By Justin M. Norton; photos by Robin Laananen
A striking passage of the Bad Religion song “Latch Key Kids” reads: “In this world today there ain’t nobody to thank/Just blame it on the kids and toss ’em into the tank.” Those lyrics seem applicable to a young kid growing up in the 1980s named Justin Pearson, best known as the bug-suited vocalist and bassist for the grind/noise/hardcore band The Locust.
Pearson’s musical antics and his boundless appetite for jokes belie his difficult upbringing. His father was murdered in Arizona before he was a teenager and his mother took up with an abusive man when they relocated to Southern California. Pearson ended up leaving home and living in what was essentially a ramshackle punk commune in San Diego and immersed himself in underground music.
Pearson , who runs the independent label Three One G, chronicles his turbulent life in the new book From The Graveyard Of The Arousal Industry . At points poignant and hilarious, it details how Pearson kept his wits and later formed one of the most divisive bands in extreme music. His life hasn’t been easy but it has been interesting; angry crowds intent on killing The Locust; shotgun marriages and unlikely dalliances with mainstream bands like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
“Now that the book is out people are telling me they relate to what happened. It’s not cool that these things also happened to them but I’m glad people can relate,” Pearson says.
The icing on the cake? A prank Pearson and several friends played on the Jerry Springer Show, which in addition to the childhood anecdotes might be the book’s highlight. The Springer episode – titled “Secrets Come Out” – is hilarious and riveting (watch part one and part two). Pearson plays the pampered, bird-flipping rock star to a tee (wearing a Locust shirt during the entire segment). He claims he’s been cheating on his girlfriend; makes out with his friend Scott and insults the audience. The segment devolves into a classic trailer park Springer brawl.
It was actually the second time Pearson was in Springer’s studio; the first time the group tried a prank they were bumped. Amazingly, they were called back again when they pitched a different story. The episode is now legendary Locust lore.
Pearson’s book will appeal to anyone who felt like they were misunderstood or endured taunts for their haircut or musical taste and the provocateur in all of us. You don’t need to have listened to Plague Soundscapes or New Erections to enjoy this book. Although Pearson dismisses his writing talent the book is eminently readable and the stories consistently funny, occasionally heartwarming. He discussed From the Graveyard Of The Arousal Industry with Hellbound from his San Diego home:
Justin M. Norton: What made you decide to write your autobiography? Have you always been a writer?
Justin Pearson: No. I was writing a tour journal for an online site. When I was done with the journal I sent it to a few people. One of them was (cult film director)John Waters. I think he could relate to some of the antics of touring. He suggested that I write a book. At first it seemed weird but then I would kind of write a story and another story and eventually I had a pool of stories to put in order. I added stuff to make it a linear piece and that became the book.
Is that how you ended you with short chapters, just a few pages each, and a staccato writing style?
Yeah, because my intention wasn’t to originally write a book. I just thought about telling a story, and then other stories would come up. I had to be careful when it came to writing about other people or mentioning details about people. My publicist wanted to know the juicy details about this and that, but I would say that’s not really about me. I didn’t want this to just be about shit talking.
Starting out with what was a tour journal, what was it like to dip back into your past, including episodes that must have been painful to talk about?
I don’t know if it was difficult to talk about them. I’m a fan of dark humor, and even in a dark situation I can find the beauty in things or the positive outcome. The first thing I started writing about was how I smoked pot with Slayer when I was 12. It was just really funny. Then I’d think “Wait, that’s my childhood and that’s pretty fucked up.”
So I ended up asking why I was a 12-year-old kid smoking pot with Slayer and why didn’t I have any parental supervision? It raised so many questions and I branched out into other areas.
One thing I noticed in reading the book is that despite what happening — your father getting killed on Halloween, an abusive stepfather – you always seem to keep your wits about you. How you were able to keep yourself intact and move forward despite a difficult upbringing?
When I was a little kid I actually thought all Dads were drunks. Then my best friend’s Dad had his shit together, and it seemed weird. It seemed wholesome in a creepy way. I’m trying to figure out what was going on in my adolescent mind (laughs). My friend would be wearing his Mom’s underwear and there was sort of those perverted, conservative weirdness. So I’d end up thinking “my Dad is a drunk and beats me mom, and that’s fucked up, but so are those other people.”
I thought that was how things went. I’m not a psychologist, but I guess I just grew up in that scenario and didn’t know any better. I didn’t separate normal life from abusive life. I just knew it was my life.
Once I got older and my Mom kicked me out I got really involved with politics. There would always be tons of kids in high school bitching about arbitrary things. And I’d be the first to think, at least you aren’t in Iraq and your parents aren’t getting blown up. When people would complain about not getting a new skateboard or the new Nintendo I’d be the one saying you need to shut up. I could put things in a worldly perspective. I was able to appreciate the little things that most people took for granted. I wouldn’t just dwell on the bad. Somehow, I was always able to think that things could be a lot worse.
There does seem to be something universal about your experiences, especially to the type of reader who would be inclined to pick up your book in the first place.
I don’t necessarily relate to those nihilistic kids who were interviewed on the The Decline Of Western Civilization . But I understand that mindset. When you live a life that is hard you can become jaded.
If I use the word punk I don’t mean punk rock I mean punk ethics. It comes out of being poor and screwed up but still wanting to do something. We live in the city and it’s fast-paced and dirty. If we grew up on a farm things might be different. It’s hard to explain without using cliché terms but punk gives you a realist view of life.
What was it like to write prose as opposed to writing songs for The Locust?
With music I’d always go for vague metaphorical stuff. A lot of our songs are short so you can’t elaborate too much on what you want to get across to an audience. I usually have 45 seconds to say three lines (laughs). People think that Locust lyrics don’t mean anything, but all the lyrics mean something. It’s not random bullshit I pull out of my ass, even if it seems artsy or open for interpretation.
Writing a book is completely different. In retrospect, I think I could have elaborated on more things. But I think things are good as short chapters or pieces, almost like songs. Maybe that’s almost my subconscious writing process at this point, to just get it out. Don’t waste any time with fluff. Sometimes with writing, though, you do need things that music will cut out.
How did the book develop from writing these chapters to publishing and seeing it get out into the world?
For a while I was just posting online. At one point I had someone threaten me because I’d written about them. So I sat on it for a while and worked on it a little more. I had a friend who worked for AK Press who said you should publish it, and that got the idea brewing.
I submitted it to AK. They are an anarchist collective so everything they decide to publish has to be done on a unanimous vote. I guess one of the bunch declined because it wasn’t political enough. So they helped me submit to Soft Skull and they took it. I love AK and I’ve worked with them a bunch with The Locust. But Soft Skull is more fitting for what it is.
Why is it a good home?
I don’t follow publishing companies like a writer. But they had already made an impression on me because I had purchased No More Prisons and Bomb The Suburbs. I’d always go seek out Soft Skull writers. It was like when I discovered The Dead Kennedys and got into Alternative Tentacles and was then exposed to all these other artists. The company has a style, it felt weird and dangerous. It was this strange niche, this avant-garde chunk of writers.
I was honored when they took it. They’ve done a lot of controversial stuff and been sued. They’ve always been about challenging people and I appreciated that aspect.
One of the most touching experiences was when you got backstage and met The Cramps when you were just a kid. Can you tell me more about that, what it was like to meet these larger than life characters when you were young? Did you ever meet The Cramps later in your musical career?
I was 12 and I just loved The Cramps. I discovered them when I was 10. Right when I moved to San Diego I got to go to the show. I remember standing right up front next to the speaker not realizing I’d end up with tinnitus.
I remember the little things like Lux Interior sticking the microphone down his pants. Most kids would be creeped out but I thought he was creative in some strange way. He was doing something totally different.Of course, I was also into B horror films.
It was such a trip to see them. So I went up to a security guard and asked to get my shirt signed and for whatever reason she just decided to take me backstage. It was just luck. They were so cool to me. I guess I expected them to treat me like all adults did, like I was some dumb punk kid. But they were stoked.
It really changed how I perceive art and artists. And it gave me an extra push to pursue music as well.
And later on…
Fast forward like a decade and a half and The Locust has the same distribution company as The Cramps. They were self-releasing their own music. So we had this meeting at Mordam (Records) and it was strange to see Lux and Ivy there. There were all of these label people. They kept looking at us so and one point I came up to Lux and said “This is a Locust CD. You probably aren’t going to like it but you have greatly influenced what I’ve done, and not just from a musical perspective.” He was really cool and responsive. I told him I met him when I was 12 and he didn’t remember.
Throughout the convention I’d see Lux sitting at this table. Ivy would be talking notes and Lux would be nodding off. I was nodding off, too, because I’d just returned from Europe and was super jetlagged. So everyone at this convention was looking at me and him napping (laughs).
It was great to be able to see him again, especially since he’s passed away. I’m so lucky to have had those interactions with him. They were so influential, not just musically but also in terms of aesthetics.
The Locust gets tagged as metal, noise, punk, you’ve been called everything…has your relationship with the metal community been ambivalent? Would someone into more traditional metal get into your book?
I don’t know. What is traditional metal? We have a lot of funny, campy stage antics in The Locust and I think that’s a part of some metal shows. Look at Judas Priest…the outfits they wear are absurd.
Everyone in The Locust has roots in metal. But we don’t do the typical checklist like solos or things a lot of metal bands have.
I’m glad that most of the things I’ve done can’t be tagged. It means I’ve created something that’s original, that can’t be filed away, just say ‘that’s metal or rap.’ Some people will get it, some people into hardcore will get it, some people into classical will get it. It’s all over the spectrum. We can go work with people like (Slayer drummer) Dave Lombardo and then we can work with Andrew W.K. or The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Where do we fit it? We don’t. It’s super hard to not have a niche but it says a lot that we can’t fit into a five or six-day festival of the same shit, which a lot of metal bands do. I love Cattle Decapitation to death but they get on these big bills. First, I can’t read any of the logos. And do you really want to go see six bands playing brutal music? It’s not that interesting. We try to make things creative and always opt for something different.
Now that you’ve gone from a blog to a book do you think you will write more?
People have been asking about it. I don’t necessarily want to write another book. There was a book on 90s hardcore called Burning Fight. I worked a lot with the author Brian Peterson. I don’t want to criticize his book, but I felt that his perception of that world of music was limited by geographical stuff and the fact that he wasn’t in a band. I’d like to do a book that’s more saturated with Southern California and bypass the whinier stuff coming out of the 90s.
I’ve talked with a friend about what’s missing from a presentation of the time. We aren’t hardcore scholars but we were there. We keep thinking we could help document that music. But I have to tour and pay my bills..
Even with this book I put myself up for a lot of criticism. But to tackle a huge musical entity would open the floodgates for people to talk shit. I get a lot of constructive criticism and I could see people saying that I don’t know shit about hardcore because I wear a bug outfit.
What’s the status of The Locust?
We have almost an album’s worth of material. We’ve been careful about new material because the industry sucks. People are getting lazy and just want to download music. It makes touring and being an actual live band harder.
I wonder if we’d be better off becoming DJs. There will be another album at some point but there’s no rush.
What feedback did you get when you were first posting your blog and then when the book finally came out? You said it was tough to write but the book seems to flow naturally.
There was some criticism from established writers who said what I was doing was shit. I don’t call myself a writer and I don’t even call myself a musician. There will always be criticism and praise and you just try to go with it.
You wrote about your mother throughout the book…your relationship seems to have developed from a place where you had difficulties but now she is incredibly supportive of the band and your choices. What does it mean that she now supports you after all you’ve been through together.
She didn’t have the how to raise a family manual and she did her best. My Dad was so against me being into metal and punk and skateboarding. My Mom’s new boyfriend was an all around bastard. There was always an obstacle. As soon as that guy was gone she took a step back and realized who I was and appreciated me for who I was.
The story about how you duped the Jerry Springer show is hilarious. Do you ever worry that later in life you’ll be remembered as the guy who played a joke on the Springer show like Ozzy is remembered for biting a bat’s head?
I wish I could do something as badass as biting the head off the bat. It did propel The Locust and the things I did into another world. It helped us get a lot of notoriety. I still hear about the Jerry Springer show on tour. I wrote that chapter because people didn’t get to see everything if they only watched the show. Other things happened besides spoofing the audience.
I don’t think about how I will be perceived in the future. I did it, and I don’t regret it.
Hellbound will review From The Graveyard Of The Arousal Industry later this week.