Noise, blood and chaos—Matt McDermott heads to the Sonoran Desert to hear the unlikely story behind one of America's most prolific underground crews.
"The first thing we did was push everyone out of the way and set up a huge tarp," he says. "We flew out our friend Emil [Bognar Nasdor] who does [the punk band] Dawn Of Humans and a bunch of other art projects. He's a master of performance, one of the best. He happened to be playing a hardcore fest in London that same weekend. I asked him, 'Can we fly you out to play Berghain and then fly you back for your show,' which in itself is such an extreme thing to do. He was like, 'OK...' We flew him out and Pharmakon was ending her tour, so she was also with us and [Marshstepper member and Ascetic House founder] JS [Aurelius]'s girlfriend [Caz Wallace] was also with us that night, so we had three Marshsteppers [non-musical performers] that night."
He continues: "We all took really strong drugs before the show and we were all like, 'EAAAAAAUGH,' right when we had to play. The first thing Emil does is get naked. The main act he did was a teeter tot, where Pharmakon tied a rope around his dick. They were both leaning back so his whole weight was being held by his dick with Pharmakon pulling him the opposite way. They were spinning around and then they started painting each other. Emil had fucking razorblades, they were attached to this bouquet of roses that he was cutting himself with. I climbed up the stairs and was hanging off of the smoke machine. JS wrapped his microphone with a towel and lit it on fire, then the sound guy ran out of the booth and knocked it out of his hands."
I'm speaking to Nappa, whose long, curly hair seems immune to the force of gravity, in the home he shares with his brother, a sun-bleached, one-story house on a gravel lot near Arizona State University. The suburban street is quiet, the kitchen tidy. There are few indicators this is the de facto headquarters for the prolific, chaotic Ascetic House collective, but a few hints are scattered here and there. The coloured pentagram affixed to the front door. A box of disused masks in a back room. A weird, makeshift fire circle next to the driveway. The air conditioning hums as we flip through a mountain of cassettes in the dim living room.
Nappa refers to Tempe's heat as "psychedelic." In an email exchange with Aurelius, he elaborates. "There is a profound wisdom and madness in the desert," he writes. "How do you define 'psychedelic' beyond that? The desert is where you go to find god and it's where god goes to find themself."
In 2011, Aurelius sold all of his worldly possessions and moved into a shack in a friend's backyard. He wrote and published zines like Towards Madness and A Book To Read Other Books, which had sandpaper pages in a nod to Guy Debord's Mémoires.
A veteran DIY booker and a member of a confrontational punk band called Avon Ladies, Aurelius balanced out his philosophical and religious studies with self-taught design and hacking skills. He'd slapped the name Ascetic House on the chapbooks and an LP by the gamelan group Sungsang, which came out in 2011. When Nappa asked him to design artwork for a few low-key releases he'd put together, Aurelius stamped those with the Ascetic House logo as well. From those early days, Ascetic House demonstrated a proclivity towards chaos and loud sound. In other words, they staged and attended violent basement punk shows.
Aurelius had been playing drums in a demented punk band called Pigeon Religion for a few years and their close friend Alex Jarson helped put out a 7-inch from the group. Nappa came along on an early tour, occasionally joining the fray on woodwinds and auxiliary noise. He'd form a buttoned-up but bizarre art punk band called Acid Dawgz, which Aurelius wound up playing in. "I think this was around the time each of our bands and releases all started merging together into a more coherent vision that became Ascetic House," Aurelius says on this messy, busy period. Ryan Rousseau recruited Nappa for Destruction Unit, and both Aurelius and core Ascetic member Danny Pupillo later joined what Nappa refers to as a "crazy, negative, psychedelic punk band" that would become one of the most recognizable from the Tempe milieu. The group booked DIY tours and attempted to do justice to their name, taking drugs, turning their amps and distortion pedals to ten and seeing what happened.
Through touring and promoting local shows, the crew connected with like-minded artists in other cities, fellow freaks running their own micro-labels, booking their own shows, sleeping on each other's floors—outfits like Night People, the label out of Minnesota that pumps out tiny-run, day-glo cassettes, and Posh Isolation, the punks-turned-international-playboys from Copenhagen. "Touring in a band, you meet like 50 people a night," Nappa says. "You just get used to vibing people out really quickly and being able to make an assessment."
They also discovered techno. "The first time I went to Berlin people were like, 'You've got to go to a techno club,' and I was like, 'OK, whatever,'" Nappa says. "And then we did and I was like, 'Holy shit, this is fucking insane.' I loved Aphex Twin when I was young, that was one of the first things I was obsessed with. I listened to Slayer and Aphex Twin, but I didn't get the context of a soundsystem until I was older. I would listen to this music and I didn't know how important the sub was, the idea of body music didn't permeate when I was introduced to it as a younger person. And then in a real club I understood, 'This is what it's about.'"
Back at home in Tempe, Ascetic House's core members formed new projects applying this newfound knowledge. Alex Jarson recorded three tapes of sparse, minimal synth pop as Body Of Light. In between Destruction Unit rehearsals, Aurelius and Nappa threw their efforts into a band called Marshstepper, which combined the chaotic spirit of hardcore punk with queasy, Coil-informed industrial soundscapes. Aurelius also used the project as a platform for performance art pieces he'd written. They'd release six tapes off the bat in 2012 while immediately developing a reputation for intense, antagonistic live shows.
Over the years, I've seen Marshstepper a handful of times. The shows can go one of a few ways. Some nights, Nick and JS are fairly low-key, hunched over a table of electronics whipping up a menacing, half-time churn. At some point, Nappa screams into the mic, building up a towering wall of teeth-gnashing reverb before stalking into the audience. Sometimes, when they bring along a "marshstepper" or two, it can be far more intense. At a 2015 show opening for Lust For Youth in LA, the "marshsteppers" began stapling pages from occult texts to each other, the smell of blood in the air. A friend of mine, who had attended the show at the urging of longtime Ascetic supporter and Mount Analog cofounder Mahssa Taghinia, passed out.
For all the grim-faced theatrics—"a woman was crying in the front row at our first LA show," Nappa tells me—there's a surreal sense of humor at the heart of Marshstepper. About a year after they formed, the artist Doug Aitken tapped Marshstepper to be featured in his Station To Station project. "Three or four vans were parked in the driveway," Nappa recalls, "full of ground crews and camera crews. We were like, 'Why the fuck do these people want anything to do with us?'" Aurelius and Nappa led them on a six-hour drive over unpaved roads, deep into the desert. "We kept being like, 'No it's just a little further,' we kept doing that until they said, 'OK, we're not driving anymore.' We finally get them out there and start setting up all these sheets and lighting them all on fire. I made that song a few weeks prior just so we could do that." After the camera crew left, Marshstepper took psychedelics and jammed until the sun baked the barren wilderness.
Around that time, the label's scope oozed outwards. Destruction Unit had signed to Sacred Bones, and Ascetic House released a cassette edition of Perfect View, the 2013 album from Lust For Youth, their Copenhagen-based labelmates and friends. When Destruction Unit needed a new drummer, they immediately thought of Andrew Flores, a jazz-schooled percussionist from a destructive teenage punk band called Urban Struggles. Nappa and Aurelius showed up at the band's last show and asked Flores to join up. In addition to heading out on tour with Destruction Unit at 17, he'd also release house music on Ascetic House as Jock Club. Danny Pupillo, Flores and Urban Struggles' former singer, known as Speedboat, who often ended basement shows naked and bleeding, became regular "marshsteppers." All of them were putting out tapes on Ascetic House. Still, collectors grumbled, because you couldn't actually buy the label's releases outside of a show or the record stores the crew happened to wander into.
No Ascetic House releases have a catalogue number. The label is anti-collector. When I ask Nappa how many Ascetic House releases there are, he shrugs. (It's well over 200.) As Aurelius puts it, "All of our artistic and social growth has been documented within these public artifacts, tapes and videos and zines and discussions, it's not something we hide. However, it's also not something we have any interest in revisiting."
In January of 2014, Ascetic House responded to demand with an extended middle-finger, dropping 30 tapes in 30 days. Each cassette was only available via the Ascetic House website for one day, with no previously available information. This batch started with a cassette version of Destruction Unit's 2013 LP, Deep Trip, and included tapes from core Tempe artists Marshstepper, Body Of Light, Jock Club, Glochids, Sublimation (a project of Aurelius's) and Memorymann (Andrew Jarson, Body Of Light member and Alex's younger brother), ending with a live recording, Snakes Of The Far West, from Ascetic House jam band of sorts, Boys Of Paradise. But The January Program also marked Ascetic House's pivot to representing far-flung hubs in an interconnected global underground.
"The January Program tried to showcase one or two acts from these different contemporary scenes," Nappa explains. "It's all people from different places that we met while touring. Transfix was from Olympia, they're part of a label called Perennial. Helm, from the UK, runs Alter and plays bass in a punk band called Lowest Form. Tollund Men are from Denver, part of this label called Bleak Environment. It seems random from an outside perspective, but it's almost like a travel journal of experiences we've had and people we've met."
The January batch also included releases from Copenhagen acts Iceage and Puce Mary. "It was the biggest thing we've done," Nappa says. "I wasn't even ready for it. I didn't think we'd be selling 400 copies of one thing. It worked way better than I could have possibly expected. That's when we went to the next level, in terms of people knowing what we were all about. It was so many different scenes... These people have completely different followers with no overlap, so you get people who don't even know what techno is who are forced to check out all this stuff."
Tempe had become an unlikely nerve center of an esoteric platform for artists who either could not participate in, or chose to ignore, the commercial-minded music industry. The acts Ascetic House worked with were unbound by genre or the need to make a pristine recording. The January Program included traditional American folk from Anthony Pasquarosa, the singer of brutal hardcore punk band SQRM, under the name Crystalline Roses. Months later they'd release a live tape from LA techno legend Silent Servant. Soon thereafter came Frontier, a beautiful full-length of soundtrack-style wanderings by a band called Darto, reminiscent of Morricone or Neil Young's Dead Man soundtrack.
Each batch of tapes has a distinct visual identity. Silent Servant, real name Juan Mendez, who has helped shape the sound and look of contemporary techno as a designer and artist, says the label's visual aesthetic, such as the Ascetic House logo, as well as the endless Xerox art mutations unfurling across Ascetic House J-cards, lend the label's releases a clean, immediately identifiable feel. "JS is super talented," Mendez says. "He's come into his own with that stuff. It has that feel of total creativity and self-sufficiency that is so key... All aspects coming from within."