by Morgan Davis
The past few nights I’ve been unable to go to sleep at anything resembling a normal time. Instead I’ve been reading up on the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, where a young, unarmed black man named Mike Brown was shot several times by a police officer for questionable reasons. The police response to this horrible crime has been less than satisfactory for the community and after a peaceful protest was met by squadrons of police rolling out of Armored Personnel Carriers decked out in military hardware with attack dogs at their side, rioting and looting broke out. On Twitter, a Ferguson Alderman (city official) named Antonio French has been posting pictures and videos from the scene, as well as compiling worthwhile articles on the subject, but he’s already had a police officer in body armor point an assault rifle at his face and tell him to fuck off. The situation was borne out of violent silencing of a disenfranchised individual and it continues to escalate because authorities continue to attempt to silence an entire community. There is righteous fury in the air and nothing has been able to translate that fury for me as well as BLXPLTN.
I guess it was close to exactly a year ago when I first learned about BLXPLTN. Khattie Q, the band’s guitarist and resident screamer, is a barista at a coffee house I spend way too much time in. One day she mentioned to me she was learning to play guitar for a new project. I asked the name and she told me “Blaxploitation, but it’s spelled BLXPLTN.” I was pretty much sold then and there, to the point that I booked them for a show at Spider House Ballroom on November 2nd and invited them to play my Halloween house party.
If that sounds like an overly spontaneous decision on my part, you’re right, it was. But Khattie is the kind of person you innately trust, the kind of person who serves as a magnet for great ideas and people. Perpetually smiling and decked out in a frenzy of dreads, Khattie is charming and funny and fearless and I figured anyone she was making music with would be equally excellent. The risk paid off and then some.
This was a typical North Loop house party crowd, on a typical Halloween; we were nearly all white twentysomethings, half of us were in some kind of graduate program, nearly none of us were originally from Austin. And BLXPLTN, even that early on, was a ferocious live act, made even more ferocious by the lack of a stage. Crammed into a corner of my small house, speakers shoved onto high stools, facing down a bunch of sweaty white kids, BLXPLTN’s electro-punk blitzkrieg was immediately more vital and life saving than anything this crowd had seen before. I know, because I’ve been at, played and booked shows since I was a dipshit teen and I’ve never seen a crowd so completely blown away. And this has been my experience every single time I’ve seen BLXPLTN play, no matter the size of the crowd or the venue.
When I caught up with BLXPLTN at their recent Empire Control Room show, the trio are fully aware of their impact on crowds, but not in an egotistical way. Jonathan Horstmann, who plays bass and synth in BLXPLTN but also fronts ATX indie darlings Mighty Mountain, summed it up pretty well when he said “there is nothing more punk rock than seeing three black, queer musicians playing shows in Austin.”
BLXPLTN offer a multitude of unheard perspectives, all of which are in danger of being erased in the city, and audiences seem to draw as much from their radical presentation as the music itself. Crowds that wind up at a show BLXPLTN is playing with no knowledge of the band end up permanently altered, enlightened by the potency of their message and forced to confront the reality about Austin’s progressiveness in a way that is exciting and catchy rather than preachy.
Every revolution has a soundtrack. When BLXPLTN formed about a year ago, the US was already in the midst of massive racial strife. Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman had not only gone free but had achieved a disgusting kind of celebrity. Others had taken his example and were murdering black youth with seemingly no repercussions. A few days after the Halloween party and one day after the Spider House show BLXPLTN played alongside fellow aggro musical rebels Space Camp Death Squad, Theodore Wafer shot and killed 19 year old Renisha McBride after she came to do his door for help. BLXPLTN came into being at the moment they were most needed.
This is why when a local promoter jokes online that post-rockers Chipper Jones are, to paraphrase the Clash, “the only band that matters” in Austin, I just mutter “bullshit” out loud to myself. No disrespect to the promoter or Chipper Jones but in a city where the black population is disappearing at a depressing rate while the nation itself seemingly targets black voices, how could any band matter more than BLXPLTN?
At the heart of BLXPLTN is Taszlin Rico Muerte, a frontman who uses his band to express his rebirth and his desire to escape a fate he believes society has forced on him. Every conversation with TasZ is a learning experience, about his past and the city he calls home and what music can really mean. TasZ is a mixture of contradictions, a warm, friendly dude who looks like a character from The Warriors; a queer man who came up in the hip-hop community and has served prison time; a punk who plays a drum machine.
Our interview at Empire started with TasZ setting a pair of die down on the table, telling me that depending on if I roll a 9 or an 11, I get to ask the questions, but if I roll a 7, he gets to ask me some questions. I rolled a 9 but I wish I’d rolled a 7 because I really wanted to know what TasZ had to ask– his path to personal enlightenment has me endlessly intrigued, maybe there’s something I could learn there too.
Maybe what draws me to TasZ most is that he doesn’t shy away from his fuck-ups. Not many people are willing to be open about their shortcomings, but TasZ is a frank guy who wants to talk about what he’s done, what he could do better and what others can learn. In the time I’ve known BLXPLTN, they’ve been involved in one real controversy, after TasZ and some friends got into an altercation with some young men at Hotel Vegas that resulted in property getting busted and hateful speech being thrown around. Not long after, TasZ went to social media to explain why violence is still an instinct for him, and his struggles to hold back that instinct, not just for his own well-being but because he recognizes that when the disenfranchised fight one another, the only real winner is a system that keeps them relegated to the bottom of society.
Everything TasZ does is an education, including the recording process the band has gone through while making their debut album. Paired with members of And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and the Mars Volta, TasZ said “the experience has taught me to be a better drummer,” while Khattie and Jonathan agreed the process has opened their musical horizons. Jonathan ascribed a lot of the education to the fact that the band has moved around different spaces for the recordings, utilizing everything from Ringo Deathstarr’s practice space to the bedroom of their producer (and Ringo Deathstarr member) Elliott Frazier’s bedroom. But Khattie and Jonathan are both quick to joke that TasZ “is a robot.”
“Well, I’m learning to be a robot,” he counters. “But I’m also learning how to channel my emotions and still keep my playing tight.”
The situation in Ferguson has grown into something many Americans struggle to even believe. Antonio French, the city official turned domestic war correspondent and hero of Ferguson’s black community, has been arrested for the crime of not turning his back on his people. Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly, reporters for the Washington Post and Huffington Post, were arrested and harassed seemingly for the crime of being in the wrong McDonald’s at the wrong time. They were released, but only due to the intervention of the LA Times’ Matt D Pearce, who apparently broke the news to Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson; Jackson claimed he and his “staff were unaware of the arrests until notified by a reporter.”
Heavily armed and armored police are marching on the population of Ferguson, firing tear gas and rubber bullets on protestors who are not only unarmed, but also have their limbs in the air while declaring they are being peaceful. Ferguson has been a No Fly Zone for a couple days. Mike Brown’s murderer remains unnamed. The APCs continue to roll. The president has not sent in the National Guard. There is no sign that this will end anytime soon. It’s like something out of a post-apocalyptic film, or maybe something from what previously would have been considered a cynical, conspiratorial punk song.
It’s basically “Start Fires.”
BLXPLTN’s audio debut was “Stop and Frisk,” a grimy, near industrial blast of anger that begins with nearly indecipherable screaming by Khattie before TasZ and Jonathan chant the song’s title on the chorus. When we covered it in January, we called it “protest ready.” In March, Afropunk interviewed the band and released another song, the synth-heavy “Train,” a song that seemingly documents TasZ’s escape from self-described stagnation, which came from being overworked as a stylist and self-medicating some personal issues. And less than a month ago, Vice music blog Noisey premiered the band’s crowning achievement to date, the call-to-arms that is “Start Fires.”
As TasZ told Afropunk, he never intended to make BLXPLTN a political band, but “people are gonna politicize us anyway, cause we’re all people of color.” That leaves Jonathan to be the agitator in the group, though you’d never suspect it from his zen calm.
“If you have a megaphone to use, to say something, say something that matters,” Jonathan explained to Afropunk, “I think that more aggressive music is a really good vehicle for that. I mean you can say ‘peace and love’ all the time, like Kumbaya, but sometimes you have to burn some shit.”
All three personalities collide in a way that is especially interesting on “Start Fires,” from the way TasZ hits his drum pad like he’s taking his inherently political identity out on the music itself to Khattie’s siren wail to Jonathan adept use of the megaphone. Everything about “Start Fires” is designed to keep you hooked—it’s a protest song on electronic instruments rather an acoustic guitar. Jonathan’s vocals emerge from a fleet of catchy synth lines to shout “Calling all the casualties/Of the state and soul,” going on to explain “I’ve had an epiphany/And I can’t let go.” The epiphany is a checklist of systemic racism, maneuvering from the inequality of home financing to the part an overcrowded penal system plays in maintaining a permanent lower class and then it gets prophetic:
“Frightening regularity and violent overload.
Trial for a tragedy. Be careful where you go.
Watch your back if you’re black.
I guess that’s how it goes.”
Ferguson had an anthem a month before another tally mark noting the “frightening regularity” of unnecessary black deaths in America caused it to reach “violent overload,” but none of us knew. Even the song’s chorus, with its plea to “stop fighting” and instead “set fires” to the system, draws eerie parallels as Ferguson is blanketed in smoke and tear gas and the most iconic photo of the battle is a young black man hurling a flaming tear gas canister back at his oppressors. The second half of the chorus, though, is focused on the paradox of TasZ’s reluctance around being made political and Jonathan’s more enthusiastic embrace of the power of political music, with Khattie situated in the middle: TasZ is the silent stalking tiger, Jonathan the proud lion and while their approaches may be different, they’re still hunting basically the same thing.
“It’s hard being in a band and being a person of color in this town,” TasZ told me at Empire, “and it’s even harder when every person in your band is a person of color. People make assumptions about you. Even ‘progressive’ people. We had to put in a metaphorical crow bar just to get in here. But now we’re here and we’re saying to other people of color, rock and roll is our music, we started it, and we’re here to stay. We’re part of this community whether you like it or not. Recognize us.”
“I feel like there’s a tide coming,” Jonathan added, “Not a red tide, but a black tide, and we want to lead that march.”
I’ve been working on this BLXPLTN profile for longer than I should have, but not out of procrastination or disinterest. The story just won’t stop developing. At that party almost a year ago, from the moment BLXPLTN started to play, I genuinely felt like I was witnessing some supercharged moment of cultural history that would grow beyond everyone involved. That may be hyperbole, an ultimate no-no of pop culture reporting, but that tide Jonathan mentioned looks like it’s here. The circumstances couldn’t be more unfortunate, but these three artists couldn’t be a better suited group to lead that march.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.