“We would have gone to those shows anyway, so why not bring some instruments and a ridiculous amount of cereal and actually be a part of the intensity of those experiences while getting paid in the process?”
Except for six words, the above quote could have been said by almost anyone playing in a punk band in the last 20 years. But it’s those six words that make a tremendous difference; I am, of course, referring to “and a ridiculous amount of cereal.” In the late ’90s, the apex of sub-genres was reached, and its name was breakfast violence. Consisting of a handful of bands based in the Washington, DC area, breakfast violence emerged out of the hardcore scene with a welcome dose of humor, self-awareness, and absurdity, with stage shows that involved surreal costumes and breakfast food being thrown into whatever crowd happened to be present.
Did we achieve peak “-core” in the mid-’90s? Consider hardcore’s offshoots during that time, including grindcore, emocore, metalcore, hatecore, and skacore, all of which helped to make the suffix ubiquitous. The name of the Athens, Georgia indie label Kindercore, founded in 1996, nods in the direction of the eventual absurdity of this technique. But hardcore itself largely didn’t have that same self-awareness. Perusing the lyrics of bands popular at the time involves hearing a heady amount of anger about politics, animal rights, and the ever-popular scene politics. Syracuse’s Earth Crisis played a slow, loud style of hardcore with lyrics chastising listeners for eating meat and for their complicity in laboratory experiments on animals in songs like “Firestorm” and “All Out War.” Other bands spoke on stage about “the vegan revolution.” And in the late 1990s, a subset of hardcore bands reached out to the hardcore of a bygone era – namely, 1988 – for musical and aesthetic inspiration. While there were certainly bright spots, including music that did genuinely raise the political consciousness of their listeners, between militancy on one hand and a misplaced nostalgia on the other, the genre’s worst impulses seemed on the verge of collapsing in on themselves.
“To this day, when I attempt to explain mid-90’s hardcore to civilians, it sounds just completely insane,” onetime Waifle guitarist Brent Eyestone told me. “I loved having an over-accepting outlet (hardcore at large) to develop ideology and sound and technique at a very infantile stage of my creative life, but I just couldn’t buy the horseshit around me. So naturally, I just drummed up my own horseshit to foist back on the love/hate dynamic I had toward the hardcore of the era.”
“The hardcore scene was the only thing in the world that meant anything to me at the time, but it still felt extremely ‘off,’” he continued. “It was like moving into a house without cleaning it. It’s home, but somebody else’s detritus is all over the place and it’s inherently bothersome.”
Jason Hamacher, vocalist for the Washington, DC band Mancake, was already well-versed in the eccentric side of punk when Mancake began. He also played drums in Frodus, a band that tempered the earnest ethos of their city’s punk scene with a larger conceptual framework; it wasn’t coincidental that they once recorded a cover of Devo’s “Explosions.” Two members of Frodus – Hamacher and Shelby Cinca – overlapped with the lineup of Mancake, a band that arose out of Hamacher’s desire to start a grindcore band, but quickly turned into something very different. Their EP We Will Destroy You is recognizable as hardcore, but doesn’t really fit the bill of grindcore – a subdivision of hardcore generally known for relentlessly fast drumming, unintelligible vocals, and songs that lasted for a minute or less. Grindcore is a close cousin, musically speaking, to powerviolence, the style to which the name “breakfast violence” alludes. (One example: a series of powerviolence compilations released on Slap A Ham Records memorably featured over 70 bands on a 7-inch.)
What Mancake retained was a sense of confrontation, albeit one pushed to absurd lengths. Hamacher’s description of one stage outfit makes that absurdity clear. “My whole thing,” he said, “was I would come out in these carpenter stilts that looked like Robocop legs and these OP short shorts and I would take the microphone to – one was on a hatchet and the other was on an axe.” Later, Hamacher’s stage outfit incorporated the remains of a large stuffed bear. “We cut the arms and legs off and split it up the back and I would squeeze into it,” he said. “And it just looked like a deflated mouse.”
The group also used aliases, some of which retained the compound-word theme from Mancake (i.e. part man, part pancake). “I think my name was Ponan, part pony, part Conan,” Hamacher recalled. “Shelby was just Reno by himself. Mike from Darkest Hour was in Mancake too. Mike was just known for the huge JNCO pants, so Mike was just Pink Pants. And then ... Eric Astor … was the drummer and he was just Man.”
Where there had been one breakfast violence band, soon there were two. “That whole thing started off with me completely tongue-in-cheek and then next thing I know Brent has started a band with the same idea,” Hamacher recalled.
Eyestone took his cues from several of the members of Mancake. “I remember finding kindred spirits in Shelby and Jason from Frodus and Mancake,” he said via email. “None of us drank or used drugs, so there was just a ton of youthful energy that needed to explode. I was born both too late and too early for straight edge scenes of any appeal, so that was out.”
For Eyestone, the appeal of breakfast violence could be described in two words: “Militant absurdity. Taking concepts so stupid and nonsensical to people so afraid of being exposed for ‘not getting it’ that they would pretend to understand whatever word salad and ungodly racket we cobbled together in the name of ‘music.’” Reading the lyrics on Waifle’s debut album, The Music Stops, The Man Dies, Eyestone’s description seems accurate. A 2001 reissue with new artwork also features lyrical explanations, some of which seem much more coherent than the lyrics that they accompany. A review of the album on All Music Guide referred to “their vein of pseudo-political lo-fi spazz outs,” which provides a good summation of Waifle’s early sound.
Waifle’s name – part waif, part waffle – has its own surreal origin story. “I think it was a cheap Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles nod,” Eyestone said. “Kate Moss eating a radioactive waffle… and the waffle became us? It was convoluted even to us.”
The lineage of breakfast food being incorporated into punk shows didn’t begin with the breakfast violence scene. The Speedies, a band who were active in New York City in the late 1970s, were also known for throwing cereal into the audience; an illustration of them from New York Rocker in 1979 featured caricatures of the band on a box of cereal.
Waifle’s shows were infamous for involving bags of bulk cereal being thrown into the crowd. As Eyestone describes it, tongue hopefully in cheek, it emerged from impulses both economic and innate. “I was on a college kid budget before the band started, so I’d always see these massive bags of bulk cereal at the cheap grocery store in State College, PA. Every time I pushed the cart past them, I just wanted to smash them open or squeeze the bags until the cereal got crushed,” he told me.
Unlike Waifle, the incorporation of thrown breakfast food into Mancake’s sets was due to people who attended their shows. Hamacher recalls, “We had no idea. We didn’t even really know them. So all of a sudden we’re playing George Mason University. … [E]ach gets on stage with a trash bag. What’s going on? And they start beaning pancakes at everyone. I was like, This is amazing. Who are these people? I don’t care. Go for it.”
Things could occasionally get out of hand. “At two shows,” Hamacher recalls, “it got so bad I had to be ‘Guys, you cannot do this.’ They made, no joke, four or five hundred dollar-sized pancakes and . . . branded them with an iron, a coat hanger, the letter M in the pancakes.”
There was a confrontational element to both bands: that’s inherent any time you go to a punk show expecting to get something thrown at you. But there was also a spirit of fun. Both bands mocked the seriousness of the hardcore scene around them. Hamacher recalls that, “I always had this really ludicrous infatuation with the concept of people liking ponies, like pony adoration. So this was in the time of PETA where [Washington, DC hardcore band] Battery had just played with Path of Resistance and Earth Crisis, that whole thing. So Mancake made stickers that just had a little icon of a pony and a saddle with the Ghostbusters no sign through it. And it just said ‘Being ridden hurts. Pony liberation.’ And we would put them everywhere.”
The whole Breakfast Violence thing was my way of being tongue-in-cheek, making fun of everything that by default I was involved with.
Both bands wrote lyrics that addressed (and mocked) prevailing trends in the scene at the time. Waifle’s first full-length featured a song titled “Chugga Chugga Burning Love.” And Mancake’s only release, the EP We Will Destroy You, closed with “Bring It On.com.” Their song “International House of Mancake” went incredibly over-the-top, with lyrics like “Emo’s dead / Backpack’s gone / Filled with blood / Hail the new dawn.” A knowing parody of the militant and violent lyrics that emerged from the hardcore scene of the time, it pushed them towards an absurdist end.
The lyrics on Waifle’s debut veered between the aforementioned “word salad” and more straightforward declarations. “Introrigin,” which opens the album, features the members of the band speaking over a bed of feedback to criticize the current state of hardcore. It’s a deeply, at times painfully, earnest kind of critique, but its plainspokenness puts it at stylistic odds with the approach used for the rest of the album.
Compare Mancake or Waifle to the average powerviolence band of the time and you’ll notice that, roots in hardcore aside, there wasn’t all that much sonic similarity. Both bands wrote songs that lasted for over a minute, for one thing. And while it’s hard to call Mancake “melodic,” their music is also not the concentrated bursts of percussion and distortion that tend to typify powerviolence.
Waifle’s music is similarly complex: by the time of their 2000 EP And the Blood Will Come Down Like a Curtain, they were incorporating samples into their music, along with a more pronounced heavy metal influence. You could call the “breakfast violence” moniker false advertising, but when you’re dealing with bands whose stage shows involved flinging food into the audience, veracity likely isn’t the watchword. Most of Eyestone’s comments today seem born from the same satirical spirit that would lead him to start bands with names like Waifle and its successor, Corn on Macabre. When I reached out to Mancake drummer Eric Astor, he replied, “I have nothing to add other than my story of that hamburger landing on my leg, mid song in Florida. Everything else is a blur.” Neither Mancake nor Waifle is still playing music, but the irreverence that brought them into being has remained.
As the friend who introduced me to the music of Waifle pointed out, a handful of other artists were emerging from the hardcore scene at the same time as Waifle and Mancake to play music that at once celebrated and critiqued it from within. Florida’s Jud Jud were an a cappella band that broke down hardcore formulas using only their voices – a glee club that came with a mosh pit. And Philadelphia’s Atom And His Package, comprised of vocalist Atom Goren and a sequencer, mocked scene politics while writing catchy New Wave-inspired songs.
Sometimes there was a visceral element to that humor. Hamacher noted that an unreleased song of theirs addressed a concern very specific to the late 1990s. “This was when … hardcore people were getting into Magic: The Gathering, the game, and it was driving me crazy,” he said. “What was it, their phrase is ‘All you need is a friend and a deck of cards,’ something like that, so we made up a song called ‘Magic: The Pummeling’ which was ‘All you need is an axe and an idiot.’ I can’t remember what it was. And I would start off the song by reading a Magic: The Gathering card, and then jumping up and kicking someone in the audience.”
As we spoke, Hamacher made the band’s aims with their costumes and lyrics plain. “[O]bviously the whole point was to make light of how serious everyone was taking themselves.” And later on, he noted that he himself was also a part of this. “[T]he whole Breakfast Violence thing was my way of being tongue-in-cheek, making fun of everything that by default I was involved with.”
Breakfast violence bands were not the only artists who sought to deconstruct hardcore from within the confines of the hardcore scene. But they were among the few who did so whose critiques of their genre also worked as an example of it. Listen to a Mancake or a Waifle album and it’s impossible to think of it as anything other than hardcore, even as closer attention to the lyrics reveals the absurdist touch. Even as the genre around them was calcifying, the door to greater freedom was being broken down, with tiny pancakes, bags of cereal, and surrealism you could mosh to.
Thanks to Scott Shields and Damon Krukowski
Header image: Mancake by David S. Holloway