an interview with La Gritona
words by Michael Hill
I lived in Boston for most of the 90’s. I moved there to be with a girl; it didn’t work out. At the time Helmet has just come out with Meantime, Nirvana were on their way to rock stardom and the Rollins Band had released The End of Silence. The concept that you could play “punk rock” and make money was starting to sink into a lot of people’s heads at the time. In Boston, a lot of the kids that were punks and hardcore kids in the 80’s had graduated high school, went to college and started dabbling in rock music. Suddenly people were growing their hair longer, tuning lower and digging up Master of Reality.
It was amidst all of this that I discovered Suicide King, who would later become the band La Gritona. During this short-lived era, only three of the four that would assemble as La Gritona were present: Thos Niles (drums), Colins Burns (vocals) and (current Keelhaul member) Dana Embrose (guitar), the rest of the lineup were comprised of ex-members of Eye for an Eye: Kevin Norton and Dean Baltulonis. There was a club called Bill’s Bar in Boston that used to have shows every Tuesday night, usually three band bills and all locals. It was fun, and I got to see a lot of really good bands like Suicide King. I recognized the singer from a band called Slaughter Shack that had won the WBCN Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble several years earlier.
Colin Burns: “Slaughter Shack was my first band. Dana Ong and I met in 1985 at the Museum School. We had studios next to each other, and it was soon apparent we had similar musical interests: the Birthday Party, Black Flag, Gun Club. And Big Black, Scratch Acid, Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth. Dana was getting a band together (with another Museum School student Ellen M on drums and Deb Scott on guitar/bass), and asked me to come down and sing. We grew and changed a lot over the years. By the end of it, Dana and I were the last two original members. John Queenan (bass) was with us a long time. Andy Strachan (guitar), Darrell Shephard (guitar)and Barry Hite (drums) played in the band as well. What started as more dark, arty and heavy, became heavier and closer to metal. We won the WBCN Rumble in 1990 and disbanded a couple years after.”
Suicide King played a total of four shows and recorded a demo tape before two of the members moved on to form their own full-time projects. The demo would serve at the blueprint for the beginnings of La Gritona.
Thos Niles: “Of those three or four songs, two of them turned into La Gritona songs that were substantially the same sort of in structure and spirit. A couple of others we dropped pretty quickly afterwards, but it was definitely the seed for La Gritona.”
Embrose soon convinced Andrew Donheiser to relocate back to the East Coast from California to complete the rhythm section of the band. At this point, the band was a four piece with Embrose solely handling all of the guitar duties. The Niles / Donheiser rhythm section, the tortured embrose guitar and the Nick Cave / Black Flag-era Rollins hybrid Colin Burns fronting the band were painfully intense live; they didn’t play music, they executed songs. One of the few criticisms of the band were that their sets were too short.
Colin Burns: “. I remember TT’s not wanting to give us a headlining spot because our set was so short. We played as much as anyone else, we were just determined to have as few breaks as possible.”
Watching a La Gritona set was like witnessing controlled chaos, the emphasis being on the word “controlled”. They attacked the set so ferociously that it seemed like it could crumble at any minute, but possibly due to the endless rehearsal, they held it together. It seemed almost superhuman, the band was like a machine.
Colin Burns:” It was a really intense experience for me. I think for all of us. Like I said before, we were tight. We honed the attack of the set. I think when it came to playing live, we were all giving it everything. It was kind of desperate, if you know what I mean? Physically it was exhausting. I always need to hide for about half an hour after a performance. Then I could mingle and load gear. ”
Thos Niles: “We wanted to make anybody else who was trying to play rethink their own situation. We wanted the bands that played before us and after us to just look trivial. We were essentially trying to hurt other people’s feelings with our music and that was part of the creative spark.”
After seeing La Gritona share the stage with several local bands as well as some major touring bands like Bolt Thrower and Benediction, I had amassed a collection of their singles, splits and demo cassette tapes Some of the more notable stuff appeared on the “Frank White” 7-in featuring the cuts “Frank White”,” Squirrel” and the Circle Jerks cover “Dny Everything.” The cover of the 7-in features Chris Walken as “Frank White” from the Abel Ferrara film “King of New York.” There were two splits, one with Ambulance Driver which featured the punishing ode to self-loathing “187′. The other split was with pop-punk masters V. Card and featured “Dumped” and “Cordite”. In my opinion, the most powerful material came out of a late night session from 1995 that wasn’t mixed until 2007 and featured the tracks “Tiny Pack Packs”, “Prawn Flavor”, “Jim Hobat” and the Black Flag cover “Police Story”. Like most of their sessions this one happened at an unorthodox location, in this case the now-defunct Liberty Coffee Shop in Cambridge. The band blazed through four songs in the middle of the night with 27’s Ayal Naor at the controls. The songs from that session captured the band at their most ruthless. Naor was an early supporter of the band and is responsible for documenting much of the bands output.
Thos Niles: “He had a quarter-inch 8 track recorder which is not the highest fidelity by a long shot, and we brought that down to our practice space and sort of documented what we were doing. We also had his own independent label (Reproductive Records); he was doing limited editions, 7 inch releases of just bands that he liked: Slughog, Milk Money, Bloodletter, his own band, Spore, Mourn, Ambulance Driver… and he would put basically record and put out these 7 inches in quantities of a few hundred, maybe a thousand at most. So anyway, we did two split 7 inches. One of them was Ambulance Driver, the other one was with a band V-Card my roommate’s band. We also did a couple of cassette-style demos that were really just to facilitate getting shows because that’s the way things used to work. You’d have to give the booking agent a cassette to somehow prove that you had your shit together enough to record something.”
The reality of the matter was that at the time, nobody really knew what to make of La Gritona. They didn’t fit neatly into any of the pre-packaged categories that people had created. They certainly weren’t part of the emerging “Indie rock” scene, nor were they a straight-up metal band. Though the member of the band had roots in the hardcore punk scene, they were also more or less not invited to any of those gatherings either.
Thos Niles: “We’d play with a lot of these bands but we weren’t part of their scene. And some of it was by design because we didn’t want to be a part of any of these scenes, but part of it… you know, I look back on it, it’s kind of a shame, you know? Maybe we could’ve been a part of something that was more community-oriented. Maybe we could’ve shown more leadership in that sort of situation. But we just never really fit in.”
In some ways, I saw similarities between La Gritona and the later-era Black Flag in that both bands were dead-set on challenging their potential audience to the point where only a very marginal collection of individuals could truly appreciate the band.
Thos Niles: “I think the small number of people who enjoyed it really, really enjoyed it. It was definitely an acquired taste. I think you had some people who got it on kind of the same level we were trying to give it. There were some people who enjoyed it on sort of a more spectacle level. You know, Colin definitely had a unique stage presence. Like I said, we were trying to bring sort of something to the performance that was maybe above and beyond your garden-variety local band.”
Despite all of this some cash was put on the table by a fairly well-known label to produce a demo. The band collected the money, got into the van and drove out to Steve Albini’s studio to begin work on the sessions that would eventually become their self-released full-length LP Arrasa Con Todo.
Thos Niles: “Juanita the Scene Queen, a seminal Boston Radio DJ, had a radio show on a commercially viable radio station. It was like the local music show and she wrote some stuff for local fanzines. Remember, this was sort of the post-grunge gold rush so with that she secured a low-level A&R gig at MCA. So she would feed them local bands who she thought were talented and she hooked up an introduction to these guys at MCA who saw fit to throw us a couple thousand dollars -and I think I mean that literally, I think it was $2,000-, so that we could record something. The deal was that they would have the first right of refusal to that recorded output.
And we took that money and ran with it, essentially. I think we wrote a letter, like an actual snail-mail letter because again, that’s how things were done then, to Steve Albini and asked him if he would record us, what that would cost and that turned into a couple of phone conversations.
His whole trip back then was that he operated on this sliding scale, (I don’t know if he still does this) but depending on what the project was, his level of interest and availability and how it was getting funded, he would change his rates accordingly. So I think we did not tell him that we were getting money from MCA, and told him that it was self-funded -which is really not so much of a lie because there’s never really a hope in hell that MCA was going to put anything out we recorded. We negotiated a rate with him that was affordable and we went out to his place in Chicago and recorded Arrasa Con Todo over the space of I think three days, recorded and mixed it three or four days.”
All of this material, as well as some choice live material and covers (“Skulls” by Misfits and “We’re Desperate” by X) can be found on Demasiado Tonto Para Los Ninos Listos, a complete discography of their recorded output release by the fine people of Tortuga Records. In some ways, it can be seen as more of a history lesson than any attempt at legitimate commerce. Most people will have no idea who La Gritona were, unless you were part of the small group of people that lived in Boston during their reign of terror.
If you are bold enough to take the plunge and dive into the 2 discs worth of material (get it here) you’ll realize that they were one of the few bands that can legitimately be labeled as “ahead of their time.” They beat bands like Coalesce, Starkweather, the chaotic-metal era of Converge by a good 3 or 4 years. The beauty of it all is that La Gritona were never trying to be anything but a bad that pushed it on all fronts. They weren’t a metal band or a punk band or a hardcore band, but were actually all of those things at the same time. They used metal like a tool, or more aptly a weapon, to express their laconic tales of anxiety and depression, capturing the listener and transporting them to a world where it’s always 4 AM on a Monday night, the trains stopped running and you only have a $5 bill left in your pocket.
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