable. I grinned like a Cheshire Cat when I first heard the new material, as I knew the band was truly on its way to something great.

With Hunter soon departing to focus on other commitments, Rahne once again found himself looking for a drummer. One day, he calls me up to tell me that his paper had been invited to attend a special press party at the Playboy Mansion for the Hef's annual Jazz Festival. Since Rahne was the editor of his paper, he took the assignment himself. And since he was the editor, he was allowed to bring one other person with him.

Yes, that's right. Rahne and I – two punk geeks from Nowheresville, NJ – somehow ended up at a party at the Playboy Mansion, and New Jersey finally had its revenge on Los Angeles!

As soon as we stepped foot in the place, we immediately began devouring the enormous finger-food spread – which likely cost more than our annual salaries combined. As we were both stuffing our faces with complete abandon, I couldn't stop looking at all the pretty birds (I mean the ones in cages, not the other kind. The Mansion is known for its spacious animal sanctuary, among other things…) At one point, we focused our attention to the local High School Jazz band that had been hired to entertain the gatherers (as if there wasn't enough "entertainment" going around already…) We were both quite impressed by the drummer, a young blonde-haired kid who just looked like he could really rock if given the chance. Rahne being Rahne, he said, "Hey, I'll ask this guy to join the band," and walked over to him. I just stood there shaking my head, once again awed by the guy's sheer audacity. Soon, Michael Ferrera became my official replacement in The Sixth Chamber, and he's been with Rahne and Joshua ever since. This new lineup released the Shards of Glass EP, a reflection of the band's newfound love of (somewhat) conventional songwriting, in late 2005. I was delighted when I got the five-song EP and discovered that it featured two songs from the aborted Crippled Souls album. Around the same time, another Crippled Souls track, "Hollywood Princess Doe," was included on New Dark Age, Volume 3, a fantastic compilation album released by Strobelight Records in Austria. Other artists on the disc included Eva O., Empire Hideous and Faith And The Muse. Finally, some of the music we had slaved over for so long (even if not my beloved "Possessed") was being heard by the world.

More great news followed in early 2006, when Rahne told me that he and Sevan had finally resolved whatever differences they had, and Seven had officially rejoined the band as lead vocalist. I was absolutely blown away and excited to hear this, if a little sad that I had already moved back to New Jersey by then and couldn't hang with my two buddies anymore. After all, these were the guys who gave me a reason to get through the madness of LA in those early days. Two guys who provided me a chance to stretch my drumming to heights I never thought possible. Two guys I respect and cherish more than they'll ever know. We lived through something amazing, and we actually have a recorded document of our experiences together.

And for that, I'm eternally grateful.

So why have I brought all this up, anyway? Well, the Sixth Chamber have just released an amazing new EP, Divine. I recommend that you all check it out.

Check out for more info.

Oh, yeah…and for the record, the Grotto is kinda small.