by Nick Hanover
Photos by Adrian Gandara
Zeale is in the middle of telling me some of the reasons why he feels getting out of Austin is necessary for Blastfamous USA’s success when the cop pulls up. We’re standing on a public street across from Brew and Brew, where one of the largest construction sites in the city has taken over the east side, and we’re using that as a backdrop. No one in the neighborhood seems disturbed at our presence. They don’t really seem to notice us. They didn’t even seem to care when we had Zeale pretend to scale a fence. But Zeale’s cohorts NGHT HCKLRS are wearing ski masks and this, apparently, is a problem.
“What are you guys doing?!”
“We’re doing a photo shoot, sir. They’re a band.”
Our photographer Adrian Gandara continues shooting Blastfamous. Zeale remains silent and stoic. I try to keep the officer focused on me.
“They’ve got ski masks on!” he shouts, angrily pointing at NGHT HCKLRS who are indeed wearing ski masks, as well as gold chains with medallion versions of those ski masks.
“It’s just their costume, sir. ”
“I don’t care what it is! Don’t you know what’s been going on? There’s a bomber! Someone’s going to call this in!”
“Someone’s going to call this in! You look like terrorists! I’m going to be back around here and you better have those things off by then.”
The cop peels out in his SUV. As Adrian maneuvers the band around to get a shot from a lower angle, Zeale asks “Does that mean the bomber didn’t blow himself up and he’s still on the loose?” We all ponder this for a moment and then go back to talking about all the ways Austin is changing for the worse.
If that APD officer had a chance to hear Blastfamous USA’s self-titled debut EP, he’d probably come away even more convinced the trio really were some kind of noise terrorists. The group didn’t just set out to make waves with their first release, they seemed intent on waging war on the status quo in whatever ways they could.
Take that EP’s defining moment, “Air Raid on America,” an intense and frenzied anthem that delivers on its title with a 10 point plan for destroying Trump’s America, whether by blowing up his walls or “putting a fist in his teeth.” The song culminates in Zeale urging listeners to “do everything you can to make the empire fall” and the group’s visuals have stressed that anarchic furor, with militant cover art and merch and footage of them literally marching in the streets.
There are a number of politically-minded acts rising to the top of hip hop at the moment but between the cacophony of sirens and bomb burst bass and Zeale’s snarling delivery, few artists feel as dangerous as Blastfamous USA, particularly when you factor in the audience reaction to their live set.
Blastfamous’ ability to ignite crowds is something they’re very much aware of and something that was present the moment NGHT HCKLRS and Zeale discovered each other.
“What stood out to me about NGHT HCKLRS when I first saw them was the power in their show, without a frontman or vocalist,” Zeale tells me.
“It’s not contrived, for us it has also been a surprise” explains drummer Deano “DJ Murda Gloves” Cote, “I think a lot of it has to do with our chemistry as friends. Kevin and I have played together a long time and no matter what else has gone on before we get on stage, it just happens. As soon as we start playing, it seems to just turn up, all of us are giving every bit of ourselves and once that happens there’s this immense energy that I think everyone in the audience picks up on.”
Zeale agrees and states that a lot of the ideas for what would become their debut EP came straight from NGHT HCKLRS’ live show, which he soon joined after seeing them for the first time, free styling over their music while a crew of masked dancers flanked him and NGHT HCKLRS. They would then obsessively record these shows in order to listen back to what worked so they could better capture that energy when it came time to put it to tape.
“But then we decided to write songs instead,” counters Zeale, laughing.
“Jamming can get a little monotonous,” Naquin adds, nodding.
“Once we started to get more focused, we noticed people really responded to certain themes, so we made those themes a bigger part of the songs,” Zeale explains.
The band is quick to add that the politics were never forced, though, they happened naturally and it was an organic outgrowth of the emotions the band and the audience were expressing together.
Talking about the process that went into making “Air Raid on America,” one of their first creations, Naquin says Zeale’s delivery was so natural and charismatic it proved to him the project was going to be big. “For me it wasn’t about the content as much as it was about hearing Zeale’s voice over our stuff and being like ‘Oh yeah, dude, this shit can work.’ It just fit.”
Naquin is also eager to separate Blastfamous from the type of music that usually comes to mind when people think of political acts— dour, self-serious, overly intellectual. “In times like these, I think it’s important that people have fun and do themselves. That’s the biggest part, for me, of rebelling against any kind of system or authority: still having your independence and your individuality.”
Zeale interjects at this point, teasing Naquin. “Go on, say it…”
“Nah, man, I’m not gonna say it now.”
“‘Party with politics,’ that’s his thing now.”
“I’m just saying, I’ve seen conservative frat boys come out to our shows and they have a good time and lose their shit then they hear a lyric and I think it’s eye opening for them and maybe they question themselves. It’s like Paul Ryan saying he likes Rage Against the Machine. Like really dude? Question that! Question why you liked them and how it fit into your ideology and how you thought it spoke to you in that way.”
As much as Zeale might enjoy ribbing Naquin about the “party with politics” catchphrase, he’s onto something. Blastfamous’ music is first and foremost catchy, with Cote’s martial drumming and Naquin’s buzzing synth hooks more closely aligning the band with the likes of Gorillaz and fellow electro-punks BLXPLTN than the more meditative political rap of The Coup or Kendrick Lamar.
To make their grand ambitions even clearer, for their upcoming second EP, Blastfamous enlisted the help of some of Austin’s best and most innovative talent, including BLXPLTN as well as Mobley, Fort Never vocalist Chantell Moody (who featured in the group’s earliest shows as a ski mask-clad dancer) and Zeale’s long time freestyle peer Phranchyze. As hard hitting and populist as Blastfamous’ debut was, the follow-up is bigger, grander and more infectious. Or as Zeale puts it, “At the end of the day, we all just want to make the dopest shit we possibly can for the city of Austin.”
This is also arguably precisely why the band needs to get away from Austin in order to attain the success they so rightfully deserve, because as the band attests, this city often struggles to repay that passion for artists of color.
Blastfamous is appreciative of the coverage they have received, particularly following their impressive showing at this year’s SXSW, but they are frustrated that the music they and acts like BLXPLTN make is still somewhat pigeonholed by local press and venues as fringe rather than populist music even though at this point, the band is one of the rare Austin acts that seems to bring out a loyal crowd wherever they go.
Bringing together artists they admire on their new EP and at their residency this month at Swan Dive, then, isn’t something they’re doing just because of existing ties but also as an effort to force the city to pay more attention to what’s going on outside of the indie, folk and country spheres. Indeed, everything about the band, from their colossal sound to their communal approach to booking to their distinct visuals, is designed to force jaded Austin crowds to pay attention. Naquin jokingly even suggests that things actually started to go better when he and Cote started covering up their faces. “Thank god I don’t have to look at those two dudes anymore,” he says, imitating a hypothetical audience member.
The band is also more conscious now of creating “scarcity” with their performances and not overdoing it on the booking front.
“That’s part of why we’re doing this residency,” Zeale states, “To bring as many people as we can into the fold before the record is released [in July] and then taking a long hiatus after to record and parlay that into some relationships for us in LA. We’ve had long conversations about it and we think that in order to reach the level that we want to be at, we have to be somewhere like Los Angeles, because it kind of sets the stage for the rest of the world.”
“There comes a time in every band’s life where they have to leave home, y’know?” declares Naquin, “They have to move out of the house.”
Zeale goes on to point out that he thinks more and more local bands of this generation are realizing that if they want to be on a bigger stage, they have to leave Austin.
“I told some people who kind of run this scene that the industry has also got to catch up to the artistry,” Naquin says, “There’s no music industry here.”
I point out that in Austin, this is often seen as a controversial stance that flusters more established pros.
“Well, fuck ‘em. The truth is unfortunately this is why Austin artists have to go to LA or New York in the first place.”
Zeale knows better than most local artists how true this is, both through his own solo work and the efforts of others.
“I have a friend named AD who’s a fantastic guitar player and he had a good sized following and buzz for himself after being in Austin for years. A couple months ago he went to Nashville and he told me at SXSW ‘I’ve made more progress and done more work and made more money in Nashville two months than I did my entire life in Austin.’ There’s actual infrastructure there and now he’s writing for all these big bands and playing with national touring acts because he relocated. That’s the reality. Every musician wants to romanticize their city but unfortunately we’re not musicians in LA or New York or Nashville, so we have to understand that this isn’t a place we can stay.”
“Austin is the best place to cut your teeth, sure,” Naquin says.
“You just can’t eat,” jokes Zeale.
When I ask about the rise of non-profits trying to fill some of those behind the scenes needs, like SIMS and HAAM and the selective grant-based organization Black Fret, the band acknowledges that they help but argue it’s not enough.
“I think HAAM and SIMS are amazing services, I wish they were offered all over the country. That is unique to Austin,” agrees Zeale. “But they’re not enough to provide everything else you need as an artist. In terms of people like Black Fret, I appreciate what they do and what they’re trying to do, but I think it could be facilitated better.”
“Well, I guess we’re not playing their party this year,” Naquin retorts, laughing.
“I’m not knocking them, I’m just saying the way they facilitate it could be better. Like any organization there’s room to improve,” Zeale states, nodding to community concerns over the artists Black Fret’s members select each year, which typically skew towards radio friendly singer-songwriters and indie bands.
But this is why Blastfamous USA is so gung ho on exploring new terrain. The group appreciates what Austin has done for them and how it continues to evolve but they’re not willing to get complacent here when better opportunities may emerge elsewhere, even if they come with the risk of starting from scratch in a new area.
“The audiences in Austin have given us amazing reactions,” says Cote, “But I want to see how a crowd in New York reacts, how a crowd in LA reacts, the rest of the country. And if it’s anything like how the people of Austin reacts, I think we can take it to the rest of the world from there.”
“Something tells me crowds like LA and New York are going to react way bigger than they do even here in Austin,” Zeale suggests, “We’ve got an amazing buzz here but I think it’s going to be amplified.”
Fans who have been to Blastfamous’ shows know that’s not unfounded bravado either, so there’s good reason to trust that this band not only has the talent to reach those national crowds but the drive and focus as well. Until then, catch them while you can and be sure to do everything you can to help make the empire fall.
Blastfamous USA’s residency at Swan Dive begins tomorrow, Saturday April 7th with Guilla, The Influence and Oliver Penn.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover