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The Madison band that invented the Seattle sound
Killdozer reunites for a Touch and Go Records anniversary show
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Killdozer's Twelve Point Buck, produced by Butch Vig, was the link to Seattle bands like Nirvana.
Killdozer's Twelve Point Buck, produced by Butch Vig, was the link to Seattle bands like Nirvana.

When I met up with former Killdozer drummer Dan Hobson at the Crystal Corner Bar two weeks ago, he had just returned from a rehearsal with the band in L.A. It was the first time he had seen his ex-bandmate Michael Gerald (Killdozer's famed growling vocalist) in 12 years.

"I left the band in a bad fashion in 1994," recalls Hobson. "Michael and I had a falling out. We've only corresponded by e-mail to work out business matters ever since then. But now we finally buried the hatchet. The long winter season of our relationship is over."

Fittingly, the occasion for Hobson's reconciliation with Gerald is the 25th anniversary party of Chicago's Touch and Go Records. The "party" is a three-day music festival taking place this weekend (Sept. 8-10) at the Hideout Block Party in Chicago.

Touch and Go has fabled status in rock history. It was one of the upstart labels (along with Twin/Tone in Minneapolis and SubPop in Seattle) that helped pioneer indie rock in the 1980s. Madison's Killdozer was among the first wave of bands signed to Touch and Go. These early bands came to define the label's sound.

Touch and Go is also fabled for owner Corey Rusk's longstanding practice of making "handshake" deals with bands. These informal agreements uniformly involved a 50/50 split in album revenues.

Like Killdozer, many of Touch and Go's early bands, including Big Black, Scratch Acid, Didjits, Negative Approach and Man...or Astroman? are reuniting to perform at the anniversary party.

Killdozer was formed as a trio in Madison in the early 1980s. The original lineup included Gerald on bass and lead vocals, Hobson on drums and his brother Bill on guitar. The band recorded five albums and an EP between 1984 and 1990. After a three-year hiatus, they became active again in 1993. They released two more albums before breaking up in 1996.

This weekend's Killdozer reunion will feature all three original members.

"Michael contacted me with the idea," says Hobson. "My wife said, ‘Your brother will never do it,' but we called him up and he said yes. I see this event as like a fun high school reunion you want to go to."

Dan Hobson is the only original member who continues to live in Madison, where he works as a registered nurse. Gerald lives in L.A. and works as a tax attorney. Bill Hobson also lives in L.A. and freelances as a grip on movie sets.

With its sludgy sound and growled vocals, Killdozer was associated with early punk hardcore. But they rebelled against the genre's super-fast tempo.

"Michael and I really hated that fast sound," says Hobson. "So we played as slow as we could. Some people didn't like it and said we weren't hardcore enough. We had hardcore fans who were so mad they rushed the stage. But some people got what we were trying to do and liked it.

"The lyrics Michael wrote were often local Wisconsin stories about dispossessed characters," adds Hobson. Gerald often sang these stories first-person in a deadpan but discernible growl that brimmed with dark humor.

Killdozer made a national impact and laid the foundation for the commercial success of bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins in the 1990s.

A key part of that influence wa Killdozer's long association with Madison producer Butch Vig, later known for producing Nirvana and drumming in Garbage. The relationship began with the band's first album in 1984, Intellectuals Are the Shoeshine Boys of the Ruling Elite.

Killdozer's discography, beginning with their uncomfortably dissonant debut and ending with their highly structured Twelve Point Buck in 1989, is a course in Vig's own development as a producer and sound engineer.

Twelve Point Buck is a Vig masterpiece. It's Exhibit A for his unique ability to insert himself into grunge and forge an essential structure. That structure sorts and orders sonic layers that would otherwise implode. The songs are heavy (Vig describes the Killdozer sound as a push and pull that's akin to being seasick) but highly listenable.

In a phone interview, Vig cited Twelve Point Buck as the prime link between Touch and Go's work with Killdozer and SubPop's work with Nirvana.

"Twelve Point Buck opened a lot of doors," he says. "[SubPop co-founder] Jonathan Poneman called me after that and said, ‘I have some bands I want you to work with,' and he lined me up with Tad and Sonic Youth. When he asked me to work with Nirvana, he said, ‘These guys are going to be as big as the Beatles,' which of course I scoffed at."

Poneman told Vig that he wanted "that attitude from Twelve Point Buck."

Vig's work also attracted the attention of Touch and Go owner Corey Rusk. Rusk asked Vig to work with other Touch and Go bands such as Die Kreuzen, Laughing Hyenas and Urge Overkill.

On the occasion of Touch and Go's 25th anniversary, Vig fondly recalled a road story from his days producing Killdozer for Touch and Go. The year was 1986; the event was the recording of Killdozer's Burl EP.

"The studio was in a terrible Detroit neighborhood," Vig says. "The guys were going out of business and needed cash so they were charging like $5 an hour for studio time. So Corey booked about 50 hours at this studio for us.

"Corey was living in an old church or a school in that neighborhood at the time. We all stayed there, and that night I remember there were people trying to break into the place. Corey was out there with a cattle prod fending them off by electric shock. Dan Hobson and I were sleeping next to each other in sleeping bags and every so often some dog would come up and lick our face and we'd just go ‘aahhh!'"

Dan Hobson remains active in the Madison music scene. He drums in several bands, including Cement Pond, Optometri and Theramones.

"I look at it in a different way now than I did back when it was all-important to me," he says.

Hobson has a son with an affinity for Green Day, but he has yet to play Killdozer CDs for him. His reason: "Too much swearing."

Killdozer's set at the Touch and Go Anniversary Party is set for 3:50 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 9, at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia in Chicago. More information is available at www.hideoutchicago.com.

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