Bryan Ramirez remembers the first time Poor School took the stage at the Red Light Green Room, Ramirez on guitar and John Niekrasz on drums, in front of a healthy crowd not sure what to make of the walls of improvisation toppling on them. Most left, a few stayed, and Ramirez wasn’t surprised. He’d seen this before—Ex-Cocaine, Ramirez’s former duo with drummer Michael Casler, which started up in 2002 and has been on hiatus since Casler moved to Minneapolis in 2004, wasn’t exactly candy pop either, with its delicate mix of folk guitar and aggression. But Ex-Cocaine developed an audience over time, and, in much the same way, so has Poor School over the last year—an intrigued and generous local following, always curious as to what exactly the next show will offer.
“We have people in town who liked us and came out to support the shows, but it wasn’t overwhelming,” Ramirez says of Ex-Cocaine, which is taking a rare hiatus reprieve to play a local show with Poor School, both acts opening for Orthrelm at Higgins Alley Upstairs Saturday, March 4. “It was the sort of thing where I’d have someone weeks or months after a show come up to me and say, ‘That was a really cool show, man.’ And at the time, I think they were probably thinking, ‘What the hell is this?’ I think it sticks with you and they get it, just later.”
That sort of delayed gratification is something Ramirez is getting used to both on and off the stage. Last year, Ramirez—between playing regularly with Poor School, staying in touch with Casler about future plans (more on this in a second), DJing for KBGA (his last on-air show was Monday), opening his own local business (Nature Boy, on Higgins Ave., with his wife Julie) and holding down another job to help pay the bills—found the time to debut the first LP on his own record label, Killertree. Keep America Mellow was a limited-edition press of Ex-Cocaine material, a labor of love for Ramirez, and the first of a few releases he plans to distribute out of pride for the work he’d accomplished with little-known experimental bands. The LP was originally slated for release before Casler departed, but got delayed at the press. A week after Casler left, the records arrived, and it wasn’t until a few months later that Ramirez, traveling through Minneapolis, could finally work with his bandmate to screen the original album covers. Finally, in spring 2005, the records were finished and Ramirez found himself befuddled: “I thought, great, now, what am I gonna do with them?”
Beyond delivering a few copies locally to Ear Candy Music, Ramirez had no direction. With the band on hiatus, there were no shows to help drive sales and he had no connections with distributors. He talked to Wäntage USA label founder Josh Vanek and Ear Candy’s John Fleming for advice, and then rekindled a relationship with John Olson, a former bandmate from his days growing up in Michigan who now plays in the Michigan-based Wolf Eyes, considered an alpha dog in the experimental noise pack. Olson turned Ramirez on to his band’s online discussion group, and that proved to be the magic bullet—his third order for Keep America Mellow came in from Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Then a few distributors, including a Brooklyn outlet called Fusetron Sound and “yod” out of Massachusetts, added orders of 10, and followed up two weeks later asking for 20 more. Within two months, and with almost no local support, all 116 copies of the album were sold out.
“I didn’t really go a traditional route of distribution,” says Ramirez. “It was more like I was peddling them, like being a door-to-door salesman knocking on doors saying, ‘Hi, I have this item that I think you may be interested in.’ It was like that, except I was doing everything online.”
The connection through Olson and Wolf Eyes not only helped sales of Keep America Mellow—a second edition is in the works for release soon—but also created a demand for Ex-Cocaine to play live. In fact, Olson extended an invitation for Ramirez and Casler to play the No Fun Fest, a three-day noise extravaganza in Brooklyn that also features Wolf Eyes, Moore and others from around the world.
“Rarely do Montana bands get requested by folks widely known to play a three-day noise fest in New York,” says Vanek, a fan of what he describes as Ex-Cocaine’s “halfway performance art, halfway hippie jam, halfway experimental noise” style. “I would guess it hasn’t ever been done before.”
Ex-Cocaine’s unexpected blip on the national radar happens to coincide with Poor School’s fresh traction on the local scene. The band added saxophonist Nathan Hoyme to the mix late last summer, and as the three have become more comfortable in their improvisational jams, their shows become more adventurous and tight.
“The first time we met we talked for like three minutes and then just played for an hour,” says Niekrasz, who was introduced to Ramirez by Vanek when he returned to Missoula after graduate school in Chicago last year. “I’m not a spiritual person by any means, but that’s what it’s like for me when we play…It’s certainly loud, very intense. But the intricacies are amazing, extremely complex and worth it.”
Ramirez has been hustling to get Poor School CD-Rs completed in time for No Fun Fest to capitalize on the event’s exposure and possibly unearth some new fans for his latest band. In addition, he’ll also be pushing Killertree’s newest LP of material from Universal Indians, his old band with Olson back in Michigan. UI’s Monster Approach is another labor of love, described by Ramirez as “lo-fi to the gills, but solid and thick sounding like a speaker taking a shit,” with the tracks pulled from mid-’90s live and basement practice sessions captured on Olson’s handheld cassette recorder. It’s grimy fun and, as Ramirez says, “in the red.”
“With the old stuff, I just want to get it out there and legitimize it and that’s it,” he says. “My plan from the beginning was to do that and, in a way, just get this stuff off my back. Ex-Cocaine was first, now UI and then I have one more old band [Plants, also with Olson] that I need to get done. It’s like I’ve said, I have to put the demon to rest, and then it’s on to the new stuff.”
Poor School and Ex-Cocaine open for Orthrelm and Zombi at Higgins Alley Upstairs Saturday, March 4, at 9 PM. $7 or $6 in advance from Ear Candy Music.