It's politics unusual for Savage Republic

The unintended irony behind the reunited post-punk band's Middle Eastern dirge

Savage Republic  Ramona Clarke
Photo credit: Ramona Clarke
SAVAGE GRACE: Savage Republic is Ethan Port (from left), Thom Fuhrmann, Kerry Dowling, and Alan Waddington.

Back in September 2001, several of the former members of the Los Angeles post-punk ensemble Savage Republic began talking again after having spent more than a decade apart. Reissues of their primal '80s albums were on the drawing board, and although no one knew it yet, a seminal event was about to bring new life to their rumbling, militaristic dirges.

From 1982 to 1988, Savage Republic was a menacing experimental band that churned out five powerful records, melding post-industrial clatter with exotic Middle Eastern imagery. The group's sound was contemptuous, noisy and politically charged. But its agenda, if one ever existed, was never easy to define.

In the States, groups such as Sonic Youth and Swans were counted among SR's peers. In Europe, the group drew comparisons to the avant-garde punk edge of Wire, Public Image Ltd., and Einstürzende Neubauten. But Savage Republic stood apart by pounding out a sound and vision that flourished with intangible cultural mystique. A chaotic blend of ethnic music and a jagged, guerilla-style performance aesthetic fueled Savage Republic's bombastic stride.

"In the band's early days, the Iran hostage crisis was over, but there was still a lot of sentiment hanging over from the times," recalls percussionist and guitarist Ethan Port, who joined Savage Republic in '85 for the release of its second EP, Trudge. "At UCLA, there were all sorts of Middle Eastern student groups who were posting fliers for their activities. None of us spoke the languages we saw, but we were fascinated by the look of it all, and tried to work with it from an almost naïve mind-set."

But any trace of naïveté leftover from the group's beginnings was about to be shaken up. On Sept. 11, 2001, Port — who was working in New York as a software engineer — was staying in the Marriott Hotel in World Trade Center building No. 3 when the planes hit. It was a harrowing experience, but it became a symbolic event that instigated the return of Savage Republic. By October, the group was playing shows for the first time since 1988, and has carried on with renewed effort ever since.

"Personally speaking, it was such a horrific thing that, while I could see that there was irony to me being there, there's no way that I could experience irony because of post-traumatic stress," Port says. "Art is art, and the real world is the real world, and what happened that day made us all realize that life is short. We needed to put aside our differences and put some closure on whatever unfinished business we had with this band."

Savage Republic has been steadily touring since, playing shows mostly on the West Coast and Europe. When the group plays the Earl on Sat., April 9, it will be its first time playing not only in Atlanta, but in the Southeast.

Over the years, members have come and gone. In 2001, Bruce Licher, one of the group's founders and owner of its original boutique label Independent Project Records (IPR), lost interest in joining the reunion after the initial round of touring. The current incarnation includes Port, who now runs Mobilization Records, which handled the band's reissues, Thom Fuhrmann (guitar), Kerry Dowling (bass) and Alan Waddington (drums). In Licher's absence, Fuhrmann has moved into the leadership role and serves as the main songwriter.

In 2007, the group released 1938 (Neurot Records), its first new album since '89. Though drums are still a crucial part of the band's dynamic, the scope of its more recent material has spread out into a massive, droning and open-ended body of work. Much of the belligerence of earlier records, such as Trudge and Jamahiriya, is still present in the music, but the guitar tones and mostly instrumental design settles on something of an Arabic surf-rock sound.

Despite being reawakened by such a massive political event, any such agenda on Savage Republic's part remains obscured behind a veil of pounding rhythms and drones. "I try not to let any political discourse enter the songs," Fuhrmann says. "That sort of thing is best left to the people who are listening to the music. We're not worrying so much about being precise, but being powerful. More like the original band." -CL-

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