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Mormon punks Tartar Control find the hardcore cure for moral decay 

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click to enlarge Tartar Control on the verge of discovering that their robot bandmate is not allowed into the Kingdom of Heaven.
  • Tartar Control on the verge of discovering that their robot bandmate is not allowed into the Kingdom of Heaven.

These days, it seems like nearly everyone is starting their own Mormon punk-rock trio with two missionaries and a beatboxing robot.

But Tartar Control, who recorded their first album in 2011, clearly pioneered the genre. And while lead singer Robert Selander and guitarist-vocalist Sean Hart may have relocated from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, they still wear their hearts on their short-sleeved white shirts, black ties and missionary name tags.

Onstage, you'll see them shifting gears between wide-eyed stage patter and high-octane hardcore anthems. While their robot accompanist sputters out bass and drum parts, the loose-limbed, Peewee Herman-esque Selander throws himself around the stage and into the mosh pit, dropping his voice several octaves and growling songs about Jesus, forgiveness and Pokemon.

And yet, we tell ourselves, it's all a put-on. Or is it?

Not according to the two clean-cut musicians, who insist they're merely using the tropes of punk rock to deliver the word of God.

"We know that what we do would never, ever, ever be accepted by our church," acknowledges Robert, "and that's why neither our parents nor our church really know about what we're doing. But even though we write songs about off-color topics, you can think of them as metaphors. I mean, it's up to you to decide what the songs mean."

Robert is quick to provide an example. "We have this song called 'Smoking Crack.' Now Sean and I have never — nor would we ever — actually do any sort of intoxicants or hallucinogens. The song is really about social pressures and how you ought to deal with them."

And then, of course, there's "My God's Cock" from last year's We Forgive You album, an enthusiastic exercise in mine-is-bigger-than-yours boasting that's more hypothetical than metaphorical.

"I mean, nobody really really knows how God made everything," says the singer. "And so what you really have to do is use your imagination! And that song's just one of the possibilities."

Tartar Control's official backstory is this: Sean and Robert have known each other since childhood. They were raised in Mormon families, sang in choir and eventually came to love the music of The Vandals, The Descendants and Leftover Crack.

Upon graduation, the two musicians were redeployed to LA, where they decided to spread the good word through music.

"We really wanted to start a band, but we didn't know anyone," says Robert. "So the making of Robot just seemed the natural thing to do. If we had to start building drum and bass tracks on the computer, we thought, 'Well, why don't we make our own third member?'"

Guitarist Sean picks up the story. "We wanted to have an exciting communal experience," he says, "and to that end, we tend to play very fast BPMs. I'd say our stage presence has the good taste of The Lawrence Welk Show, but at the same time mixed with the energy of ... who's a good one to compare it to..."

"Van Halen," says Robert.

"Right, Van Halen. With less finger-tapping. And less spandex. But with more hugs."

Sean is also enthusiastic about the missionary work being done by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in their musical The Book of Mormon, while Robert has become obsessed with the recently released Pokemon: Go, which he's finding to be yet another tool for spreading the good word.

"It helps a lot," says Robert. "Relating to people about your love of Pikachu is often an easier icebreaker than starting with your love of The Holy Trinity."

So is it possible that there's a tongue-in-cheek aspect to Tartar Controls' approach?

"Well, I'd say so," says a slightly hesitant Sean. "But ultimately, I think it comes down to the message and how it's perceived. And maybe you don't have any control over that."

Sure, a trip down the internet rabbit hole might eventually turn up a pair of LA comedians, with remarkably similar names, who'd gone to different high schools in California. Maybe one even coaxed the frontmen of GWAR and the Dead Kennedys to participate in a film about a death-metal barbershop quartet. But would any of that truly change Tartar Control's mission or message?

The late Bill Hicks once posited the theory of a "Trickster God," one who went around planting dinosaur bones just to test our faith. If that's the case, is it so far-fetched that this same deity would take two Mormons, put them out on the punk-rock circuit with a musical robot, and create alternate backstories, just to mess with us?

In troubled times such as these, the Lord does move in mysterious ways.


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