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Magrudergrindsinger Avi Kulawy doesn’t want to talk about Scion, the Toyota brand that controversially released the group’s recent EP, Crusher. Kulawy would rather chat about the years his band spent toiling in D.C.’s underground music scene. He’d rather discuss how the trio brought its unique spin on grindcore—an aggressive sound that combines elements of hardcore punk, death metal, and just about anything and everything that makes an abrasive noise—to Europe and Asia thanks to years of hard touring. Kulawy would rather talk about Magrudergrind’s history because it says so much about its present.
But that would be burying the lede. Bona fides didn’t matter when Magrudergrind struck its deal last year with Scion Audio/Visual, the marque’s appeal-to-the-cool-kids promotional wing, which works with up-and-coming musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists. Since 2006, Scion has released free music from a slew of dance artists and garage rockers, and has recently begun opening its coffers to bands it identifies as metal. Funded entirely by Scion, Crusher was released as a free download in November. (It’s still up, but if for some reason you want to buy the EP on iTunes or Amazon, beginning this week you can do that, too.)
Free for download doesn’t mean free from baggage, according to some of Magrudergrind’s peers. Since Magrudergrind announced its Scion partnership, fans have fiercely debated the band’s ethics on message boards like The Apparatus. Notable metal and grindcore bands with bigger profiles than Magrudergrind have denounced the band as sell-outs.
You’d think that 17 years after Dischord bands Jawbox and Shudder to Think signed to major labels—and in an era in which licensing songs to car commercials no longer carries a stigma for many independent acts—debates over the slippery-to-define notion of “selling out” would finally be extinct. Or, at the very least, acts not comfortable with corporate sponsorship would have little to say about acts that are.
But not so within metal and hardcore’s most extreme niches, where strict integrity and independence still matters, according to Axl Rosenberg, the co-editor-in-chief of the popular metal blog MetalSucks. “If you stray even a little bit from the code, or, maybe more accurately, are perceived as having strayed from the code, there’s a portion of the community that will crucify you.”
Kulawy started Magrudergrind in 2002, when he was a sophomore at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, and his friend Chris Moore joined the group soon after. (Disclosure: I was also at Walter Johnson at the time, but didn’t know the band’s members well. I didn’t hear about Magrudergrind until 2007.) The band cycled through several guitarists before settling in 2007 on its current lineup: Kulawy on vocals, Moore on drums, and R.J. Ober on guitar.
When the group first began playing in D.C, it wasn’t exactly welcomed. “We would play shows with hardcore bands and metalcore [bands], and I guess screamo metalcore was really big in D.C. then,” Kulawy says. “People would look at us with their jaw dropped and kind of like, ‘What is this?’”
Grindcore isn’t exactly known for its accessibility: You can often measure the songs in seconds; belly-aching growls tend to obscure lyrics about death, disarray, and radical politics; instrumentation combines pulverizing speed with ear-shattering heaviness. Some critics complain grindcore hasn’t evolved much since the British band Napalm Death defined the genre with its debut album, Scum, in 1987, but the fans don’t seem to mind.
Though the D.C. area has produced grindcore acts like Enemy Soil and Pig Destroyer, Magrudergrind didn’t exactly fit into a local scene mostly centered on hardcore punk. “We knew that outside of the D.C. area there is a scene and a demand for grindcore music, so I think it really pushed us to tour more, or to try to tour initially,” Kulawy says. “We wanted to get out there and play and meet grindcore bands and see what kind of scenes there were other than the D.C. scene.”
In the summer of 2003, Kulawy scheduled Magrudergrind’s first tour using a website called Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life, and over several years, the band built a reasonable following within the national grindcore scene. In 2006, the band released a split with Shitstorm, a grindcore side-project from Torche drummer Rick Smith. The band’s first official full-length, Rehashed (Six Weeks Records), caught some ears, but a sophomore release, 2009’s Magrudergrind (Willowtip), was a breakthrough. According to Rosenberg, the self-titled album “really cemented them as being at the forefront of modern grind.”
Produced by metalcore icon and Convergeguitarist Kurt Ballou, Magrudergrind is remarkable because it challenges grindcore’s conventions. Certainly, the tunes come loud, hard, and fast, but the record’s overall aesthetic is different. Songs like “Bridge Burner” fester and swoon with a lumbering, heavy beat; audio samples, like a speech about gentrification from Boyz n the Hood and a Yiddish song, populate the record alongside Kulawy’s ambiguous and arty lyrics. Most notably—and to some, most jarringly—there’s a smattering of hip-hop. Most grindcore fans aren’t in the market for break beats, but they may well have brought Magrudergrind to a bigger audience.
“They have this hip-hop aesthetic that goes through all of their songs, and I think people latch onto that,” says Fred Pessaro, who writes about metal for Brooklyn Vegan, a popular music blog. “It’s a really unique thing in that scene, whereas grindcore is so anti-capitalist, anti-fascism, such a political music, and hip-hop is pretty much the polar opposite in a lot of ways…Maybe [that’s] where they’re coming from with this whole Scion thing, as well.”
Crusher wasn’t the first time Magrudergrind worked with Scion. The band performed at a couple of free shows hosted by the brand, including last year’s Scion Rock Fest in Columbus, Ohio.
Representatives from Scion A/V didn’t speak to the band’s marketing strategy, but it’s clear they think they can sell more Scions—whose image is meant to appeal to a hipper, younger crowd than Toyota’s—by penetrating certain subcultures.
Inking a deal with Scion isn’t like signing with a typical label. Instead of an advance, Magrudergrind got a lump sum which it could spend however it wished on recording, artwork, and manufacturing. It doesn’t have to split its cut of digital sales with Scion (Magrudergrind also released limited-edition physical versions on LP and CD for free, plus shipping and handling). The band kept the masters, and after a year, gets full control of the recordings.
For Magrudergrind, that meant no risk (Kulawy wouldn’t say how much Scion gave the band to make Crusher) and one trade-off: the Scion logo, displayed prominently on the EP’s cover.
The group was prepared for some backlash, and released a statement explaining why it felt working with Scion hardly mattered. “We have always been, always will be and currently are very deeply involved in the band processes and the scene we are involved with,” they wrote. “We still take care of all the day-to-day tasks of this band and would not have it any other way.”
The band wrote that it made the deal so that it could release the EP gratis. “We decided to take up this offer in order to give out a 100% FREE, high quality record to everyone, at the expense of a Scion.” Later, the statement went on, “If Scion covers the expenses of this record and say no one buys their product, who really gains? Us and every single person who got a Magrudergrind record for free.”
To the band, it wasn’t being co-opted by Scion; it was taking advantage of the brand’s new-found taste for harsh sounds.
Others didn’t buy it. Jay Randall, vocalist for prominent grindcore act Agoraphobic Nosebleed (whose bandmate Richard Johnson appears on Crusher), wrote a blog post calling the Magrudergrind/Scion deal not just an act of whoring, but a pointless one: “Hey Scion you get what you pay for -no ding dong is running out to buy one of your hipster crap wagons because you did some metal/hardcore showcase, your just publicly outing some poor band as your whore.”
Justin Foley, frontman of the metal act The Austerity Program, refuted Magrudergrind’s statement in an op-ed for MetalSucks, writing that it “comes across as a rationalization, not an explanation.” Foley advanced an argument that found purchase among message-board users who also debated the ethics of Crusher in November: that displaying the Scion logo was tantamount to appearing in a commercial, and that taking Toyota’s money was avoidable. Or, if the band wanted Scion to foot the bill, “why not go for a car and a fat paycheck and free Scion tattoos and your own Scion branded sneakers that say Magrudergrind on the tongue-pump?”
These kinds of debates aren’t uncommon for the grindcore scene: As much as the sound is known for its creative inflexibility, the same can be said for the scene’s ethical boundaries.
The band didn’t respond to the criticisms. While Magrudergrind came up in the grindcore scene, Kulawy says it always saw itself as an outlier. “A lot of times, you get lumped in as like a straightedge, vegan, completely socio-political, left-of-center band. But, in reality, each of us do have our own political beliefs,” Kulaway says. “We don’t have any lyrics or imagery that’s really saying that we’re anti-anything.” Often, Magrudergrind’s songs are meta-commentaries on the band’s subgenre. Take the song “Lyrical Ammunition for Scene Warfare,” in which Kulawy sings: “I refuse to live by what’s expected.”
Magrudergrind isn’t a full-time job for its members, although it probably could be. But that would mean touring for most of the year, Kulawy says, a stress he doesn’t want. “We have lives outside of the band,” he says. The Scion deal helped Magrudergrind make a record without worrying about paying for it. And they were never hung up over politics, anyway. Meanwhile, the increasingly visibile Scion A/V site means more listeners. “We have gotten exposure to certain people that may have not heard our music and may have not even heard this style of music because it is just underground in its nature,” Kulawy says.
And, predictably, the message-board furor eventually cooled down. The EP got positive buzz. Recent shows, including one last Friday at St. Stephen’s Church in Columbia Heights, have been packed.
Even the dankest, darkest corners of independent music can get past the old indie debates. It just hurts a little more.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery.