Embodying a punk-rock ethos has its consequences. "Hey, man, I'm sorry. I don't know where Mikee is," Rory Cameron says. "He took off last night, and we haven't seen him all day." Rory shrugs off Michael Pruitt's strange absence. Unexplained disappearances are common in the circle that the Conquerors run in.
That circle is made up of 20-somethings who constantly play music and live hand-to-mouth, without beds, phones, cars or (sometimes) jobs. It's the equivalent of being a workaholic — instead of a career, though, it's a lifestyle. So it's no surprise when a night of wayward drinking finds a fellow rocker without communication or transportation. It comes with the territory.
The Conquerors abandoned their former incarnation — the dirty, ramshackle garage group Wrong Crowd! — when the band's drummer, Brenton Wheeler, split town earlier this year. With the nucleus of Rory Cameron, Christian O'Reilly and J.B. Izzle intact, the trio brought Michael Pruitt onboard full time as a drummer, banjo and ukulele player, and singer.
The band's live show mixes maniacal garage punk and psychedelia with cascading percussion, pounding guitar licks, and the occasional gang sing-along. It's less a performance than an unleashing, a handing-off to some tambourine-wielding hand from beyond the musical grave.
"There are people constantly yelling at us at our shows," Cameron says. "When I'm in the thick of it, I always hear howling."
The Conquerors' spirit, sound and vision draw from one of the more enigmatic streaks in rock history. "Basically, it's the point in time when British bands were selling American kids their interpretation of white Americans' interpretation of black music," Cameron explains. He and his bandmates fire off a few names as though assembling another Nuggets compilation: 13th Floor Elevators, the Monks, Hasil Adkins.
"We all have the same musical tastes and the same ear, so when we play and write, we know which direction we're going," bass player O'Reilly says.
"I can't write stories but I can convey emotion," Cameron adds. (That visceral power accounts for the crowds' demonstrative responses to Conquerors' gigs.) "A lot of times, I'll write a song, and one part will answer the other. Sometimes one song will answer another song."
In art, there is either imitation or innovation. Or there's both. To dismiss the Conquerors as imitators is to discount the group's drive to be innovative imitators.
Cameron says, "We like to think of it as a song bank, where you take your thing out but you put something back in."
The musicians also are aware that their sound's lineage is fraught with paranoia, mysticism, upheaval and unhinged craziness. These elements come together in a streak of global fatalism that runs through the Conquerors' musical roots. (Think of the sprawling Armageddon-themed songs of Aphrodite's Child, or Love's Forever Changes penned by frontman Arthur Lee because he felt the end of the world was near.)
But if all things must end, they also must have a beginning. And so the Conquerors have embarked on their first national tour.
"We had some help from Vampire Hands in Minneapolis, setting up a show there, and the Black Lips helped us set up a show in Atlanta," Cameron says.
First, though, they had to wait for something else to come to an end. Drummer Pruitt worked at the Whole Foods on Main Street until it closed earlier this summer. Waiting to hear when his last day would be added a little suspense to the band's tour plans.
"Basically we were waiting around for Mikee to get fired," Cameron says. When the store finally shut down, Pruitt took his severance money and bought a minibus for the express purpose of touring. "We moved some seats around," Cameron says.
"And used a lot of Velcro," O'Reilly adds.
Thus fortified, the band has set about wrangling shows and learning to sleep on the bus while continuing to channel the glorious ghost of another rock era. Audiences will no doubt see and hear shades of the past, snapshots of the present and shadows of the future. But at the core of the Conquerors' music is something timeless: rebellion.
"I was listening to [the Kinks'] 'You Really Got Me' the other day, and I was trying to listen to it like it was the first time I had ever heard it," Cameron says. "It must've been crazy when it first came out."
With 40 years of popular music on the books, is that sound still crazy in 2010? For the Conquerors, the answer is yes.
"We feel it's like what culture was and can be again," O'Reilly says. "There is an apocalyptic mood right now, with 2012 stuff coming up, and I think we fit right into that." Not that the Conquerors see themselves as prophets, saviors or signposts of the apocalypse. They're just playing the soundtrack.