The Shape of Punk revisits some of the seminal albums turning 20 years old in 2018, tracing their impact and influence on the future of the scene.
San Diego’s punk scene was fiercely creative and strangely incestuous in the early 90s. Be it the Rick Froberg and John Reis partnership that started with the band Pitchfork and would spin off into bands like Drive Like Jehu and Rocket From The Crypt, or the Gravity Records scene, which featured bands like Heroin, Clikatat Ikatowi, and Antioch Arrow all sharing members at various points, the musicians in San Diego rarely anchored themselves to a single band. As a result, musicians could often spin up new projects to explore different ideas and sounds with relative ease, and no band personified that freedom as much as The Locust did on their 1998 self-titled debut album.
Formed in 1994, it took a few years for The Locust to settle into itself. At the helm of the band initially were Justin Pearson and Dylan Scharf, whose other band, Struggle, was about to come to an end. As they recruited Dave Astor, Bobby Bray, and Dave Warshaw, they quickly began paving a path out of the powerviolence-indebted sound they were working with, and they flexed their developing identity on their early split releases with Man Is The Bastard and Jenny Piccolo. But it took some lineup shifting, including Joseph Karam and Gabe Serbian joining the ranks, for The Locust to truly find themselves.
While The Locust started as a band that fit in with their hardcore peers, once they settled on a visual aesthetic, they really began to stand out. Much like Ink & Dagger’s mining of vampirism for all it was worth, The Locust’s focus on sci-fi and entomology would begin to manifest in their artwork and lyrics as early as 1998. Their bug obsession was featured on the cover of The Locust, a play on a classic monster movie poster featuring terrified humans running away from a giant insect. Within a few years, the band would bring their bug theme to life by donning increasingly elaborate costumes—or as they preferred, uniforms—which became integral to the band’s persona. But long before they got expressly theatrical, those elements were already present in their music.
The Locust’s mish-mash of grindcore, punk, and new wave was not only novel, it was distinctly memorable. Opening with “Moth-Eaten Deer Head,” the band threw the listener into a world that felt unlike anything else in hardcore. After an ambient wash built, one meant to suggest an approaching horde of locusts, the band jumped into manic blast beats and melodic keyboard lines that kept the listener tethered to the chaos. And while the lyrics were basically indecipherable, a cursory glance at the liner notes felt like jumping into a pulpy sci-fi film. “Damn it, Jim. I’m not a magician. And actually not even a doctor,” the lyrics supposedly go, taking an influence from bands like Carcass but eschewing the gory details and bringing you right into the moment after all the carnage unfolds and the characters are left unpacking the collateral damage.
There was a sense of world-building going on with The Locust, as the visuals, music, and lyrics touched on subjects that were never totally aligned with hardcore. Though it wasn’t totally rare for a punk album to run less than 20 minutes, The Locust covered a lot of ground in the LP's 16-and-a-half minutes, as they wrote songs that felt unburdened by punk’s traditions. The songs could be noisy and abrasive, but they’d shift on a dime toward something that, against all odds, was actually kind of catchy.
But for as alienating and intense as The Locust were, they found a foothold in more mainstream hardcore. Their costumes and imagery certainly didn’t hurt their cause, but the fact that their next full-length album, 2003’s Plague Soundscapes would get released by ANTI-, the more artful offshoot of Epitaph Records, felt like a coup. Much like their peers in San Diego, the members of The Locust never treated the band like a business. They’d spin off other side-projects, like Cattle Decapitation, Some Girls, and Holy Molar, and remained true to their ethics even when they could have easily let those things slip. The band famously boycotted venues owned by Clear Channel—the company that would become Live Nation in 2005—and also trolled people as much as they could. Whether it was Pearson appearing on The Jerry Springer Show, telling a made-up story while wearing a Locust shirt, or doing an interview with a local Fox affiliate in full Locust garb, the band used whatever means they could to turn their subversive musical attack into a multimedia assault.
The future that the band built on The Locust would eventually catch up with them, though, as it soon became less strange to hear hardcore and grindcore bands using keyboards and synthesizers as part of their attack. It’d be disingenuous to blame the rise of scene-core on The Locust, even if their music allowed plenty of lesser bands to explore similar territories. The fact that a ton of late-2000s Warped Tour acts would add keyboard parts to their breakdowns certainly felt like a move derived from The Locust, yet those bands had a fraction of the artistic intent of their forebears. And while The Locust wore their uniforms onstage, Pearson’s offstage style would make him a cult of personality for a budding scene. Detractors would often lay the scourge of white belts and so-called “sass-core” at Pearson’s feet, and Locust fans would routinely heckle the band at shows, but all of that was secondary to the band’s intent.
In the modern day, it’s harder to find bands that draw a direct line back to The Locust than it was a decade ago. While a band like The Armed used their album Only Love to explore similar territories by adding melodic keyboards to their chaotic noise, The Locust were always singular in scope. By looking at a band like The Armed, it’s easy to see that perhaps The Locust’s legacy is not one that’s expressly about sonics, but about how bands can package themselves in a way that fucks with people’s perception of what a band is and what it’s supposed to look like.
Though The Locust has spent much of the last decade inactive, its members have continued pushing forward in ways that feel true to the band’s original goal. Pearson and Serbian have played in a number of bands together, including Dead Cross, Head Wound City, and Retox, spreading themselves across multiple projects, as they did in the 90s. Only now, their new bands feature people like Mike Patton and Slayer’s Dave Lombardo. While The Locust remains the most successful of their shared projects, the manner in which the band formed, and grew into the beast it became, still resonates. As The Locust proved, punk is a place where you can make whatever weird thing you want to see in the world without compunction. And if you ever get tired of doing it, well, there’s no harm in starting something else either.