Indian Goat: dark voices from the scablands

Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas

‘It’s obviously harder for me to work with a 1964 plastic guitar, compared to a brand new one right off the factory line, perfectly intonated and all that stuff,’ he admitted. ‘Sometimes you say to yourself, God, does anyone even realize how much harder this is? Why do I even bother? But I’m not doing it to prove something to ‘them.’ I’m doing it to prove something to myself. And if someone says ‘good show’ or ‘good album’ I know I can be proud of it because of the conditions it was made under.’

Jack White, from Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, & Revolution of the Electric Guitar, by Brad Tolinski & Alan di Perna (Doubleday, 2016). Interview by Alan di Perna, 2007, from the Alan di Perna Archive.
Indian Goat playing live
Indian Goat (photo by Alicia Hauff, used by permission)

Every power-rock duo has the vibe of extreme sport about it. The rewards are great, but mistakes can be costly. Trust and execution become everything because everything is so much harder to get right. Control, gear, even risk are heightened when the results come down to the skills and intuition between two people who must be attuned for every performance. Perfection in the studio makes live gigs even more risky. Expectations, once set, must be met every time the band takes the stage. The power-rock due is also a statement of faith in the endless potential for rock & roll to reinvent itself. Like extreme sports, success is measured against a combination of aesthetics, ideals, intensity, and physical endurance.

The first time I saw Death from Above 1979 (opening for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club), I couldn’t believe a bass player and a drummer could create such an immense wall of sound, live on stage. This is the substance of the power-rock duo. Indian Goat, the Spokane, Washington-based duo made up of Garrett Zanol (guitar/vocals) and Travis Tveit (drums/vocals), is cut from the same rough stone. Their first two records, “I” (CorpoRAT Records, 2017), and “II” (CorpoRAT Records, 2018), taken together make a bold statement about the extreme narrative space this band plans to explore using volume, compression, overdrive, and distortion. Every power-rock duo sets out to prove something. These two Indian Goat records, taken together, both reflect the development of an exciting new band expanding its range, as well as placing them firmly in the tradition of back-to-basics neo garage rock.

The first Indian Goat release began its life as an eponymously titled cassette tape on the Spokane-based Resurrection Records label (2017), before it moved over to CorpoRAT Records, also in Spokane, and became “I,” a CD release with new artwork and a new image. At 26 minutes, “I” moves with a leaner stride than “II,” but all of the elements are in place for what will come next from this band. Zanol’s guitar is played with more slide, making these first seven tracks feel more like punk-blues than garage rock. But there isn’t a dead track on this release, with two aggressive standouts: “Medicate My Blood” and “Beltown Burn.”

One track, however, is striking both for its opening use of found/spoken word, an approach that will reappear on “II,” breaking from the narrative structure of the rest of this record, moving their songwriting into a confrontational darker space. The track is “Aileen Wuornos,” the title being the name of the prostitute and convicted serial killer who was put to death in Florida by lethal injection in 2002. The track opens with Wuornos responding/arguing with a reporter about her motives as a killer. The spoken-word intro is stark and edgy, but it works, reversing easy stereotypes about serial killers (Wuornos’s “seventeen months of bloodshed”), which drifts into an unconventional refrain from the band itself using Wuornos’s name, a killer “known to the men as the wicked crow / blood-red soul with a lust for bringing young men pain.”

If there’s any punk-blues DNA in the songwriting of Indian Goat, it lives in their ability to blend fiction and nonfiction into real-life, painful, even shocking narratives without losing its lyrical center. The album ends with what feels like a spontaneous solo-electric guitar and vocal track, “Imagine That,” reminiscent of the introspective “Fly Farm Blues,” by Jack White.

Indian Goat moves the found/spoken word element first tested on “I,” to the opening of “II,” this time as a standalone short track called “2,” returning the band once again to the dark real-life narrative about serial rapists and killers. This time they use an apparently modified recording of testimony about a killer’s intent and method. The killer is Lawrence Bittaker, who, along with Roy Norris (known as the “Tool Box Killers”), was active in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Both killers were convicted and died in prison in California, Bittaker while on death row.

Does blending a real narrative hurt the songwriting on “II” — does it burden the focus of the record as a whole, does it reduce the remaining tracks to the level of gimmick? It’s certainly not a playful opening for any record, but it works here in no small measure due to the seriousness of this band’s aesthetic and driving approach. We lie, we steal, we cheat, and we crave the spectacle of violence. American roots music has always been drawn to dark narrative ballads. Like “I,” the darkness of the spoken-word opening on “II” amps up the seriousness of this world-weary song collection.

The eight tracks on “II” are more layered, the result of more attention (and perhaps budget?) in the studio, and come across as more driven than “I.” Standout tracks include “The Road,” “Black Pearl,” and “Bleed.” The success of this record’s songwriting comes from its passion, blistering pace, and ambitious reach.

Indian Goat band shot
Indian Goat (photo by Alicia Hauff, used by permission)

In 2019, Indian Goat released a new single, “Be Your Seer.” Once again, the band returns to their innovative formula of starting the track with a found/spoken word element, this time what sounds like a preacher preaching about the dangers of rock & roll: “I believe with all my heart that that it [rock & roll music] is a contributing factor to our juvenile delinquency of today. I a hundred percent believe….” The band playfully turns the clichéd message of rock & roll as a path to ruin, into a raucous invocation of rock & roll as visionary passage.

Indian Goat is an exciting band because, as yet, Zanol and Tveit are too new on the scene to pin down into one category or direction, which makes every release feel both revelatory and risky (and future tracks highly anticipated). All bands evolve over time. These first two records, and one new single, paint a dark portrait of human desire, impulse, weakness, and consequence.

Indian Goat is also a band that clearly develops (feeds?) being in front of a crowd, as their photo posts to Instagram reveal. Sadly, live shows have been put on hold due to COVID-19. Once we clear our lockdown, however, this power-rock duo will be free again to tour, stretch their songwriting range, and return to the studio. Indian Goat definitely has something it wants to prove to itself. Zanol and Tveit are writing songs that feel spontaneous while using themes drawn from the eternal human drama — flaws, imperfection, and tragedy all delivered in hard-bitten songs by road-tested journeyman musicians with deep roots into the satisfying, power-duo rock tradition.

photo credits
(where not otherwise credited)

“Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas” / photograph by Javier Castro on Adobe Stock (editorial use by permission)