The Body’s Roguish Separatism

Post Author: Sam Lefebvre
The Body photo by Angela Owens.

At once earthen, elemental, and alien, The Body’s murk contains multitudes. Throbbing toms withstand metallic ordnance. Harsh noise simmers and seethes. Pulverized remains of riffs plumb the fathoms of low-end. But betraying the steeliness and harrowing shrieks on recent material and their new album, No One Deserves Happiness, is a host of guest vocalists whose choral laments and ascendant melodies emerge like beacons in the night.

Chip King and Lee Buford peg No One Deserves Happiness as their pop record—bass lines indebted to Beyoncé, groove touchstones by way of Donna Summer—and though the chasm between such buoyant music and The Body’s sallowness suggests that it’s an ironic pose, it’s more a matter of negativity overwhelming intent. The Body’s influences are myriad, their collaborators legion, but on record it’s as if they can’t help but render everything in stark, humorless terms.

Which helps explains why they have nothing nice to say about Portland, Oregon, where Buford and King landed in 2012 following a decade-long stint in Providence, Rhode Island. They live eight blocks apart. King, 41, is unemployed; Buford, 38, says he works at “a pizza place with a cheesy metal theme.” (It’s Sizzle Pie, co-owned by the proprietor of Relapse Records.) They don’t really rehearse. They only gig locally on occasion. And about the city’s music scene, King demurs, “There’s not a lot of conflict for people living here, so it’s more like: buy this outfit, play this music.”

Which isn’t to say they’re disconnected. The duo pick me up in a white van—Arkansas plates, crucifix on the dash, and “Heavy Sampling” and “Volume Adjustment” decals on the sides—and we arrive at one of Portland’s many combination bar-and-restaurants, Hungry Tiger. The busboy is eager to show Buford his new tattoo: a sea of black ink, wrist to shoulder. Buford approves. The bartender, another acquaintance, is in a new punk band called Steel Chains. Later that night they’re playing live on Life During Wartime, a KBOO radio program hosted by King’s housemate.

In conversation, they tend to understate (Buford: “Our music is kind of spooky, I guess”), overstate (King: “Sadness and hate is basically all I respond to), and linger on topics such as video games and regional fast food while taking a matter-of-fact view of their industrious capacity for music making. The distance seems learned, even defensive. “We get lumped in with metal stuff a lot and it sucks. But then the metal people don’t get it.” At any rate, Buford continues, “No one cared about this band for like ten years.”

King and Buford met as teenagers in the early-1990s in Little Rock, Arkansas, where they first formed The Body in 1999. The city boasted a self-contained, youthful punk scene that in 1992 self-funded a compilation, Towncraft; fifteen years later, key figures appeared in a documentary of the same name. In one scene, members of Soophie Nun Squad recall their first show, a birthday party at the governor’s mansion, and how an incensed neighbor dubbed the throng of young punks “a generation of vipers.” King played in a band of the same name. Buford released their eponymous 12-inch, Generation of Vipers, on his label, Landmark Records. The era remains a source of quiet pride for the two. “I remember seeing Green Day play in 1993 in Memphis to like ten people,” King says. “The next night in Little Rock it was sold out.”

Little Rock is also a notch on the Bible Belt. The Body’s discography is rife with heretical imagery and lyricism, which dovetails with a broader suspicion of soothsaying authoritarian figures. They’ve sampled Black Panther firebrands, covered “Cop Killer”, and depicted mass suicide in a music video. They sympathize with the desire to shun society, but the fixation on cults seems to have a cautionary political dimension, too. After all, the liberal establishment in San Francisco was in thrall to Jim Jones, even while he spirited away followers to Guyana. About their rifle-toting publicity photos, Buford and King say they don’t trust a police monopoly on gun ownership, but they reject similarly inclined right-wing ideologues. They dismiss the occupation of a wildlife refuge in Burns, Oregon—a ubiquitous news item when we spoke—as “sort of pointless.”

But The Body’s roguish separatism—their disdain for contemporary metal, Portland’s music scenes, and partisan politics—belies a seemingly contradictory penchant for collaboration. Especially since 2010’s All The Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood, which featured Providence’s Assembly of Light Choir and curried favor with outlets such as NPR, they’ve teamed with an international cast of artists. But their most consistent creative relationships still center on Providence. And many of those partnerships go back to Little Rock. For instance, Maralie Armstrong, a vocalist on No One Deserves Happiness who plays in the Providence outfit Humanbeast, was also a member of Soophie Nun Squad. As King says, “We play with a lot of people we’ve known for twenty years.”

Then there’s Keith Souza and Seth Manchester, engineers at Machines with Magnets, a recording studio and show space on the outskirts of Providence. King and Buford consider them members of the band (and Manchester has filled in for Buford, who doesn’t fly, on drums for overseas engagements). The Body admire both the lushly layered instrumentation on 1960s and 1970s records (ELO, The Beach Boys) and digitally swollen recordings of contemporary pop and hip-hop (Carly Rae Jepsen, Young Thug)—differing approaches to perceived density. To that end, they collapse composition and production in the studio, opting to build upon a beat, sample, or whim, and then thicken with every sound source at their disposal. The additive gumption lends the group’s recordings fortitude and presence. As King says, “I’ll be like, ‘I want to make this crazy, metallic fart sound. What are you going to do?’”

But that undersells their studio rigor. They often arrive at Machines With Magnets with little to no material written beforehand. One two-and-a-half week session began with a single complete song and ended with material for three albums: 2013’s Christs, Redeemers, which distilled the doom of All the Waters; 2015’s The Body & Krieg, a collaboration with the black metal artist Neill Jameson; and 2014’s I Shall Die Here, a long-distance collaboration with the downcast English electronic artist Haxan Cloak (which RVNG Intl. proprietor Matt Werth, another old Arkansas peer, enabled and released). The latter album captures collaboration at its most complementary. The Body’s already-tectonic slabs of bass accrete even greater heft, but it’s also their most spacious record, with siren wails situated in lightless, often excruciatingly still atmospheres.

The sense of community evident in credits on The Body’s records takes physical shape at their live shows, which frequently feature guest performers. Most recently, The Body toured with Southern metal outfit Thou in support of their collaborative album. At select shows, they performed together, often ending with a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s svelte single, “The Chain”. At a show I attended in Oakland, Thou and The Body brutalized the song. Buford did so with a smile, as if relishing a memory of the original hooks as he mangled them, while King faced away from his amp to belt the outro: “Chains keep us together / Run to the shadows.”