In the annals of weirdo, psychedelic, noisy rock Chrome (performing tonight, March 31 at Larimer Lounge) stands out as one of the true originals. Innovators of an art/acid damaged sound that fully blended synthesizers and rock music, Chrome is often considered one of the progenitors of industrial music. Butthole Surfers freely admit the influence, so did Stereolab. One has to assume Arab On Radar drew on Chrome’s proto-sampling, recontextualizing, deconstructionist impulses as well. When Chrome released its debut album The Visitation in 1976 it must have seemed as alien as its closest musical cousin in the early solo albums of Brian Eno. Ned Raggett Allmusic Guide described it as “Brian Eno meets Santana.” The latter probably because of the fluttery, bluesy leads that are the hallmark of part of the guitar sound on the record alongside the fuzzy, spidery melodies. The band might have continued to develop along that path if bassist Gary Spain hadn’t been playing violin in a band prior to The Visitation’s release with future Chrome guitarist Helios Creed, mentioning he was in a band called Chrome.
“I asked if I could hear it when it was done,” says Creed. “He gave me a copy and I liked the record, The Visitation, but I guess the record wasn’t selling at all and everybody quit. Then I auditioned and me and Damon [Edge] got along really well. It ended up just being me and him after a while. I played the bass on the first three records [after I was in Chrome]. When I heard that [first] record I [told them I] felt like they needed me and I was right.”
Creed had grown up in the 50s, 60s and 70s listening to, among other bands, Black Sabbath, Iron Butterfly, The Doors and Blue Cheer. “I went to go see Black Sabbath on acid and I sort of felt like I knew what I wanted to do, in a way,” says Creed. To Chrome, Creed brought another dimension to the band’s spirit of experimentation and a guitar sound that was as energetic as it was corrosive and both jagged and serpentine.
Starting with Alien Soundtracks, originally titled Ultra Soundtrack when it was a soundtrack project for what might be called an avant-garde strip show in San Francisco. But the music was considered too weird even for an endeavor like that in a city where strange art had long been embraced. From the opening track, “Chromosome Damage” to the last, “Magnetic Dwarf Reptile,” it is obvious that Chrome had absorbed obvious influences like Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath, Hendrix, Stooges and Hawkwind and allowed that to mutate and stew into something that sounded like what cyberpunk authors like William Gibson, John Shirley and Bruce Sterling were trying to capture when they took the spirit of J.G. Ballard’s visionary, dystopian science fiction and its influence on punk in brilliant new directions. Chrome albums have consistently seemed like science fiction novels and movies no one has yet written or made. “Yeah, we got sci-fi ideas and integrated it with the feel of the music,” says Creed. “Or a sterile, dehumanizing, robotic society. We had a lot of different kinds of inspirations. That movie Carrie? Alien, the first one. Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange–the feel of those movies really inspired us.”
Although based in the Bay Area, Chrome didn’t exactly play live shows in a city where the avant-garde or any kind of strange, eccentric art seemed to find a home. The band had garnered critical acclaim abroad with Alien Soundtracks and its follow-up, 1979’s Half Machine Lip Moves but it wasn’t until 1981 that the group performed live for the first time.
“We didn’t play until Blood on the Moon came out,” says Creed. “That was our first show and we played in Italy at a music festival in Bologna. We played all new songs but they dug it. We played the whole Blood on the Moon album. There’s a live record of that show somewhere.”
The lineup with both Edge and Creed produced some of the most interesting and unusual music of the era including 1980’s more synth-infused Red Exposure, the aforementioned 1981 album Blood on the Moon and 1982’s 3rd From the Sun. With more electronic elements including drum machines, those records, dark and clearly taking cues from no one beyond the dictates of active and restless imaginations, Chrome’s sinister psychedelia was not destined to fit in with the fake positivism of the 1980s mainstream culture. Thank goodness. However, the Edge/Creed era of Chrome ended by the mid-80s and Edge moved to Paris with his wife and collaborator, Fabienne Shine. Edge released albums as Chrome into the 90s before he died of heart failure in 1995. Around that time he had reconnected with Creed with notions of doing Chrome together again.
After Chrome, Creed continued as a solo artist and collaborator with current synth and guitar player Tommy Grenas (from bands Farflung and Pressurehead) who connected Creed with former Hawkwind member Nik Turner with whom Creed and Grenas worked on a 1993 re-recording of Turner’s 1978 solo album Sphynx and the 1994 Nik Turner record Prophets of Time. Creed and Turner now have a band with Jay Tausig called Chromium Hawk Machine that put out an album called Annunaki in 2017 on Massimo Gasperini’s Black Widow Records imprint. “Massimo is into the whole Zecharia Sitchin theory about Nibiru so we made a record about it.”
Rumor had it that Grenas was able to get a hold of Edge’s original synth rig after the musician passed. Turns out the rumors were true.
“I met Damon before I met Helios,” reveals Grenas. “When Damon passed away I had the opportunity to buy his stuff when [his sister] Sharon put it up for sale and I bought it before anyone else did. I bought Damon’s [Moog] Liberation and the [Electro-Harmonix] Micro Synth and something else. I used it on the first tour but a lot of that stuff is too fragile to take on the road.”
Grenas used some of the older gear for the Chrome records that have come out since the turn of the century. Right now the band is touring in support of 2014’s Feel It Like a Scientist and 2017’s Techromancy. While the methods and means of making sound have changed, Chrome still seems off the frequency of mundane normalcy with songs about an ominous, dystopian future society.
“It seems like we’re on the brink of going right into that with machines and robots taking over,” says Creed. “So maybe they’ll just kill us, I guess. We’re going to be obsolete. ‘You must go to this room here and wait for destruction.’ We also have songs of hope.”
In spite of the overt sound of the band and the subject matter of the lyrics, Creed’s sharp and playful sense of humor is infused into the music as well and so is his willingness to explore the dark underbelly of American culture that is often simply dismissed as folklore. Although Creed grew up in Long Beach, California and lived in the San Francisco Bay area for much of his life, he did spend some years in the American Midwest where lurid stories of local figures and events are not in short supply.
“I was living in Manhattan, Kansas, twenty miles from Stull,” says Creed. “Supposedly it’s one of the gateways to Hell. That’s the scuttlebutt. Supposedly the Pope won’t fly over it when he comes to America. Every Halloween apparently the Goth people and witchy kind of people show up there thinking they’re talking to the dark ones. But really all it is is just a burned out church. [So the story goes,] a bunch of rednecks who hated blacks, and really everyone, put people in that church and burned it down and opened a vortex to hell. You know how the old west was. Where I was living in Kansas they used to cut the heads of slaves if they didn’t like them. All this stuff never gets written about but I know the history of Kansas is very dark. It ain’t no Wizard of Oz place, I’ll tell you that much.”