Interview by Parisa Eshrati
In anticipation for their set at Southwest Terror Fest, I spoke with drummer Mike Armenta about the history and legacy of Sierra Vista hardcore band, Malignus Youth. We discussed the early days of the Sierra Vista/Southern AZ punk scene, memories of playing with prolific punk bands of the early 90s, the process of reuniting after so many years, and what fans can look forward to the group in the future.
Let’s start off talking about the early years of the group. Can you briefly describe what the punk scene was like when you guys started, specifically in Sierra Vista?
The punk scene back then was pretty empty prior to 1987. Sierra Vista is the kind of town that was so unimportant that if you wanted to see a punk show, or even a first run movie, or even go to a life saving hospital, you had to go to Tucson. Sierra Vista had its bar bands and if you were playing “Breaking The Law” on the bass with more than one finger, you were Mozart.
In 1987, the first band and the band most responsible for starting the punk rock scene in Cochise County was Dover Trench. They were fellows that went to Buena High School with us, we had known them all our lives up to that point. and not only could they play “Seek and Destroy”, Dover Trench was far and beyond musically brilliant with downright complex compositions of their very own that rivaled Slayer, who, in fact, they played with 1991. We were teenagers and we all wanted to be them. The best that the rest of us could do is play “Breaking The Law” with more than one finger. And so there were teenage cover bands and opposite that, Dover Trench, a band that is legendary. That was the whole scene! Shows with the song “Paranoid” being embarrassingly played by 5 different cover bands but then the mighty Dover Trench would be headlining. I was in one of these other cover bands. Matt Pimple from Dover Trench was the first drummer for Malignus Youth started as a cover band. Matt got busy with Trench but Malignus Youth started to write original songs and became the next best thing (although nobody could follow such a great band like Trench. ) That’s when I joined.
You guys were always known for having a much more technical approach to your music (i.e. incorporating classical melodies, vocal harmonies, etc.). Do you feel that this was celebrated within the punk scene at the time, or did it ostracize you from other bands?
The earliest deviation was a shift from minor keys to major keys and that was a slight controversy because most punk rock is in minor keys. . At the same time, the vocal style developed by James (Martin, guitar and vocals) and Tavio (Olaje, vocals) where they both sing long vocal lines as a single vocal line and then overlap, is based on a classical technique called “counterpoint” and this was a technique that people were very interested in and “defined” an element of our sound. Later on, the deeper we started to get into music theory, more classical techniques were used. “Missa Brevis” is based on a centuries old musical tradition where composers would write liturgical music for secular audiences with music that would never fly in an actual religious service. Some of the most well known composers from then up to this day have kept up this tradition. Mozart wrote his famous “Requiem”, Beethoven wrote his “Missa Solemnis”, Bach had his “Mass in B Minor”, all critical works in classical music history. Leonard Bernstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber and even a 1967 band called The Electric Prunes all wrote Masses. In the case of The Electric Prunes, I think they were the first rock band to write a rock song cycle like a Mass. Their “Kyrie” is used in the film “Easy Rider” during the scene where they take LSD and trip balls at a cemetery during Mardi Gras.
The punk rock music scene had a HUGE problem with all this because of the blatant religious text. Not even overtones, but spectacularly blatant religious Christian Music. Malignus Youth was thought of a “Christian Punk Band”, which is fine, but is not the actual truth. I did another interview where someone asked us about our “spiritual lives” I was a little taken aback…not that having one isn’t okay…but in all honesty the whole idea was about musical tradition and theory. In songs like in “Agnus Dei” there is a part that called a “canon”, or a “round” like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Frere Jacque” where everyone sings the same line but starts later than the previous person, creating a harmony. These things were lost on most of the punk rock scene that couldn’t get over the religious element of the lyrics. That’s too bad.
Did your interest in music theory and classical music precede your love of hardcore music? Who were some of your biggest influences when it came to classical composers?
James and I didn’t really get into classical music until the “CRISIS” EP ere. 1991-1992-ish. That was when we were exposed to it constantly in community college through a couple of amazing people. We had joined the Cochise Community College Choir where the Director was Dr. David Meeker. He had been a member of the world famous Roger Wagner Chorale. The vocal coach was Brenda Cole who was the musical assistant to the great American composer Randall Thompson. Thompson wrote very famous works in the Choral Music genre. We were also exposed to famous works like Handel’s “Messiah”, Schubert, Bach, Haydn and such. (It also happened that Brenda Cole is the aunt of Paula Cole, the singer who was then in Peter Gabriel’s band at the time but then went on to have a couple of hits like that theme from the TV show “Dawon’s Creek”, that song “I Don’t Want To Wait”.)
These became our influences. We were immersed in musical theory in order to sing these huge works in the choir and when those runs were over we just kept studying. Malignus Youth was getting into a jazz period when we all left to do college, James going to Texas A&M and me going to Northern Arizona University. On the Missa Brevis CD at the very end there is a classical piece, "Sanctus", that is a musique concrete piece for tape recorder, (where the tape recorder is the musical instrument), and it ran through the tape machine backwards and twice as fast. “Missa Brevis” was always intended to have some orchestral backing of some kind, or at least an overture. I actually wrote one using musical phrases and melodies in “Missa Brevis” and scored it for Orchestra and Chorus. You can hear this and the entire “Missa Brevis” as more or less closer to intended, as a lyric video on the YouTube Malignus Youth channel
Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, Malignus Youth played shows with some prolific bands like Fear, The Misfits, Bad Religion, etc. What are some of your stand out memories from these shows? Was there a specific show that you'd say was your favorite?
There were three shows where we personally acquired a lot of musical fulfillment. The first was when we played with Bad Religon. We played with them in 1989, and after the show we actually had a meeting where they offered to record us for Epitaph Records, which we turned down after thinking about the changes to our music required for commercial and industrial sale. In 1992, we played with Citizen Fish. We had played with them before a few years before, but at our last show, when we opened for them, they were praising us left and right. It turns out, they remembered us from years ago. “We’re fans of yours!” and “we ‘video'd’ you!” and exchanging CDs...that was unforgettable. We also played with ALL. After we played, a guy was stalking me and I confronted him and he told me that he wanted to meet everyone and that he liked us a lot. I stupidly asked him if he was in ALL and sure enough it was Stephen Egerton. As we were leaving, the drummer of ALL ran after our van and yelled for us to stop, and came to the window, and said he wanted to talk about recording us and gave us a card. Unfortunately, we were all about to go to college.
Probably the best memory was in Eugene Oregon in 1992. It was our first tour. We were playing at this place called The Blue Note which happened to be frequented by Henry Vestine, the guitarist for Canned Heat and the first guitarist for Frank Zappas’s Mothers of Invention. While we were playing, the bartender and owner, who had told us about Henry Vestine when we set up, picked up the telephone, dialed a number, said something in it and then pointed the receiver toward us to let the person on the other side listen. While playing, we learned that Vestine was on his way over to see us. We immediately took a break because we wanted him to see as much as possible. When he arrived, and we met him, it was unreal. He sat right in front of us for the rest of the show. Fucking unreal. He loved it. On the side, we also played with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones who were magnificent, Green Day at Gilman Street, and The Offspring on the same tour in 1992 a year before they hit it big on MTV. The band Grimple played the same show. Blatz recorded that show and invited us the next day to set up and we recorded almost our entire catalog. Who knows where that recording is now.
What did you all go on to pursue after breaking up in '94? Did anyone still explore musical projects after that time?
In the 90’s I played with a couple of bands called Anyface and Shrunken Monkey Paw but around the early 2000, I helped found a musical theater for kids, Flagstaff Youth Theater. For years it was the only children’s theater in Northern Arizona. I’ve conducted over something like a hundred musicals, lots of Broadway titles, and adapted and arranged most of the vocals and instrumentation for children’s abilities. I did this for over 10 years.
Once, when the original Shirelles played in Sierra Vista somewhere in the early 90’s I was a Shirelle for two nights as their drummer. James started a second band called Pathos which released three CDs. Pathos had music that was amazing beyond description and even had orchestral scores. James, himself, conducted his own orchestra during a Pathos performance in Tucson. and then gave up music here and there for years as he started a family and became a successful graphic artist in Virginia and Washington DC. Tom also started a family and became bassist and singer of the Phoenix based band The Hooker Cops. In a spectacular twist of irony, Tavio, who also has a family, works for the Federal Government in a capacity that he’s not allowed to reveal to me. I am not kidding. Today, in perhaps another twist of irony, I am working as a teacher for the Hearing Impaired
There was a reunion show in 2014 at The Rialto Theater. What were some of the biggest hurdles of getting back together after all these years?
The biggest ones were musical. When we recorded the EPS and LP that make up the Vinyl CD, it was on a very primitive basis with plastic mics on the drums, which is why you don’t hear crash cymbals or toms-toms on it. What’s worse is that the 4 track reel to reel machine that we used was old when we started to use it. My dad had bought it in the 70's and it was 1989-99 when we recorded these. The feet per second speed on the machine was much too slow so on recording, and also, turntables of the day were crappy and the RPM on them were too fast, so nobody noticed. We discovered that since the recording speed was so slow, the playback speed on a regular machine was sped up an enormous amount. By the time we got to “More To It” the speed on the machine had decreased so much and was so slow that on playback the difference was a 10-15% increase in speed. So what you are hearing on the Vinyl CD and a few songs in the Ephemeral CD is sped up as much as a semitone, which is huge. This gives us the unfortunate effect of chipmunk vocals and tempos much faster than intended. This is incredibly unfortunate because people are missing out on a lot because of it.
Also, there were no digital tuners back then and we had no reference to which to tune and did best guesses. All these problems showed up at once when we came to rehearse for the 2014 show. Tom and James had learned the songs to the CD, but in the wrong keys , for one thing, and off key from each other . So we had to re-learn the songs during those rehearsals. I also hadn’t played for 16 years and had to re-learn the drums, much like I’ll be doing for this upcoming show. Money and family were also hurdles. We just did not have the money to fly James out, or to fly us out to him. James, Tom and Tavio had their families to keep close.
Malignus Youth albums, as most collectors know, are very hard to come by. Are there any plans for more reissues?
All of those are out of print. My hope is that we re-record the songs that are affected by the speed issues and low quality, and release those. Until then I have taken the entire Malignus Youth catalog and restored them by using an audio editor to reduce the speed as close as possible to the correct pitch. You can hear and see these as lyric videos on the Malignus Youth Facebook site and YouTube page. Those videos should be considered definitive versions of the Malignus Youth catalog. As of now, there really are no CDs to sell.
Y’all started a KickStarter fund last year to put out a documentary. Can you tell us a little bit about what the documentary is going to cover, and when will it be released?
The film is by a first time filmmaker and artist Rick Klu, and it’s about the punk rock scene in Cochise County, Arizona. A remarkable thing about the scene is that such large scenes are usually seen in big cities, but this was in Cochise County - the site of classic Old West style misery, like The O.K Corral shootout, The Bisbee Massacre, Apache Wars and even in the 80’s the Miracle Valley Shootout. And in Sierra Vista of all places, where it’s biggest claim to fame is its Leukemia cluster and the fact that the world’s first McDonald’s Drive Thru was built there. Notwithstanding all that, there was a cultural phenomenon of a punk rock scene. The film will preview at the Screening Room at 3PM on October 22nd, although it will be a early cut.
What else can Malignus Youth fans look forward to in the future?
Perhaps I shouldn’t reveal too much, but we have been working on some new songs though the Internet, each recording separate parts and sending them to each other. Tavio and James have done a few things in the studio. Other than the documentary we are looking at a possible live recording of the Rialto show, being mixed as we speak.
photos courtesy of the Malignus Youth facebook page
Malignus Youth will be reuniting for two sets at Southwest Terror Fest. For set times, tickets, and more info: https://www.facebook.com/southwestterrorfest
All interviews posted before October 2015 were originally recorded for KAMP Student Radio.