OW! My Ears: The Mystik Spiral Story
(Sound And Fury, August 2014 issue)
The Zon is the only alternative club - in fact, the only club at all - in Lawndale and it single-handedly proves the need for competitive markets. If it wasn't in walking distance, I don't believe anyone would come here most nights. This night thought, this night is special. Over a hundred people are waiting here. Every third person has a T-shirt with archaic font and a spiral.
A man gets to the stage, wiry and unshaven and covered in old tattoos. He coughs, hard, and announces - he sounds as if he's not slept in days - that this band is Mystik Spiral "but we're thinking of changing our name".
The crowd roars.
The grunge scene in Lawndale County, Maryland and Carter County on the state border is not as big as it used to be in the 1990s, but it still refuses to die. Carter County is remote and poor and would frankly take any live music it could get (and has since become a hotbed of polka-wub bands). Lawndale County was until 2008 quite a wealthy suburb and that actually seems to have been what caused the grunge scene. "It was bored white kids pretending to have greater angst so they could stop being bored," says Daria Morgendorffer, founder and star of the online review site This Sucks. "My friend Tom knew a band in Fielding Prep made up of hedge fund kids who called themselves Poverty Youth."
Few were aware of - or cared about - the scene outside of these counties. The internet has changed that, ever since Mystik Spiral went viral in 2010. To many, they're the Sharknado of bands: so bad they're good. To fans in the county, they're local boys making good. To hardcore grunge fans, this is the real deal: a proper underground, wrong-side-of-the-tracks group who taught themselves and get grumpy with angry chords.
"We just expressing ourselves," Trent Lane tells me. "And we're not gonna sell out."
He mentions not selling out a lot. During our interview, he began improvising a song about it. When I joked that selling this song could be selling out, Trent looked appalled and stopped doing improv immediately.
The very core of Mystik Spiral was two school friends from Lawndale, Trent and Jesse Moreno.
Trent was the lower-middle child of artists Vincent and Amanda Lane, themselves the latest descendants of Lawndale's dyslexic founder Lord Lane. The family had been wealthy until the end of slavery and Vincent had inherited enough cash and property to keep himself as a 'wandering artist'. (Vincent and Amanda met when Vincent was himself a musician, working from 1972-4 in the Ann Arbor music scene as Vincent Van A-Go-Go) Young Trent grew up in a household with few rules, an obsession with art, and no expectations except to do whatever he wanted. This same family spawned Jane Lane, minor gallery artist now living in Boston, and the controversial Penny Lane, the owner of Central American Indigenous Crafts plc (currently in court for employee exploitation in Costa Rica).
"They let Trent live in a tent for six months," said Jane. "He wanted someone to ask him to come back inside. Boy, that story sounded funny before I said it out loud." She agrees this was probably the cause of Spiral's famous song 'Garden Hell'.
Jesse Moreno was the eldest son of a gas jockey and a Home Ec teacher. His mother is more famously known as the infamous weed dealer "Planck", who dealt across Lawndale County until 1992; "Lawndale High doesn't pay shit," she told the court. The young Jesse developed a calm, go-with-the-flow reaction to his home life (scientists believed prolonged fume exposure may have something to do with that) that got him bullied as a 'retard'. Hormones changed that by turning into a large, heavy-set lad. School records show that bullies at Taft Memorial Primary had suddenly stopped once he hit puberty and then hit a young Tommy Sherman through a door. A closed door.
"Yeah," Jesse said. "That was cool."
Both boys got into hard rock at a young age and have said they found solace in it. (Jesse actually just said "yeah") In particular they were fans of Northern Irish band Screw You Maggie, who became famous abroad after their hit song 'No Really Screw You Maggie' was subject to Britain's broadcasting ban on terrorism supporters. When sentenced to summer school, Trent tried to spraypaint the cover to Straight Outta Curran onto the school wall. Jesse saw him doing it and a firm friendship was struck.
Now there were two of them, they could become a band. They immediately went round to Trent's house and spent the summer - school records show the teachers didn't notice they were gone -practising on Mr Lane's old acoustic guitars. While the Mystik Spiral website says these twelve-year-old rockers were "experimenting with unorthodox riffs and jarring, atonal juxtapositions", Jane revealed, "Dad had to tell them what tuning was." Throughout that summer, they came up with a variety of band names ("We shoulda stuck with Boa Constryctyr," says Trent) and started to make their own songs. None of these early pieces survive.
"I remember they performed for Ma and Da's anniversary," Mrs Wilma Moreno told us, "and that was the moment when Da told me I'd never be anything but a disappointment. It was the song 'Old People' that did him in."
That fall, Jesse moved up to Glenfield Middle School and was now hanging out with Trent full-time. A few days in, Trent's birthday came and brought two electric guitars with it: the boys had wanted them ever since they realised "electric is louder", as Jesse puts it. Now, there was no stopping them.
Trent and Jesse honed themselves in middle school, performing for Trent's parents and any of Jesse's relatives who had not been forewarned; a recording exists of a school talent show where they played as Wax Lypps. In the recording, the school principal Benson Marin awarded them no points and went on a lengthy rant about all the failures in their song. One specific failure was actually listened to - "you forgot the first rule of a catchy song: IT HAS TO HAVE A BEAT!" - and thus began a search for a drummer. Both Jane and Jesse's younger brother Danny were both drafted depending on whose house the band were practicing at.
It was the first year at Lawndale High that would shape them. The first great event was that they put an ad for a drummer in a local paper. The only person to respond was a young boy called Max Tyler. Despite the acrimony in later years, Trent and Jesse have said that Max had intensity and "the right stuff". Max himself has stated repeatedly that he "seethed with raw crimeness" and had "what those losers needed". Jane Lane has told us that he was hired because "he owned a drum kit".
Max Tyler was the youngest of a struggling, working-class family; his parents ran a car parts shop, Tyler's Tires, which constantly struggled to stay in the red. While his older brother Mark thrived in the sharp edge of capitalism (Economics and Maths were his A+ subjects at school), both Max and his sister Minnie were more sensitive and struggled with their meagre existence. Max grew up watching his parents work hard for the American Dream and knew, in his own words, "it was all shit, man". He took up the drums in order to drop out and make something of himself in the way of his heroes, Soundgarden.
The second great event was that Nirvana hit it big in their first month of high school. Trent reportedly listened to 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' for a full hour, rewinding the song over and over until Penny Lane threw the CD into the garden. That was it for Mystik Spiral: grunge was their sound. The raw intensity and underground passion was everything they'd been looking for.
Outside factors began to push them further. One that's been downplayed is that the Tyler's started to make increasing profits in fall 1991 and with hard work and American grit they were solidly middle-class by 1993. Suddenly, Max was no longer underground or an outsider. Photographs from the time show this is when he shaved all his hair off; school records show this is when he started fights and calling himself a "criminale". "He wanted the band to be even louder and angstier, which was cool," Trent remembers. "He also stopped chipping in to buy pizza and said he was too poor."
In 1993, Trent began dating another student -Monique Favre, the future singer for the Noughties goth-rock sensation Dusklight. At this point she was just another of Lawndale's working-class kids. She'd been in the church choir until she'd been thrown out for wearing lipstick and this rebel cred is what drew Trent to her. She briefly became the fourth member of Mystik Spiral, adding backing vocals and occasionally the violin. "Oh god, I had to do a violin opening to 'Come as You Are' because Trent couldn't get the opening chords right," she told us. "Then there was the sombre violin piece for the Banana Splits. After that, I suggested that maybe we shouldn't do covers because it would hamper our creativity. Thank god Trent fell for that."
Forever after, Mystik Spiral would never do a cover again. Trent and Monique also broke up on a grand total of twelve occasions before graduating and this personal pain would inspire Trent to darker, more tortured lyrics. The famous 'Icebox Woman' was caused by a Christmas breakup and the cause of yet another breakup (Monique: "He wanted me to play it"). Monique would leave to form her own band, the Harpies, before graduating but the two kept in touch.
The other factor that would push the band was that the band "were suffering Lawndale High", as Daria Morgendorffer puts it. "Picture a boot telling you to support football, forever. If you were even slightly intelligent or independent, the school would repulse you but in 1992 you have Angela Li go from teaching Economics to being the principal. They would have been living in Airstrip One on a laundered budget." (The notorious Angela Li was arrested following Mordendorffer's expose for the Baltimore Sun)
"Principal Li sucked," Jesse tells us but won't go further into it. "She was a bad vibe," Trent adds, "she kept having us checked for weed because of how we looked and talked. I had to stop taking it into school." Max's comments on Li cannot be printed due to their embarrassing racism. Another teacher who earned their ire was a Language Arts teacher, Timothy O'Neill, who kept talking to them, asking them if they had problems at home, and if they'd tried making any happier songs. In retaliation, they did a song called 'Kneeling on My Back'.
By 1993, they'd fixed on a band name: Mystik Spiral. This time, they wouldn't change it. "I'd written the name on my guitar case," said Jesse. "It was metallic marker."
In the summer of 1995, Trent and Max graduated and Jesse flunked. They'd already made some appearances at the open-mike nights at McGrundy's Brew Pub and a few paying gigs at the Chugalug-Jugs strip club ("they didn't ask too hard about our ID"), but now they could devote themselves full-time to performing. The grunge scene in Lawndale had already developed, started by local bands Enlightenment, Paradise, and N1rvahna, but these were mostly middle-class kids out for attention. Mystik Spiral -and later the Harpies -would tear through the scene like poo through a pigeon.
Only one thing was missing: they needed a fourth member to be a proper band.
Nicholas Campbell was born in the sleepy Delaware farming town of Norsex, where he had a family background so boring that we can't print any of it until he reached the age of 16. That's when he was first exposed to Nirvana. That was also when Norsex's town council tried to ban any grunge record as "a corrupting influence on the town youth" and any child with the slightest musical talent was bundled into a church choir for safety's sake. Nick, who had already been learning the guitar, would turn up to be quite skilled on both bass and the piano.
Soon, he was the core of the Sunday Afternoon Christening Baptist Church choir. This dragged him into the dark, dangerous world of the Norsex Choir Wars: it had turned out there was money to be made in a touring choir and priest-approved gang war broke out against rival churches. Church records gained under freedom of information request show that he was involved in playing Swing Low outside people's houses at 2AM and three separate drive-by pornings (where highly neurotic church teens would be hit with porn magazines and feel contaminated). The constant pressure drove Nick to drugs and caused him to flee Norsex, hitchhiking his way across the state and doing odd jobs to support himself.
In 1996, while trying to remember their way home, Mystik Spiral came across Nick at the state border. When their van - "the Tank" - broke down, the four young men began talking about music while they waited for a tow-truck. The fact Nick could play got him hired on the spot. Max would never get on with him.
"All he did, right, was come in and try to get attention from the rest of us!" Max told us, while sporting a glow-in-the-dark T-shirt with his own face on it. "He thought he was a bigshit because he knew what F sharp was!"
"He knew how to fix instruments," says Jesse. "We needed that."
Mystik Spiral would spend the next two years trying to get their sound onto home media, a task that proved difficult due to arguments about whether the spiral on their CD cover should go left or right. "I'm not talking about the fucking spiral," Jane tells us, having left as the Band Graphics Director in the wake of the argument. "That was Trent's excuse on the CD until 2000!" They began recording their performances on cassette tape but the quality "sucked", as Trent puts it.
It wasn't until late 1997 that they could convince an outside company, Plush Records, to put them on vinyl: a single of 'Behind My Eyelids' with 'Icebox Woman' as the B-side. Unfortunately, this was years before sneering hipsters had decided vinyl was retro-cool and their target audience condemned LPs as old. Shops refused to take the LP, either because it was an LP or, in the case of dedicated vinyl shops, because the grunge sounds made them sick to their souls. This failure forced the Spiral to stick with live performances and they branched out to cover weddings, bah mitzvah's, sweet sixteens, and Satanic rituals.
Further tensions hit the band when Nick got a stripper pregnant. He knew he had a kid to support and this meant getting off the drugs; unable to afford proper rehab, Trent had him locked in his house for a week and fed with Fruit Roll-Ups slipped under the door. After three more days in hospital to recover from malnutrition, Nick was clean. He also branched out into doing DJ work outside of the Spiral, raising the extra money he needed to support his son. This meant he had less time to commit to the band's creative direction, which left him as a fifth wheel among the four and left Max in a rage.
"That fucking loser, abandoning on the music for – for - being an adult!" Max told us. "Why doesn't he just go work in a bank?! There's no difference, bitch!"
Jesse also began to branch out, moonlighting as a replacement guitarist for another grunge band called Bats With Guns. "They weren't very happy people," he remembers. "They started arguing over who had betrayed Kurt's memory the most. It got pretty bad." The band would dissolve in early 1998, forming the rival splinter groups Cats With Gats and Bats With Bats. Neither would last more than two weeks.
By the fall of 1998, two-thirds of Lawndale County's grunge bands had fallen away due to money, internal tensions, or growing up and getting a job. New bands on the scene were more influenced by post-grunge, causing Spiral to label itself "post-alterna-grunge" after Trent got drunk one night. Mystik Spiral and the Harpies were now the unquestioned legends of the grunge scene and if they made the effort, they were sure to make it big.
"Basically they stayed in Jane's basement practicing song after song that lasted thirty seconds, then getting stoned and falling asleep," Daria tells us. She had moved to Lawndale that year and became quite close to Trent ("not as close as she wanted," Jane innuendoed). "Trent doesn't like to talk about it, but I do know he was getting depressed with how the band was going. One of our first conversations, he asked me if he was wasting his life. I told him he had guts to do what he was doing and that he was doing what he wanted to do. Have you noticed how I subtly avoided the actual question he was asking? I think he knew they couldn't get anywhere without effort, but the concept of effort was a strange, unfathomable concert like 'sobriety' for frat boys."
Jesse's younger brother Danny, a guitarist and aspiring songwriter, gave the band a kick up the ass when he asked to be in it. To let him down gently (Trent: "a five-man band would just be wrong"), they gave him the role of Recording Secretary for the Mystik Spiral Fan Club. This meant Danny actually created a fan club in March 1999: newsletters, fan club badges, and the idea of actually telling people when the band was going to perform somewhere. Audiences began to grow, a bit. At Danny's suggestion, the band created a website - though Max would take charge of creating it in a burst of ego.
Spiral took a deep blow to their street cred in the spring of 2000 when they performed at a high school cheerleader's party. "I needed to buy new underpants," is all Trent will say about this decision, which saw Danny quit the fan club in a huff. "Our music totally broke something expensive!" Max says. "Now that's fucking criminale!" They were saved when the short-lived music site Reburb found out about them and not only did a profile, but offered their songs online for sale. While Reburb's founder would vanish into the night with all the money, it did mean the band was finally known about outside of unimportant towns.
"That's why we did the music video," said Jesse. "Sin energy."
He's talking about the Freaking Friends music video, now a beloved piece of kitsch and source of many parodies but at the time, barely noticed. The band had recorded it at a shopping mall's Make-A-Music-Video booth and tried to send it to MTV. "Carson Daly wrote back to us himself," says Trent, smiling at the memory.
"Oh yeah, that video sucked," Carson remembers. "We screened it at the office when we were getting drunk. Then we buried it where we hoped nobody would ever find it. Little did we know…"
While early 2001 seemed to be a stable period for the band, both Jane and Daria have confirmed that the band nearly split apart in the spring.
"The band had argued about, I don't know, what letter came after D and Trent was despondent," Daria reveals. "He actually said Spiral were past their prime and maybe they should break up. This was wrong. As Jane said, they needed to have a prime first. Trent got over it after eating some bad cookies - the full context is too stupid to explain - but it goes to show that the band were getting into a rut. And I know ruts. Check my love life."
The band would be forced out of their rut and into the proverbial creek after 9/11 happened and Lawndale stopped being in the mood for sombre, grumpy music. (The Singing Gupties became the biggest local sensation until late 2002; many records have been deliberately destroyed in an attempt to hide the shame) Mystik Spiral would end up performing for crowds of seven by March 2002 and the idea of dissolving the band raised its head again.
Enter Max's older brother Mark. While Mark Tyler is now in a fifteen-year sketch for extreme fraud, at the time he was still moving into the property bubble and he'd hit on a scheme to monetarise hipsters: he'd buy cheap, crappy housing in a place that was becoming cool, then flog it to rich poseurs. His trial run was Mirage, a town on the Pennsylvania border that had once been a blue-collar factory town gone to seed; so much gone to seed that artists could afford houses there, turning Mirage into a growing hotbed of creativity. Mark Tyler lied to the desperate Spiral that they were a great band and could do much better in a more creative town, and he had just bought a property that needed a bit of fixing up.
"The toilet wasn't attached to the pipes," said Nick. "Do I need to go on?"
"The house was nice," said Jesse, and when asked how it was nice he fell quiet for a full twenty seconds before saying "I had a waterbed."
Mystik Spiral were soon introduced to a competitive market as Mirage contained many more, and better, bands than Lawndale County. "We got fifty dollars for three sets, which meant we were, uh, salvaging from the bins a lot," Trent says. "That turned out to be good though. We did 'Bin Cuisine', 'Hunger Stains', and 'Dreams of Burgers' from that."
Things were more difficult when Nick's new girlfriend, Charlotte O'Hara, followed them to Mirage. Trent is taciturn about this, while Nick refused to say anything but "I hope she's very happy at Burger World" and Jesse muttered "bad vibes" and tried to hide behind himself. Jane Lane gave us some insight: "she really liked emotional ballads and her best inspiration was her own ups and downs. And that meant she had to, y'know, have some ups and downs. Every time she and Nick had a fight, she made a song about it that told him what he'd done wrong. Taylor Swift is totally biting her style." Max referred to her as a female genital and a toxic influence on the band, "she was the Yoko Ono to our Beatles, the Gallaghers to our Oasis. Nick just took it because he sucks. But not as much as Charlotte."
Charlotte herself agreed to an interview during her lunch break. "Nick and I had a grand, imperious romance of heights and flows; burning with a passion that singed what it touched! The pain brought rewards in music! But his so-called friends kept getting between us, poisoning the well with their talk of 'boundaries'. If not for them, 'An Unsatisfying Manhood' might have been my breakout hit."
It was a rough 2002 and spring 2003 for the band, dealing with relationship drama, starvation budgets, and being painfully out of touch with the audience. Trent is adamant that they only survived due to the patronage of Cubby Starchild, owner of the Cowbane. "He believed in us, man. Right from the start. He let us have one percent of the door takings. He called 'Incontinent Love' 'the soul-birth of a condor'."
He was also the father of Tulip Starchild, a bartender and psychedelic fingerpaint artist who would grow fiercely attached to Trent. Their first date was on July 17th and when we asked Trent about these early days, he spontaneously burst into a performance of his song 'Flower Girl'.
"I banged her first," Max tells us, quite unconvincingly.
"Every time I talked to Trent he'd get really embarrassing about Tulip," says Jane. "Then I asked him about the band and he got really grumpy. I started ranking him on the Daria Grump Scale, he constantly was a 7.4 to 7.9. Now, that was actually a good thing from his perspective -it kept him inspired and nose to the grindstone, well, relatively speaking. For the rest of us, meaning me and Daria, it was kinda sad. Nothing was going well for him except Tulip and he was too stubborn to stop."
The rest of the band, far from home and suffering from extreme Gambler's Dilemma, searched for other jobs to keep the band going. Jesse became a male prostitute and was able to personally replace all the band's equipment with stuff that was good. Nick began tuning the instruments of other, more successful bands -leading to one of his few songs, 'Fucking Elitist Fucks' -but most of the money would go back to Lawndale in alimony or on weed so he could ignore Charlotte. Max was fired from a variety of shop positions until a secret all-businesses pact to blacklist him.
"I didn't see much of Dad back then," says Nick's son Tristan Bloggs, in his final year at Lawndale High. "Mum could only afford to go to Mirage after the Vitale, Schrecter guys had been to the club and Dad had nothing, it was a bit rough. Mum got into a fight with his girlfriend. Mum won. That was cool."
Salvation came out of the blue when Trent played a game of Half-Life Counterstrike and lost. Inspired, he did a song (the now famous 'Low Healthbar') about how much he hated getting shot. This came out in March 29, 2003 -right during the Iraq War. Mistaking the song for a political statement, the artists of Mirage flocked to the Cowbane in their hundreds. In a few days, Mystik Spiral went from being the opening band for opening bands to the most in-demand band in town.
"I had a song about getting shot," Max claims. "Trent bit it, man."
Everything changed now they had an audience. Clubs were forced to offer them a better deal; merchandise began to sell; the band even started to work on having an actual CD at last. News of theme spread throughout New England and the Spiral began touring to places that had an actual population. At a suggestion from Mark Tyler, they left their house in Mirage -"then I sold it for seven times what I paid for!" Mark laughs -and took to the road in a mobile home. Their main gig was in Boston that summer, where they performed for a multi-university Stop The War protest.
"Yeah, that was a bad move," says Aisha Washington, the protest's organiser. "We had fourteen thousand people and one thousand of them left during the set. The people who stayed, they all thought Mystik Spiral were profound and insightful. They said it on camera and that was our credibility gone."
Enough students and radicals saw talent in the Spiral to keep the band touring all over through to the 2004 election and into early 2005. They even got airplay on a few local radio stations, most notably The Krunch in Stilwater, Michigan. "Those guys were the real fucking deal!" says former DJ Korndog (born Algernon Pengeworthy). It seemed like the band finally had a basis for ongoing success.
"And then they did a Spiral," says Daria.
Tensions had built up again during the elongated tour: the band was stuck together in closer quarters, with nowhere to run. Three shows were cancelled in September 2003 after Jesse borrowed Trent's toothpaste without asking, and another two in April 2004 after Max used Nick's roll-on deodorant and said Trent had done it. Trent spent an entire week living on the roof of the RV "to get away from it all" and a horrific brawl broke out after Max ate Mexican food when he knew the windows didn't open all the way down. In one memorable performance in Baltimore, all four band members played different songs to each other because they refused to talk until the others had apologised.
For the first few months, Charlotte followed the band in order to sponge off their new counter-culture success. This left Nick feeling "suicidal", as he reveals. "I started thinking about drugs again. I actually downed a whole bottle of what turned out to be laxatives and - well, we weren't invited back to The Hippy Dip after that." Spiral handled the issue by lying to Charlotte about where they were going and then driving off in the opposite direction.
Girls would continue to be an issue as any time Tulip visited Trent or a groupie came around, the rest of the band had to stay outside the RV. While the band agreed to this, Max grew angry when Jesse started getting substantially more groupies than he did. "He was breaking the spirit of the agreement," he grumbles.
All of this could have been mitigated if they'd brought out a CD but it was the CD that proved the ultimate strain. As it was, they couldn't agree on the cover art or which recording of Paingasm to use. By the end of 2003, the band members were deliberately holding up the CD by using it as a proxy for other conflicts; if one member fell out with another, he'd disagree with everything the other guy wanted on the CD. They produced one single - for 'TP Thief' - in the summer of 2004 but only after the microwave broke & they needed a new one.
"It was embarrassing," sighs Jane. "I told him to get his eye on the prize, he said he had to be careful not to sell out, I said he had to fucking sell SOMETHING! I remember on New Year's Day in 05, he said the tour would last forever."
The tour stopped on February 2005. Now out of favour and with no house in Mirage, the Spiral had to return to Lawndale to rest up. Luckily, grunge was now old enough to be seen a nostalgia act and they were able to get recurring gigs in their old haunts. Trent won't say if this bothered him but "I did keep having these weird dreams of being back in school but old and they wouldn't let me out. Huh."
Something would have to break.
The break came when Tulip proposed to Trent (she'd been advised he'd never remember to do it himself). He said "okay" and she set a wedding date for August 15th, "so as to link our souls to the psychic after-vibes of Woodstock" she says. They seemed to get the 1999 Woodstock instead as Max chose this moment to "take a stand for the MUSIC".
Using post-it notes, he left a New Spiral Manifesto on Trent's front door - it called for "all members" to have greater say, for more Criminaleness, and for band members to be censured "if they put non-band over the band (looking at YOU Trent)". As well as claiming Trent was putting "hos before flows", he called for Nick to be kicked out for "constantly putting that little dipshit [Tristan] ahead of practice". He also wanted more drum solos.
Rumours have circulated for years that Max was put up to this by his brother, in an attempt to gain some monetary control of the band. We asked Mark Tyler about this rumour and he said "well, yeah".
Trent will not say how he feels but he did bust into an a capella version of 'Betrayal'. His friends and wife have confirmed that he was hurt: "Max left him miserable and tuned into some dark anti-vibes, and not in the good way that Trent normally did," says Tulip. "He didn't want to talk about it. He kept changing the subject to Scooby Doo and whether 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo was in canon with the live-action films." (It is) "I try to think good things about all people who don't work in stock markets, but Max was, and I'm sorry to use such reactionary language, a meany. Sorry but that's how I feel."
"Max sucks," Jesse told us. Nick told us a much longer, angrier screed that amounts to the same thing. "And he kept taking MY milk out of the fridge and using it but threw the fridge out the window when he thought anyone had touched his!"
Max told us that he'd been trying to save the band "from itself. Everyone needed a kick up the ass or a kick out on the street! On their ass! You know what married people are like? They're boring and happy. We're a fucking outlaw band, not... not emo!" (He later told us he meant to say something else) "I did what they needed and how do those ungrateful fucks treat me?"
There have been nasty rumours that as well as kicking him out of the band, Spiral TPed Max's van. Jane denies this: "that was me. I went home especially. Daria helped." This latter revelation explains who wrote "As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings" in the dirt on the back of the Tank.
For the first time in fourteen years, the band had no drummer. At first, the band decided to try without one as a statement - Jesse and Trent stuck to guitar, while Nick used synth to do the beat. They managed this for three gigs and one new song, but it became clear that this new style sucked beans. (The song 'We Don't Need You' has since become a cult hit in Japan, however) If they wanted to stay viable, they needed a drummer and their friend Axl wouldn't cut it - the drummer needed to be at least mediocre.
Enter Amelia Pines.
Amelia Pines was born into an Air Force family and moved about the country - she also spent time in Germany - until the age of 12, when her parents settled in Limerick, Maine. It would be a stereotype to say that this left her socially awkward and timid around people, and also very accurate. By her own admission she stayed quiet, did what other people said, and generally was to bullies what a particularly fat mouse is to cats. The one bright spot was when she was twelve and went to Camp Grizzly. This is not due to Camp Grizzly itself - the three-time winner of the Campies' prize for Suckiest Summer Camp - but because she met Daria Morgendorffer.
"I wish you hadn't asked me about that," Daria tells us. "The abridged version is Amelia followed me around star struck by the fact I was surly and obnoxious. Over the next five years she managed to rewrite events at camp so I was the love child of Brando and Dean; that time I threw up because the burgers weren't cooked, that was me deliberately making myself sick so I could strike a liquid blow against the camp's big man."
"Skip got soaked and cried," Amelia says wistfully. "But I realise now I was just building up Daria in my head as this untouchable ideal and not an unpleasant girl with no friends. Don't look at me like that, she knows it's true." (Daria confirmed it was true) "I wanted to have that attitude or be near people with that attitude. But she never came back to camp until the five-year reunion - her parents were going to Canada to escape an in-laws visit and Grizzly was the first camp they found en route - and I'd built her up too much by then. She then knocked herself down for me but! The important thing was she didn't care she was cutting me off. That was the spark: the fact I could say 'I don't give a fuck'. Like right there! I DON'T GIVE A FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK! See, it's awesome."
Standing up for herself, Amelia decided to march to her own drum - taking the term literally, she decided to become a drummer. ("You get to sit down while doing it.") It would take years of practice and many unhappy neighbours to get her to pro status, which would mean post-Max Spiral could hit approximately 47% more of the drum notes. Before that happened though, she'd have to get through high school. After years of being the easiest target since Orson Well's butt, her peers found themselves dealing with a more confident, take-action Amelia.
"So they started bullying me twice as hard. Then I came out and I'd guess about four times as hard. One time I cut my - Uh, sorry. This, this isn't the narrative you wanted, I know. Uhhh... This bitch Tanya, I got suspended after shoving a drumstick up her nose! That's better!"
After half a year of constant abuse, parent disapproval, and calloused hands, Amelia Pine lurched into Maine State and found yet more pressure. She soon fell into a dark crowd: the Music Club and Glee Club, a den of substance abuse, 100-beat solo hazing rituals, and the aggressive optimism-pap remake of the bleakest of Springsteen songs. Things could have gone bad - "I found myself working on a No Surrender cover that thought it was actually a song about not surrendering and I wondered if I'd gone wrong" - when luckily, the Iraq War broke out.
"The Spiral played a set here. It was... it was... It was Spiral."
Amelia dropped out of college and became one of the hard core of Spiral groupies, following them across the country for a memorable few years of busking, long nights with the band, and three jail sentences for jaywalking.
"Amelia always brought her own," says Jesse. "She was cool."
"Yeah, I banged her," Max tells us. When we remind him that Amelia is a lesbian, he said "yeah well you know they all like cock really."
Amelia Pines confirmed for us she doesn't like cock. "You know chickens? When they're dead and in the shop? Um, sorry. I'm sure yours looks better than that."
When the band stopped touring, the groupies all dispersed, and Amelia had to either go home and eat crow or stay in Lawndale. Daria did her a solid and arranged for her to stay in the Morgendorffer house. This meant that when Mystik Spiral needed a new drummer, Amelia was right there. Even so, it took them until January 2006 and four bad drummers to finally choose her.
"Something told us to wait until the time was right," says Trent. Nick, by contrast, admits "she was good at her instrument and it was kinda scary."
The first gig was a disaster as Amelia's good drumming drew attention to everything else. Afterwards, the guitar work and vocals were noticeably more in key. Spiral audiences began to rise again and it's estimated only 70% of the new audience was there because of Amelia's breasts.
"This guy wouldn't stop saying 'show us your tits' so between sets I caught up with - oh, um, nothing happened at all. Daria's mum says I need to keep saying that until statutes run out."
2006 and 2007 saw the band begin to rebuild their position and soon begin touring again, this time with Tulip as a manager. Even more impressively, they produced their first actual CD during the tour: Long Long Road. ("I took their drugs away until they agreed to just fucking do it," says Jane.) In 2007 a combination of the global credit crunch, the 'Surge' in Iraq, and general frustration with the "plot" of Heroes caused Spiral's angsty sound to be sort-of popular again - and they also picked up a new audience, the humble hipster. The Feb 2007 issue of Shallow Magazine (the title is ironic) gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to Heat-Proof Love: "The Spiral take post-modern satire back to neo-Olympian heights. With lyrics like Soothe me with redemption's love, like a heat-proof kitchen glove sung with such deadpan, mocking serious, Mystik Spiral are set to be the biggest ironically hip thing since the On The Buses boxset."
Elsewhere, Max had formed his own "cock grunge" band, Max Power, where he both drummed and sang. He had some success in towns too poor to afford a different band and did get some airplay with his ballad 'Better Than You', but his career grew apart from the Spiral's. This continued to be the case when the recession hit hard in 2008, when Spiral's pessimistic dirge became even more in tune with the times and when even more places were only able to afford Max Power. Both groups were performing across New England, the Virginias, and into Canada, while pretending the other didn't exist. An artistic stalemate existed.
All this would end in 2010 when the internet finally became aware of 'From The Futon'.
From what we have been told off the record, the original uploader -"flywhiteguy" -had just gone into McGrundy's to pee. He caught all of 'From the Futon' and immediately uploaded it to Youtube as "Lol Silliest Band EVER".
It got half a million hits within a week.
"And they still could have pulled a Spiral," Daria reveals. "Luckily, Jane saw the video was trending and we got Amelia to upload some Spiral songs quick. Just two to not flood the market: 'Incontinent Love' and 'Ow! My Face'."
'Incontinent Love' got a million and two thousand viewers in a week. 'Ow! My Face' exploded to three million, plus three abortive attempts to "parody" the song and six covers on Youtube (the swing jazz cover is highly recommended), and then started to get airtime in the UK, Germany, and Australia as a transnational joke. The hits began to pour in and 'Ow!' rose to Number 40 on the UK charts. It was an unstoppable wave "much like stage 3 cancer," as English critic Charlie Brooker put it.
Spiral were now back up there and able to demand more of their venues. "Two glasses of free beer," says Trent.
"My gran said she'd heard my song," Jesse says with a smile. "She asked if this was really what young people liked these days."
"I finally had enough money to buy my son a birthday present that wasn't ass," Nick says quietly.
"I started to get groupies that were girls!" enthuses Amelia. "None were really my type but hey, um, not complaining. But y'know, I really like girls with - uh… I don't like this conversation anymore."
Viral success is, of course, fleeting and by the end of the month Mystik Spiral could have been another Ratmouseor Like A Koopa Trooper. Luck and extreme emotional pain would be on their side when MTV discovered the old video of 'Freaking Friends' gathering dust.
"One of our interns was hiding in a storage room to, well, we disciplined her when we found out why, but the important thing is she found a Mystik Spiral video and decided to investigate," says MTV manager Cindy Brolsma. "We usually don't run music videos anymore, but we made an exception for this because that shit is hilarious."
The Freaking Friends video, of course, had Max in it. Mystik Spiral were asked about this and merely said he was "the old drummer, it didn't work out". Within a day, Max was going to every media outlet who would return his calls and claiming he owned the name "Mystik Spiral". "I stand by that," he tells us. "I came up with the name, that means it's mine. I wasn't creating a ripoff Mystik Spiral, they were ripping me off!"
Trent shrugs: "He could have come up with the name, I guess. It was back in school. I don't really remember much. Of school."
A second Mystik Spiral band was rushed into view, comprised of Max as the lead and a few random people he poached from McGrundy open mike nights. Only a few hours later, Max announced their first album would be called "Ferociousness Unleaded". The cover shows Max pulling a face while the logo says "MYSTIK SPIRAL Ferociousness Unleaded".
It was war.
Everyone who tried to book Mystik Spiral had a 50/50 chance of booking the wrong Mystik Spiral, due to the inherent laziness of the human species. This not only impaired the band's ability to hold gigs, it also left the fanbases of both bands confused and irritated; in West Baltimore, the wrong booking led to the Muzak Club Riot that left fifteen people injured. Alternapalooza ended up booking with groups and let them play at the same time, as Max couldn't agree if being "the opening band" or "the second set" was more insulting to him. An estimated seven people stayed for his performance, one of them the bass player's mum.
"Trent rigged it," Max claims. "I don't know how but he rigged it."
The feud led to two seminal Spiral-classic songs, 'Judas On Drums' and 'Please Just Go Away' (a top ten hit in Sweden). It also led to seven songs of the Ferociousness Unleaded album, with 'Poseur Faggots' being the single (not a top ten hit in Sweden). Max's band soon began putting out anti-Spiral merchandise with such vicious slurs as "TRENT? LAME" and it's been alleged that Max Tyler had anti-Nick bumper stickers plastered on Nick's car, a claim that Max confirmed by saying "I have no idea who did that" while winking at us.
"He also did merchandise about my breasts," says Amelia, "and there was that one song. [I'd Do Her Tits, a Top 10 hit on the Ibiza club circuit] The one about - yeah."
"I really don't know why he kept going on about the other Mystik Spiral," says Barry Barryson, the bass player for Max's band. "We'd, like, be talking about anything else and then Max would just start yelling about them. I mean, we were talking about football one time and he started yelling about how he had bigger balls than Nick Campbell. And he'd keep talking about how Amelia Pine was a slut because she wouldn't blow him or something, I dunno. We really needed the money so we had to stick with it." The rhythm guitarist Drake Penfield, who declined to be interviewed, left the band after he got extra hours at Walmart and was replaced by a random homeless man.
Finally, things came to a head in 2011 when MTV did the Mystik Spiral Takeover and had both bands host one half each - this was both down to shameless controversy baiting and because "we'd been informed Trent would be asleep for half the day", says Brolsma. As Daria Morgendorffer knew the bands, she was invited to contribute a special review from This Sucks.
"This was like asking a shark to keep an eye on the meat factory," she says with a quite disturbing smile.
Max was premiering a new music video, for 'He Vucks The Vag', and gave it to her most notoriously vicious and anti-social reviewers, Beavis and Butt-head. The resulting review was shown live, and Max stormed out of MTV Studios afterwards, swearing and trying to attack a vending machine. Doing so on live television and leaving his band behind saw him branded as a loser, and #maxtylerisapussy trended on twitter for five days.
"His video sucked," 'Butt-head' remembers. "Huh huh."
As Max Tyler's band fall into obscurity and, as of time of writing, can only open for Doors tribute bands, Mystik Spiral entered 2012 in a position of relative strength. Corporate rock finally took notice.
"They were the greatest comedy act I'd ever seen," says Brock Steele, high-flying executive for Cool Tunes Productions. "The Spiral kept the gag going 24/7, it was impressive -that split with Tyler, brilliant performance art. I had to pick them up." When we tell Steele that Mystik Spiral are not a comedy act, he looks appalled. "Oh."
"We did get a contract," says Trent, looking uncomfortable and, indeed, looking everywhere except at our interviewer. "It had all those things in it. Terms and conditions."
"We were being asked to sell out," Jesse remembers. "Selling out is bad. We kept talking about whether to sell out even though we knew it was bad."
"It was a lot of money," says Nick.
"So there was this big debate, y'know, whether we'd be compromising ourselves if we went corporate and what work we could do with the money," adds Amelia. "We were making money but this was a lot more money, this was pension money. But would that be right? Wouldn't that go against everything we claimed to be? We couldn't decide."
"Money," Nick says, with a faraway, dreamy expression.
In the end, the contract was never signed as Trent overslept. To this day, nobody knows if this was an accident or Trent's way of not having to make a decision.
"This conversation is making me uncomfortable," says Trent.
"Well, damn, I was quite upset to lose out on Spiral at the time but if they actually are a bad faux-angsty grunge band, Jesus," says Brock. "I really dodged a bullet there! Wait, does this mean Fetal Metal aren't a parody either?"
So far, this has been the last moment of drama for Mystik Spiral. They have happily coasted along as a midcard hit, still touring and making money across the country and internet. There has been one sign of their mortality and the inevitability of old age though: the birth in 2013 of young Cobain Lane.
Trent smiles. "That was cool."
"The leylines really converged that day," says a happy Tulip. "He already seems to be musically inclined and spiritual, someone who will carry on the music."
"ababagoo," says Cobain, who drooled on us and then fell asleep.
Nick's son Tristan has himself been inspired by his father: "I want to become an accountant. Anything but a musician! You crazy? Uncle Jesse hasn't remembered to wear a shirt since 1997!"
"Trent still owes me a clean one," says Jesse. He's pretty sure he himself has no sons or daughters. "I think."
"My legacy, I'm going to have my grave right next to my granddad's and it'll have a big statue of me with a raised stompy foot and the words 'Was A Lesbian' on it in huge letters -huge rainbow coloured letters," says Amelia, in a rare flash of anger. "Fuck you, old man."
Back at the Zon, the second set has finished and the audience are heading for the bar with fake ID's. We ask one patron, a student at Lawndale High, what she thinks of Mystik Spiral.
"They're, like, really authentic, y'know? Eyes on the prize. I wanna be just like them. But I'll still bathe."
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Jesse and Trent's childhood bands and their 'website' description of them come from MTV's old Daria sub-site Reburb, which pretended to be selling Spiral music; the fanclub, Danny, and Max doing a website are from The Daria Database and the old Mystik Spiral ' website' (which mentions Jane and the CD). Both are sadly lost to the ether since this fic was written. Tulip, Cubby, Mirage, and Max's bro come from the unused Mystik Spiral spinoff script, as found on the Daria DVD boxset.
Brock Steele borrowed with permission from Kristen Bealer's 'Behind the Spiral', Amelia as a USAF family is from a TAG fanfic, and On The Buses is sadly a real thing that really existed and is summarised on Youtube by Harry Enfield v=kB1FgExOvRI . Beavis and Butt-head's review is an in-universe version of their notorious rip on Steve-O ("he should staple his lips shut"), while the FU album is only a slight exaggeration of a real thing Geoff Tate really did when feuding with Queensryche.
(When I originally wrote this, Daria running a version of Channel Awesome seemed a lot less dark than it does in 2018...)