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Shitrock From the Heartland: The Oral History of Morality Crisis

MoralityCrisis_Black_White2012_Unknown

Countless bands claim not to give a fuck, but the members of Minneapolis’ Morality Crisis truly don’t care about what people expect, want or think. From 2005’s Love and Passion to their most recent release, a six-minute grind EP called Mortality Crisis, the members of Morality Crisis have always made music that, first and foremost, is fun and interesting to themselves.

Originally formed as a four-piece with Kasey Kubisiak on guitar, Morality Crisis hails from Wausau, Wisconsin, a town where ice fishing and deer hunting are more popular than punk and metal. Consisting of guitarist-vocalist Pete Noteboom, bassist-vocalist Jordan Koch-Engstrom, and drummer Chris Woznicki for most of its releases, the band started before its members could legally drive.

Morality Crisis meld grind, hardcore, Am Rep-style noise rock, and sludge into a weirdo amalgam that just barely makes sense. Like the genres that the band mashes together, its members seem to exist on different wavelengths. Koch-Engstrom is a white trash version of Andy Kaufman who’s taken a belligerent truck driver persona to the point of it becoming his real self. Currently pursuing his Master’s in social work, Noteboom is disarmingly kind, but his stage presence in Morality Crisis, as well as in his 8-bit grind band, Futuristic Death Tank, pulses with rancor. On the drums, Woznicki sounds like the bastard child of Buddy Rich, Chuck Biscuits, and Jason Roeder—no doubt the result of countless hours of practice. And yet he’s endlessly self-deprecating. (When I asked him how he felt about this oral history, he said, “Everything we do sucks.”) The result is a band whose seams constantly threaten to unravel. Like a gnarly car accident on the side of the road, Morality Crisis emits a negative energy you can’t ignore.

What follows is the story of Morality Crisis as told by its members and Adam Tucker, a recording engineer and musician from Wausau who now runs Signaturetone Recording in Minneapolis and has recorded every Morality Crisis release, except for 2016’s New Emotions. The crack smoking; the 22-minute songs; the body fluids; and planet Nibiru—it’s all there.

-J.J. Anselmi

Wausau – 2004-’06

MoralityCrisis_2004_Unknown
Wausau show in 2004, Unknown photographer

Chris Woznicki: Kasey and I started playing music when we were 14 or 15. We met through a mutual friend Nick Brideau and played at Kasey’s guitar teachers talent show/concert thing.

Pete Noteboom: Wausau is a weird place. There is something like 70,000 people in the metro area, smack dab in the middle of Wisconsin, three hours east of the Twin Cities. It’s small enough to be filled to the brim with reactionary hicks but big enough to feel lost. The lack of a four-year university means that there isn’t much to look forward to in Wausau if you’re young. If it wasn’t for the rise of the internet we probably would’ve aspired to play Van Halen songs in the beer tent at the fair.

Chris and I met at a statewide camp for student council kids after 8th grade, and it turned out he lived across Lake Wausau from me. We decided to jam. I drove a boat across the lake and picked up him and his friend Kasey. We went to my garage and covered some songs, like “Territorial Pissings” by Nirvana and “Chinese Rock” by the Ramones, and played a lot of ‘Halo’.

Jordan and I met in middle school. We kind of hated each other because middle-school band politics were in full swing and I was jealous of his ability to play “Crazy Train” better than me. But there weren’t many longhair guitar types in Wausau, so we eventually became friends. Jordan invited us to play our first show in August of 2003 with his band. Over an AIM conversation, Chris and I decided on the name “Morality Crisis” just a few days before the show, because we needed a name for the flyer. I was inspired by the Thrice album Identity Crisis, and thought it sounded emotional and BRUTAL. As a three-piece, Chris, Kasey, and I covered songs by bands like Thrice, Jimmy Eat World, and AC/DC. We were 15. It was terrible. It was the best.

Throughout that year, Jordan and I became friends, and he bought a bass and joined the band. We spent the next few years writing songs for Love and Passion, our first EP. We played all sorts of shows, at high schools and fairs and some bars here and there; some backyards, and anywhere else. We didn’t really know what we wanted to sound like. We generally liked bands like Thursday and Thrice and Poison the Well. We were also really inspired by Adam Tucker’s band, Exit Smiling, a chaotic hardcore-type band in town that rocked telecasters and covered MC5. They seemed to do their own thing, and that was appealing to us. At the same time, we were all taking lessons and developing as musicians and bouncing musical ideas off of each other, just growing together. And then we got into Converge and Sleep.

MoralityCrisis_Ticho'sBarn2005_Unkown
Ticho’s Barn from 2005

Jordan Koch-Engstrom: Wausau was pretty crappy. The scene pretty much didn’t exist. Derek Edmonston made it exist. There were a ton of bands that were trying to be other bands. Just a bunch of rip-off crap bands, sucking each other’s dicks.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd played in Wausau once. BB King played there once.

We were just dipshit kids and we were making songs that were better than everyone else’s’. Oh, and we drank more beer and did more weed than anyone else.

Noteboom: The scene in Wausau was driven by a small handful of people who were devoted to doing something cool—Derrick Edmonston, Alex Ticho, and Josh Dean, to name a few. Exit Smiling had helped create this cool community of weird skateboard rocker kids that liked to mosh really hard. Nobody really knew what we were doing. I thought I was in a screamo band, like the ones I read about in Guitar World. We were insulated from whatever cool things were going on in the Twin Cities, but created something cool for ourselves. This was during the early Bush years when people in high school were a bunch of republican pro-life types. Our little music scene made high school a lot more bearable for me. I didn’t do weed much until later and Chris was straightedge until college, when our friends Brad and Robert got him drunk in a Bill Clinton mask.

The best shows I can remember were the ones that Ticho put on in his parents’ barn—10 minutes outside of town. The place was absolutely jam packed with kids, many drunk for the first time and stage-diving off of hay bales and beating the fuck out of each other. We met Adam Tucker at one of these shows in September 2005, and he agreed to record us. We also played tons of shows with a band called Poney, who we would later tour with.

Koch-Engstrom: One time in Ticho’s Barn, it was snowing through all the holes in the wall. Another time in Ticho’s barn, it was a really good show. We were all drinking Sparks in the woods, and we buried our cans so the adults wouldn’t find out. We also played at this snowmobile shop in Merrill that had a beer vending machine.

Show in 2005 at Ticho’s Barn

Adam Tucker: Morality Crisis always struck me as dudes that didn’t care about anything except making music they liked, even from the very start. The band I was in at the time started playing shows with them (Exit Smiling was also Ben Brooks’ first band, who then went on to form Poney and later on No Hoax) and even though my memory is apparently very bad, I know from show one they were well rehearsed but chaotic with extremely catchy hooks hidden in very unnecessarily complex songs.

'Love And Passion' Cover
‘Love And Passion’ cover

Noteboom: We recorded Love and Passion [2005] in Jordan’s parents’ shed with Tucker, which took just under a whole weekend to accomplish. We had written these songs over a long period of time, so our performances were pretty quick. In general, we were floored with how Tucker made us sound, and I think that this recording made us start to think of ourselves as a “real band.”

Tucker: The Love and Passion disc was one of the very early things I recorded with my first real rig, a 16-channel PC-based monstrosity that is still functional and in use as my live recording setup. I think one of my strengths as an engineer is trying to get in sync with a band and extract the truest sound I can without imposing too many of my own ideas on them. Morality Crisis really helped form that for me because they played weird and sounded weird and to change that would have ruined everything. So we kind of just put things down as they lay and let things get out of hand. As much as they say I helped them doing records, their extremely specific intensity and creativity made me want to follow this strange path I’m on. Also, we got to trade cool kid heavy music that nobody else knew about (Harvey Milk!), so that helped expand my ears. In retrospect, [Love and Passion] sounds like it was recorded by a kid with some kids playing it. But in a lot of ways it still holds up.

Noteboom: In 2006 Chris, Jordan, and I graduated from high school. Chris and I moved to Winona, Minnesota and Minneapolis, respectively; Kasey (a grade younger than the rest) finished high school before moving to Green Bay; Jordan stayed in Wausau. Over the next few years, we played a few reunion shows. In 2008, Jordan moved to the Twin Cities. Kasey followed in 2010 and Chris ended up here in 2011.

Minneapolis – 2011-present

2012 Radio K Polaroid
2012 Radio K Polaroid

Noteboom: I was taking a break from community organizing work and was pretty bored. I was trying to play electronic-type music around town and that sucked. The four of us saw Adam Tucker at a show at the Cabooze in 2011, and he convinced us to start playing together again. None of us were really doing anything interesting at the time, so we thought why not, let’s get the ol’ band back together.

Tucker: I saw them at a show and told them it was dumb not to be a band if they were literally all living in the same place and at the moment all hanging out directly in front of me.

Woznicki: Jordan and I moved in together after I had a brief stint on Pete and Kasey’s couch. While Pete, Kasey, and I wanted to start playing again after Tucker brought it up, Jordan wouldn’t do it. So us three just started practicing in the basement of my and Jordan’s place, and because he lived there, he eventually did, too. So everything that’s fucked-up that we do is Adam Tucker’s fault.

Noteboom: We first jammed in Chris and Jordan’s basement in St. Paul. We walked in and within 20 minutes had hammered out the first few riffs in “Log.” We spent that fall writing the songs on North. It was awesome to just dig into it. I think that’s our best record.

‘North’ cover
‘North’ cover

Woznicki: Writing and recording North happened really fast. I feel like we had only been playing together for three or four months when we recorded it. It’s also the last album we did that had Kasey playing on it. Once we became a trio the dynamic of songwriting took a turn.

Noteboom: Every song on that record has meaning. The other guys might not agree, but I think the songs kind of tell the story of our journey from Wausau to Minneapolis. “North” is about letting go of home and whatnot. “Log” is about a drug-running mercenary that works for both sides in the Minnesconsin civil war, crossing the St. Croix in his big badass motorcycle. “Take Her to the Trend Bar” is about discovering how awesome the shittiest parts of the city are. “Take Her to the Bad Room” is about it all going wrong. The songs are relatively simple compared to our later stuff—and catchy too.

“Trend Bar” and “Bad Room” live on Radio K

The Adam Tucker Chronicles

Woznicki: Working with Tucker is really easy. I don’t know if it’s because we have been working with him for so long, or just because of how he is, but he doesn’t have a problem telling us when something isn’t right—or is just bad. He’s like another member in the band because he has basically had complete control of the mixes. I don’t know if it’s because we trust him or our attention span is so short, but we really don’t do anything after we get the initial tracking down.

Koch-Engstrom: He tries to stick his peen in a lot of places, but we try our hardest to deny him. You can’t smoke in his studio, which is why most of our albums suck. We aren’t in our natural state.

Noteboom: Tucker did a lot for Morality Crisis. His encouragement and support in high school and after definitely made us feel like we were more important than we really were. After he convinced us to be a band again, he introduced us to tons of awesome bands in town. In the studio, he knows how to get the best takes out of musicians, and he plays to his clients’ strengths in recording. He obsesses over mixes and sends you mix after mix after mix afterwards until it’s bangin’.

Tucker: I can give a fast breakdown of the MC studio arc:

Love and Passion: Lots of takes, recorded things one or two instruments at a time, overdubs doubled guitars, etc.

North: Recorded all the basics live as a band, doubled (and doubled again) guitars, punched a few mistakes.

Boats: Recorded everything but vocals live. This album was also one of my first ventures into using a true single pass guitar performance to capture the full sound. We overdubbed a few lead lines, but almost the whole album is the single live pass.

MASH: The same as Boats but even less punches and additional stuff. This is an almost completely live instrumental album, and we got the single stereo guitar pass sounding even better. Also, tons of odd vocal reverb courtesy of a weird Univox amp head I later blew up playing a cover show with them (in place of Jordan) doing Bowie songs. Different story.

Mortality Crisis: 100% live minus vocals recorded in maybe twice the running time of the record. Very real and live.

All the vocals for every record are either partially or totally made up in the studio and a lot of the time there’s not a ton of editing or second thought to them, which of course makes for both great art and some truly vile and confusing things.

Long story short, their discography has been one long trail of taking the safety net further and further away from the band and trying to scratch down to the strange essence of it.

2012

Noteboom: We went on our first tour of more than a few days in the summer of 2012 out east with Poney. It was the greatest time. Most of the shows were pretty bad, but we had a lot of fun entertaining each other. My favorite memory of the tour is writing “Enormous Fucking Death Ass Knife” over the span of a day or two while we were in New York and then debuting it at a show in Illinois having never actually played it. Also, Chris playing “Call Me Maybe” on pretty much every jukebox we saw on the tour. Also, this one LCD Soundsystem song we heard on the radio in Cleveland.

“Enormous Fucking Death Ass Knife” live

Woznicki: “Dance Yrself Clean” by LCD Soundsystem is the shit.

Koch-Engstrom: My ankles swelled up to like three-times the size. Pete caught two bats in one hat. Lots of bad shits. “Enormous Fucking Death Ass Knife” was written in the car. We didn’t have no place to stay in Cleveland, and this pretty girl at a bar took us to her house and hula hooped to nice music for us once. The guy at Tommy’s Tavern kept saying, “Yeah that’s fine, just keep that shit out of the way of the icebox.” But they didn’t use the icebox. Pete was peeing on a garbage pile in Brooklyn but stopped because a pretty lady in a blue dress was walking by. A few hours later, we were hanging out with the blue dress lady because it turned out she was Ben Brooks’ friend from Wausau, who now lived in New York. Also, I woke up one morning and someone had poured water all over my pants and melted chocolate in my pocket.

Woznicki: Our first tour was pretty awesome. Poney hauled a trailer with all of the shit in it, and we took my 2004 Saturn Vue with heated seats. Great gas mileage. If you fall asleep in the front seat the heated seats would get turned on. Jordan went home with a couple of dudes in Columbus. We thought he was going to get laid, but only one of them was into it, so they watched movies instead.

BoatsCover

 

Boats music/tour video

2013-’15

Nashville House Show, 2013  Unknown photographer
Nashville House Show, 2013
Unknown photographer

Noteboom: We were writing songs that would become Surrounded by Dweebs and MASH. We took our time.

Koch-Engstrom: Well, we bought a van with $900. It had holes in the floor and the steering wheel, and four inches of play in it. Really bad brakes.

Koch-Engstrom at Shaq’s Tire Shack, 2013.  Photo: Pete Noteboom
Koch-Engstrom at Shaq’s Tire Shack, 2013.
Photo: Pete Noteboom

Woznicki: Jordan bought a couch because [the van] only had front seats. The brakes went out in Asheville, and the only place that was open to help us out was this weird Christian mechanic with the best Southern accent I’ve ever heard. This tour we also discovered Cook Out, a chain Christian restaurant in the South. That shit is cheap and amazing. They play shitty Christian covers with the words changed of U2. Tim Jeffery, thank you.

Koch-Engstrom: In Chapel Hill, I rode around in a convertible all night looking for crack, running out of gas while the crack lady kept stealing stuff from gas stations. I watched the crack heads fuck.

‘Surrounded by Dweebs’ cover
‘Surrounded by Dweebs’ cover

Noteboom: We started writing again right after Boats. The songs that became SBD we began playing live in 2013. “Dead Agenting” is about accusing people of doing what you are actually doing (or something!). And the second song is about a high school band director and their many issues. I felt like those songs got a little bit closer to the catchy metal of North.

Woznicki: Surrounded by Dweebs was written right after Boats and took us forever to record. We wrote the two songs at once in pretty quick succession. The music, in my mind, jumps from unrelated genres much quicker than anything we did in the past, but is much more cohesive than some of the other stuff we’ve done. Just like our other albums, the lyrics tend to jump between multiple narratives.

‘MASH’ cover
‘MASH’ cover

Noteboom: The song “MASH” is, I think, the furthest realization of the whole out-there-space-hardcore-post-prog band that we aspired to be. We just started stringing riffs together until it was out of control, then we tied it together with a Melvins part before spiraling completely out of control again. The main lines sum up a lot of feelings I had at the time: “Everything is garbage all the time.”

We had this awesome inside joke about showing up to a house show and shitting all over the floor in the basement and throwing garbage all over the place and just making MASH. Also our practice space was basically a room full of garbage, and it was difficult to see where stuff stopped and mash began.

2015 show that opens with “MASH”

The concept of MASH took over our creative faculties and we started working on [the title track]. We worked on that song and pretty much only that song between late 2013 and halfway through 2014. We hammered out a few other jams and practiced our asses off. At the end of 2014, we recorded with Tucker again, with just a couple of overdubs; it was mainly live and we were pretty dialed in. Tuck made that room sound great. In the end, we decided to release the first two songs as Surrounded by Dweebs, convinced we were going to woo major record labels with our homegrown DIY punk rocker aesthetic and fierce wit. The title Surrounded by Dweebs is a High on Fire joke.

We spent 2015 angling for the fat record deal we knew we were entitled to. At the same time, we started making bizarre shit that was poorly recorded. We “released” some of these records in 2015 and 2016. Side B of Surrounded by Dweebs has some of these recordings. A few others were distributed as CDs at shows. We were pretty tired of the whole metal thing. We eventually released MASH at the end of 2015 and kind of washed our hands of it. We had worked on that record for way too long and wanted to do other stuff.

Morality Crisis taking Jello shots at the 2015 ‘MASH’ release show  Photo: Robin Hougdahl
Morality Crisis taking Jello shots at the 2015 ‘MASH’ release show
Photo: Robin Hougdahl

Tucker: MASH is definitely a summary of the band, kind of a greatest hits in one song. And yes, if you make it all the way to the midpoint you do get to that emotion that gets me in trouble at get togethers, when nobody wants to be around Adam the Nihilist Downer, so we’re on the same page.

Car accident MASH video

Koch-Engstrom: The writing process was very intense. We studied for many hours. Harvey Milk was a very influential politician, and we really try to honor that.

Most memorable MASH tour things was when we got so drunk on the drive from Ohio to New Jersey. We were yelling and spitting all over the windshield and shit. Maybe that was just me, though. Also, Pete was driving and had to take a piss, but it’s hard to pee in a bottle while driving without cruise control, you know? So I held a bottle up to his peen so he could relieve himself without losing any drive time. I don’t know if he lied or not, but Chris yelled out COP! And I moved the bottle and Pete pissed all over the dashboard, and we didn’t even care—it was so funny. We laughed for hours. Also, we were partying in the van in Brooklyn before bed and I got out to pee, and some guy said, “Hey, could you please not piss on my driveway?” So I stopped, and then he said, “Finish off, though.” So I did. Then we drove around the corner and went to bed. We played a show in Eau Claire. I got kicked out because I got punched in the face. I broke all my amps. I threw my amps out the door on the sidewalk and they broke.

Woznicki: The last tour we did, we went through Ohio to the East coast and down through parts of the South. I forgot my cymbals in Ohio and didn’t realize it until we were in New Jersey, so I had to buy some shitty ones from some kid in Delaware.

2016

'New Emotions' cover
‘New Emotions’ cover

Koch-Engstrom: [New Emotions] is all fact—no fiction. It’s basically a Ween rip-off album. It’s actually pretty serious. Getting us mentally prepared for a Zendik-like organization that is planning on interplanetary travel. In [“Drilling My Big Drill”] there’s actually a drill in the song.

[“We Were Ten Fuckin’ Years Old”] came to me in a lucid dream. Chris and I recorded it. Just means that we were tougher than you jerk kids. It means that we actually did stuff, you jerk kids. You idiots. Kids nowadays don’t go on any adventures like we did when we were 10 fuckin’ years old.

Jordan Koch-Engstrom playing “We Were Ten Fuckin’ Years Old” at Hexagon Bar in Minneapolis, Summer 2016 Photo: J.J. Anselmi
Jordan Koch-Engstrom playing “We Were Ten Fuckin’ Years Old” at Hexagon Bar in Minneapolis, Summer 2016
Photo: J.J. Anselmi

Woznicki: I don’t think we discovered new emotions as much as wanted to create new emotions for the listener. Music (metal especially) is full of bands and musicians that create one kind of aesthetic and become uninteresting/two-dimensional because of it. We started writing quick, easy songs and recording them shittily right after finishing MASH. While it wasn’t talked about, I think it was a reaction to the over-thought music that we had made in the past. Simple poppy songs, under-produced. We were writing a lot of jingles at the time as well.

Larsen’s jingle

Some of them made in on the album. During this time we also did a lot of jamming. Straight up jams. Just sit down, play, and record it. We released a couple of these with Jordan adding vocals at the end to give them some kind of continuity. We released these as one-off CD-Rs that you could only buy at shows. I’m not even sure if we kept the recordings.

Noteboom: New Emotions was just the best songs we had on our computer on the day we decided to release an album. We had been making crappy music for a while and had a good amount of material. I think making bizarre music like that was partly a reaction to trying too hard on the past few records. “Tracheotomy” is about a guy we met Indiana who was all cracked out and wanted us to give him a tracheotomy. The sample at the end of the song is him talking. For “Airplane Kid” Jordan went to the ‘Top Gun’ Wikipedia page and made lyrics out of what he read. I don’t know what inspired “Drilling My Big Drill.” To describe it to someone who had never heard it, I would say, “It sounds like a band that sucks.”

Tucker: I was not involved and subsequently it’s their best/worst record.

‘Mortality Crisis’ cover
‘Mortality Crisis’ cover

Noteboom: Mortality Crisis was written between 2015 and 2016. We recorded it with Tucker last spring in a couple hours. Ever since we started playing, people have called our band “Mortality Crisis.” It is the ultimate title. The decision to release it was made after I left the band.

Tucker: [Mortality Crisis] is my personal favorite album, but I’m into fast, confusing surprises. If in the middle of [recording] this they’d stuck in “MASH,” I think I would have lost my mind in the studio.

Woznicki: It’s another reaction to MASH and the albums before. Short, noisy, simple grind songs.

“We have a generator in our van.”

Koch-Engstrom: [The van] was cheap and looked cool. It has a 6,500-watt generator, and we found out that we could plug our amps into it.

Woznicki: I got to practice one day and Jordan was looking at new vans for playing out of town. Between our band money and the money Jordan had, we had just enough to buy it. We met this dude, his wife and their daughter, “Star Dust” or something, out at a campground in Maple Grove. The van was full of crumbs and garbage and smelled weird. Something seemed not right about the whole thing. Something still seems weird about it. We weren’t looking for a van with a generator or anything, but now we can watch TV or play music anywhere. It would be funny to follow a shitty tour around and just play in the parking lot.

Koch-Engstrom: Follow Warped Tour around and play in the parking lot—that’s a really good idea, actually.

What Lies Ahead

Woznicki: [Our new stuff] is going to be different–somewhere between our other music and New Emotions, using more standard song structures.

Koch-Engstrom: We’re going to focus more on planet Nibiru, mono-atomic gold, and the teachings of Zendik. Planet Nibiru is bigger than the sun, and it’s actually coming towards the earth. It’s going to kill all of us. So we pretty much have to leave the earth on our own space ship, which is why we’re trying to raise money right now—so we can go live on the back of planet Nibiru. Mono-atomic gold is what happens when you heat up gold and the atoms become mono-atomic, which means they don’t bind to any other atoms, which means that it has levitational properties. Actually, if you eat mono-atomic gold, you become ten times smarter. But they don’t tell you about it.

Woznicki: It’s in bananas. So just eat a lot of bananas.

J.J. Anselmi is the author of ’Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music’. He sent us a copy once. We read it then never wrote about it, or even told him that we read it. But it’s good.

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