It’s snowing in Chicago, and three teenagers have filled a gloomy little shed with instruments and amplifiers. Makeshift pads insulate the sound, or at least the teenagers presume so as they haven’t had a noise complaint for the many weeks they’ve been working. Finally, they’ve finished writing what will be their first proper extended play release. This week they were been couped up in the shed for days, only bracing the cold outside to smoke cigarettes on the wet swing set, a chance to recollect. The warm shed is the locus of labour, the stark Chicago blizzards are where these three boys find their solace. Tonight, they smoked a bunch of salvia and one of them has collapsed on the floor. He sees three figures hovering around the shed, apparitions which he will later call the ‘Time Police’ for reasons only known to himself. He turns to his two band mates and he says “I think I am in La La Land”. “You think you are in Lava Land?” responds one of the other salvia-stained two. “Yeah,” says the hallucinating one, “yeah I think I am in Lava Land”. The three of them, and maybe even the three Time Police, know that this is going to be the name of the album.
It is hard pinpoint exactly what it was that made Piglet‘s 2005 EP Lava Land such a landmark album. Bassist Ezra still can’t pick it. In my interviews with Ezra, his answers were forthright and matter-of-fact, but never terse. On the contrary, he asked me as many questions as I did of him and Piglet. The more I spoke to him, the more he struck me as a guy who is methodical, goal-oriented and with complete control of his systems and goals. Still, he didn’t have the answer for this bleeding question.
Looking through the annals of early 2000’s math rock, one of the more likely reasons that Lava Land garnered so much acclaim was simply that Piglet played faster. Bands like Oxes, Ent and Volta Do Mar were bringing the guitar-led complexity to math rock, but Piglet added the speed. Lava Land’s now-famous opener ‘bug stomp’ showcases guitarist Asher and Ezra both engaging in the frenzied picking and tapping typified by thrash stalwarts like Kerry King and Scott Ian. Matthew’s percussion is equally wild and technical, often overwhelming. Sure, Hella were making some waves down in Sacramento with fast and frenetic math rock releases like Hold Your Horse Is and There’s No 666 In Outer Space. Sure, the clean-toned tapping thing was already being pushed forward by guys like Ian Williams in Don Caballero and Mike Sullivan in Dakota/Dakota. But it was Piglet that combined these elements: the guitar-work is brash and impetuous but void of distortion, instead having soft, soothing quality. Together, this contrast provided an unusual, overwhelming and almost psychedelic sensory experience.
Of course, this is all unsurprising in some respects. Prior to Piglet, skateboarders Asher and Matt were in an abrasive, thrashy grindcore band called Seyarse, a product of their scene in many ways. Bassist Ezra moved to Chicago in his freshman year of high school in 2001. Ezra, the youngest of the trio, began jamming with Asher and introducing him to the finger-tapping technique he had been incorporating into his own learning after hearing bands like Minus The Bear and Pele, but also from bass greats of his childhood years like Victor Wooten and Les Claypool. Sure, the technique was a bit dumb and gimmicky, but it was immensely fun, particularly when the two of them were doing it simultaneously. While Ezra brought the kindling, in the form of the technique, Asher brought the fire. His musical imagination was vast, and tapping only expanded this further.
In 2003, Ezra proposed a new project to Asher and Matt, one that incorporated the pent-up energy of Seyarse but executed it in with softer more melodic undertones. Given the musicianship that Asher and Matt already shared in Seyarse, this new project would provide a new backdrop to explore and build on. ‘Piglet’s Big Movie’ had hit the cinemas that year, and their hometown suburb of Highland Park was predominantly a Jewish neighbourhood. These were some of the loose inspirations that lead to the trio agreeing rather indifferently that their new band would be called Piglet.
Aside from the regular house gigs (some of which have made it online), Piglet played many shows at the Fireside Bowl, a then combined music venue and bowling alley in downtown Chicago. Between 1994 and 2004, the Fireside Bowl was the key locale for Chicago’s underground rock scene. Punters couldn’t miss it’s the beacon that adorned its entrance: a giant skittle with ‘Bowling’ in lurid, neon lettering. Grand Ulena, featuring guitarist Chris Trull of Yowie and bassist Darin Gray of Dazzling Killmen. A suite of other math rock bands took the stage at the Fireside Bowl: So Many Dynamos, The Stella Link, Kelpie and a then unknown Maps And Atlases. While the Fireside Bowl remains a bowling alley, it’s music venue component has long since been abandoned. The place needed to grow up. The combination of beer stench, fungal growth and haggard toilets was certainly great for retaining the punk rock ambience, but it was arguably not a hit with the bowling clientele.
Following the intense writing period in Asher’s shed, Lava Land was recorded in 2005 at WLUW, a college radio station. Ezra graduated from high school. WLUW had a small studio with a huge mixing board and a competent producer, Erik Butkus. The record was released by a small label run called Arborvitae Records, who had a string of successful releases under their belt, including math rock bands like Volta Do Mar, Oso, and DMS (a solo project of American Football’s Steve Lamos). Arborvitae Records also commissioned Lava Land’s oddball cartoon artwork: a rollercoaster ride through a field of volcanoes.
Despite their readiness to embark on interstate tours (despite still being in high school, the band made heaps of mileage using Asher’s fresh driver’s license and a clunky Chevy Astro), eventually Piglet reached a point where it wasn’t sustainable. At their highest point as a band, Asher and Ezra were both working as bike messengers to make ends meet, a job that often involved impacts with cars. The bands that were succeeding financially were the ones that were giving in to the formulaic styles of song writing. For Piglet, it was more meaningful to side with their art and their laurels, and decided to put the project to rest in 2007 (unbeknownst to the cult following that would eventually fund the vinyl re-release of their albums). Asher went on to complete a doctorate at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and subsequently became a surgeon. Ezra is a web developer in Portland. Asher and Ezra don’t exactly know where Matt Parrish is nowadays and seemed reticent to give any more comment. I respected their wishes and didn’t press any further.
The questions remain: how did Lava Land become such an exemplary math rock record? How did Piglet attain such a dedicated following 12 years after their demise? How does a band with a single EP to their name, and virtually no photos or videos online, get pushed from obscurity to the digital age to the hearts of new generations of math rock fans? I don’t know. But here we are.