Calling rock-'n'-roll trolls
Local art rockers the terminalwasteband recount their odd history
It was around the third song on the recently self-released CD We Are All Fingers that I realized the terminalwasteband was a local rock band capable of greatness. As guitarist Chris Ruiz belted out “Blue afternoon, painting, waxing light!” and drummer Christen McClellan Derr sang harmony while pounding out the driving backbeat, I became entranced like a quiver-lipped teen enjoying his first Ferris wheel kiss.
Laced with elements of psych folk, ‘60s garage rock and free jazz, the band doesn’t fit any recognizable modern mold, opting instead for constant experimentation using quirky homemade or customized instruments and a rotating cast of friends and musicians.
“I play around the same level of guitar today as I did when I started 15 years ago,” says guitarist/songwriter Scott Derr, who married Christen ("the only woman I ever got out of rock,” he says) and relocated here from Oakland several years ago.
Formed in the winter of 1998 on the eastern plains of New Mexico, the band hatched its communal aesthetic in a large, freezing barn where members had to wear mittens while playing their instruments, which included oddities like Ruiz’s coil-wired spring drum (sounds like piano strings being beaten), re-wired toy guns, industrial steel cans, wooden flutes, a theramin and vintage keyboards. The result was the band’s disorienting debut, Jesus is Lord Over Alamogordo.
Since relocating to Chico, the band has been joined over the last year by local songwriting hero Barbara Manning on bass. But the group rarely performs live, opting instead for practices, backyard parties and home recordings—long, improvisational affairs borne from their shared passion for exploratory music and interestingly crafted rock songs.
“The [Derrs] have the best record collection in Chico, they knew my own songs, and I just knew playing with them would be great,” said Manning. “Very loose—art folk, punk all blended together into"—she pauses—”extended songs,” she laughs.
We chatted recently while sitting in the lush back yard around the Derrs’ separate home studio, a long, narrow house filled with vintage ‘60s amplifiers, tape echo machines, analog recording equipment and quirky thrift store gems (my favorite is a worn ‘70s poster of Fantasy Island‘s Herve Villechaize in the bathroom).
The three founding members share eclectic tastes evident in their live sound—lots of unheard, oddball ‘60s and ‘70s rock (the Velvet Underground and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd are good touchstones). Of course, they’re all record freaks. McClellan Derr’s first job out of college was for CMJ, as a musical director for a radio station in Texas, and Derr used to run a small label called Blackjack Records that specialized in experimental European bands. That’s how he met Ruiz, who was ordering records alongside other such notable clients as Thurston Moore of venerable NYC noise legends Sonic Youth.
Derr has also formerly played in heralded indie-rock bands with longtime followings—namely, The Drags from New Mexico and Monoshock from the Bay Area.
After the Derrs left the Southwest, Ruiz also relocated to Chico to continue playing music with them while pursuing his master’s degree in anthropology.
As we talked, the terminalwasteband shared weird, true stories of their own history together, from running musician ads searching for “rock-'n'-roll trolls,” to recording a 30-minute musical interpretation of the ridiculous 1995 movie Congo, to starring in bizarre short films like The Mariachi Seinfeld (a reference to Ruiz’s Latin-flavored resemblance to the Jewish comedian).
“Our one movie was stolen by the director,” Derr says incredulously. “The guy was never arrested but was under suspicion at the time for stalking female basketball players.” In the film, the Derrs star as Mexican Styrofoam peanut factory workers planning a revolution, one that culminates in their candlelit barn studio, where the terminalwasteband performs to an audience of themselves.
“There was this 19-year-old kid, Chad, who played sax with us in New Mexico,” Derr recalls. Heralded as a music genius, Chad wore several belts tied tightly around his chest beneath his shirt to control his breathing for weeks at a time and was paranoid of being hunted by a group of white supremacists from Albuquerque.
Derr says the saxophonist ended up “coming out here to visit, stealing my car, running off to join the Army, then drilling a hole in his skull to get discharged. … Now he sends Chris all sorts of weird poems and pictures.”
Somewhere along the way, the band became friends and released records with another eclectic music collective, Metabolismus from Germany, with whom they will be playing and recording when the band tours Europe this summer. “They’re kind of like our parallel band,” McClellan Derr says.
You can check out the twb at Bustolini’s this Saturday.