War Stories

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.

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.)

While the band is busy trying to impress audiences in other cities, it's still trying to win over Dallas audiences as well. Seems like until the last year or so, people had never heard of Red Animal War in Dallas, or if they had they didn't pay much attention. But the band's been gaining fans slowly and surely. The group has been together since 1998, and its members have been together much longer. Wilson and Pittman played in Kid Tested, starting when Pittman was 15. Pho, Wilganoski and Wilson were, at one time or another, all in another band, The Briefing Room, around the same time. Wilganoski also played some with Kid Tested.

"It finally all kind of whittled down to one band," Wilson says. "Me and Matt and Jeff started playing with Jamie [Shipman, Red Animal War's first bassist]. And then The Briefing Room wasn't a band anymore, so Brian wasn't really in a band. And then Jamie left. We'd all known each other before the band. We've all played with each other somehow."

"I was actually in the band before Matt was," Pho points out.

"Oh yeah. Brian was at our first practice, and Matt wasn't," Wilson remembers.

"They told me the wrong place," Pittman says. "I was there waiting with my amp and guitar at your house." He points at Wilson.

"Brian was trying to get us to kick Matt out of the band," Wilson continues, laughing. 'Dude, you don't need Matt Pittman. I can play guitar.' Remember that?" Everyone laughs.

Red Animal War played mostly in Arlington at first (at the now-defunct Zombie's, among other places) as well as at a few clubs in Fort Worth and Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton, where booker Kris Youmans got the band on the bill for some good shows. The group has kept up its relationship with Youmans; he's helping book its next tour, scheduled to begin in July. (Red Animal War is hitting the road with Baltimore's Sand Which Is, who's Big Crunch label is releasing a split single featuring one song each by both bands around the same time.) Of course, at the time, at the beginning, Youmans wanted to...

"He was trying to kick me out, too," Pittman says.

Wilson says, "Yeah, Kris Youmans was trying to get us to fire Matt, too, but he definitely helped a lot."

They didn't have as much help in Dallas, at first. As the band played more shows in Dallas, it made more friends, got better shows. Playing with bands like Chomsky and the pAper chAse helped. Playing with Doosu helped even more. One Ton Records boss Aden Holt took a liking to them, including the group on the first installment of his Buzz-Oven project, which distributes free three-band compilations to area high schools and follows them up with a handful of all-ages concerts featuring the bands on the disc. Red Animal War is good enough on its own, but to get people to notice that, it needed help.

But no one helped the guys learn that when you turn up in a grocery store well after midnight--scruffy from being away from home for a few days or a few weeks, sweaty from that night's show--it's probably not a bad idea to leave the video camera in the van. Just so you don't attract even more attention to yourselves. That one they had to learn on their own.

Except Red Animal War needs to attract attention to itself--maybe not that kind of attention, necessarily--so the next time the band comes to town, more people will be at the show, more people will buy records, more people will notice. More more more. And people are starting to notice, even fans as far away as Japan and Germany. Of course, the members of Red Animal War aren't sure the writers who have reviewed Breaking in an Angel in a handful of foreign 'zines are fans. They don't even know what they're saying.

"A lot of those reviews, they'll come in with no translations," Wilson says. "You can go translate them, but it comes out all fucked up."

"The translation is fucked up, too," Pho adds.

Wilson continues, "One time we got a translation of a review..."

"Of that German one?" Pittman asks.

"Yeah. And it came up, and it was like, 'Red Animal War, Breaking in a Fishing Rod,'" Wilson says slowly, so the joke has the right timing. "The whole review made no sense. I don't know why it said that. That's just what they thought it translated to, because they translate it in the computer."

"Maybe that's what he really said," Wilganoski says. "Maybe that's what he said it sounded like."

Just another good story to tell.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain