Like presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, the men in Muscle Worship have a bit of a Google problem. Search for either entity on the Web and you're likely to be greeted with some gnarly, not-safe-for-work words and images. Unlike Santorum, though, Muscle Worship seems to enjoy the confusion that its name elicits. "I've always been a fan of the uncomfortableness of punk names," says Sean Bergman, vocalist and guitarist. "Like Pissed Jeans or Circle Jerks ... it's easy to make fun of power worship."
But the Lawrence band isn't at all averse to power; its shows are known for overarching technicality and sometimes-brutal volume. "The quiet game is one I can't seem to learn," guitarist Dan Davis says with a laugh. "But there's a difference between being loud for loud's sake and creating a feeling."
This sensibility has been honed over time by the participation of Muscle Worship members in a variety of very loud area bands, including Atone at Tone, Ad Astra Arkestra, Volara, Proudentall, Ricky Fitts and Paper Airplanes. A five-piece, Muscle Worship includes three guitarists. The group's songs, in addition to being earsplitting, are also wild and complex, a chaotic mess lacking traditional rhythms. The general effect is a sort of visceral whoa feeling. But Muscle Worship's sound is also fiercely controlled, the result of a lengthy songwriting process in which more ideas are thrown out than kept.
"The trick to getting what you want is getting everyone being as honest as possible," Bergman explains. "I really appreciate the variety of bands I have been in, but this is the first band where there are no compromises ... . I love that [the parts of the songs seem indivisible]. It's much more satisfying when the music becomes something else when you put it all together."
Davis elaborates further: "With being incredibly picky, the process takes more and more time. We all have one particular thing in mind, and we don't stop until it's there."
Bergman and Davis' friendship long predates Muscle Worship, back to when Davis' older brother, Matt (the singer for Ten Grand who passed away unexpectedly of an aneurysm in 2003), would invite Bergman's bands to play on Ten Grand's Wichita bills. As Dan Davis began organizing his own shows (including many an ICT Fest), he continued to ask Bergman to travel to Wichita to play. The two had discussed starting a band together as early as 2005, but it never quite materialized, and eventually Bergman took an indefinite hiatus from music.
After about two and a half years, Bergman was back at the guitar, first with Nathan Wilder (Paper Airplanes, Ad Astra Arkestra), then with Anthony Piazza (also of Paper Airplanes, AAA) and Billy Ning (Proudentall, Volara). "You just start thinking about what's adult and what's not," he says. "There are financial concerns, all of that. I just came to the realization that I don't want to live a life without this. I enjoy it more than anything."
Davis finished graduate school in Iowa, moved to Lawrence and entered the fold. (All five members of the band currently work as sound engineers at Johnson County Community College, which makes practicing easier. Many bands coordinate get-togethers around members' bar and restaurant schedules; Muscle Worship's practices and brainstorming sessions often take place over lunch breaks.)
Approaching their music from a later stage in life has made Bergman and Davis not only less compromising about their work but also better musicians. "After grad school, you realize that professional people don't consider being a musician anything at all," Davis says. That sentiment seems to motivate the band members to work harder at what makes them happy. They play shows that they think will be fun, and they tour leisurely a few times a year. They have done a larger tour with the Appleseed Cast as well as the smaller, couch-and-floor type of touring that most local bands venture out on. And though they love a full, loud, plugged-in sound, they prefer house shows and all-ages clubs. Davis explains: "I think people get confused with the all-ages thing, that it's just for kids. It's also about not going out just to get drunk or laid.
"But there are still at least 100 places like the Replay," he adds, "where you can reliably make money and keep going." Speaking of which: Muscle Worship was recently featured alongside a host of other local standouts on the Replay Records compilation Cheap Beer. And the band is looking to write and record more new material for a possible spring release. In the meantime, they'll be at Ernie Biggs Dueling Piano Bar in Westport Sunday, December 18, for a highly unusual, and potentially very interesting, gig.
Who knew Ernie Biggs was interested in hosting darkly complex speed rock in addition to show tunes? Whatever works, Davis says. "I'm always flattered when people want a part of what we're doing."