There are many milestones on the way to being not-as-young-and-punk-rock-as-you-used-to-be. Turning 21 and being able to go to any show at any bar you want, legally, is kind of bittersweet. Talking to young, on-fire kids, however, is a much bigger reminder of the reality that you're not as young or fiery anymore.
Case in point: Stefan Gonzalez was 16 on his last birthday and is passionate. He plays drums and sings in Akkolyte, a duo with his 21-year-old brother Aaron on bass. Akkolyte's music isn't easy to consume. Thrashy, heavy and fast, their sound isn't far removed from the aggressive blasts of the grindcore founders of the early '80s: Siege, Heresy, Napalm Death and Mob 47, to name a few. (Akkolyte paid tribute with a Mob 47 cover on its first 7-inch single.)
That's not to say that the band's under-a-minute songs are inaccessible and derivative. In the history of rough, scream-y punk, there have been few that rose above the scenes that obscured them and their own arcane abrasiveness. Akkolyte is no different, but this brand of teen-age fervor, expressed honestly, is worthy of anyone's time and initial reaction, scene devotee or not. The group is an ephemeral tribute to the angry, hopeful punk-rock youth we may or may not have ever had.
The band started in the summer of 1998; Stefan had recently acquired a taste for early Napalm Death and Man is the Bastard and began to play along those same lines on his own. "I started recording, with overdubs, vocals, drums, guitar," he says. "Somehow, I got Aaron to play with me, and it sounded all right, and we became a band, with bass and drums."
The enthusiasm of a kid newly turned on to anything is not to be taken lightly. At the time, Aaron listened to art rock. "I was skeptical of hardcore," Aaron remembers. "It was stereotypical and not very inspiring. Then, we started making songs that sounded good. We didn't need a guitar; it worked, like that. I still worried, 'How am I going to make songs that sound right?'" A summer of practice and repeated listens to classic grind records changed his outlook: "I really liked those records, and playing it made me respect it. I realized how fun it is and how much talent it takes."
The brothers' creation was admired most by the man who was closest: their father, Dennis Gonzalez. A jazz musician, Dennis was delighted with Akkolyte--his sons had raised hell in a way he never could have imagined. As his sons came into their own, Dennis found a new respect for the musicians his sons had become.
After all, the Gonzalez family is hardly the Gores. Dennis ran his own label/music collective, DAAGNIM (an acronym: Dallas Association of Avant Garde and Neo-Impressionistic Musicians), and always encouraged his kids (as well as kids in the local high schools where he taught) when it came to music and art. When Stefan was 12, Dennis had come home from a garage sale with a cassette of Black Flag's Damaged, a gesture that prodded Stefan, then in the throes of early-adolescent metal fixation, in the direction of punk. "I listened to MTV metal and had gotten into some decent stuff, like Neurosis, and they would mention '80s punk bands," Stefan says. "When I heard that, I didn't like it. I didn't understand why it was so messy and not so organized and why the lyrics were so simple. I made myself listen to it over and over."
A trumpeter, Dennis began a new band with Aaron and Stefan. Named Yells at Eels (a hokey pun--"Is that your band?" "Yells at Eels!"), they took the intimacy apparent in Akkolyte and put it to new use. Neither pummeling riffs or Dennis' brand of jazz, Yells at Eels' improv-based music was a step up and a shot in the arm for Aaron and Stefan. "We grew up around our dad playing music," Aaron says. "When he heard us in Akkolyte, getting better and better, he wanted to play with us. That was a big thing." After two years, the trio released an album last summer, titled Home.
To no surprise, the projects born in the Gonzalez family home remain rooted there. Stefan's drum kit is a permanent fixture in the den, where band practices are often so informal they happen or don't with little notice. "It's pretty comfortable," admits Aaron, who only recently moved out. "It kinda makes us lazy. One time we went two months without practicing, and neither of us realized it."
Occasionally, Stefan and Aaron will set up a show in the family's Kessler Park house. A few touring bands, including Atlanta's The Unpersons and Oklahoma City's Das Herpeas, have played there (and most recently, Tulsa's Sunset Beach and The Moss), along with locals such as Stefan's other band, Total Dysentery, as well as Bread and Water and League of Struggle. "There's a real lack of venues, and a lot of the existing ones flake out, so [when we set up a show] we'll have a potluck and have people play here," Stefan says. "It's real positive."
So positive, that a bystander could witness a kind of parental enthusiasm rarely seen as punk rock. "Our dad will come out of the kitchen and yell, 'Y'all guys better clap for my sons!'" Aaron says, laughing.
For Aaron, Akkolyte has become more than just a project with his little brother. "When we started, I felt like we were coming from the outside," Aaron says. "And I think coming from the outside made us stand out and gave us something to go on. I don't consider myself an outsider anymore. I've been able to express really so much through this."
"I don't want to treat punk like a profession," Stefan says wisely. But like many punk kids will say, making music is only part of the process. That's certainly the case for Akkolyte, especially Stefan; the duo has put out three 7-inch singles in the past two years, and it's only a start. Stefan's busy getting together two records at the moment: "The first one is a four-way split between Akkolyte, Total Dysentery, a woman named Davina who does feminist spoken word and a hardcore band from Colombia."
Akkolyte tours when it gets the chance--the band has played across the middle of the country over a few summer and spring breaks. "I'd like to really travel, maybe with a band," Stefan says. "I really like playing shows in places where there's not a real scene. It's so much crazier and much easier to connect with people." Stefan's main interest at the moment is connecting with kids from other areas, especially in Central and South America. "I'm planning to put out records from bands in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador," he says. "I think some of the best music is coming out of there. It's easy to say that they have more to speak out about, but it's true. They live with real injustice."
As "real injustice" becomes more of a tangible reality, punk ideals make more and more sense. "It freaks me out," Stefan says. "A lot of things we didn't experience are becoming relevant again."
"In September, it was kind of like, 'Oh, shit, our country is really going to war; oh, shit, they're really violating civil rights," Aaron says, with equal amounts of anger and joking. "People see us set up before we play, and they see two goofy brothers. But we write songs about politics--that's just what we do with our music. There's a lot to talk about right now."
Akkolyte's disarming goofiness is probably its saving grace, and it may be in our own best interest to take a better look. Somehow, the sound of two brothers making a racket about neo-fascists has become effective, to both the weathered veteran and the outsider. Grind and crust are the most out-there branches of punk, attracting dumb adjectives--"brutal" being the most moronic and overused--and even dumber archetypes, nerds and neo-hippies. Neither member of Akkolyte has much to say about surface culture--shallow or not. "I'm not involved with other music," Stefan says succinctly. "I'm involved with my community, and I mean that in a really great way."
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