Creatures of habit
Portland’s mARMITs crawl out of their hole for rock ’n’ roll
“Keep it down, we’re trying to do an interview here!” screeched Caprial Shapiro at a passing vehicle. His voice sounds very Frank Oz-ian—somewhere between Grover and a Skeksis from the The Dark Crystal. He was joined on the front porch of a Portland house/bar by bandmate Lester Godfrey, whose voice is slightly more gurgly. Both were wearing a hodgepodge of thrift store clothing, some of which included warm-up pants, a torn tweed jacket and a ratty tie. Then there were the masks … err, faces—gnarled fangs, with a matted tuft of black hair coming out the top. People stared and giggled as they walked by.
Shapiro and Godfrey are members and co-conspirators of Portland, Ore., four-piece mARMITs. According to the story, they used to be human. That changed once they came under the watch of a being known as Wildcat, who comes from the other side, and has taken on a human host—some dude named Shmarmy. When Wildcat leaves town for work, mARMITs sneak out and play shows.
That’s the short version. The concept is far more elaborate and crude (details include: six-foot subs, neon from bar signs being stolen for fuel, aquatic beastiality porn, wet bagels, the FBI). Shapiro and Godfrey have been working on this project since joining forces 12 years ago in Gresham, Ore., a strip-mall infested suburb just east of Portland.
Musically, they say it’s not what people might expect; it’s not what I expected. mARMITs’ one full-length, Beast Extract, is a spaced-out cross between Frank Zappa and Gary Numan, only with more drugs. Shapiro pointed out how the band’s appearance elicits all sorts of misconceptions.
“People think it’s going to be free jazz, or noisy,” he explained. “We like intensity, but we like to mess with the hook. We like to get people dancing.”
Shapiro tossed out names like Ween and 1990s experimental weirdos Men’s Recovery Project as influences. In Portland, mARMITs has operated on the fringe, which only adds to their mystique. They’ve remained outsiders for more than a decade, as both the city and music scene have grown and changed around them. In Portland, Shapiro said they tend to play with bands that are “off the grid” (he mentioned the excellent Rllrbll and Aranya).
The perception of the band has changed over time as well. Once looked at as possibly a joke, an oddity, or both, people seemed to have embraced the band—it helps that their music doesn’t suck. At the same time, the members have learned to cope and play their roles.
“It’s gotten better. In the early aughts people were a little scared,” Shapiro said. “Sometimes we get a little off-response. I used to be like, ‘fuck you.’ Now I just go up and talk to people.” He does so in character, of course, which was how our entire interview went down. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Neither would Shapiro or Godfrey.
“It’s like letting another part of your brain breathe,” explained Shapiro of the band’s visual element. “We just spread it around—spread the hope. We just like the power of rock to uplift people from the day-to-day.”
A lot of what they said reminded me of interviews I’ve seen with bands like KISS and Alice Cooper. Why go to a show to watch five musicians stare at their feet? Reactions can be mixed, but artists with a presumed “gimmick” aren’t going to last if their music isn’t any good. And some of the responsibility falls on audiences. “It kind of depends on what kind of fun a town is willing to have,” Shapiro said. And the more intimate the show, the better. “I like when [people] squeeze together. It’s like a Thanksgiving Day of aroma.”