The last time The Locust played Japan they took part in what would turn out to be At The Drive-In’s first and final tour of the archipelago. Though it was the California foursome’s second trip to this country, opening for the now defunct prog-emo group from “Hell Paso,” Texas at Tokyo’s Shibuya-AX in Jan. 2001 they faced an audience that wasn’t familiar with them or their unique brand of hardcore punk.
The reaction could be described as stunned courtesy. The group, dressed in tight-fitting insectoid “uniforms,” formed a line, including the drummer, across the front of the stage. The songs were chaotic and deafening, and most lasted less than 60 seconds. The music itself was dense and complex: speedy counterpoint riffs played with blinding precision, highlighted by Martian synthesizers and carcinogenic vocals.
The audience’s response didn’t escape the notice of Cedric Bixler-Zavala, At The Drive-In’s manic vocalist. During ATDI’s own set, he said, “The next time a band like The Locust comes, you should dance to them.”
“I don’t have a comment on that,” says Justin Pearson, The Locust’s bassist, from his home base of San Diego. “We are not really concerned with an audience’s reaction to what we do — dance or no dance.”
After more than a decade of underground notoriety, Pearson’s seemingly blase take on crowd dynamics is understandable. Reports of Locust shows suggest that they provoke everything from fawning cult devotion to active hatred.
“Our original intention was to form a band like Crossed Out,” Pearson explains, referring to the influential “power violence” band who played only 16 shows between 1990 and ’93 and released a handful of singles and EPs filled with songs of bracing brevity.
“There are certain aspects of our sound that are derived from their style, but we ended up putting a different spin on it. A lot of it had to do with keyboards and weird effects — using this brutal, absurd, condensed music in the Crossed Out style and then adding a campy science-fiction element.”
Right from the beginning, their striking style gave The Locust a singular identity that their hardcore peers lacked. Rock critics often take them seriously, some calling their music avant-garde.
Their name often sparks allusions to the Old Testament.
“It’s just a pretty intense insect,” Pearson says. “The Biblical aspects are part of it, but none of us are religious. Our music has this nasty, destructive quality to it, which is what locusts do — eat crops and stuff. It also has this image of B-grade horror movies, which we all grew up with.”
The Dadaist purport of The Locust might be reinforced by the lyrics if they could be made out, but the group’s intentions can be easily derived from the song titles. The ones on their 2003 LP, “Plague Soundscapes,” tap into adolescent irreverence: “Who Wants a Dose of the Clap?”, “The Half-Eaten Sausage Would Like to See You in His Office,” “Anything Jesus Does I Can Do Better.”
However, on the band’s latest album, “New Erections,” the titles take on a less frivolous cast. Could “The Unwilling . . . Led By the Unqualified . . . Doing the Unnecessary . . . For the Ungrateful” be taken as a criticism of America’s current misadventure in Iraq?
“We don’t say we’re talking about the Bush administration,” Pearson demurs. “If you want to apply it to current world politics, OK, and if you want to apply it to your boss or parents, you can do that too. We don’t spell things out. The titles are an extension of the image we’ve created.”
The image is tied to the group’s integrity within the indie-rock universe. “New Erections” and “Plague Soundscapes” (“23 songs in 21 minutes!” screams the sticker on the CD case) are both on Anti, one of the hippest labels in the world, but The Locust had to be talked into signing, since Anti belongs to the larger indie Epitaph.
“We met (label owner) Brett Gurewitz and said right away we were against working with Epitaph because of their roster,” Pearson explains. “Brett’s an awesome guy and we just wanted to be friends. I didn’t want to be on a label with bands that play crap. Pennywise? I mean, come on. But Anti has artists we respect, like Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Merle Haggard, and we wanted a bigger recording budget.”
Pearson admits The Locust’s principles have prevented them from making more money. The band refuse to work with Clear Channel, the concert promoter that practically has a lock on rock shows in the U.S. They’ve passed up tours “with great artists” that might have helped them simply because Clear Channel was involved.
“We’ve been doing this for 12 years, and I’m not sure how well we’re doing,” Pearson says. “There’s sh*tty new bands like Panic At The Disco who are filthy rich and they’re babies.”
Everyone in The Locust “has other outlets to make money.” Pearson runs a record label called Three One G and moonlights in the grindcore outfit Some Girls.
He says The Locust are looking forward to their upcoming Japan tour if for no other reason than that they’ll finally get to play with nosebleed punks Melt-Banana on the latter’s home turf.
“We played with them in L.A. years ago,” he says. “And we once released a split 7-inch with them. They’re still phenomenal. Few bands can remain awesome over the course of a decade.”
The style of their show won’t be much different from the one they played with ATDI, but the getups are different. “We change uniforms with every album,” he says. “The ones we have now are blue and furry.”
It must get hot on stage.
“It does,” Pearson says. “It’s not that practical.”
The Locust play March 12 (with Melt-Banana) and 13, 7 p.m., Shibuya O-Nest, Tokyo, ¥3,500 ( 3462-4420); 14, 7:30 p.m., Sapporo Counter Action, ¥3,000 ( 222-1413); 16, 6 p.m., Kyoto Metro (with Melt-Banana), ¥3,000 ( 752-2787); 18, 7 p.m., Unagidani Sunsui, Osaka ( 6243-3641); 19, 7:30 p.m., Nagoya Taurus ( 931-9721); and 20, 7 p.m., Super Deluxe, Tokyo, ¥3,500 ( 5412-0515). Ticket prices are for advance sale.