Chat Pile Are Really Doing This

Chat Pile Are Really Doing This

Jay Ybarra

Why do Oklahoma's premier noise-rockers have to play mini-golf outside? It's all part of making the leap from local upstart to underground sensation.

The guys in Chat Pile are grumpy. They don’t want to be here. They don’t want to do this. But this is the job. Some days, the job can be a very strange thing.

All four members of Chat Pile, the surging Oklahoma City noise-rock band, are in their thirties, and most of them are closer to 40 than 30. For the first time in their lives, they’re becoming full-time musicians, which wasn’t something that any of them thought possible. It’s an opportunity that fell out of the sky, and they’re taking it.

They’ve just returned from their first trip overseas, playing the Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands. In the months ahead, they’ll return to Europe to play more festivals, and they’ll head out on their first-ever full North American tour. Right now, though, they have to play mini-golf with the fucking Stereogum guy. It’s not what they want to be doing.

It wasn’t my idea. I just want to say that up-front. I accept zero blame. When I was trying to come up with a fun magazine-profile-type activity to do with the Chat Pile guys in Austin, I came up with a whole list of possibilities. I wanted to go to a cat cafe. That was my big contribution to the conversation. But Stin, Chat Pile’s bassist, suggested Peter Pan Mini Golf, a spot that he’d noticed on previous Austin trips. At least theoretically, this was a good idea. The course has been an Austin institution since 1948, and there’s a sense of ecstatic absurdity in its landmark obstacles – a tyrannosaurus rex, a clown’s head, a sea turtle with a psychedelic shell. You can take good photos at a spot like that. But nobody counted on it being one million fucking degrees on the day of the meetup.

Jay Ybarra

It’s been like this since we all arrived in Austin. Oblivion Access is a festival that prizes sonic adventurousness over comfort. The former Austin Terror Fest is devoted to extreme music from across the underground spectrum – metal, rap, hardcore, drone, various experimental subsets of those different sounds. Nobody goes to Oblivion Access to chill, or to party. You go to this festival to get your head metaphorically split open. But the heatwave that’s roiled through Austin this week has given us into a much more visceral Terror Fest scenario. It’s triple digits everyday. Longtime residents complain of the abject misery that the weather has inflicted upon them. For those of us unused to Texan summers, it feels biblical, impossible. To step outside is to experience profound disbelief, as you immediately sweat through whatever clothes you brought with you.

Chat Pile have spent the last two nights playing two of the most overwhelmingly uncomfortable shows I have ever experienced. First, there was the late-night set at the goth club Elysium, where the guys in the band estimate that the temperature hovered around 120 degrees. Singer Raygun Busch spent most of that set sweat-slick, wearing nothing but shoes and plaid shorts. Stin was legitimately concerned for the health of his brother, drummer Cap’n Ron, who had to do more physical work than anyone else in the band and who looked like he was ready to pass out by the second song. “I feel like I’m about to fucking die,” Ron reports. (Despite the heat, Ron has worn hockey jerseys every day of the festival. When I bring up the jerseys, he just kind of shrugs.)

The next night, Chat Pile played the outdoor stage at the Mohawk. It was a showcase for the Flenser, Chat Pile’s label, and they were on the bill right between Mamaleek, the experimental metal band whose members wear scary masks and keep their identities anonymous, and reclusive label figureheads Have A Nice Life. Before Chat Pile took the stage, though, heat lightning filled the sky, and it stayed there for a solid hour, delaying Chat Pile’s set. The staff at the Mohawk cleared out the upstairs deck, leading to an absolutely disgusting crush of sweaty noise-metal fans in the patio below. The soundman piped in Rob Zombie tracks, and it felt like hell on earth. The Chat Pile guys stood around in the alley beside the venue, wondering if or when they’d get a chance to rock. Finally, the green light came.

These were not ideal circumstances, even for a feverish bad-vibes band whose music often feels expressly designed to make listeners uncomfortable. Still, when Chat Pile hit the stage both nights, they were a revelation. The band’s sound recalls ’90s noise-rock beasts like the Jesus Lizard or Cows, but the guys in Chat Pile are not larger-than-life miscreants. They’re goofballs who love to bullshit about movies between songs and who, until very recently, held down respectable day jobs. (When I ask Stin what he’s been doing for a living, he merely says, “Office. Office job.”) Normal lives aside, Chat Pile are also a fearsome beast of a rock band, their riffs heaving and churning while Raygun Busch gargles vivid visions of human darkness. The sweaty crowd cheered, moshed, punched the air, sang along, and generally acted like they were not living through soul-annihilating weather conditions. It was inspiring.

After two nights of that, mini-golf feels like the worst idea in the world.

Stin knows he fucked up. At the Peter Pan Mini Golf entrance, Stin and Flenser founder Jonathan Tuite both sit in the sun, baking. A teenager in a Korn shirt walks by. Stin loves Korn. They’re his favorite band. He’s seen Korn more than a dozen times. He’s traveled across state lines to attend Korn shows. The previous night, while waiting for the lightning storm to end, Stin told me stories about past Korn shows. But when he encounters a fellow child of the Korn in the wild, Stin can’t even manage a bare-minimum “nice shirt.” Maybe he’s being mindful of the optics of a grown man approaching a kid about his Korn shirt, or maybe the heat has simply robbed him of whatever social energy it would take to make this connection.

Stin, who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Jason Mantzoukas, still has his day job, but he’s getting ready to quit before Chat Pile set out on tour. The enormity of this new phase of his life is just starting to dawn on him. “This weekend’s proof of how hard it can be,” Stin says. “Standing around for nine hours in the heat, being social all day, staying up late, losing sleep, all that stuff. It’s not like it’s the easiest thing in the world, but it certainly beats the nine to five.” He mostly sounds like he’s convinced himself.

One by one, Stin’s bandmates roll up, reluctance radiating off of in like waves. Raygun Busch, in particular, is almost visibly sulking. For the past two nights, he’s used the valuable between-songs portion of Chat Pile’s sets to urge the Austin crowds to go visit the gas station from the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, just outside of town. “Holy ground,” he calls it. He’s been to that gas station before, more than once, but he would like to head back this afternoon. The man has a pilgrimage to make. He’d rather be on the road, not playing mini-golf in near-unendurable heat. There’s a tiny horror-memorabilia museum in that gas station now, and I make a lame joke about how it would be funny if that station had become a Sheetz. A couple of the guys in the band give me sympathy-chuckles, but Raygun seems downright horrified at the very thought.

Are we really going to play mini golf? Really? For real? Or are the Chat Pile guys just going to pose for quick portraits by the clown head before we all head off for an on-the-record interview somewhere that’s fit for human habitation? No, someone decides, fuck it, we’re playing. We play. We don’t do the full course, but we get through nine holes, and we feel great about it. We feel accomplishment. We have been faced with extreme conditions, and in the name of internet-based music journalism, we have overcome.

Jay Ybarra

Raygun’s winning from the very beginning, and he cheers up. He manages to finish most of these holes in a couple of strokes. While his hapless bandmates get hung-up on obstacles, or on busted putts where the ball rolls around the lip of the hole, Raygun thrives. It takes me a minute, but I warm up, and I start to creep up on him. Stereogum’s Scott Lapatine doesn’t play, but he keeps score. By hole six, I start to think maybe I can win. I want to win.

We don’t chitchat much while we play. The BoDeans’ mid-’90s alt-pop hit “Closer To Free,” the theme song from Party Of Five, comes up in conversation somehow, and we all idly sing it while playing. I’m not a golfer, and neither is anyone in Chat Pile. A couple of us have been to a driving range once or twice, but nobody has played mini golf in years. We’re on an equal playing field here, and we’re all feeling at least a little bit serious.

At the ninth hole, I wonder if maybe we can finish the course out so that I can catch Raygun. It doesn’t happen. Scott adds up the scores, and Raygun has me beat by two strokes. (On Scott’s score sheet, I’m tied with Cap’n Ron, but Cap’n Ron has taken to giving Scott some arbitrary number whenever he finishes a hole. I don’t say anything about it because I don’t want to violate the sporting nature of the activity.) When the scores are announced, Raygun is ebullient. He requests that I refer to him, in print, as “the Tiger Woods of Chat Pile.” He’s mostly joking, but he’s not entirely joking.

Across the street, comfortably ensconced within a blessedly air-conditioned Starbucks, the members of Chat Pile reflect on the strange turns of fate that have led them to become globe-trotting career musicians. “Trying to do something full-time in the music industry in this day and age, especially at like 40 years old, seems like the dumbest choice ever,” says Stin. “But I don’t know, the way we’re looking at it, it’s so rare. It’s like lightning in a bottle when people pay attention to your band or care about what you’re doing. It’s a slap in the face to the universe to not at least try to see how far you can make it. We’re going to give it a go, and if things fizzle out in a year or two, there’s always jobs to go back to.”

The Chat Pile guys have all been making music for years. In all that time, they’ve been inhabitants of the Oklahoma City underground, and they never expected to go much further than that. “For a couple of years in my late twenties, I didn’t even pick up a guitar,” says Luther Manhole, the band’s guitarist. “I was listening to music and keeping up with music, but I couldn’t find anyone in town. Anytime I met somebody in town who I wanted to play with, it ended up not working… I was like, ‘No one in Oklahoma City listens to the same shit I listen to or plays the way I want to play,’ and then, serendipitously, [Stin] and I decided to jam one time because I met him through my cousin.”

Raygun Busch lived near the other Chat Pile members, and he liked what he heard of their practices. Pretty soon, they invited him in. “I had been waiting to be the singer of a band for a long time,” says Raygun. “I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s fuckin’ do it!'”

Chat Pile came together in 2019, and they quickly proved themselves to be extremely good at naming things. A chat pile is a phenomenon with real regional significance; it’s a toxic gravel-heap that comes from lead mining and that led to the total desolation of the town of Picher, Oklahoma. Raygun Busch’s own stage name is one of the all-time great snotty-punk pseudonyms. (It took me a minute before I realized that it was phonetically “Reagan Bush.”) When Raygun came up with his name, his bandmates followed suit. “He had that in the chamber, and he had to have an excuse to use it,” says Stin. “We were like, ‘OK, we’ll all have Dead Kennedys names.'”

Those pseudonyms have a practical reason to exist, too. Luther Manhole explains, “When I had my normal day job, I didn’t want people calling, like, ‘Send my body to Arby’s!'”

That’s a reference to “Rainbow Meat,” a song from Chat Pile’s grimy, punishing debut EP This Dungeon Earth. On that record, Chat Pile arrived fully-formed. The band cranked out loose, juddering scuzz-rock-riffage while Raygun Busch caterwauled over the top, yowling out tortured-mind fragments, dispatches from a society that’s already mid-collapse. On “Rainbow Meat,” Raygun’s narrator fantasizes about becoming a “human flesh slider combo” after his death: “Cut me into thin slices! Cut me into microscopically thin slices! Of meat! At Arby’s!”

Elsewhere, things get even darker than that. This Dungeon Earth ends with “Crawlspace,” the song where Raygun takes on the persona of a psychopathic Oklahoma City cop who considers himself a pillar of the community and who fantasizes about cutting open bodies – both yours and his own. A few months later, Chat Pile came out with their second EP, Remove Your Skin Please. That’s one’s got “Dallas Beltway,” the song where Raygun sings from the perspective of a father who’s just murdered his own children and who’s driving the titular loop over and over, with their bodies stuffed in the trunk. Implausibly, “Dallas Beltway” now stands as Chat Pile’s hit, the band’s song with the most streams.

None of the members of Chat Pile have children, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for Raygun Busch to write lyrics as jarring and visceral as those. “It can be kind of psychically damaging sometimes,” he says. “It’s just antisocial darkness.”

When Chat Pile self-released This Dungeon Earth, they hadn’t played a single live show. Oklahoma City, Stin points out, has “an actual art culture that people aren’t aware of.” But because the music scene is small, it’s not easy to find like-minded bands. “These kids over here make shoegaze, and these kids over here are into power pop, and there’s not really a cohesive thing happening,” Stin says. “Right now, beatdown tough-guy hardcore is really huge.”

These days, Chat Pile play DIY shows with all sorts of bands. Early on, though some local venues weren’t remotely interested in booking them. “There’s a crappy venue called the Speakeasy,” Raygun Busch says.

Luther Manhole cuts in, speaking directly into the phone that I’m using to record the conversation: “The 51st Street Speakeasy! Off Western!”

Raygun continues, “Only douchebag bros go there, and they said our music was not welcome. Truly! I played there a couple of times in my old band. All our friends played there.” He shrugs. Later on, Raygun says, the Speakeasy tried to book Chat Pile. They were not interested. This band holds grudges.

Robert Hein

“[‘Why’] is just baiting dumbasses with the truth.”

Raygun Busch

Before Chat Pile played their first show, Stin contacted Jeremy Martin, a writer for the alt-weekly Oklahoma Gazette, trying to drum up some press. Martin wrote a full-page profile of this “heavy and gross” new band, and Jeremy and Kara Choate happened to read it. The Choates, a married couple, were preparing to direct a low-budget movie called Tenkiller, a drama about an Oklahoma teenager who works in a machine shop and whose life is surrounded by violence. He thought Chat Pile would be a perfect fit.

“The people who made the movie, they’re full-time wedding photographers,” says Stin. “They decided to start making feature-length films, and I guess Jeremy is a big noise-rock fan. They heard our record through the Gazette, and they immediately called us up, and they’re like, ‘Hey, would you wanna score this movie?'”

The call came at an opportune time. Shortly after Chat Pile released their second EP, the world shut down. After releasing those EPs, Chat Pile played a few out-of-town dates with the noisy, guttural Austin screamo/metal band Portrayal Of Guilt; Stin says that POG leader Matt King first heard Chat Pile via the Spotify algorithm. But the pandemic shut everything down for Chat Pile. The producers of Tenkiller had a little bit of a budget, so they paid Chat Pile to lock in and work on the score. They also cast Raygun Busch as the best friend’s loser buddy, giving him a chance to drawl out an improvised riff on the Lars Von Trier film Antichrist.

Raygun Busch is a cinephile. Everyone in Chat Pile is a cinephile, but Busch is a real devotee. He writes entire songs inspired by culty ’70s horror flicks. He devotes much of his stage-patter to local cinematic history. Raygun and Luther Manhole recently teamed up with Bosse-de-Nage’s Bryan Manning to host Across The Pyuniverse, a podcast dedicated to Albert Pyun, the late auteur behind films like Cyborg and Kickboxer 2. But Raygun sounds slightly nonplussed about acting in actual movies himself.

“I’m in a new movie with [the Choates] that’s filming in July,” Raygun says, “It’s a post-apocalyptic movie, and they’re like, ‘Now, we’re not gonna have any gore in this or any blood.’ I mean, people are getting their heads blown off! I’m just like, ‘Either make a real movie or don’t, guys.'”

Tenkiller isn’t a classic film, but it’s tense and effective, and a lot of its power comes from Chat Pile’s grinding, ominous soundtrack. The sight of a machine shop or a desolate skate park becomes a whole lot more threatening when it’s set to Chat Pile riffs. The film and its soundtrack didn’t come out until late 2022, but Chat Pile used their creative momentum from recording the score, going straight to work their full-length debut God’s Country.

God’s Country became Chat Pile’s first release on the Flenser, a San Francisco label that specializes in heavy, experimental music that doesn’t fit into any particular box. Flenser founder Jonathan Tuite was immediately drawn to the band’s sound, even if he didn’t immediately pick up on all of Chat Pile’s reference points. “When I first heard the band, I didn’t think of them as a nu metal band,’ says Tuite. “I heard Jesus Lizard. I heard Nirvana’s Bleach and stuff like that from the ’90s. So when we started promoting the record and Stin started talking about his love of Korn, I started to notice that in the rhythm section. It’s a weird lens.”

God’s Country is an absolute beast of a record. With more space to operate, Chat Pile’s darkness gains even more heft and dimension. Cap’n Ron’s electronic drums and Stin’s guttural, borderline-funky basslines give the songs a serious low-end, while Luther Manhole’s guitars screech and flare. There’s beauty in the album’s ugliness and majesty in its squalor. Raygun Busch’s voice sounds even more frantic and terrified at album length, and his writing finds empathy even in the most extreme, bloodthirsty circumstances.

On the God’s Country song “Pamela,” Busch puts his love of movies to work. He writes from the perspective of Pamela Vorhees, mother of Jason and slasher villain of the original 1980 Friday The 13th. In Busch’s hands, there’s nothing kitschy about her story. Instead, it becomes a tale of a grieving mother whose sadness is so mythically powerful that it resurrects her son: “Wonder if all this pain I carry is strong enough to lift your body from the water and make you be alive again.”

Friday The 13th part 1 has more of a foot in giallo territory than it’s ever given credit for,” Raygun says. “People were saying it’s a Halloween ripoff. Even the filmmakers were disparaging themselves about Halloween. But Halloween didn’t have a fuckin’ reveal like that at the end. The speech that she gives about ‘Jason was my son, today is his birthday’ – it’s very easy to pull something out of that.”

Raygun says that he wrote “Pamela” by combining Friday The 13th with Toni Morrison’s Beloved. “I thought that would be an interesting idea,” he says. “Jason could be born from the earth because the grief was so heavy, exactly like in Beloved. I’m just grafting the story of Beloved onto it. It’s fan fiction.”

But there are no literary devices involved in “Why,” the most immediately gripping song on God’s Country. There’s no distance to the track. It’s just Raygun Busch using plain language to point out the obscene, absurd nature of American poverty: “Why do people have to live outside? In tents, under bridges? Living with nothing and horribly suffering? Why? We have the resources! We have the means!”

In the suffocating heat of Austin, “Why” hits even harder than usual. All of Oblivion Access takes place mere blocks away from a shelter, so you can’t go to the festival without seeing people who have been forced to live outside. The members of Chat Pile have not gotten sick of talking about “Why,” and they sound every bit as passionate in conversation as they do on the song.

“[‘Why’] is just baiting dumbasses with the truth,” Raygun says. “If people are mad about it, they’re revealing themselves to be bad people. If you can’t wrap your head around the concepts of the song, then go fuck yourself.”

I ask the band if anyone has been mad about the song. Luther Manhole says, “There might be some websites where you can rate or review music, where if you go to the comment box on our album, you can find around 1000 comments of people arguing about if it’s cringe or not.”

The band talks about a recent stop in Vancouver, where they walked through a homeless encampment that stretches for blocks and blocks. (Raygun wanted to see it because it’s where they filmed Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.) They speak of the same thing happening in Oklahoma City, too. “You’re seeing the cops come and clear everybody out,” Raygun says. “Where are they supposed to go? You give them a shelter, and it smells like shit in the shelter. Meanwhile, this Devon Tower is empty.” (The 50-story high-rise Devon Energy Center, the tallest building in Oklahoma, is a notorious money-loser that’s full of vacant office spaces.)

“In America, life is hard, no matter who you are,” says Stin. “If you’re upper middle class, there’s still hardships that you face just by being American. Even someone in a big house, to some degree, is living paycheck to paycheck. Because they feel those hardships that they feel like they’ve overcome in some way, they project that. ‘Well, I figured out how to handle this adversity, so how come you didn’t?’ But all you don’t understand is it takes one bad thing to happen to you, a car wreck or something.”

Stin tells a story about a hailstorm that crippled Oklahoma City last year, leaving much of the town without power for weeks. “You really start getting to a position where you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s no net. There’s no government coming to save me. There’s no private company that cares about my interests,'” he says. “The base functions of government, infrastructure, it’s just failing all around us. Politics and government do nothing for us now other than some type of perceived winning or losing. It’s all culture war, and it’s meaningless, to the point where the culture wars shift sides in terms of what morality they’re proposing at any given time.”

Amidst all that decay, an album like God’s Country can really hit a nerve. “We’re capturing a lot of anxiety that people feel,” Stin says. “I also feel, to some extent, we’re doing something kind of unique. I don’t know. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back in terms of we’re geniuses or anything, but there’s a lot of elements that we combine that other people aren’t doing.”

The combination of Chat Pile’s hammerhead force and Raygun Busch’s probing, upsetting lyrics is truly powerful, and it doesn’t really sound like much else. Chat Pile certainly draw on the underground noise-rock of the ’90s, but they don’t carry themselves like the larger-than-life hellraisers that ran rampant on the indie-music landscape back then. They’re not threatening at all. They’re just dudes. They like it that way.

“In the pantheon of rock history, it always enhances the art if there’s some lunatic behind what’s going on, so I hate to shatter anyone’s illusions about that or take away from what they’re hearing.” says Stin. “It’s a different time. Thirty years ago, if you wanted to be in a crazy band, you just had to resignate yourself to hanging out with the biggest freaks to make it happen. Now, we’re in an age when people have learned that you can be a nice person and make scary music.”

Jay Ybarra

When God’s Country came out and earned rave reviews, the members of Chat Pile were caught off-guard. They played a record-release show in a tiny Austin room that was absolutely packed with new fans – so packed that a couple of band members caught COVID. They started getting offers to play around the country, then to go overseas. “It blows our minds to think that anyone cares,” says Stin. “For me, I don’t realize how big things are, quote-unquote, until we do a thing like last night, where there’s 1200 people in the room and they know the song.”

“My favorite mosh moment has been when we at Roadburn, we were warned, ‘People don’t mosh in Europe, so don’t take it personally if nobody moves around during your set,'” says Luther. “And then they totally fuckin’ moshed at both of our sets… I feel blessed to be at the point where we have haters that don’t like us just because their friends won’t shut up about us. I thought of all the good bands that I have not liked just because I have annoying friends.”

For Stin, one of the most rewarding things about Chat Pile’s success has been the impact that it’s had on the Oklahoma City DIY scene. “Some kids started up a DIY venue, and they called it the Slaughterhouse,” Stin says. “And then some other kids made a zine, and it’s called We Have The Means, and that’s a line from ‘Why.’ You go to a show, and kids are wearing Chat Pile shirts. You can just tell that people are really energized. That, to me, is the greatest part about being in a band… It’s been so long since I’ve seen anything like this in my hometown, and the idea that we had anything to do with that? That makes playing in a 120-degree room worth it.”

On an underground scale, Chat Pile have caught lightning in a bottle. They’re making harsh, intense, freaked-out music for a harsh, intense, freaked-out age, and that music is connecting. Right now, the band is deep into writing their God’s Country follow-up. They just released a split with Kansas City noise-rock buddies Nerver, who will be joining them on the road in North America. Chat Pile are about to tour the UK for the first time, too. They didn’t expect any of this to happen, but they’re going to see how long they can make things work as a full-time band.

“The plan originally was just to get a band together and have some fun and play locally,” Stin says. “When it started taking off online, the demands started to get bigger. We never, ever anticipated that we’d be touring or even playing fests or anything. We thought we would just gig around town and maybe go to Dallas every once in a while.”

For now, Chat Pile have played their two sets at Oblivion Access, but Stin isn’t in any rush to get back to Oklahoma City. It may be unbearably hot in Austin, but doom metal originators Earth are about to play their classic album Earth 2 in full in a church. Tomorrow, Godflesh, a huge influence on Chat Pile, are playing. Stin’s never gotten to see them before. More and more often, Chat Pile are getting opportunities like these, and they aren’t letting those opportunities go to waste. They might not want to drag themselves out of their hotel to go play mini-golf with some writer in the middle of the day, but that’s the job now. They’re doing the job.

Jay Ybarra

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like this. Become a member and help support independent media!

more from Cover Story

Please disable your adblocker or subscribe to ad-free membership to view this article.

Already disabled it? Click here to refresh.