It came from Arizona: 5 bands that defined the Copper State's freak scene

Arizona’s Destruction Unit is a cathartic, chaotic mess of a band, but it isn't the first of its kind to emerge from the Copper State.


  • Destruction Unit plays the Earl Thurs., July 2.

Beyond the weird wilds of Texas but just short of the gold mines of California, Arizona occupies an odd place. It was the last of the lower 48 to gain statehood, only officially joining the Union by the late date of 1912. By then, Arizona had been a battleground, witnessing over 4,000 deaths in the wars between the U.S. government and Native American resistance movements. It bears the scars of its contested borders in the form of draconian policing and oft-racist state leadership. However, the ugliness of its governmental policies is offset by its natural beauty, a seemingly eternal desert interspersed with national monuments.

From this conflicted setting, a band like Destruction Unit isn’t necessarily to be expected, but can certainly be understood given its context. Led by frontman Ryan Rousseau, the mysterious psych-punk group has lived up to its name since the early 2000s. While the group initially existed as a squalling garage rock combo featuring the late Jay Reatard, it has bloomed into a singularly misanthropic, dark entity of its own. Following its most recent release Deep Trip, the group is preparing to unleash a new album titled Negative Feedback Resistor on Sacred Bones later this summer.

Destruction Unit’s earthen, psychedelic sound wasn’t born in a vacuum, but it didn’t emerge from a bustling avant-garde metropolis, either. Arizona’s musical past does tell a few unique stories, some of which provide a backdrop upon which the story of Destruction Unit can be contextualized. That said, here’s a look at five groups that help to define the Copper State’s place in the American underground.

Arizonan rock music cannot be discussed without the the Meat Puppets as a starting point. Brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood formed the group in 1980, subjecting their Van Halen-weaned guitar chops to the psyche-bending speed effects of LSD. After a quasi-feral debut album on SST Records, Meat Puppets developed an entirely personal approach to country-tinged proto-indie rock on subsequent records; the classic Meat Puppets II yielded both the starry existentialism of “We’re Here” and the goofball nihilism implicit in an instrumental cut called “I’m a Mindless Idiot.” After a guest appearance on Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged in New York,” the Meat Puppets were ascendant, but drugs and an unfortunate prison sentence would sideline bassist Cris for years. The brothers have since reunited, with their most recent album bearing the characteristically grody title of Rat Farm.

Oddly enough, the Meat Puppets' only competition for Arizona’s most important contribution to American music comes from another power trio led by brothers: Sun City Girls. While the group emerged from the same scene that spawned the ‘Pups, whereas the Kirkwoods were solidly grounded in the American West, the Sun City Girls looked to the East for inspiration. Surf rock and jazz loomed large in their sound, but brothers Richard and Alan Bishop, along with drummer Charles Gocher, threw themselves wholeheartedly into the business of issuing a sloppy kiss to the various musics produced between Southeast Asia and the Middle East. While the group’s output utterly flattened the very notion of prolificness, 1990’s Torch of the Mystics is particularly beloved by fans.

One of the first tours that brought the Sun City Girls to unwitting (and often unwilling) American audiences found them opening for another important Arizona band, Jodie Foster’s Army, or JFA. While JFA’s skate-punk isn’t as musically revolutionary as the aforementioned groups, the group’s very presence served as a trailblazing element in the traditionally conservative setting of Arizona. “All you had to do was have messed-up hair or some crazy shirt and locals would yell, ‘Hey, Devo!’ because that’s what they thought was punk rock at the time,” recounts vocalist Brian Brannon in an interview with British zine Scanner. The group’s 1981 Blatant Localism EP was reviewed in the first issue of Maximum Rocknroll in 1982; ‘nuff said.

Around the same time, Jello Biafra’s label Alternative Tentacles released a defining compilation of American hardcore titled Let Them Eat Jellybeans, Arizona’s contribution came in the form of the Feederz’s now-infamous “Jesus Entering from the Rear.” Despite the 30-plus year gulf between them, the song’s surfy riff and surly attitude can be heard echoing in Destruction Unit’s most recent output. The Feederz’s confrontational performative gestures date back to 1977, an unthinkable time for their brand of aggression to be existing anywhere, much less the city of Phoenix. The band’s masterstroke came in 1983 with its sly album Ever Feel Like Killing Your Boss?, which literally came packaged in sandpaper.

Back when the distinction between punk and metal really “meant something,” it wasn’t all happening on the former’s side of the aisle. Flotsam and Jetsam were Arizona’s premier ambassadors to the national metal scene. Formed in 1981 and influenced by the New Wave of British heavy metal, the quintet amped up its tempos to maintain fluency in the burgeoning thrash metal lexicon. Bassist and lyricist Jason Newsted would ultimately abandon the group in 1986 following its debut album, Doomsday for the Deceiver; Newsted went on to face hazing, neglect, and “squillions of dollars” (his words) as a member of Metallica.

Of course, Destruction Unit themselves sound little like any one of these bands. What unites them is their aggression in the face of isolation. Along with the group’s label Ascetic House, Destruction Unit seems poised to continue its home state’s tradition of simultaneously pushing back against a history of suppression while embracing the mysticism inherent in its natural surroundings.

Destruction Unit plays the Earl on Thurs., July 2, with Uniform, Bataille, and Illegal Drugs. $10. 8:30 p.m. 488 Flat Shoals Ave. 404-522-3950. www.badearl.com.

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