Monday, April 2, 2018

The Khayembii Communiqué

Mark Shaw (now in Vi Som Älskade Varandra Så Mycket) for Boring Emo.

A not-so-brief history of the Khayembii Communiqué



The Khayembii Communiqué was a band for somewhere between 1.5 and 8 years, depending on where you want to start and stop counting. The three of members of the band, myself on guitar and screaming vocals, Brian on bass and singing-sometimes-screaming vocals, and Mark J. on drums, started as a bunch of 13 year old kids in Minnesota learning how to play in a band, together. I began playing music with Brian in 7th grade and then with Mark in 8th grade. They were both drummers, so these were two separate bands or ‘bands’, but eventually Brian put down the drumsticks and picked up the bass. We had some other friends cycle in and out over the years too, with much of our early high school years featuring our friend Trevor also on guitar.
For about 4 years, we played in my parents living room. No, not the garage: the living room. Our equipment was always set up; three large amps, a drum set, a PA, guitars, etc. We had run of the place, but we did have to move our amps around for a month or two every year to accommodate the Christmas tree over the holiday season. To say that my parents have always been incredibly supportive would be a huge understatement and I think ceding the central room of their house to their son’s burgeoning interest in playing louder and louder music makes a pretty strong case.
Our style was less of a style and more of us playing cover versions of whatever songs we were into at the time. We cycled through musical genres in a way which tracked our own evolution and discovery of new music. We also changed our name from one embarrassing thing to another every few months, never coming close to settling on a name. For example, we played a short cover set at our high school battle of the bands when we were 15 and the set list had songs by The Pixies, Nine Inch Nails, Black Flag, and Nirvana. For very ‘inside joke’ reasons, our name was Granja (“farm” in Spanish -- there’s a story there, but it’s not very interesting, as they say). We got second place, but the judges somehow got the impression that we wrote the Nirvana song and gave us points for our original composition.
At some point, Trevor was no longer a part of things. In a very connected development, when we were around 17, Mark, Brian, and I landed on being a screamo band, though I don’t believe that term existed (and, to editorialize, I really really hate that word and use it very grudgingly). We had kept changing our band name with increasing frequency, and whatever name we had that month was terrible and we needed a name that stuck. Sitting outside a two day punk festival that occurred on the University of Minnesota campus, my friend Andy Pace happened to mention his idea of a band name: the Karl Marx Brothers. Obviously, the name is somewhere between naively political and outright silly, but I liked it and appropriated for our band. At that point, I believed we were going to find a way to be political in our music.
With our new name, The Karl Marx Brothers began to sound less like Nirvana and more and more like the bands on the obscure seven inches that nobody but me and a couple of friends had ever heard. Nick Blood was our closest friend and adviser, spending long nights on the phone with me dissecting together the records we both bought at Extreme Noise Records rather than doing homework or ever sleeping. We found bands we loved like Shotmaker or Portraits of Past, or local bands like Man Afraid or Disembodied. But I didn’t consider the local bands ‘local’, because the Minneapolis basement scene seemed far off, the unattainable big time. We were small fish out in the suburbs, the main show The Karl Marx Brothers had was at our high school, though there was the occasional show in a some nearby suburban space booked by friends, like a garage or a community center.
That night at our school, we played in the cafeteria, part of a several band show arranged by the student government on a weeknight.
I believed in a wholehearted way that people weren’t listening to screamo only due to lack of exposure to it. And I was prepared to spread the message: “Ha,” I told myself, “now all these people will have a chance to understand how powerful this music is, how sincere, how communicative!”  We played a seven song set, featuring lost-to-history songs like “A Night of Wandering” and “What Do You Know?”  
I had taken the trouble to transcribe our lyrics onto a single sheet of paper, and give an explanatory paragraph or two. Let’s just say I wasn’t a designer: the cut and paste assemblage was in 5 point font so that all my verbosity could be crammed onto one side of a single page. But I earnestly handed these out before we played, so that nobody would miss the point of communication.  People were able to read along as I shouted about how “last night I yearned to drive away ninety miles an hour and refuse to look back, but addiction to this pointless routine shatters the desire to be impulsive!”  and wondered aloud about the audience, asking them “do you sense the urgency with which we bring these issues forth?  Does it amount to anything more, than noise and screaming in your closed ears?” 
            And we played, under the fluorescently lit room of the nighttime cafeteria, the same sterile space in which I ate the one vegan option day after day: a plain bagel with peanut butter. The sound was subpar, to say the least, but we didn’t care.  After all, we were communicating!  My fellow students were sure to be awakened to new realizations about the world through our performance!  I hit my guitar so hard as I screamed out my angsty lyrics that my fingers bled profusely. I would surreptitiously look at my bloodied hand between songs with a sort of pride.  
          When we finished our set, I could read on the faces of the crowd an array of expressions, ranging from bewilderment to terror.  “What the hell was that?” asked Joe, the viking-bearded fundamentalist-Christian hall monitor.[1] I couldn’t respond, as I looked from disengaged face to disengaged face. Our lyrics sheets lay about discarded, presumably unread.  Who wants to strain their eyes like that, anyway? Apparently the urgency with which we brought those issues forth went unheeded, and in retrospect, the only surprise is that back then. I somehow managed to be surprised.
          As high school ended, we played a final show in my parent’s garage right before I headed away to go live in Sweden for a year. The opening band was Om, which was a fun, fast punk band from the next suburb over. We met them while playing another garage show at a friend’s house. The guitar player and singer was Stef, who later became known as POS. We played for a group of maybe 30 friends, I made a heartfelt speech about what it all meant -- my parents’ neighbors must have been deeply moved to hear my teenage sentiments emanating out from the PA into the otherwise quiet suburban neighborhood -- and then we hugged each other and said goodbye to the band, forever.



But, of course, that wasn’t the end. I came back from Sweden and almost instantly we started playing together again, beginning right away with an ill-advised, unpracticed attempt at jumping onstage with Mark and Brian at the Sociopath punk house on Lyndale Avenue in South Minneapolis just a day or two after returning. It went...poorly.
We started playing together again in earnest, practicing in my parent’s garage this time, having ‘grown up’ and decided to give them back their living room. I’m sure the neighbors were thrilled to hear that we were back together, continuing to play the most abrasive genre we could find. We ditched most of our old songs, except we kept the beginning and end of one song which was rewritten to become Death of an Aspiring Icon, and we kept another song in its entirety called Lacking. Lacking was unique because it was only Brian singing (I mean, I yell some things in the middle there, but it’s pretty much a Brian song), and it was one of a couple songs that we spontaneously wrote together, which made it feel special. In those early reformed days, we had another song that came into being spontaneously, called AM1200. Brian started playing a bass line and it just evolved into a completed song without much conscious thought. I’m always a bigger fan of the Brian songs, but that might be a bias because, frankly, the last thing I want to hear about is me complaining about my own problems, real or imagined.
Our other songs, however, certainly took a lot of conscious thought from my part. I never was a big improvisor so songs like A Year and an Ocean were very deliberately written through a lot of trial and error as I stood alone all night chain smoking and playing guitar in my parents garage. Sometimes a friend or two would be hanging out and I remember after some number of days or weeks developing that song, it just clicked into exactly what it is today. I remember my friend Sarah happened to be there for the moment, and she nodded at me through the haze and said, ‘that’s it’ and I knew that I had finally landing on solid ground after stumbling for who knows how long.
We played a show at the end of the summer at the 1021 House in Minneapolis, where our old friend Nick Blood had moved in. The house was obviously a former business converted into a living space. Most people believed it was a dental office at some point, but to my knowledge that was never verified. It was a large box with a high-ceilinged joint living room and kitchen space half-ringed by a five rooms, up just 4 stairs, separated by a half-wall where one could stand and survey the goings-on in the kitchen/living room. In the large basement was a showspace that had been doing shows for a few years previous to Nick’s arrival. I had even gone there with Nick to see a hardcore show once in high school. To me, given my total lack of a sense of proportion, Nick moving in there was, you know, kind of a big deal. Mark J., for his part, managed to find an apartment less than a block away. Brian was...somewhere. His location was always quite fluid in those days. I was still out at my parents, staying up all night, every night; reading, drinking coffee, smoking, listening to music.
That fall, we played a show at 1021 House that I set up with a band called Painted Thin from Winnipeg, who I loved, especially as they so seamlessly and eloquently blended the personal and the political in a way that we never could or would. I remember seeing our name -- The Karl Marx Brothers -- on the flier next to their name and finally accepting that it just wasn’t a fit. We simply weren’t a political band and were never going to be. And we weren’t really a joke band either, so it was time to ditch the political joke name. At around 2AM one night, as we sat around the table at Little Tijuana, an all night Mexican restaurant, we changed our name to the Khayembii Communiqué. As the Karl Marx Brothers, we would refer to ourselves as the K.M.B.  Khayembii is nothing more than an intentionally mystifying way of spelling the sounds of those letters. (It’s been fun over the past 20 years to hear people guess how it is pronounced -- to be be fair, I wouldn’t know either) I can still picture our friend Andy K. starting to write out the idea to misspell KMB on the paper table covering, using the crayons that Little T’s always provided its patrons. And where did “communiqué” come from? I just thought it was a cool sounding word that related to communication and it was vaguely political, just like me. Rechristened as the Khayembii Communiqué, we played our first show on December 30, 1998 in the basement of 1021 House with Saetia, You and I, Race Bannon, and some band called God Awful.
In 1999, we did manage to put out a seven-inch record, which realized my esoteric high school dream. Nick started a label called Blood of the Young records and released our record as his first. We recorded the four songs in our friend’s basement a few minutes from my parents’ place, with her dad, a classic rock musician who had some success in the 70s but who understandably had no idea what the hell we were doing. But he was unfazed by it and was as cool as a person can be in such a situation; he would assure us that what we were doing was, “Cool, man, like, intense stuff,” in between his sips of rum and coke.  
We designed the packaging ourselves. We stole borrowed the materials from Kinkos[2], we used photographs taken by Brian. We personally assembled the bulk of the thousand records the summer of its release. In a twist of fate, I ended up getting mono that summer while friends in other bands went out on tour, so I sat home and put one record after another together while I waited for time to pass and my friends to return. To this day, I can tell which of us put together a given record because, in lieu of a printed list, we simply wrote “thank you” in silver marker on every one  of a thousand pieces of specially cut black paper. I will always be able to picture our own unique handwriting styles when I think of that record. The rest of the steps involved in putting the record together are too numerous to go into, but suffice it to say that each record took ten minutes to complete, if we were efficient. One thousand records times ten minutes each: I didn’t do too much else that summer.
In fall of 1999, our group of friends completely took over 1021 House; Mark, Brian, and myself all moved in.  Nick, of course, was still there, his room the unofficial hang out room because he had the best record collection and he also had some new way to get music on his computer called Napster. The other rooms were occupied by friends as well: our friend Andy helped the label fund our second release; our friend Justin worked at Kinkos.
We had bands playing in our basement as often as several nights a week, usually punk or hardcore bands touring in decrepit vans traveling from basement to basement, playing for gas money.  Our house would get phone calls from all over the country and even Europe, bands asking to play their Minneapolis show in our basement. Khayembii would often play, practically becoming the house band that one summer we all lived there. We would set up in the middle of the room, on the floor, surrounding the drummer, and facing each other underneath the light of a candle chandelier.  The attendees of the show surrounded us in a circle, on the same level as us.  To the ears of the layman, we sounded the same as we did in high school.  In reality, we had honed in on a sub-sub-genre of punk, and were competent at it.  That is, some people actually liked us. Sure, they numbered in the tens, but I unironically believed that to be a success.
           Though we occasionally played a ‘real’ venue like the all-ages Foxfire or once at a local sub sandwich shop called Bon Appetit, the basement suited us and we were most comfortable there. It wasn’t as though we aspired to something bigger anyway.  Back in high school, instead of actually going to class and learning things like math, I learned through experience that most people don’t particularly appreciate their music to challenge them, either aurally or philosophically. We knew what we were doing was obscure, unembraceable for the average person.  The world would never hear us, and we were resigned to that.  Even if they did hear us, they would never be able to figure out how to pronounce our name.  We existed within a subculture and expected to be judged only by the standards of that subculture. If somebody who was more in tune with the pop music of the times -- say, a Backstreet Boys fan  -- decided to discredit our style as being unmusical, we could only shrug and laugh, realizing that the critique missed the point entirely.



         When our 7 inch officially came out as Blood of the Young release 001, we did a couple of ‘real’ tours, of course with Nick with us, playing as far away as Reading, Pennsylvania. Our first tour was booked by Kerry Pries, who rode along with us and had major credibility in my eyes as both having been the singer of Makara, but also having been on tour with Shotmaker, one of my all time favorite bands.
Kerry did the bookings and then had the itinerary (including name, phone number, and directions to the venue) typewritten on a single piece of paper. Somehow we didn’t lose that paper, which was good because we really needed that info. When you would roll into a town, you had to find a payphone to call the landline number on the piece of paper, hope for an answer, hope that it wasn’t just some random person answering at some random punk house, and then try to get more detailed directions to supplement the very low-detail maps in our crappy road atlas.
We borrowed my parents minivan -- a forest green Mercury Villager -- and put a topper on it to carry our bags. We did make it all the way to New York, but there was no show. Instead, we just wandered around, checking out the city with little or no plan. We played at Bremen house in Milwaukee twice, the first time we were well received and the second time, the basement was overflowing with people. That was the closest we came to the big time. We played in a classroom at Depaul University in Chicago. We played with Good Clean Fun (look ‘em up) in Columbus at a place with a stage. We played on the stage, and then Good Clean Fun played on the floor, joking about how they “out-emo’ed” the emo band. I think I was a little too insecure and self-serious to really appreciate that at the time, but in retrospect, it was a pretty good one.
            We played a few one off shows as well, playing a big anti-racism hardcore punk show in the quad cities area. The Vida Blue (later to be known as Ten Grand) played as well. We knew those dudes to be a great band and really fun guys from playing at 1021. On the neutral territory of Rock Island, Illinois, we decided it was time to put out a split 10” with them on, naturally, Blood of the Young. We also played in Lafayette, Indiana at least once, though it might have been twice, at the Usurp Synapse house. All I remember was a lot of dyed black hair and a lot of fun.
We repeatedly tried to play in Elgin, Illinois (ie. Chicago, but not really Chicago) with our friends from Baxter and that constellation of bands. Unfortunately, we unwittingly learned that there is an Elgin curse, at least on us. On the morning of one show, Mark J. seriously cut his hand, preventing us from going. Another time, Mark J. lost a grandparent the morning of the show and needed to attend to the family emergency. A third time, we tried to trick Elgin by playing at Gabe’s in Iowa city with the Vida Blue. The next day, driving the yet-again-borrowed Villager across rural Illinois, Brian lay in the backseat, despondent, his illness visibly escalating. Brian lay suffering as we sped through the flat Illinois landscape, passing Walmart after Walmart after Walmart. By the time we got to Elgin, it had already been clear for hours we wouldn’t be able to play. Instead of a show, Brian went to the hospital with a super high fever where he remained for a few nights. While there, it just so tragically happened that his grandfather passed away. After that, we gave up on trying to play Elgin, especially me, since it was clear I was due to be struck down by the curse.
            I don’t know the objective truth of what follows, but in my memory, our live show was a bit of a catastrophe, at least most of the time, and the blame for the lies squarely with me. Mark’s drumming was always phenomenal so that was never the problem; Brian was generally solid in performances. I, on the other hand, had written songs that were at the upper end of my guitar playing ability, and then I wrote a cascade of lyrics over the often very fast and/or intricate parts that I had to scream at full volume, leaving no breaks in between parts to catch my breath. And at that point in my life, my only real hobby was chain smoking. I often was just physically unable to play what I set out to play. I just couldn’t do it, and I would find myself on the floor, doing some approximation of whatever I was supposed to be doing. I hoped that, to the observer, it was somehow powerful, like I was so overcome by the music that they couldn’t help but be similarly overwhelmed. I’m not so sure that was the usually the case, but I think sometimes it worked out.
 Other fun facts were that I didn’t yet know about stage tuners, so we would just tune at full volume, rather than silently tuning with a tuner. What’s worse, my guitar back then had a floating bridge. If you aren’t familiar with what that means, the bridge is the part of the guitar where the strings connect with the guitar, at the other end of the tuners. A fixed bridge is set against the body and doesn’t move, but a floating bridge means the tension of the strings held the bridge in a relative position. Floating bridges exist so that people like Eddie Van Halen can do things on a whammy bar. So if one string broke the tension changed and the bridge moved, knocking all the other strings were hopelessly out of tune. This prevented me from bravely soldiering on with the 5 remaining strings. When I broke a string, the song pretty much had to stop. Professionals, we were not.
  But I know myself  well enough to know that I’m apt to remember the negative more strongly than the positive. My hope is that those cringe-worthy memories feature more prominently than many of the times things went right. And I’m so amazed and grateful that there were people there who cared about what we did back then. Whatever else I remember over the past 20 years, the best moments were those of connection standing in the middle of a basement with my guitar feeding back, literally surrounded by a group of friends who also managed to find their way to this type of music. There were times it really worked. Like, really really worked. The community I felt in those sweaty basements, getting hugs after shows from strangers, could never be replaced. Our journey was just us groping in the darkness, hopefully moving forward, and those moments show me that it was all worth it.



[1] Who later became the Minnesota Vikings mascot, the local American football team. He rode around the field on a motorcycle, bearded like a Norse warrior, wielding an axe and inciting the crowd to fits of rabid cheering

[2] Through a hook-up from our friend who worked the overnight shift; Kinkos Corp. had no idea how many bands and fanzines they inadvertently sponsored.

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