Listening to Octavius’ 2001 debut Electric Third Rail is like getting your ass kicked by circus midgets. It ain’t the most pleasant experience in the world, but man, talk about memorable.
The record is dark, a sinister amalgam of noisy drones, abstract blithers, distant rhythms, and portentous lyrics. Though rooted in beats and samples, the sounds are mangled to the extent that the music is no longer recognizable as hip-hop, electronica, rock, or anything else. And if the thrill of a Wu-Tang album is that its musicians may actually be badass enough to pull off a drive-by, the thrill of Third Rail is that the dudes in Octavius sound like they may actually be warped enough to be serial killers: men with a sick vision of the world and a deep-seeded love for sci-fi, Salinger, and primer-gray vans without windows.
But apparently this is a common misconception.
“We went to San Jose to do a radio interview and there’s a guy cowering in the corner while we were in the studio,” explains Jason Chavez, aka DJ 4AM, who’s seated in a dark and noisy bar on Haight Street alongside Gino Cruz (guitars), Nathaniel Eras (programming, Theremin), and the founder of Octavius, William Marshall (vocals, programming). “Afterward he’s like, ‘You guys are really nice.’ He was afraid of us! We were in there cracking jokes — ’cause we’re nice guys — but this guy just thought we were gonna do something horrible to him because of the record.”
You really can’t hold it against the interviewer. After all, what should one expect from a band whose record’s first three minutes sound like a swarm of locusts? The rest of the album features churning beats, Marshall’s haunting monotonic rapping, and sounds that are akin to a microphone being dragged across a shag carpet, coating the entire LP in an eerie gossamer film.
Hip-hop crowds might find Octavius’ music too industrial and too dark, while fans of electronica may crave a more discernible beat. Rock fans might want more structure, and people who like abstract or experimental music will probably think it sounds too much like it’s trying to be hip-hop, electronica, rock, or — something. There is no existing audience for what this band does, and the members know it — yet they’re still happy to sit around a table and outline their high hopes that their new album, Audio Noir, is gonna nab them a record deal and sell at least 200,000 copies. Just what exactly makes them think they can pull this off?
Octavius started out as Marshall’s alias for all things music-related. He chose the name for what he saw as its ominous, albeit ambiguous quality (a search for “octavius” in Google will yield over 70,000 results, the majority of which refer to the Roman emperor Augustus/Octavius Caesar). He grew up around the globe (his mom is a medical technician in the US Air Force) and so his roots never had a chance to run too deep. In cities ranging from Tacoma to Tucson to Ramstein, Germany, Marshall observed from a comfortable distance the disadvantages of entering into cliquey art and music scenes.
“It’s like being in college,” he explains. “You have your class, and you have to go through all four years with these same twenty people and so all your work starts to go towards, ‘How can I impress these twenty people in my class?’ or ‘How can I impress these people in our local scene?’ But I wasn’t really intent on being popular in one area.”
Chavez echoes Marshall’s critique of insular scenes that can’t see outside their own box. “There’s a lot of tunnel vision in hip-hop,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing that’ll make you throw away your goth records, ’cause it’s not cool to listen to the Cure and do a hip-hop show.”
It was this mutual desire to branch out that brought Chavez and Marshall together when the two were living in Fresno in 1998. Marshall had recently moved from Atlanta where, having discovered hip-hop in a big way, he headed out to Cali to pursue music. At that time, Chavez was DJ-ing a local underground radio show and Marshall brought in some tracks that he’d been working on with a friend. The mash-ups of early-’80s post-punk and early-’90s hip-hop immediately caught the DJ’s attention.
“I got the weirdest head rush and stomachache after listening to it, because it just knocked me off my ass,” says Chavez. “It was the strangest thing I’d heard in a long time.”
Thus began the first incarnation of Octavius. Initially there were two DJs, two vocalists, and a guitar. The group spent a year unsuccessfully trying to shape Marshall and Chavez’ vision, after which Marshall dissolved the project and went on sabbatical. He spent six months in Honolulu before moving to Oakland with a renewed spirit, pages of lyrics, and Chavez’ phone number.
In July of 2000, the duo began work on Electric Third Rail. According to Marshall, the idea was simple: “It was very much a thing like, ‘Okay, let’s make a really fucked-up hip-hop record.'”
They ended up making just that. Working in Chavez’ musty old house, with Marshall commuting back and forth between Oakland and Fresno, the two combined influences as disparate as the Smiths and Wu-Tang Clan to create a record that echoes both yet sounds like neither. In their attempts to nail it down, people have likened Third Rail to the music of artists ranging from Joy Division to Miles Davis to Tricky, comparisons which, more than anything else, speak mainly to the difficulty in comparing it to anything at all.
But like many anomalous works of art, not everyone’s response was positive.
“They called us ‘multicultural bullshit’ at one show we were about to do,” says Chavez. Even Cruz, who was a friend of Marshall’s, was not exactly smitten when the vocalist gave him a copy of the record in the hopes of tapping his guitar skills.
“When I threw it on, I threw it off,” says Cruz, a Texas native who had played mainly in ska and rock bands. “I literally had to take it in doses.”
Which is essentially the only way Third Rail can be processed: piece by piece, track by track, a little bit at a time. In the final analysis, the music is utterly unique, the kind of thing that any self-respecting music geek should appreciate. But man, originality sure can be difficult to digest sometimes. The group insists, however, that its days of crafting inaccessible post-apocalyptic noise are behind them.
“It was a lot of aggression and blackness that we had to get out,” says Chavez. “The bleakness of [Fresno] and the frustration with everything we’ve come up against.”
But even a cursory listen to a few unmastered previews of the band’s next album, Audio Noir, indicates that the demons have not been exorcised. Though the noise has been cut down and the beats turned up, Audio Noir is still foreboding and dark. The glaring difference, however, is that the band is exerting a tremendous amount of control over its sound. Where previously the noise of Third Rail was unruly, Cruz, who doesn’t so much play guitar as conjure its sounds, sculpts distortion and feedback as if it were Silly Putty. The addition of Eras, a longtime friend of Marshall and Chavez, bringing synths, samples, and the theremin, has allowed the band to ease up on effects and allow the sound to be filled out by the additional electronics. It’s as if Octavius has whittled the angst of its debut into something more refined and discernible. Where Third Rail was sonic carpet-bombing, Audio Noir is a precision missile attack.
While they’ve succeeded in refining it, Octavius’ sound still jukes classification, which should prove challenging as the band attempts to score a deal that might help its members quit their day jobs. Acts such as New Jersey’s Dälek, the now-defunct New York trio AntiPop Consortium, and the various practitioners that make up the East Bay’s Anticon crew have helped pave the way for a new kind of experimental hip-hop, but Octavius challenges even those norms.
“We played with AntiPop,” says Chavez. “[The crowd] didn’t get us.”
But they persevere anyway — because, frankly, they have no choice.
“We burned every bridge possible to get here, so there’s no going back now,” says Chavez, referring to the members’ collective move from Fresno. “Family, friends, jobs, cars, whatever — there’s no possible way we can get out of what we’re doing. We’re stuck here.”
Whether or not they’re embraced by the hip-hop community or not is kind of beside the point.
“The irony of this whole thing is that I don’t even like hip-hop,” says Cruz. “To me it sounds like the same thing over and over. It’s like, how many times can you talk about your Benz and your chicks and your strippers and your dick?”
“The thing about hip-hop that’s so great, though,” says Chavez, “is you can really make hip-hop out of anything — but people aren’t doing that anymore.”
Except for Octavius. They’re making hip-hop out of heavy, dark, industrial noise. And they’re about to find out if that works.