One of the first reviews I wrote after a two-year hiatus was of the superb and highly recommended Atlas Shrugged discography CD, Don't Look Back in Anger, in which I referred to the group as "one of the most underrated hardcore bands of the '90s." Well, two even more underrated upstate NY bands of that era—both with lineup ties to Atlas Shrugged—would be GMK and Ghidrah.
That I have any awareness of these bands at all is just a fluke. In the mid-'90s, I bought Ghidrah's demo cassette from the Very Distribution catalog because it was listed as being comparable to Candiria. I loved it, and for years to come was searching for more information about the quartet. Almost 10 years later, I learned that an equally amazing band called GMK—with 3/4 of the same lineup—had preceded Ghidrah, and was able to hear a mere four of their songs on MySpace. I knew that more recordings existed, and I never stopped hunting...
Cut to last summer, when I was far beyond psyched to realize that all of the GMK (and most Ghidrah) recordings had been made available on Bandcamp. (Ghidrah's unreleased album, Songs in the Key of Qi, has now been made available as well!) Eventually, I got in touch about an interview.
Napoleon Calimbas played bass in GMK and Ghidrah, and guitar in Atlas Shrugged. BJ sang in GMK and Ghidrah. Mark Calimbas played guitar in all three bands.
Mark and Napoleon, since you were both in GMK, Ghidrah, and Atlas Shrugged together, how did you first get interested in music and playing instruments when you were kids? Did you grow up in a musical household?
Mark: My dad never talked much, but one thing I remember we would do is drive around in his Mustang and listen to music. He would listen to the same bands and songs over and over, and one of those bands was The Ventures. They were a '60s instrumental rock band, and they really showed me how to communicate with a listener sans words and lyrics, so the guitar was the obvious choice for me.
Napoleon: I grew up listening to classical music, thanks to my mom. I can thank my dad for listening to Elvis, The Everly Brothers, and The Ventures. But when I got older, I remember my sister blasting Bad Religion. That's when I started looking for my own music style, which brought me to my brother, who played Burn for me. I was set.
What drew you to the hardcore scene, despite the fact that none of your bands exactly "fit" into the genre, in the "traditional" sense?
Napoleon: Due to the fact that my brother loved bands liked Burn and the Bad Brains, his guitar style was easily relatable to me. Being younger, my favorite bands were bands that he actually played in growing up, so I was lucky in the fact that I got to actually see the hardcore scene grow and evolve. Between him and my sister, I heard new bands every day.
BJ: What drew me to the hardcore scene was the brotherhood I found. My dad wasn't around, and my mother tried the best she could, but it was hard for her to deal with such an angry young man. As much as I liked metal, I was always more into punk. Once I found the Bad Brains, I knew what direction I wanted to head musically.
Mark: I was 15 and I turned on WNYU's Crucial Chaos radio show. Underdog's "Not Like You" was the first song I heard. And then, me and my friend were skating in the Lower East Side and we passed by a club with loud, muffled music coming from inside, so we walked in. The band was SFA, and the club was CBGB's.
As far as our bands not fitting in? Part of that may be my fault. As far as my songwriting, I looked to bands like Rush, U2, and Voivod for influence. The hardcore scene was more of a stomping ground and a hangout, and a place for us to hear a message that we could relate to. I don't know, we were weirdos. Don't get me wrong, I loved that NYHC sound. I think I just came at it from a different angle. I guess it is ironic that "Not Like You" was the first NYHC song I heard.
Having cited tastes ranging from Astrud Gilberto to Godflesh, how did such a diverse set of influences inform your own recognizable writing style?
Napoleon: I could always find something in a band. Maybe I wasn't fond of a certain singer or guitar player, but I could always find parts of a song or an album that hit me just right. Putting all those random pieces together in my style was the fun part. But I'm sure that applies to all writers, no?
BJ: I have one rule that has followed me throughout my life: if something sounds good to me and it moves me, I will explore it no matter what genre it is. I find when I'm writing songs I can be influenced from anything from Roxy Music to Bolt Thrower. I think these limitless influences have created our signature sound.
Did GMK form prior to Atlas Shrugged, or was it the other way around?
Mark: Atlas was first. During a sort of hiatus, GMK was formed. Soon after, Atlas restarted and both bands were active simultaneously. Ghidrah was an extension of GMK. Thean (the drummer for GMK) took over duties for Atlas. Me, Pol, and BJ started playing with a new drummer (Dan), and decided to write new material and take it in a totally different direction. Confusing enough?
Given the overlap, how did you determine what riffs went to which band?
Mark: Well, this is how I always pictured it in my head. I would write riffs and I could easily determine which band it would belong to. Atlas was my emotional weirdo band, so anything that sounded "off" made sense. It was "misfit" music. Not Danzig Misfits. We didn't fit in, so our sound reflected that.
GMK was my angry tough guy band, even though we were not tough guys. When we played on stage it was sort of like I was holding my nuts saying, "Yeah, what's up?" Ha, ha. Anything heavy and at a hip-hop tempo went to GMK.
Now, Ghidrah was more mystical and experimental. More spiritual. It was more like wizards casting spells, ha, ha. We were determined to find the balance between soft and heavy, pretty and ugly. We talked about balance a lot, and how it applied to our lives and how we could express it in our music.
Much like Atlas Shrugged, GMK and Ghidrah both hit me with a definite sense of emotion and feeling—musically and lyrically—though the lyrical perspective is certainly coming from different angles with GMK and Ghidrah. Would you care to elaborate a little bit on the general lyrical tone/direction of the two bands?
BJ: The difference between the two bands is outrage and inner struggle. With GMK, there was a lot of political stuff that none of us agreed with, and my own personal views on religion. GMK's influences were bands that represented youth and "the streets." With Ghidrah, we explored some political issues, but most of the lyrics were, dare I say... emotional. I explored issues like relationships, family, and religion.
This might turn out to be an idiotic question, but I'll ask anyway. What's the significance of the name "Golden Monkey Klan"? Was it just inspired by kung fu flicks or something, as Ghidrah was inspired by the Godzilla villain?
BJ: I think I might be letting the cat out of the bag, but it actually stands for "gimmick." It has meant a lot of things throughout the years, but Golden Monkey Klan is the moniker that stuck. And, yes, we were very influenced by kung fu flicks.
Mark: Thean came up with GMK ("Gimmick"). But GMK stuck, 'cause you know how cool it was to be in a hardcore band and have your name be three capital letters.
Was it a fluke that GMK and Ghidrah weren't as known as Atlas Shrugged? I didn't even find out that GMK existed until the MySpace era, and having loved the Ghidrah demo since I bought it back in '96 or '97, I was always surprised that there was so little information about either band online.
Mark: Atlas Shrugged, I believe, gained more popularity for a couple reasons. One that sticks out is Chris Weinblad (the vocalist for Atlas). He made a lot of friends in the scene. He made a lot of connections with the right people. He took on that duty of a manager. He wasn't as shy or quiet as the rest of us. We didn't do that with GMK or Ghidrah... at all. We didn't go out and talk to people. We didn't know how to get shows. We didn't even put out any official releases, 'cause we didn't know how to. We just knew how to hide in the attic, get high, and write music.
Were there other such bands from the Rockland County area back in the day that never really managed to get the kind of attention they truly deserved?
Napoleon: There was one band that I can think of that I wish recorded and played out more. UMC (United Micro Culture), all amazing musicians.
BJ: At All Cost (Mark's first band), Thin Ice, Outreach, UMC, 45 Gates, Drowning Room (not from Rockland, but pioneers in the HVHC [Hudson Valley Hardcore] community).
All three of these bands came up at a time in the '90s when it was not uncommon for an atypically flavored metallic hardcore group to go from playing with emo bands to death metal bands. Do you recall any memorable/meaningful shows or erratically diverse bills from back in the day?
Mark: It's been said that GMK had an underlying hip-hop vibe to us, and back then Wu-Tang and Cypress Hill were in a lot of hardcore kids' Walkmen (Walkmans?). So we just fit within a certain group of bands and friends, and every GMK show pretty much had the same energy. But by the time Ghidrah was playing, we had let go of any inhibitions and disintegrated the borders. So we did play different types of shows with bands that did not sound like us.
One show I remember was in the Lower East Side of NYC in a squat. I can't remember the name of the place, but it was tore up. I have allergies, so I remember thinking to myself, "How in the hell am I gonna make it through this show with all this dust everywhere?" I remember hoping that no one would dance so that dust would not stir up from the ground, ha, ha. I remember there was a kid that played by himself with just a drum machine. But that one goes down as one of the most memorable Ghidrah shows, for sure. If I could ever say I really played in a "punk" band, it was then and there.
Atlas Shrugged put out a decent amount of demo and vinyl recordings throughout the '90s, but despite recording a good amount of material, neither GMK nor Ghidrah had much of anything officially released (beyond demos). Both, however, had recordings that were intended for proper release—GMK a 7", and Ghidrah an entire full-length. Were labels actually lined up at the time and shit just fell through, or did the process never even get that far along?
Mark: GMK was approached by two labels to put out the 7". They never followed through, and we weren't going to chase them down. Ghidrah did record an album, but there was no intention of properly releasing it. It was more for documentation. If we were around today, I am sure it would be much easier to get our music out there and listened to. But back then—with no iPhones, email, or Facebook—no one was hearing you. Just putting out a demo tape and selling it at shows was sometimes the best you could do.
I had been told years ago that there was some desire to potentially do something legit with the unreleased Ghidrah album, Songs in the Key of Qi. Is that still the case? If not, do you think you'll put it up on Bandcamp alongside the other GMK and Ghidrah tracks so that people can get a chance to finally hear the material?
Mark: Yes. Well, I should say it will be nothing "legit," but 17 years later we are finally releasing an unofficial digital version of it, which should hopefully be available by the time you are reading this interview. You can go to dustyheadphones.bandcamp.com to get everything there. Dusty Headphones is just the name of a personal label. Stay tuned, for sure. Hopefully you like what you hear. It's all free for download, so please share and pass it along to your friends. Or, if you don't like it, pass it along to your enemies.
All three of these bands were somewhat ahead of their time, and carried a similar musical aesthetic. With so much crossover in the bands' lineups, from your insider's perspective, what made each group its own unique entity?
Napoleon: For me, it was the relationship with the person first. When you're really good friends with someone, you begin to know what to expect from them during certain parts and songs. That made it easier for me to pick a balance. To know when to stand up or stand back. And because they knew our style, they could do the same, in their own way.
Mark: Definitely it is all about the relationship. Everyone has friends and every friend is unique. You vibe differently in each different environment. In this case, your creative workspace. For example, look at the two singers. Chris and BJ are both talented writers and vocalists. Both are equally a joy to work with and be friends with. But both bring two totally different energies to your surrounding atmosphere. That energy directly affects your mood and creative influence. The definition of the entity works itself out from there.
That's a cool and unique perspective. It's not often—especially with heavier genres of music—to hear musicians talking about how their personal relationships with their bandmates affect the overall energy and atmosphere of the writing. I imagine this all ties into some of the occasionally improvisational aspects of the music, too—most notably with Ghidrah? Was freeform "jamming" (for lack of a better term) a common tool the bands would use to chunk out riffs and arrangements?
Mark: Not at all. When we (Ghidrah) would improvise during rehearsal, it was for pure experimentation. Pure travel and our own form of meditation? Not trying to be lame, but that's how I saw it. We were listening to a lot of jazz, fusion, and prog bands, so we wanted to see what would come out of us. There is something about starting to play and then "waking up" when the sound silences. Unfortunately, we only really recorded one improvisation in a studio, though.
GMK reunited for a benefit show earlier this year, and there have been murmurs of Atlas Shrugged at least considering the possibly of potentially working on some new material. What are the odds that anything further might come of this?
Mark: It was pretty much understood that the GMK reunion was a one-time thing. We did it for a benefit show for a friend. Atlas is a different story. We want to, we don't want to, we want to again. A lot of it is my fault. I am not anchored to this area, so the idea of me popping up and leaving is always a factor. Also, the drummer situation is shaky. Thean is a family man and a member of the FDNY, and he has other priorities, which I don't blame him at all. But he is one talented musician, and I almost can't imagine Atlas without his signature drum style. You see, with the later addition of him and my brother on second guitar, I believe that's when Atlas found its sound. So what are the odds of Atlas getting together to write new material? I can only say maybe. But we're all still friends, so you can never count it out.
In the works for quite some time, Atlas Shrugged's impressive discography CD, Don't Look Back in Anger, finally hit the streets late last year. It seems like the response has been quite positive. It must feel good to finally see that comprehensive collection making its way out into the world and getting some love?
Mark: Yes, I should say it is great, but it took forever to reach completion (no one to blame), and now that it is out I almost don't recognize that kids are hearing it now. Is it getting a positive response? I don't know. But, more importantly, the sound and the music made by me and my friends is in our hands, and it is now a part of history, and we can walk away feeling complete. I can honestly say the best friends you can have are the ones you make art and music with. Great times.
What else have you been up to musically? Mark, you've done some occasional beat-making, right?
Mark: Presently I am not involved with any band. But I'd like to. It's just hard finding people and making time work. So instead I just work on solo home recordings. We're the Leaders is my "fake" band project. It's uptempo rock with the obvious hardcore/punk influence.
Beat-making? Yes. When I moved to California for 14 years, I didn't play in any bands, so I bought an MPC2000 and immersed myself in the world of sample-based loops and beats. I had fun with that, but the sound evolved to more of an instrumental and organic presentation, sampling old records and playing guitar over it. I recorded a lot and released a few things, and will eventually put it all out there digitally on maliks.bandcamp.com for your free downloading pleasure. I have started making loops again, but now they are more angular and disjointed. It's ugly. You see, music to me in general has become so produced, over-calculated, and shiny. I think with this project I am reminding myself that it should be loose, dusty, and sort of like tripping over your feet. Music should sound like discoveries and inventions. It shouldn't sound like you've done it a thousand times over and over.
Napoleon: Writing. Always. Making sure to document each part I come up with. I also got into how guitars and basses actually work. So I built a few for fun. The last GMK show we played, I used a short-scale bass neck on a standard Fender Strat guitar body. I threw six extra light gauge bass strings on it and had something that looked and felt like a guitar, but sounded like a bass. As of now, it's still my favorite to pick up and play with.
BJ: Currently I'm developing a project called Full Scale Riot, featuring Tim McMurtrie (formerly of M.O.D.), Evan Rossiter (former drummer for Thin Ice), and Jeff Wood from Shat (and he played bass for The Dillinger Escape Plan briefly). When we started this project we thought it would be more of a beatdown style of hardcore, but it turned out to be something completely different. Very politically-charged. I think it's going to strike a chord with people today. We will be recording in January 2015. Also, me, Pol, and Evan have been working on a project that is very Ghidrah-esque.
Mark: Stay tuned to dustyheadphones.bandcamp.com, and thank you, Andrew, for everything.