While hardcore punk has existed as a music genre for nearly 40 years, its history in Memphis has been murky at best. Jay Reatard was once quoted as saying that "the Memphis hardcore scene always eats itself," and while that notion is particularly negative, it does hold some truth.
Over the past 15 years, pockets of 50 to 100 supporters have cropped up around venues like the Caravan, the Rally Point, and the Dregs, only to dismantle when the local bands and promoters that helped build those scenes called it quits or moved away.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule (anyone in the longtime running local outfits Clenched Fist or Gringos would tell you that), but for the most part, hardcore punk remains one of the more puzzling factions of the larger underground music scene.
In recent years, venues like Crosstown Arts, Murphy's, and the Hi-Tone have allowed a hardcore scene to grow, but its numbers are nothing compared to the days of the Antenna Club, Barristers, or the wall-to-wall-packed shows at the old Riot on Monroe.
It's interesting, then, to have a local hardcore punk band like Gimp Teeth challenge a scene that more than likely has embraced them out of sheer necessity. Proving their reluctance to be pigeonholed by playing vastly different venues and events, Gimp Teeth could be the band that breaks down the noticeable divide among different factions of underground music in Memphis.
We sat down with frontman Cole Wheeler to find out more about one of the most promising young bands in Memphis and their thoughts on the scene they may or may not belong to.
Flyer: You seem to be the one who got Gimp Teeth rolling. How did you pick the members?
Cole Wheeler: It had been awhile since I had been in a band, and I really wanted to do something different from anything I'd done before. I met my buddy Alexander Swilley going to the Memphis College of Art, and over time, it was clear that we were into the same stuff. We both expressed interest in playing in a hardcore band, and around that time, Swilley mentioned Taylor Loftin as a possible drummer. After that, I asked Connor Booth to play bass. He was someone I already knew through the local skateboarding scene. The four of us got to really know each other after the band had already started.
You've played in some local groups before. What makes Gimp Teeth different from those bands?
The bands I played in before were really heavy and dark, influenced by modern hardcore bands like Cursed [a mid-2000s punk band from Canada] and stuff like that. With Gimp Teeth, I wanted to channel the childish angst I have in a different way. I'm still mad about the same things, but I wanted to present those feelings in a more mature way, a way that was more digestible.
Did you feel like you were going to fill a void in the Memphis music scene when you started the band? Were there any specific local bands that were doing a similar thing when you guys began to play?
Honestly, when the band first got together I had no idea what we were going to create. At first, I was just sitting back wondering what we were going to sound like. I knew that from Taylor's and Connor's backgrounds that it wasn't going to be super heavy or something where I'm screaming at the top of my lungs. It was more a process of "let's just see how this goes." There was a specific point where I knew how we were going to sound and we grabbed hold of that, but I didn't want to be the one in the band pointing a finger, being like, "this is how we are going to sound."
The other members of Gimp Teeth play in projects that are far removed from what I'd call hardcore punk. How does that influence the band's sound?
I always felt like any hardcore scene that existed in Memphis during my time here has always been extremely close-minded. I think the best type of hardcore punk is influenced by other genres. Taylor and Connor didn't grow up going to the same types of shows I did, but their input and what they bring to practice makes it obvious that we aren't just trying things that have been done before.
In that sense, I don't really understand how Gimp Teeth sounds. It's still interesting to me to try to figure out. Obviously, I don't think we are doing anything revolutionary, but at the same time, because of where everyone comes from musically, it sounds just a little bit different from what normally qualifies as hardcore punk.
With the idea in mind that you guys are approaching this type of music from a different angle, how would you say Gimp Teeth fit into the aggressive music scene in Memphis?
When we first started playing, there were members that wanted to get our band integrated with the hardcore scene in Memphis, but I didn't really agree with doing that. I feel like the hardcore scene here is too exclusive, and we are trying to get away from that mentality. There's also violence that goes on at those shows that I don't agree with — people hurting other people just because it's "fun." I didn't want to put our band in that scene, even though I know that's where we should fit.
That explains why you guys play so many different types of shows, from house parties to places like the Hi-Tone.
We are down to play anywhere, especially someone's house. We've played one show that was a straight-up "hardcore show," and before we played, I knew how it was going to go. The whole time we played, people were standing far away from me with their arms folded, being like, "when can I mosh and hurt someone to this music?" You can tell when people are looking for that cue. I don't think we are trying to challenge the listener or the audience. I think the general consensus is that we are a good live band, but people aren't quite sure what it is they just saw. I'd say I'm no more challenging than anyone else who yells into a microphone.
Something I'm sure you've heard before is "I really like the music, I just wish I could understand what the singer is saying." What are some of the things you cover lyrically?
If there was anything I picked up from being young and going to hardcore shows, it's that the audience could always relate to the lyrics. I love being able to write stuff like that, but I want to do it in a more adult way. I don't just want to scream about why I don't believe in God. I want to go deeper than that. If you think about Lou Reed and how he was talking about heroin in a genre of music where no one was talking about stuff like that, I'd like to do that in the hardcore scene. Find the things that people aren't talking about and expose them.