The short life and long death of Dark Meat - 2/9/2010

Athens cult-like ensemble calls it quits after reaching critical mass

Since the summer of 2004, a wild-eyed, cult-like gathering has been making noise on the fringes of Athens' music scene, churning out thunderous rock 'n' roll ecstasy milked to the point of hysteria. That musical cabal is Dark Meat, an ever-changing ensemble that incorporates as many as 17 players during its shows, including a horn section dubbed the Vomit Lasers Family Band. Members of Elf Power, Of Montreal, Olivia Tremor Control and pretty much every other band in Athens have been counted among their ranks – all under the direction of leaders Jim McHugh (guitar, vocals) and Ben Clack (bass). Their shows unfold like trippy battles royale of writhing, Manson Family psychedelia, intensified by the sheer number of participants.

Having released two albums of left-field rock spliced with experimental jazz, Dark Meat's shambolic atmospherics willfully rose above the realm of kitsch and spectacle. But just as the group was starting to flesh out its true musical voice, Dark Meat is breaking up. It's not the end for any of its myriad players, but the big band's livelihood has run its course. "Our last tour was fucked up," McHugh says. "Financially, we've been super stressed-out because we bent ourselves over the barrel, but there are no regrets. It's a positive thing that all of us hit a critical mass and are moving on to the next phases of our lives. That's where I am."

From the start, Dark Meat was all over the place. The ensemble's '06 debut, Universal Indians (Vice) is still a strikingly self-conscious rock record, spliced with interludes of free jazz freak-outs meant to be howled at the moon. It also came endowed with a curious dedication to free jazz sax man Albert Ayler. "That record was all about this collision of classic song form and formless, noisy impressionistic skronk – which is a lot of what Ayler did," McHugh explains. "He was such a pure artist that he always played from his balls and from his heart. He influenced me greatly in terms of song structure and form, but also in terms of commitment and conviction."

Their second album, '09s Truce Opium (Emergency Umbrella), arrived as an organic outgrowth of Universal Indians' jazz and rock hybrid, integrating the experimental components into song structures with a natural flow. Throughout the album, songs such as "The Faint Smell of Moss," "Yonderin'" and the album's defining number, "When the Shelter Came," are the perfect embodiment of Dark Meat's balance of lush, musical atmospheres and ramped-up ambition.

McHugh's latest venture is as elaborate as Dark Meat, though less raucous. At the beginning of the year, he moved to the Long Island borough of Queens, New York. "I kind of hastily vacated Athens, not for any personally negative reasons, but because I couldn't find work," McHugh says. "My girlfriend, who I am supremely in love with, is in New York and she invited me to stay with her, so I did."

The band's co-founder, Ben Clack, is planning a move to Raleigh, N.C., but when asked for an interview he replied via e-mail, "Don't really have anything to say." His response isn't such a surprise considering McHugh has long been the face and driving spirit of the band's erratic ways. Since moving to New York, McHugh has calmed down some but still has multiple irons in the fire. He's playing bass with a new band, Nymph, and will continue playing shows with various side projects including Gay Africa and Dream Dads. "Dark Meat was such a massive undertaking that required so much energy and organization that I wasn't free to do what I wanted to, like play a show in two days or in a week if someone asked me to," he says. "The point of those other bands was to be able to do that."

McHugh is also writing a grant proposal to fund a 12-CDR set of drone music, tentatively titled Golden Shafts of Light. The project is an abstract build-your-own sound installation kit that will feature 12 different drone recordings with each disc linked in terms of visual packaging that alerts listeners to play certain discs simultaneously to make harmonies. "It's the direct opposite of playing rock music, which has such a limited range of what it can articulate," McHugh says.

Driven by the aesthetics of chaos, it's an ambitious project involving collaborations with members of Dark Meat and various other musical and visual artists. "I want chaos to determine the recording factors: who's around, where I am, where they are, what studio are they in, what machines are around," he adds. "At the same rate, I want that aspect to extend to listening, too. It will all depend on the taste of the listener or how he or she interprets the elements of the packaging, whether they have two or three CD players in their house, and where they place them."

In the meantime, McHugh prepares for Dark Meat's final performances. After the Atlanta show, the group takes off to play Charlotte and Mt. Pleasant, S.C. Then it's off to Valhalla, N.Y.

From the beginning, Dark Meat's lineup has featured a revolving cast. Who will be part of the final shows remains to be seen. "I hope to be halfway surprised," McHugh says. "I wouldn't be surprised if some old ghosts show up, but I can't answer definitely. Everybody knows that we're whistling past the graveyard to play these shows, but I think people are treating it all with a sense of ceremony."

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