There was no puke. It seemed easy to expect—hope, even—that "Dixie" Dave Collins would barf onstage in Durham. The raspy frontman is known for it. In fact, when Weedeater, the band he leads, issued its third album, God Luck and Good Speed, in 2007, one of the trio's press photos featured Collins in sharp focus, stooped beside his microphone stand, releasing a river of beige vomit.
But not tonight, not in the new club Casbah: Between reptilian growls and charred croaks, Collins blows snot rockets and hocks phlegmy gobs at the floor, clearing his smoke-and-bourbon-scathed airways. He kicks the air, and his body shakes between verses. The drummer to his immediate right wages battle against his kit; the guitarist, farther right, stands mostly stoic as he wrangles weighty sheets of noise and tarry riffs. But through it all, Collins doesn't puke.
"We're kind of hard on ourselves," Collins, Weedeater's mouthpiece on and off the stage, concedes. "Whether we were bricklayers or playing music, it wouldn't be any different. Except for I couldn't be a bricklayer now, my back's too fucked up for that shit."
The puking, he says, doesn't usually start until midway through a tour. The Durham stop is night three. Bummer.
But that's just one of several expectations Weedeater didn't quite live up to in Durham. Most discussions of the Wilmington metal trio are preceded—eclipsed, even—by the band's reputation. It's not entirely unreasonable to imagine Weedeater as wild-eyed and reckless, ingesting anything that can be swallowed, smoked or snorted, speeding unlicensed across America's freeways, running themselves past the physical breaking point. It's not unreasonable to imagine it, because it's mostly true. They've lived like they've played for the last 15 years—hard, fast and wild. They've also managed to make some brilliantly visceral music.
"I guess that's more important for other people," says Collins of the tendency to care more about the band's story than its sound. "I guess people feel like they need that or something."
In rock 'n' roll, this cultivation of legend is as integral to the music as power chords. From Robert Johnson's infamous alleged pact with the devil, to the Paul McCartney is dead theories, and from Ozzy Osbourne snorting a line of ants to Mötley Crüe mainlining Jack Daniels, the story of rock is as immortal as the song, sometimes more so.
"There's no such thing as bad press in this business, especially in this genre of it," Collins says. "The worse, the better."
To wit, Weedeater is known for its conspicuous consumption of any number of substances. Another promotional photo of the band depicts the trio beaming wide-eyed before a buffet platter of marijuana. They've had run-ins with the law and toured the country several times without a single driver's license or auto insurance policy in the van. "It's gypsy work," explains Collins. "I don't know how we pulled that off."
They get hurt, too. The band delayed recording its fourth full-length, Jason ... the Dragon, repeatedly, thanks to its mishaps. Guitarist Dave "Shep" Shepherd broke his finger on tour in Italy. Drummer Keith "Keko" Kirkum tore his meniscus. Then Collins famously shot off most of the big toe on his right foot while cleaning his favorite shotgun. He still wears the same shoes. One just has a hole big enough for him to wiggle his index finger through.
"As far as blowing your toe off with a shotgun goes," he says, "I was extremely lucky. We've been known to injure ourselves, that's for sure. We try not to, though. We're getting too old for that shit."
With all three members closer now to 40 than 30, Weedeater might be calming down, but if so, only incrementally. They have a tour manager who also serves as soundman and designated driver. He has a license. This night, huddled into the band's tour van before the show, Weedeater is only one drink deep. Kirkum immediately apologizes for the stink of pot soaked into the van's interior, but he offers weed anyway. No one feels like smoking yet, so Collins lights a cigarette and leans into the van's plush bench.
"I don't think that we start drinking as early as we used to," he says. "We will still finish our bottle tonight, and our beer, just like we do every night."
True to form, no member of Weedeater is without a glass or a can throughout the night. During the set, Collins chases his beer with whiskey. "It's good for ya'," he assures the crowd. After the performance, Kirkum is close to incoherent. He talks about his cymbals. They're great, he says, but he keeps breaking them.
He's earned it, though, since the show is captivating. The performance—to say nothing of Weedeater's records—proves that, somehow, Weedeater's devil-may-care approach is uncannily productive. "We always tell people that get the first three shows, 'Welcome to band practice!'" Collins jokes. This is night three, but it could have been night 30. The band is tight, the music vicious. And the relatively small crowd that lingers late into a Sunday night has packed the front of the stage. In spite of itself, Weedeater has continued to build upon its musical and nonmusical reputations to slowly but steadily growing acclaim. The stories might attract interest, but they undervalue the band's music.
The band has comprised the same three members for almost 15 years. Collins calls that fact its crowning achievement. The 2007 LP God Luck and Good Speed was something of a breakthrough for the veterans. It appeared just as the type of slow-moving, dense brand of doom metal bands like Louisiana's Eyehategod and Collins' prior outfit, Buzzoven, pioneered, and proved one of the most captivating—and sonically oppressive—offerings the genre had to offer. The band's popularity grew accordingly.
"We used to sell nothing but double-XL T-shirts," says Collins. "You know, nothing but huge dudes at the shows. Now you have to have girls' shirts and it's fucking crazy. It's weird. It's a very good thing."
God Speed moves in waves of harsh feedback and leviathan riffs. It feels tidal and dense, like a hot, wet swamp. It's lone acoustic track, "Alone," is a haunting dirge that bisects the record and offers a sharp contrast to the buried-alive onslaught of the rest of the album.
The new Jason ... the Dragon, Weedeater's second album for respected and art-minded loud music label Southern Lord and the second recorded with Chicago analog wizard Steve Albini, is not so unrelenting. It opens slowly with a spoken-word introduction ("The Great Unfurling"), closes with a banjo excursion ("Whiskey Creek") and also fills space with a minute-long drum solo ("March of the Bipolar Bear") and a lethargic blues number ("Palms of Opium"), which was reportedly written by Collins while he was dosed up on painkillers after the shotgun incident. Like "Alone," "Palms of Opium" shows an unexpected versatility in Weedeater. Its slide-guitar smears and woozy shuffle play like the soundtrack to a fever dream. "My head has come undone," Collins rasps.
And "Homecoming"—Weedeater's take on pop music—is a big move for the band, suggesting what it might do on bigger stages, in front of bigger crowds. Its dominant riff is a succinct, triumphant melody that claws its way through the thick, omnipresent fuzz. Collins and Kirkum punctuate the melody instead of clouding it. It doesn't betray the band's aesthetic, but it does push its boundaries.
Even the pieces of Jason that could feel like filler bleed seamlessly into the more straight-ahead sludge tracks, offering ballast and shifting the momentum where it's needed. The considered result, though, belies its creation. Much of Weedeater's music is written in the studio, against deadlines.
"You get a label to spend a bunch of money, and go into a big fuckin' badass studio with a world-class producer and go, 'Uhhhhh, all right, I guess we're gonna record some stuff now,'" Collins says. "It's kinda like rolling the dice."
Shepherd interjects, "It's the only way we've ever done it."
"If we're not ready to record," Kirkum laughs, "we just blow our toes off."
The show in Durham goes off without a hitch. Weedeater's set is frontloaded with tracks from Jason ... the Dragon, but it finds its way to God Luck's title track and its raging cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Back My Bullets"—both crowd favorites—before very long. Between songs, Collins leans hard into the wall, breathing heavily. He downs booze like water. Kirkum doubles over, stretches his fingers and wipes his hands. Their set is physically exhausting, if free of vomit.
And this test of endurance happens every night. "We will continue to drink that bottle until it's gone," Collins says. "And then we'll go on to the next town."