It was the weekend before Halloween 1988, when I watched this guy with a mullet wearing an ID Under shirt sit behind a drum set at the Fort Raymond Jones National Guard Armory in Huntsville, Alabama. His bass drum contained half a dozen combat boots—instead of the traditional pillow— and was held in place with a concrete block. On bass was another long haired guy with a cheesy mustache, wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt. The singer/guitar player wore sweatpants with skater shorts over them and a Voivod shirt. He looked a little like a “Cat Scratch Fever”-era Ted Nugent. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the Johnny Rotten sticker on his 1975 Les Paul gave me hope that that night was going to be a welcome respite from the hell of being a sixteen-year-old punk in a world obsessed with Cotillion and high school football.
“Are you ready?” the guitar player shouted. As the crowd of long-hairs, spike-hairs, and no-hairs responded, the trio on stage tore into a blazing set of tunes that drew from all aspects of my holy trinity of music: punk, hardcore, and metal. What no one knew that night was that this band, Random Conflict, could trace its roots back to the birth of rock’n’roll, or that they would still be releasing music twenty-five years later.
With the release of their new album, “Tradition Is the Enemy” on No Profit Records, now is the perfect time to sit down and talk about Random Conflict with co-founder Bill Reeves, Brian Murphree (member since 1996), and new recruit Edwin Coombs.
Interview by David Baird
Photos by Elise Taylor
David: Where did you grow up? Was music a big part of your life as a kid?
Bill: I grew up in Memphis. My father started his career as a DJ (Billy the Kidd) at the age of seventeen in 1957 at one of the radio stations owned by Sam Phillips (owner of Sun Records, discovered Elvis Presley). Sam was quite a colorful character. I can remember a late night irate phone call he made to my house when I was about ten. Sam had this edict that the number one song in the country be played on his radio stations as often as possible. At that time, the big hit was Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” When my father picked up the phone, his boss, Sam Phillips, wanted to know why his radio station was playing “this goddamn funeral dirge.” Eventually my father was allowed to speak and explain to Sam that this was the number one song in the country. Before Sam hung up the phone, he told my dad, “All right, keep playing it, but try to play something more upbeat like Conway Twitty.”[Laughter]
My Dad’s station also hosted a lot of dances in Memphis in the late ‘60s. Those were some of my earliest memories of seeing live music. They were mostly garage rock bands and some of these groups had some pretty wild stage shows with strobe lights, props, and guys taking their shirts off and beating the floor. They were doing this proto-Iggy Pop kind of a thing. As a kid I was both freaked out and intrigued by this.
In late 1975, my family moved to Muscle Shoals (Alabama), so my father could be the operations manager at WQLT, another of Sam’s radio stations. There was a big studio scene here back then. The Rolling Stones had recorded Sticky Fingers in town. Muscle Shoals was the place where the white artists from Nashville and the black artists from Memphis could meet and record without segregation problems.
Brian: I grew up just outside of Huntsville in Madison. My parents still live in the same house. My brother and I were big into music growing up. I’m sure our music abilities came from our grandmother on our mother’s side. She played piano in church and played everything by ear. My brother was a hard rock guitar player and he introduced me to a lot of the heavier music of the early ‘80s like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Rush. Radio also introduced me to new wave music like Tomas Dolby, Madness, and Men At Work. It wasn’t until I was twenty, when I bought my first bass at a pawn shop and started lessons at a local music store.
Edwin: I grew up in Murray, Kentucky in the western part of the state. Music was a huge part of my life growing up. I started playing guitar at eleven. Even before that, I played tuba in my middle school band. All I’ve ever wanted to do is play in bands. Ironically, I didn’t start playing drums until 2008. I didn’t even own a drum set until two years later.
I remember when I first discovered punk. I saw a Green Day video for “When I Come Around” at Wal-Mart. I convinced my mom to buy me a copy of Dookie, but later when she read the insert, she immediately took it away from me. [Laughter]. Luckily she didn’t throw it away, so I was able to sneak it back from her. Any time I got money I would ride my bike to the record store and buy punk rock CDs. I can remember once buying every Misfits album they had in stock, even though I didn’t really know that much about the band.
David: Bill, how did Random Conflict start?
Bill: Prior to Random Conflict, I played in the punk band Suburban Nightmare and later in a punk/metal cover band called Miscarriage. In 1987, I discovered the underground scene in Huntsville, which was about an hour from my house. I became friends with the guys in this death metal band, Skeletal Earth. They went through some lineup changes right around the same time that Miscarriage broke up. Travis Ogletree (Skeletal Earth’s singer) suggested that I start a band with their old drummer, Jerry “DJ” Lawrence. In July 1988, we recruited Charles Paul Jordan from the recently defunct punk band, Coup d’ Etat and we started Random Conflict by working up some of my old Suburban Nightmare tunes. We played our first show a month later at the Dance Not Destroy festival at the Cannery in Nashville, Tennessee.
David: Was there really a scene in Alabama back in those days? What was it like?
Bill: It was really strong, not divided along genres lines like it is in a lot of places now. It wasn’t uncommon to have a college rock band, a hardcore punk band, and a death metal band all on the same show. There was nothing to do in Huntsville, so when a show happened, we’d have hundreds of people show up. The National Guard Armory was cheap to rent so we played there a lot. Another mainstay was the Tip Top Café. It was a backstreet bar in this sketchy neighborhood, but they frequently hosted all ages shows.
David: Did Random Conflict have any releases during the early years?
Bill: The Defying the Megadread cassette came out in 1988. We recorded it using a 2-track, reel-to-reel player with four microphones at our practice space. Everything was recorded live. No overdubs. We must have sold a couple hundred copies of that. Each one duplicated in real time on my boom box. We went through some lineup changes after that, so it was another year before we released Psychotronic Mecca.
David: At that point, you guys were a four-piece, right?
Bill: Yeah, that was the only point that we ever had two guitar players.
David: And your bass player was a black guy. How did people react to that?
Bill: It was disappointing, downright irritating for me. I had a few people make disparaging remarks about that. Although, we weren’t the first interracial band in the scene. Hell, I’m basically half Choctaw. I guess the scene had gotten so big there were now a few undesirables in it. However, attitudes like that were extremely discouraged. There was this small faction of people who took the neo-Nazi route and they were ostracized by the rest of us. Fuck ‘em! [Laughter]
David: Just as the Huntsville scene was hitting its peak you had an opportunity to play a huge show with Fugazi, which seems kind of crazy in retrospect because you were morphing into a metal band by that point.
Bill: Yeah, that show was nuts. Sonically, we had been moving into a metal direction with each lineup change. Over the course of late 1990 and early 1991 we dropped back down to a three-piece with a new drummer, Ray York, and Rob Moore on bass. Ray had only been in the band two weeks and he had never played a live show in his life. So, for his first time, he played in front of over 700 people in a hotel ballroom. Unfortunately, the fire marshal shut the show down eight songs into Fugazi’s set because the hotel had an expired fire permit. Last year, Dischord Records released the live recording of their set from that night.
If only we had recorded the jam session we had with Fugazi at your parents’ house after the show. [Laughter] Your mother played classical music on the piano, while the rest of us played these crazy percussion instruments that she collected for use with her music students. But your Dad killed the whole vibe when he offered a beer to Ian (Ian MacKaye of Fugazi and Minor Threat, credited with starting the straight edge movement). [Laughter] We plowed all the money we made that night into releasing our first 7” EP, Shadows of Existence on Peer Pressure Productions.
David: It seemed risky releasing a 7” in 1991, because it looked like CDs were just going to kill the whole vinyl and cassette thing. Why did you do that?
Bill: We didn’t want to do another cassette, but CDs were so fucking expensive to make then. We were the first Huntsville punk or metal band to do a record.
David: I remember standing at your merch table right after that came out. Some drunk woman walked up, looked at the record, and asked, “What is this, a big CD?”
Bill: [Laughter] Oh my god, did that really happen?
David: Yeah. Alabama. What are you gonna do? [Laughter]Internal Visions was released a year later on CD and cassette. It had new recordings of a few older tunes, but there were several new songs on there too. Did you write those songs?
Bill: No.Rob wrote all the new songs on that album. I can’t remember why I wasn’t more involved. Maybe I was just trying to keep everybody happy. I liked what we were doing, but our sound had shifted totally to a purely metal sound. It turned out to be a precursor of what happened with the Huntsville scene. It divided into a hardcore punk camp and a metal camp. Shows got a lot smaller as a result. We toured the Midwest and the South to promote Internal Visions, but the band kind of imploded right after that.
David: What happened?
Bill: Rob and Ray lived in the same house and worked at the same place. They were always together and they started getting on each other’s nerves. Ray wasn’t realistic with his expectations regarding our band’s commercial potential. We weren’t going to be the next Metallica. You gotta remember, grunge had become the big thing and we weren’t going to be that.
Rob and I decided to kick him out of the band. Before I could get to their house to have the meeting about this, Rob and Ray got into a fistfight which ended with Ray going to the hospital. That was the craziest band breakup I’ve ever been involved in. That was the end of Random Conflict, part one, as I call it.
David: Brian, did you ever see part one of Random Conflict when you were growing up in Huntsville?
Brian: Ironically, no. I had heard about them. My neighbor, Stan Johnson, was in the band I.R.S. (I Reject Society) and Jerry played drums for them after he left Random Conflict. I knew that I.R.S. played shows with Random Conflict, but for some reason I never saw them, unfortunately.
David: Brian and Bill, how did you restart the band in 1996?
Brian: I’d been playing in a band (Mozaik) for a couple of years with Jerry on drums and Secret Man (name withheld to protect his identity in the masked surf rock band Daikaiju) on guitar. That band had just broken up when I met Bill at Jerry’s house. He and Jerry were talking about old times and Bill said he would give anything to get out and play in Random Conflict again. Jerry suggested that he and Bill play a few shows together and that I play bass. At the time, that was all it was meant to be. Let’s go play a few shows.
Bill: We started by working up old songs first. “My World” was first. It was only about a month later we played our first show in Birmingham.
David: Were you playing only old songs at that point?
Bill: Except for “Superficial,” which evolved out of an early practice jam.
David: After a four-year absence, how did your original fans react to this new version of the band?
Bill: We had people come out to our first few shows who hadn’t been involved in the scene for years. Later on, when we decided to work on new material and not base this thing on nostalgia, some of those people rejected us. But, nostalgia is only good for two or three nights a year. We wanted more than that. We quickly focused on the future and writing new songs. By August 1996, we released the Blown Fuse, a basement tape.
David: Was it still possible to sell cassettes in 1996?
Brian: Yeah, we probably sold a couple hundred of those. I still have the cassette deck we used to record it. [Laughter]
David: How frequently were you playing live shows during that time?
Brian: We were averaging about forty or forty-five shows a year.
Bill: We didn’t do a lot of touring back then. It was more extended weekends. We’ve never really done a lot of touring because of our work situations. However, we played with a lot of big bands in the ‘90s like, The Unseen, Anti-Flag, Teen Idols, The Casualties, Blanks 77, 88 Fingers Louie, The Undead, and Marky Ramone And The Intruders.
David: When did you record your second CD, New World Order?
Brian: We started in late 1998 and it took quite a while to release that. We had trouble with the artwork. The guy helping us only half-finished it and then he disappeared. We eventually got the issues resolved. It was a handmade, six-fold CD insert with a mini-poster of us playing at Gorin’s Ice Cream Shop in Huntsville on one side and a collage of different knick knacks on the other side.
Bill: We finally released that album in 1999 at a Nashville show with the Groovie Ghoulies.
David: And New World Order was self-released right?
Brian: Yeah. We did glass master press it (as opposed to burning one-off CDs), but it was self-released. Finding a label to release it wasn’t a priority for us then. I’d moved to Atlanta in 1999 and then to Nashville a year later, so there was too much going on.
David: In 2002 you started working on the Annihilation Generation CD, but that didn’t officially come out until 2007. What the hell took so long?
Bill: It originally came out as a split with the Knoxville (Tennessee) band, U.S. Police State. After the first run sold out, we re-released it without U.S. Police State on it. I honestly can’t tell you why it took so long to put it out.
Brian: I was also playing bass in Daikaju from 2001 to 2006. Bill was playing in a bunch of other bands. In fact in 2006, we didn’t do anything—no practicing, nothing. We only saw each other one time the entire year.
David: So you all were just busy with other bands and other projects?
Bill: Well, we also had a drummer who couldn’t keep a drum set. Every show was this ordeal about finding a drum set. Jerry wasn’t real truthful with us about a lot of stuff, either. He would cancel shows at the last minute, even shows that had been booked for months. For years we had a drummer that contributed nothing but playing drums on a borrowed set. That had a lot to do with why it took so long to get Annihilation Generation done. I just felt like we shouldn’t put out a CD under these circumstances. Looking back, I regret that decision. We should’ve never put up with that.
David: Why didn’t you look for a new drummer?
Brian: Our other bands were so busy it was easy to say, “We’ll pick this back up in a few months.” We knew we wouldn’t break up. We just didn’t put a lot of effort into it because we didn’t feel like we could reliably get out and play shows. Bill and I kept thinking, “Things will be different in a few months or next year.”
Bill: So for 2005 and 2006, we just kind of ran in place. It seems incredible now when I think about it.
David: What turned it around?
Brian: Bill and I finally said screw it and we bought a drum set for the band.
Bill: We also started getting a lot of offers to play some really big shows all over the place. It felt like the right time to get busy again and people were asking, “Where have you guys been?”
I remember when we played with The Exploited around that time. I talked with Wattie Buchan (singer for The Exploited) after the show. One of the few things I could understand in his [Laughter] slurred Scottish accent was he liked the other band I had played in earlier that night. He thought it was okay. But, when he bought a copy of New World Order from me, he pointed to the CD and said, “You need to keep this fucking band together.” That was good motivation for us, and I’m happy to say we’ve had no inactive periods since then.
David: It wasn’t long after that you discovered Random Conflict had a doppelganger in England, right?
Brian: Yeah, I had tried to register a MySpace page and discovered that there was another Random Conflict. They were a metalcore band in London. My first reaction was to register our name in as many places and as quickly as I could. Luckily, we had internet proof that we existed first because we still owned the domain randomconflict.com from when I initially registered it with Tripod, an old website hosting provider.
David: I remember that website. That was a piece of shit. [Laughter]
Brian: [Laughter] Oh yeah, it totally was. It was my web building skills, which still suck, plus using Microsoft Front Page and slapping some stuff up there. But, I found that the page still existed so I thought there was evidence, at least with one company, that we existed before the other Random Conflict. Later, I decided to trademark the name Random Conflict and now we have a class 41 service mark for the name in the U.S.
David: Was that a pain in the ass?
Brian: It was pretty easy. A law firm took care of most of it for me. It was probably no more difficult than ordering an LP from a pressing plant. It was just a long waiting process and it cost about four hundred dollars. Now no one else can use the name Random Conflict in the U.S. If the other Random Conflict had ever come to the U.S. to tour, we wouldn’t have tried to stop them. We would’ve approached them about touring the U.S. together.
David: Did you ever contact the English band and talk to them about it?
Brian: We did. I sent them an e-mail to let them know that we existed. One of them responded about a month later and apologized profusely. He said, “If we had known you guys had existed, we wouldn’t have chosen the name. It was a coincidence.” He told us how he had come up with the name, and we accepted his explanation. We didn’t tell him you can’t use the name or anything like that. We just told them that we had the name trademarked in the U.S. In the end, it didn’t really matter. They disbanded about six months after that.
I still see their CD, Escapism, for sale from time to time, and I think they had a couple of EPs out too. There was some confusion at first, but I don’t think it’s a problem anymore. I’ve read that several members of that Random Conflict are now in a new band with a different singer called Tomorrow Brings Giants. I doubt anyone else has that name. [Laughter]
David: In 2008 you decided to re-record songs from the ‘80s era of Random Conflict and release them as the Invisible City CD on Stick Man Records. Why did you do that?
Brian: We had discussed adding an older song back into our live set. Bill mentioned that he would love to play “Grave Desires” again. I had only heard it a couple of times, so we decided to work it up at practice one day. It ended up being so good that we decided to see what others we could do. “Mr. Slaughter” was next, and we kept adding more old songs into the set. After a while, we thought, “These songs sound so great live, it would be a shame if we didn’t record them.” We did write one new song for InvisibleCity, “Scum,” but everything else was a remake of older songs that we felt had not gotten the justice they deserved on previous releases.
David: And that idea occurred around the twentieth anniversary of the band. Was that a coincidence?
Brian: Yeah, a total coincidence. Later, however, that became part of the justification for doing it. I thought it was a good decision. But we didn’t set out to do it as a twentieth anniversary thing. We didn’t think about it that deeply.
David: In 2010, you started having problems with Jerry again. What happened?
Bill: If we wanted to do anything, book a show or whatever, one of us had to drive an hour and a half out into the middle of nowhere on the chance that Jerry might be home. He never had reliable phone service. He would do the shows if we drove to his trailer and picked him up. Eventually, we just never heard from him again. He just disappeared.
David: You didn’t kick him out of the band, he just disappeared?
Bill: Yep.I’ve been told he is now living in a van that won’t start. There is an extension cord running into it, with an air conditioning unit stuck in the window, and that’s it.
David: Is it almost like that old Chris Farley sketch from Saturday Night Live? He’s living in a van down by the river.
Bill: [Laughter] Yeah, except it’s in the woods.
David: How do you feel about all you two have accomplished over the years?
Brian: Sometimes it’s easy for me to forget stuff. Bill never forgets anything. Bill and I will be talking about some old show and people we’ve met along the way or some guy will show up at a show that we haven’t seen in ten years, and I’ll stop and think. I’m glad we’ve done all of this. I know so many people who’ve stopped doing this sort of thing. They’ve gone on to live their lives, to their benefit. This is the path that has been right for us. Have we gotten to the stage where we are financially successful enough to quit our day jobs? No. But, we don’t have any regrets either.
Bill: What I think is most interesting about our band is how Brian and I came from two different backgrounds. Mine is rooted in punk, hardcore, and metal. Brian came from this whole other school of thought, which, ironically, was what the originators of punk so disdained—the more technically accomplished progressive rock, more serious musicianship, and accomplished style. But, he didn’t try to turn Random Conflict into that. He just took those talents, applied it to what we do, and it worked. He isn’t one of those bass players who just sits in the back. He’s always up front rocking out with everyone else. Brian has this incredible drive. The harder he pushes, I know the better our songs and performances are going to be. He’s very dependable, and I really appreciate that.
David: Brian, what do you appreciate about Bill?
Brian: Bill is a great conversationalist, a fantastic story teller. He has a great memory.
Bill: At least after 1980. [Laughter]
Brian: [Laughter]. Yeah. He’s a very literate guy. He’s got a lot more depth than he’ll let you know up front. He’s one of the most solid guitar players I’ve ever heard, and he knows exactly what he wants. There’s no arguing with what is Bill Reeves. It comes out in his playing, articulation, and the way he conveys himself.
Bill: You gotta be in the van to have a friendship like we do. [Laughter] You gotta put in the miles.
David: Edwin, when did you first meet Brian and Bill?
Edwin: I think I was sixteen or seventeen the first time I saw Random Conflict at Club Three Eleven in Paducah, Kentucky. It must have been June 2001. Later, my band, Blue Star Rejects, played a show with them at a coffee shop in Bowling Green. I didn’t remember that, until Bill brought it up and gave me a copy of the flyer recently. [Laughter] But, I guess my friendship with them started when I was in Fist Of The North Star. Of course, they’ve always been huge supporters of my other band Commonwealth Of American Natives.
David: Tell me a little about that band.
Edwin: Commonwealth Of American Natives started in April 2010. We just got back from a tour. I did a week of it by myself, solo, and two weeks with the full band. We had great crowds everywhere we went, and we sold a ton of copies of the split 7” we did with Random Conflict on Shit Starter Records.
David: Your two bands have gotten pretty tight over the past couple of years. When did Random Conflict and Commonwealth first play together?
Edwin: At Whack Bash in Nashville in July 2010 and we’ve played a ton of shows together since. Before I was in Random Conflict, I’d always felt like the drums didn’t fit the rest of the band. They weren’t helping the music, and they could have been so much better. I could hear it in my head when I watched them play. When they needed a fill-in, I immediately jumped for it because I wanted to help Random Conflict reach its full potential.
David: What do you guys think Edwin brings to the band?
Bill: A lot of drive and input. I don’t feel like I’ve got a side guy, I’ve got a third front man, an actual partner. I don’t call these guys bandmates, they’re partners.
Brian: Finally I’m able to play with a drummer that understands phrasing and music theory. He gets where I am musically and it has been really nice to lock in with him in that way. From his transitions and his playing consistency, he shares a lot of the same vibes I do. He has good opinions and isn’t afraid to share them. Edwin is a gear head like me. He went to recording school at Full Sail in Florida, so he’s great to bounce ideas off when we’re recording in my home studio.
David: Is this the sort of collaborative approach you took to writing songs for the new LP, Tradition Is the Enemy?
Bill: Many of these songs on the new album came out of jam sessions. “Hey, I’ve got a drum beat. You got a guitar riff?” “Yeah.” “Hey, I happen to have a bass line that fits that.” “I think I’ve got an idea for a chorus.” The next thing we know we have a new song. It’s the first time we’ve ever recorded an album in pieces. We actually started recording this album before we had written all the songs, a first for me in anything I’ve ever been involved in.
Edwin: I think it gave us the opportunity to approach an album like a band really should. Most bands just write songs when they can, and some songs get recorded while others don’t. With this album, we set out to write a good record, not just a collection of songs—a Random Conflict record that isn’t like our other albums— this one is written as a complete piece of artwork.
Brian: We didn’t even play some of the songs live until after we had recorded them.
David: What’s your favorite song on Tradition is the Enemy and why?
Edwin: “Existence.” I love playing that song because it has a lot of drum fills, which remind me of Queens Of The Stone Age. It makes me sound cool on drums, honestly. [Laughter]
David: What’s it about?
Bill: People who just sleep walk through life. Instead of getting all they can out of life, they just go through the motions. Insecurity and low self-esteem tends to drive that. Don’t just exist, live!
David: What’s your favorite Brian?
Brian: “Wide-Awake Nightmare,” because it’s a very different song for us and stands apart from everything else on the record.
David: You play keyboards on that one right?
Brian: Yeah there are some synths hidden underneath and the song actually ends with a low E on a cello. Plus I love the lyrical collaboration on that song. The way we use colors in the lyrics there are so many hidden meanings, little tidbits to kind of geek out on. It’s based on a 1963 Malcolm X speech.
David: What’s your favorite Bill?
Bill: “Bringing Truth to Power,” because it’s a chance for me to revive a bunch of ‘60s radical slogans. And it’s got another first for us, a reggae part, which kind of reminds me of The Clash.
David: “Bulletproof” is unique because it’s the first time a non-band member has co-written a song, right?
Bill: My friend of over thirty-three years, Max Russell (a regional blues music legend) gave me that song because he thought it would work for one of my bands. We took his lyrics and arrangement ideas and we added our touches to it.
David: What was the genesis for the album title, Tradition Is the Enemy?
Bill: It’s a line from the song “D.B.A.T.O.E.”Tradition can be a good thing, but often it’s a prison or a limitation. People find a comfort zone, and they’re unwilling to explore things that could enrich their mind, emotions, or life. These people hate you if you don’t live the way they think you should live. But in reality, they hate their own lives. Where the hell do they get off telling me how to live, when they aren’t really happy with themselves?
Brian: The artwork for the album cover also follows that theme. Many people long for that ‘50s, somber, Pleasantville lifestyle that’s insulated from the harshness of reality. They live this alternate reality, where they’re unaware of the bad things happening in the world because they’re so focused on their own lives. When you flip over to the backside of the cover, there’s a collage of negative things that have happened and could happen again in the future.
David: Bill I know you went to high school with Patterson Hood of the Drive-by Truckers. Now with Alabama Shakes and The Civil Wars coming out of the Shoals area too, should everyone pack up their van and move their band to Muscle Shoals?
Bill: Hell no! Stay out of my city you wannabes! [Laughter] We’ve got all we need. More than we need.
David: Any closing thoughts?
Edwin: I’m very excited about the future of Random Conflict and our new album. For me, this is our starting point. There’s no telling what we are going to do next. That’s one of the things I love about music.
Bill: I hope my next fifty years are as interesting as the first fifty. I want to give a shout out to my other projects, Red Mouth and Grimsdyke. Brian, Edwin, let’s hit the road!
Here’s Random Conflict’s Tradition Is the Enemy LP in its entirety.