War Stories

Or: What do confiscated videotapes, cops and stolen apples have to do with Red Animal War?

The cop said he'd been following the van for five miles, maybe more. About five or 10 minutes, he said. The cop was exaggerating. Probably. No, the cop was definitely exaggerating. He wouldn't wait 10 minutes for the van to pull over. He wouldn't wait five miles. No cop would.

Justin Wilson was at the wheel, and everyone else was asleep: Matt Pittman and Brian Pho in the back and Jeff Wilganoski in front. It was late April, early in the day and somewhere in Virginia. Red Animal War (the band they're in together) was on its way from one show to another, the next stop on a tour with fellow local band [DARYL]. The tour--supporting Red Animal War's debut, Breaking in an Angel--was going well; people were coming out to see them and buying copies of the record to take a little piece of the band home with them. The van was still running, and all of their gear was present and accounted for in the trailer. The tour was going well.

Breaking in a Fishing Rod: Red Animal War is, from left, Justin Wilson, Jeff Wilganoski, 
Matt Pittman and Brian Pho.
Breaking in a Fishing Rod: Red Animal War is, from left, Justin Wilson, Jeff Wilganoski, Matt Pittman and Brian Pho.

Then Wilson noticed the lights, the sirens--the cops. Eventually, he pulled over to the side of the road.

The cop yelled, "Get out of the car!" Maybe he had been following the van for five miles.

"He rolled up behind me, and I thought it was part of a song," Wilson says. It's a month or so later, and he's sitting with his bandmates in the small apartment he shares with two other guys. Scratch that: the small room he shares with two other guys. "It was like, 'Oh, I've never heard this, you know, these sirens.' And I look in the rearview mirror, and it was the cops. He said I was evading him. The night before, [DARYL] had taped a drumstick to our roof. So one of the cops wanted to know why a drumstick was taped to our roof. 'There's not a drumstick taped to our roof,' or whatever; I didn't know. 'How long have you been smoking marijuana?'" They all laugh. "'We don't touch the stuff, sir.' 'Yeah, I bet.' So I had to sit in the cop car for a long time."

"We were asleep in the back," Pittman says, "and we popped up, and they were like, 'Why are those guys hiding back there?'"

"That wasn't as bad as the grocery store," Wilson says, finishing the story.

The grocery store? Well, that involved a post-gig trip to a supermarket in New Jersey, some pilfered apple products, a confiscated videotape and, yes, another visit from the local authorities. Put those facts together any way you see fit. Nothing serious, just another minor scrape, another good story. Every musician has them. When you're in a band on the road, it often means lots of late-night drives in vans in various states of disrepair, which means lots of traffic stops by bored cops, which means lots of questions like, "How long have you been smoking marijuana?" But it's all worth it if you show up to the bar or coffee shop or house you're supposed to play at, and people show up and they like your music. Especially when you don't really expect it.

For example: "Valdosta, Georgia, is actually a really good place to play," Wilson says. "It's this little town. Eric Shutt [from Doosu] used to live there, and he told me that when he was there, he was the only kid that skateboarded there. It's got a hard-core scene, and everyone's into your music a lot. It was actually one of the best places to play on the tour."

"Most places we definitely gained fans," Wilganoski says. "People who never heard of us before."

The band gained its most important fan, Deep Elm Records' John Szuch, a couple of years ago. He had never heard of Red Animal War either, until Wilson sent him a tape of some songs the group had recorded in Arlington at Deedle's Room Recording, the studio where Pittman now works. Szuch liked what he heard and put one of the songs, "Backbreaker," on 1999's An Ocean of Doubt, the fourth chapter of Deep Elm's popular Emo Diaries series of compilations. (If you're wondering about the name of Szuch's label, and its similarity to a certain area of Dallas, it's not an accident. Just before starting Deep Elm, he visited Dallas, liked the name he heard people saying, and it stuck. He just didn't know how to spell it.)

The group had originally planned to release six of the songs that appear on Breaking in an Angel as an EP for an upstart local label called Texas in late 1999 or early 2000. But the label folded, and Szuch and Deep Elm stepped in again, offering to turn the EP into a full-length. Red Animal War returned to the studio to record six more tracks (one was left off the finished album), and thanks to artwork problems and Deep Elm's rule about not releasing any new albums between October and February, the album didn't come out until March. So the songs you hear on Breaking in an Angel--think of a Texan version of Jawbox; complicated time signatures and complicated feelings, with razor-wire guitars and a rhythm section that kicks a hole in your chest--don't necessarily reflect the current incarnation of Red Animal War. Meaning: The songs are good, but the band is even better now. (You'll be able to hear the new-and-improved Red Animal War on a pair of forthcoming singles, including one slated for late summer or early fall with new Deep Elm labelmates Slowride.)

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