This year did not exactly begin on a high note for Mike Conte. In January, his band, Early Man, split from Matador, its label of three years, following a somewhat disappointing run. The breakup, for those who pay attention to these types of things, shouldn't come as much of a surprise: The pairing of a retrograde thrash-metal act with the imprint behind Cat Power and Belle & Sebastian was, on its own, enough to spark up the ol' authenticity debate, riff unheard.
That's a shame, as the music on 2005's Closing In, Early Man's first (and only) full-length for the label, had enough razor-sharp, kick-your-teeth-straight-out-the-back-of-your-head speed jams to make most of their revivalist peers come off as huffing, ham-fisted gorillas. A true hesher would've looked beyond that whole Matador thing. And ignored the fact that singer-guitarist (and sometimes bassist) Conte and drummer Adam Bennati kicked out the jams Jack-and-Meg-style (sorta). Oh, and conveniently forgotten that they operated out of a converted commercial loft space in Brooklyn.
Never mind that Matador sagely jumped onboard in '05 by being quick enough—and smart enough—to latch on while the band was tearing up stages at a gay, generally un–rock 'n' roll New York City venue. Furthermore, Early Man hasn't performed as a two-piece since just about the day Closing In was released (it now shifts between three and four members); lastly, let it be noted that the band no longer lives in New York City.
Which brings us to the other reason 2008 got off to a royally shitty start for Conte: Two days after getting the boot from his record label, he was among the 150 or so people kicked out of his Brooklyn living space after the city, via the FDNY, descended on the building with a slew of fire-safety violations that included the presence of an unauthorized basement bakery housing containers of combustible grain (a detail that led the New York Post to dub the incident, in fine Post fashion, the "Matzo Bawl"). Tenants were given roughly six hours to evacuate into the 16-degree evening. Conte grabbed what he could from the loft he'd occupied for almost a decade and headed for warmer climates.
"I decided it was time to get the fuck out of Crazy Town," he says by phone from West Hollywood, where he's since relocated. He plans to make Los Angeles the home base for Early Man, which, in addition to Bennati, currently includes second guitarist Pete Macy and touring bassist Tim Ramage. "I love New York," he continues. "But if you don't have a shit-ton of money, you're not welcome there anymore. I needed a break, and by that I mean like a fucking five-year break."
While he acknowledges the sad irony in seeking mental and financial sanctuary in the Land of Paris and Nicole, Conte figures he won't be around too much anyway. After remaining relatively dormant for the better part of two years, Early Man will spend the summer on the road supporting scuzz-metal men Valient Thorr. In addition, the band recently signed to the Brooklyn-based, metal-centric indie label The End. They'll issue an EP later this summer, with a full-length and much touring to follow. The End, says Conte, "puts out great stuff," but there are other benefits to the deal: The label is giving the band its own van.
It's a decidedly low-key rebirth; Conte considers it the direction they should've taken all along. "We were somewhat naïve about Matador," he admits. "We had no idea what would happen as soon as a week or two after we signed—the whole hipster thing and then this crazy backlash." Even so, he says, "if you offer two broke musicians 100 grand and the opportunity to get their music heard, I don't care who they are, they're gonna take it."
And Matador, to its credit, delivered to a certain extent. If Early Man lacks the underground cred of, say, fellow thrashers such as Municipal Waste or Skeletonwitch (or, for that matter, most of their new labelmates at The End), they're at least more widely known.
"It's a trade-off," says Conte. "We have a certain base to work from, but we'll probably have to struggle with all the bullshit that's swirled around us until we're fat and bald and 75. So I'm looking at this as the first chapter of a fresh start." He pauses. "Three years ago, everyone was saying, 'Let's call these guys the heavy-metal White Stripes.'
"Let me just say, I'm really fucking glad it's not three years ago."