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THE VOID, Vol. 3: How American Icon Records Is Saving the Austin Underground

Jon Hadusek returns with tales from Texas.

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THE VOID is a column that aims to explore, expose, and champion the finest in underground heavy metal. Following the template of the old Norwegian webzines that devotees would host on Geocities decades ago, this monthly feature will include interviews, opinions, reviews, long-form pieces, and occasional live coverage in the hopes of providing a snapshot of metal culture.

The following is an account of how I met and befriended Jonathon “Jonny” Galyon, the mastermind behind Austin DIY record label and promotion company American Icon. On the Fourth of July, I attended the A.I.R. Expo, a two-day punk and metal festival headlined by Pentagram and The Sword, which he booked and funded entirely by himself. At first I was just going to write a simple recap, but that would’ve understated my true feelings concerning Galyon’s exploits in the underground and my experience at the Expo. He’s one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, a disciple of rock, and a self-made man. I met him last November by chance.

Enter the American Icon

void air logoIt’s the weekend of Fun Fun Fun Fest and I’m alone in Austin. That’s the point. Go to a music festival in a random city and wing it solo. It’s a scenario that makes for true adventure. You carry no baggage when you’re in a foreign place. Nobody knows who you are. Anything can happen. The potentialities put a bounce in my step as I strut wide-eyed down Sixth Street toward Red River.

I arrive at The Mohawk for Kurt Vile’s festival pre-show and am immediately taken by the venue’s features: saloon-styled with a small indoor stage and a large outdoor stage (and a separate bar for each), designed with perfect weather in mind, big but not too big. A sign reading “ALL ARE WELCOME” hangs above the entrance hallway. My worldly problems recede; festival vibes of escapism set in. I’m glowing from earlier beverages, and serendipity is in the air. It leads me to Jonathon Galyon.

Exploring the concourse, I’m stopped by a man with long blond hair and a thick Tennessee accent. He points to the ’78 Stones tour shirt I’m wearing, the one with the dragon atop the Astrodome, a gem from my mom’s old collection.

“Badass shirt, man. That’s worth like $200. I’ve got two of those.”

I go by Jon, he goes by Jonny. I say I’m from Missouri and covering the festival and don’t know anybody, and he says I remind him of Patrick Fugit from that one movie and that he owns a record label that’s also a promotions company that’s also a vintage clothing retailer.

American Icon Records is his DIY baby, an ambitious idea that’s become a realized force in Austin’s rock underground. At first I feel like he’s just telling me all this because I’m a journalist, but his enthusiasm is infectious and genuinely charismatic. There’s passion in his words, electricity to his person. He probably tells everybody he meets about these endeavors, both to spread the word and because he’s so damn excited about his life.

“It’s cool to meet someone new,” he says. “I see the same people all the time.”

Shit, me too. It’s the reason I’m here. But then, abrupt and frazzled-like, Jonny bids farewell. Understandable: He must tend to one of the many things he tends to. We exchange emails. I wonder if I’ll see him again. Kurt Vile ends. I feel alive and head back to the street to talk to more people I’ve never talked to before.

Innovate or Die

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If serendipity introduced me to Jonny, then fate reunited me with him. Two days later, I’m standing in the middle of the crowd for Television’s reunion set and hear my name shouted through an unmistakable drawl. It’s Jonny waving me over to his spot about 10 feet away. This time, we don’t talk much. Television captures our full attention. But before we part, I express interest in writing a feature story about American Icon and ask what he’s up to later. We arrange to meet.

“I’ll wait for you by the tree out front after the last set,” he says.

We head back to Jonny’s place in his station wagon. He lives in a cozy, suburban neighborhood off Congress that “costs a lot” but functions as the ultimate home base for his operations. There’s a small warehouse in the backyard for all his vintage clothes and the living room is decked in show fliers and rock stuff: guitars, LPs, cassettes, shirts. There’s a palette of blankets on the floor.

“I don’t need a bed. I usually just crash out there,” he says, explaining that he usually works until he’s so tired that it doesn’t matter where he sleeps.

jonny galyonA collection of Henry Miller novels catches my eye. He says he was an English major and would spend days doing nothing but reading those books. Jonny doesn’t talk about his past much, only hinting at who he used to be. I respect his privacy and we focus on the present.

“I feel like there is a cultural and artistic renaissance happening here right now, like San Francisco in the ’60s and New York in the ’70s,” he says of Austin. “The underground and DIY is breaking into the mainstream. People are in search of a personality; they’re tired of the system. It’s like a cultural revolution. And I want to be there for it, I want to be a part of that revolution.

“Like, this sounds crazy, but in a few years, I honestly think I could be on the cover of the Rolling Stone.”

Jonny believes in self-manifestation, the idea that the mind possesses powers of will that can turn fantasies into a reality, a uniquely human ability.

“Just think: If you picture in your mind a cheeseburger and you concentrate on how bad you want that cheeseburger, then you can put that cheeseburger right in front of you. All you have to do is go out and get it.”

Applying this logic to American Icon, Johnny remembers when his DIY record label was just a lofty dream. He made a checklist of steps that would lead to the realization of this thing that only existed in his mind, and he started by befriending local promoters and bands, funding his operation using the massive collection of vintage attire he’d accumulated from rummaging through thrift stores and yard sales. After settling on a name and logo, he signed his first bands — Sweat Lodge, Motel Ball Band, and Teenage News — and released 7” EPs of each band’s music. As he began lining up more shows, his bookings became more adventurous and profitable, including vintage clothing malls, mini-festivals, and boat parties. If you look at the exponential curve of his entrepreneurship, the cover of Rolling Stone seems like a reasonable benchmark. Heck, he’s already been the focus of a documentary, Mondo Fuzz, about the Austin underground.

“I ended up checking everything off that first list,” Jonny says. “So I made a new list.”

He wants American Icon to expand to other cities. He wants to promote festivals. He wants to sign more artists. He wants to eat all the cheeseburgers of the mind, all by himself.

INTERMISSION

VOID AIR POSTERThe months following my trip to Austin are bleak. So goes winter in mid-Missouri. But I don’t forget about Jonny. He won’t let me. Not a day goes by that I don’t get a Facebook event invite or reminder of some badass A.I.R. show that I can’t attend. He commands the social networks with the prowess and prolificacy of a national news service. You will find out about an American Icon show. The little ALL CAPS messages attached to each are too endearing to be annoying (“A.I.R. IT’S WHAT YOU NEED TO LIVE AND BREATHE”).

Around March, I receive an invite for the two-day A.I.R. Expo featuring Pentagram and The Sword on the Fourth of July. Another item checked off Jonny’s list: throw a music festival. I instinctively click “Going”; it’s about time I return to Austin and write that American Icon feature I promised. I send him a message about getting press and possibly a place to crash for the weekend, to which he replies:

“Yeah, that would totally be badass. I am in a tough living situation, crashing on a friend’s floor, so I’m not sure about the place situation. I could maybe put you up with a friend.”

Damn, he doesn’t have that chill house anymore. I wonder what happened. I tell him I’m down for whatever and agree to cover the Expo. The thought of seeing Pentagram gets me through the drudgery of the months leading up to it.

Photography by and artwork courtesy of Jonathon Galyon.

A.I.R. EXPO DAY 1: REUNION

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A bus takes me straight from the airport to the Mohawk. The glorious Mohawk. It’s 90 degrees and feels like Texas as I walk into the main atrium and immediately run into Jonny. He’s rocking cutoffs, a black A.I.R. shirt, and Ray Bans. The new Mastodon is blaring on the PA, and we have one of those hearty “how’ve you been, haven’t seen you in a while” chats complete with the handshake-hug.

“I got some blankets if you wanna crash on the stage with me tonight,” he says. “I have nowhere else to go, and I have to stay here and guard the amps.”

Instead of hiring security for $20 an hour, Jonny agreed to stay overnight and watch over the venue. A back line of ORANGE stacks occupies the stage. Although not a financial backer, the British amplifier company sponsored the Expo and donated equipment for the weekend (and made every band sound fucking great).

Then it hits me: Bobby Liebling and Pentagram are gonna stand on that stage and then I’m gonna sleep on it. Better than any couch or hotel. I feel like Patrick Fugit.

“Yeah man, we can just crash between those amps up there,” Jonny says. “Last night I had a fan on me, and it felt like A/C. Except for the porta-potty people waking me up with their shit-sucking vacuums, I slept like a rock.

“But hey, I gotta take care of some stuff, but there’s a band playing inside if you want to check them out. They’re this kick-ass punk band called the Antialls. Oldest member is like 19.”

And with that, he runs off. I wouldn’t see him much during the days of the festival, as he was busy handling important duties (paying bands, taking care of riders, selling merch, etc.). That is the downside to promoting an entire festival by yourself: It keeps you so busy that it’s hard to soak in the music. But even in his work, you could tell he was enjoying the hell out of the whole experience; this thing he put on was in motion. There was a line building outside the venue. People were showing up.

THE RETURN OF PENTAGRAM

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I people-watch, sipping a Budweiser, surrounded by metalheads. We migrate back and forth between stages, each band playing a succinct 30-minute set. The middle of the first day showcases the region’s most extreme acts: Rust’s sludgy death-‘n’-roll threatens disembowelment, the guitarist in Ditch Witch shreds with a glove on his fret hand, and the dude in War Master wields a katana. I’m impressed by the vibrancy of each band and the professionalism of how they are being presented. Chicago garage duo White Mystery are a welcome reprieve from the blastbeats, as is the romantic doom of The Well, a rising Austin metal trio that’s become the face of the local scene. Everything goes smoothly leading up to Pentagram’s set. The audience fills out and takes its position for the finale.

void pentagramI’m in the second row next to an O-lineman-sized black man wearing only gym shorts and a skin-tight denim jacket. He smokes a blunt and has no interest in passing it. When it depletes, he lights another. Everyone seems tempered, eager. I look back at the merch table and see that the white Pentagram Texas tour shirt I want has sold out (already?!), and it’s Jonny back there working his ass off.

To the sound of fireworks in the streets, Pentagram emerge. Bobby Liebling, looking like he weighs about 90 pounds, walks out in a studded, leather jacket (no undershirt) and leopard skin pants. They launch into “Death Row” and people lose their shit. Liebling feeds off the energy and is in good form vocally; he fails to hide a toothy grin between songs, clearly happy to be singing songs to such a receptive group. His banter is incoherent, his mannerisms squirmy and aloof. But he comes alive during song, commanding the stage like Jagger in his prime, shimmying about, grabbing his ass, making lascivious faces at all the women who are shouting, “We love you, Bobby!” At one point, a bold admirer jumps onstage and sticks her tongue in his mouth, much to the chagrin of bassist Greg Turley, who nudges her off with the neck of his guitar.

The biggest rousers are the band’s oldest songs (“When the Screams Come”, “Sign of the Wolf”, “Forever My Queen”), driven by Victor Griffin’s monolithic riffing. The pit gets crazy. Blunt guy repeatedly shoves some poor kid into the ground to the rhythm of the downbeats. A can of Lone Star flies from the upper level and hits me in the head, but I don’t care. The whole performance (and setting) feels truly historic. Pentagram close with an encore of favorites, “20 Buck Spin” and “Be Forewarned”. During the final solo, Liebling wears a maniacal face, wiggling his fingers at the guitar as if controlling Griffin’s fingers through some ancient wizardry.

Pentagram footage by Neight Media; photo by Jon Hadusek.

STAGE CRASHING

void night stage

Jonny and I are sprawled out among the ORANGEs; the sky is visible between the bleachers and the stage’s canopy. Somebody pops firecrackers outside. My cells are still quaking from Pentagram.

“They were awesome, and that crowd was insane,” Jonny says.

“One of the best sets I’ve ever seen. How the hell did you get them to come here?” I ask.

“Flew them all in; they all live in different places. I put them up at the Holiday Inn. I’m so glad it worked out, because I wanted this first [Expo] to be something memorable, and Pentagram was my headliner of choice, and it happened, man.”

“This whole thing, when did you start putting it together?”

“Like a year ago,” Jonny says. “But to be honest, I think I’ve been working toward this my whole life. I feel like all the struggles I’ve dealt with and all the mistakes I’ve made, all of it has led up to this: what’s happening right now. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever booked, and the people loved it.

“For years, I was doing what most people do, drinking and partying all the time. I wasn’t really doing what I wanted to do. But all those mistakes I made back then, they’ve made me who I am today. I feel wiser from what I’ve overcome, you know?”

We transition to some Bukowski-Nietzschean tangent of how turmoil precedes understanding, but then the firecrackers cease and we pass out.

A.I.R. EXPO DAY 2: THE AUSTIN SCENE

american sharks

Jonny’s driving to the hotel to pay Pentagram, and I’m riding along. We pass a sign advertising a Michael Bublé concert.

“That’s probably booked by C3,” Jonny says, referring to Austin’s promotions heavyweight. “C3 and Transmission book all the big stuff here, but I think I can get to that level someday. This place is big enough for three.”

Austin has been the target of mass gentrification as of late, and while Jonny acknowledges that there’s a lot of corporations and “rich white yuppie types” moving in, he appreciates that his city is refusing to remain static. It’s alive, he says, and the counterculture will react to this sudden invasion of bullshit. He wants to ride the undercurrent all the way to the top and turn his passion into a self-sustaining enterprise. His approachability gives him an edge on the behemoth promoters around town. The bands and venue owners trust him, and he takes care of them before he takes care of himself. Unless he’s being taken advantage of.

“I’m really nice until I’m not,” he laughs.

photo (19)Original A.I.R. band Sweat Lodge — now being courted by a bigger label — play to a sparse 6 o’clock crowd and are the first in a string of local acts including instrumental prog-metalists Eagle Claw, industrial duo Burnt Skull, and garage thrashers American Sharks.

“The best band in Texas,” Jonny says of the latter, and I agree with him following their 45-minute barn-burner of a set. The songs gallop a Motorhead pace, the drummer positioned center stage and closest to the crowd, shredding a tiny five-piece so hard that he has to stand up between songs and pace the stage to catch his breath.

The crowd, actually larger tonight, is now warmed up for The Sword, a fitting closer for the first annual A.I.R. Expo. Before they were touring with Metallica and enjoying strong label/distro deals, The Sword were in the same place as Sweat Lodge and American Sharks, playing the local club scene and honing their craft. The people here unconditionally revere all of these bands, and one gets the sense that outsiders would share that reverence if exposed to the music. That’s Jonny’s hope: that he can cultivate the scene so that it spills over, reaching beyond the local niche so these smaller-but-no-less-worthy bands can enjoy similar success as The Sword or (at the very least) have a stage on which to express themselves.

American Sharks photo by Jerry Milton Photography.

FINALE

I snuggle up next to the ORANGEs for the last time. The Mohawk’s night janitor, Richard, tells me about a recent break-in.

“Somebody was climbing over the wall and stealing beers out of the cooler up there,” he says, pointing to the upper level bar. “But I caught him and put a stop to it.”

Richard’s story makes me nervous as I look at the low-lying wall in question. Potential intruders could easily scale it. Meanwhile, Jonny gives me a numbers recap.

“If 100 more people would’ve shown up, I would’ve broke even,” he says. “But you know, for being my biggest event ever and funded out of pocket, I’m pretty damned happy to only be down a few hundred bucks.

“It’s like the NBA Finals. I didn’t win it this time, but I’ve proven to myself that I can get here. And I’ll learn from my mistakes. Next year, I’ll win it.”

He promises a bigger and better Expo next year, three days long with the Fourth falling on a Saturday. It’s already booked for The Mohawk, he says. A part of me worries about Jonny’s unstable living situation and that he lost money this weekend, but I know in my heart that it will work out for him. There are a ton of promoters and boutique label owners in Austin. None of them are as motivated as Jonny.

10513246 761250757260394 284176501709532398 n THE VOID, Vol. 3: How American Icon Records Is Saving the Austin Underground

We sleepily discuss possible headliners for next year’s Expo (“Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats!”). The air is cool, quiet. No firecrackers tonight. My back throbs; the wooden stage is uncompromising. Mid-doze, I’m stirred by the sound of rattling chains. Cling clang. Probably just street noise. The chains repeat. Cling clang. Again. Cling clang. It sounds like it’s coming from the entrance.

Just then, a short figure with long hair walks into the atrium. Surely a Mohawk employee who forgot something. But then, why is he creeping all suspicious-like? Jonny and I cautiously observe. The figure moves over to the merch area adjacent to us. He grabs Jonny’s bag, then a Pentagram poster. Definitely not an employee.

Wearing only his boxers, Jonny leaps into action: “Hey! You’re busted!”

Startled, the intruder drops the loot and hightails it back the way he came, Jonny close behind. I sit very still, phone in hand just in case something serious happens. I hear shouting in the street. Jonny returns a couple minutes later, unscathed.

“Just some punk kid. Didn’t even have the balls to take anything. I chased him into the woods.”

“How did he get in?”

“Somebody left the front unlocked.”

And with that, my adventure in Austin ends. I toss and turn for the remainder of the night, on edge, quivering at every anomalous sound. I can’t sleep and drift into waking dreams about the past two days. A sensory overload. The overwhelming badassery of the weekend wouldn’t sink in until I was back in Missouri, so far away. \m/

One last thing…

Follow American Icon Records and American Icon Presents on Facebook to keep up with Jonny’s progress as a label owner and promoter, respectively. If you live in Austin, go to one of his shows; you’ll have fun. Thanks to Jonny and The Mohawk for hosting me, and thanks to all the photographers and videographers who documented the event and let me post their work.

THE VOID will be taking a month off while I go through a move and catch up on other duties around the site, but it’ll be back to regular programming in September, with a band interview (TBD), a new metal-themed comic, and reviews of late summer/early fall releases.

For all remarks, tips, and suggestions regarding THE VOID, hit me up @jhadusek or in the comment section below.

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