To Live and Die in LC: The Choke Story
By Daniel Fusilier
Pioneers in Uncertain Years
The year was 1994. The landscape of music was an explosion of alternative rock and the beginnings of radio friendly hip-hop. Michael Bolton was playing on radio stations and the biggest hit of the year was “The Sign” by Abba plagiarists Ace of Base. Even rock radio had become a watered down version of punk angst and pseudo melodic showmanship. However, in the deep swampy south, something wicked came. A new breed of music was forging its own path. This heavy brand of doomed out groove melting with self- reflecting lyricism was permeating the state of Louisiana and Lake Charles was no exception. That year Choke began an assault on their home turf that has relentlessly thrived for over two decades.
From the eyes of the elder statesman of the Lake Charles music scene, it had all started shortly before then. New Orleans was finding a voice despite the neglect of radio stations and MTV airplay. In 1991, “sludge” metal, as it came to be referred to, was being made for the first time by bands like Acid Bath, Crowbar, and Eyehategod. By 1994 Acid Bath released their first full album “When the Kite String Pops”. Also in that same year, Tracy McGinnis had moved back from Austin, TX with the notion of moving to New York to make his own way in music. He had been in Austin fronting a punk band called Café Flesh. Meanwhile, Jeromy Boullion was pushing his own brand of music in the form of Air Junkies. The two met and quickly started collaborating on what would quickly become the groundwork of Choke. They performed as a four piece with Jason Fusilier and Bryan Hood filling in on bass and drums respectively.
Where Once Stood Four...
It didn’t take long for the guys to record a quick demo and start opening up for some of these influential New Orleans bands. “I think we recorded our first demo in a matter of three weeks after our first show” says Tracy. By their third show they were opening up for Acid Bath, forming a friendship that would last for two decades. During this time the four-piece had heard that a new tattoo artist was in Lake Charles that was actually a former member of Acid Bath, and the previous incarnation Golgotha. Tracy went to the tattoo shop and befriended “Boon” Businelli and quickly got him to join the band. Now as a five piece, a stage was set for constant touring and laying a foundation to join their friends as the face of the southern metal sound.
The tours were plentiful. They were constantly on the road with the bands that were blowing up at the time. They opened for Soilent Green up and down the east coast. They traveled across the south with Acid Bath, and played a few shows here and there with Eyehategod and Crowbar. Choke even befriended New York hardcore giants Crisis in the middle of their rise to cult stardom. Even though they were playing all of these shows and traveling the country, Choke was known for constantly represent their hometown. This was a recurring theme throughout the years that followed.
A City and Sound Like No Other
Choke was incessantly bringing these bands to the lake area time after time, fighting for places to play and scrounging up money to guarantee that bands with record deals and huge contracts would come to Lake Charles when able. Before Choke came along, metal bands were not very common to this area. The only metal bands were Captain Howdy and Grawlbone. When Tracy, Jeromy, Bryan, Boon, and Jason came onto the scene they mainly played with the punk bands that were prominent in Lake Charles at the time. They played the now infamous Lake Charles venue Pourquoi Pas once a month and helped them cater to a crowd that would keep the club’s operations afloat. They often played for free so that bigger name acts could come to the area and bring their music to a town that was starving for musical recognition. This was an era that relied heavily on DIY ethics and pushed the youth to be supportive of their own area. It was also a time of fostering a local brand that would set your music scene apart from the rest of the touring stops along the I-10 route.
During this time Choke recorded their first CD. It was in 1996 that the self-titled 8 song album was released independently. The sound of this recording was powerful in that it didn’t invoke the exact New Orleans sound that they were being lumped into. While Boon’s guitar work was very similar to the “sludge” sound that was dominating the new metal framework, the overall arc of the music was much more groove oriented. “Bryan and Jason were really the catalyst for the Choke sound” raves Tracy. “We were constantly asking Bryan to speed up his drumming; his bullheadedness actually gave us something unique.” Also contributing to the slightly different sound was the fact that unlike most bass players at this time, Jason did not play with a guitar pick. This, and the bluesy riffs that Jeromy wrote, gave a unique groove to the band that set them apart from their contemporaries. While others were mixing doom styled riffs with thrash speed and double bass patterns, Choke simply made low end, riff heavy songs that were
attainable at all levels.
Again, the members of Choke toured. They went back out on the road with even more bands, as well as the previous groups. They teamed up with grind/noise core legends Anal Cunt for a brief stint. They even played at the famed CBGB’s for a Crisis CD release party, packing out the venue. They shopped their CD to labels and tried to make contacts at every turn. Meanwhile, bands that they had established great relationships with were gaining more recognition thanks to the exposure from Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo. He had left the New Orleans scene to join Pantera in 1987 and by the time 1994 had rolled around they were getting heavy rotation on MTV. In their video for “I’m Broken” Phil wore an Eyehategod and Crowbar shirt. This lead to heavier exposure for the bands and garnered them a much wider audience.
What Did Happen to Mark Twain's America?
Choke was opening for these bands night after night, exposing them to a wider audience as well. In between these trips Choke started writing and recording their second album “Whatever Happened to Mark Twain’s America?” This album succeeded in marking a maturation in not only sound but also lyricism. The new recording was a more artsy approach complete with song interludes and clearer intent for the bands direction. Again, they talked to their friends about helping to get them record deals, but those bands were so busy with their whirlwind success that they simply didn’t have time to help.
So why didn’t Choke get brought up with the rest of the bands that were being recognized? The members all have different views on this. There’s the theory that they weren’t well enough integrated into the New Orleans scene. They were even told to move to New Orleans in order to assimilate themselves and help identify with the area. They decided against it because they were proud of where they were from and didn’t feel a need to try to fit in geographically. It could have been simply that Phil Anselmo (who by all accounts ran the metal scene) just didn’t like them even though he was well aware of them and their relentless work ethic. There’s also the idea that they “missed the boat”, but it seems that they were clearly riding along in the same cruise ship as the others, even though they may have been in the “third class cabins”. Even still, is the assumption that the record industry is fickle and always trying to be one step ahead of the game. After all, Korn also released their self-titled album in 1994 as well laying the groundwork for a newer metal sound that would play a significant role in the years that followed. Regardless of the reasons for the lack of recognition, Choke forged on.
Nice to Meet You, Mr Frye
Shortly after the second album Boon parted ways with Choke. It was a mutual decision that reflected a creative distance growing with the band. It also marked another era of Choke. Enter Charlie Frye in 1998. Charlie Frye was a young dreadlocked thrash style guitar player. He concentrated mostly on fast finger-work and solos that were more associated with bands like Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth than what had been Choke’s calling card. At first he wasn’t a fan of the slower, bluesier side of metal. Jeromy and Charlie became friends roughly around 1997 and he had seen Tracy before. After listening to some of the music that Jeromy showed him, he became enamored with what he could bring to the table. When he joined, nu-metal was in full swing. Limp Bizkit, Korn, Coal Chamber and others were dominating the Ozzfest lineup. This was an era with deep percussive elements based on hip-hop patterns more than any melodic overtures of metal’s past. The idea of Charlie joining was to bring back an old school feel with guitar solos and soundscapes that would further set them apart at the time. This may have backfired.
“Choke wasn’t really Choke until Charlie joined the band.” Tracy tells me. “He really brought in an element that led us to develop a sound that we could call our own.” Tracy found a kindred spirit in Charlie. They quickly developed a close bond over their love for more avant garde artists like Faith No More, Frank Zappa, and the Melvins. For the first time Tracy wasn’t the only “freaky kid” in the band. Charlie’s love for ‘80s guitarists like The Edge from U2 creeped its way into the band’s sound.
Charlie was instantly thrust into a spotlight he wasn’t fully prepared for. “I definitely underestimated the credibility of the guys at first” he remembers. He had always thought of them as a local band that would hit the road and play some shows out of town. It wasn’t until he played a show with them in Dallas that he understood how big they were nationwide. “I was blown away by their notoriety everywhere else.” As a 21 year old in his first band, he quickly realized that he had big shoes to fill.
I Dread My Hair For No Man
Almost immediately after Charlie joined them, Choke decided to record a 3rd album. Armed with a new sound and a better creative understanding, the band went to Noiselab studios in New Orleans. They spent several weeks tracking what would be an album that never got to see an official release. The only things that would survive hurricane Katrina were the unmastered copies of their recordings. They decided to shop this album to more record labels but found that their sound was not what was “in” at this time. They were being “ping ponged” between labels like Relapse who told them they weren’t extreme enough and major labels such as Columbia that claimed they were too extreme. Even more independent labels like Wind Up (Creed) and Maverick (Deftones) were trying to change them in order to package them in that day’s flavor of the week.
“We were talking to Wind Up and they wanted me to dread my hair” Tracy recalls. “They even told us that a couple members didn’t have the right look for the band and that we should maybe drop them.” While they were talking to Wind Up Records, they were touring with a then unknown band that was opening for them. This band was listening to what was being told to Choke and took it upon themselves to change their look and sound to get signed, resulting in Drowning Pool. They eventually went on to sign to Wind Up and have had a fairly lucrative career onward. This was around 2000 when nu-metal had morphed into a dumbed down radio version and was seeing hits from bands that had almost no credibility in the under current of what was the metal scene.
Charlie’s aforementioned naivety to Choke’s popularity across the country was not an uncommon perception. Several members of other Lake area bands did not fully understand the scope of what Choke was doing outside of Lake Charles. Often, after touring, the guys would come back to play a show and were met with a lot of malcontent and disrespect. There was often behind the back talk going on about Choke not supporting Lake Charles properly and cutting local bands out of high profile shows. One case in point was an early D’Agostino’s show with Crowbar, Crisis, and Choke. A large handful of local bands that were just starting out wanted the chance to play on this show, and many of them were disgruntled for not being a part of the bill. “What most people didn’t realize,” Charlie meters his words carefully, “we were doing our best to bring people to Lake Charles that wouldn’t have normally come here. It’s not like we were doing those bands a favor, they were doing us a favor and these bands have guarantees that we have to meet.” Tracy agrees with those sentiments, “It felt like a lose/lose situation for us a lot of the time. If we couldn’t pay the local bands they would get mad, so we left them off and they would still get mad.”
In no time at all, Choke went from being hometown stars to “pretentious rock stars” that were only in it for themselves. “It’s not like we had all this clout,” says Charlie, “we were still playing for almost nothing when we were going out of town.” Often they would barely break even on the road and depended on local shows to bankroll their recordings and tours. Charlie continues, “We were looking for our own olive branch and all these guys were asking us for help. We had none to give. We knew people but we weren’t getting the recognition they were so we were still trying to make a bigger name for us as well.”
The perception that they were becoming too arrogant was also beginning to creep its way into the local scene. “I know that when I just got home from touring we would always try to play a local show. What sucks about that is that you’re mentally exhausted and all these people wanted to act like you were best friends and I barely knew them.” Tracy recalls. “I know I came off like a sarcastic asshole because people didn’t know my dry sense of humor. It’s different now with social media because I can post my thoughts that are usually kind of warped and people see that before we even meet.” Some might say it was more than just that, there were times that Tracy and co. seemed to be “name dropping” and playing up their recognition. In talking to them today, it seems that it was just a matter of their lives at the time and maybe there was a disconnect from home life and tour life.
With nothing really giving way in the area of signing deals or reaching a next step, Choke was starting to get restless. Full time jobs were becoming more of a priority and relationships started to take more focus. Charlie had also decided to move to Dallas. It was a period of change for the five members of the band. Bryan specifically had started to get tired of the grind of being in a local band that undoubtedly had “rockstar” issues. He decided to leave the band and focus on other projects. Choke enlisted a few local drummers during this time period.
Dusty Haiko had played in the Alexandria metal outfit Deadman Circus. They had often played shows with Choke and were considered “brother” bands. Dusty had moved to Lake Charles and was spending his time with 3 or 4 other projects when Tracy called him up. “It really was one of the coolest things I got to do,” remembers Dusty. “I had never gotten a chance to play such a thick groove.” Even though he had been a fan of Choke since his days in high school, what impressed him the most about his time playing for them was their command of the audience.
They weren’t playing full time anymore. At most they were kept to shows once a weekend, as everyday lives were taking more control. After Dusty’s departure, local drummer Trey Newmiller stepped behind the drums
Trey had gone to Lake Arthur ten years after Jeromy. He remembers that Jeromy was still considered a legend in his hometown. Jeromy had helped Trey get a job at Doc’s Music when he first moved to town, so it was an easy “yes” when they needed someone to get behind the kit. Again, he had known about Choke since he was in high school and loved them. He never understood why they hadn’t gone forth and blown up in a big way. Trey’s biggest adjustment came from playing in strictly regimented shows for cover bands to the free partying atmosphere that Choke provided. “Those guys party so hard,” he laughs. “It was never a dull moment. I mean they were sponsored by Jagermeister at some point.” He was also amazed at how hard they worked for their originality. “It’s definitely not as easy as they make it look. They were constantly writing new material. Most of what I heard never got used.”
Both of these musicians agree that Choke was definitely misunderstood outside of the band. “It was a transition time for them I think,” Dusty mentions, “they were not doing the whole touring all the time thing. It really brought them down to earth so to speak.” Both Trey and Dusty are adamant that, without Choke, neither one of them would have been what they were. Trey made most of his music connections through Jeromy and Dusty says that without Choke helping out Deadman Circus he wouldn’t have been as accomplished as he is. While most local musicians were still bad mouthing Choke, these two saw firsthand how helpful they could be.
The first thing you notice about talking with the guys in Choke now is that there is no real bitterness or hard feelings. The lack of a solid record deal and the music scene essentially passing them by has not hardened their hearts any. When asked if there were any lingering regrets, the answer is a resounding “NO!” I pushed Charlie further to ask what he could have done differently, “I guess we could have not accepted rejection so eagerly. Once we heard no, we just kind of rolled onto the next one without really pushing for ourselves.” It wasn’t a lack of confidence making them roll over,
In Dallas, Charlie came into-his-own. He made a lot of high profile friends that no amount of previous touring or connections could have met. He regularly spent time with Dimebag Darrel of Pantera. His roommates at the time were accomplished musicians that have gone on to become rock stars in their own right. When asked why he didn’t push Choke recording into people’s hands then, he replies, “that’s never really been my thing. I just liked being one of the guys. If you would have seen how many times these guys were approached with demo cds or recordings, it was insane.” Charlie decided instead that he would just be another one of the guys and develop natural, real friendships with some of his idols. “The whole Phil Anselmo thing, a lot of people think that his label is just for Louisiana bands, but it’s not. He just signed some friends of mine from Australia (King Parrot). It’s about the music he likes. Sometimes Phil gets a little bit too much put on his shoulders.” This is in stark contrast to what other members of the band feel. Regardless, Charlie finally moved back to Lake Charles and has since enrolled at McNeese. “I’ve still got some irons in the fire. I know enough people that I will get our 3rd album in someone’s hands and get something going.”
Luke Duke, The Great Reminder
About 3 years ago, Choke had a meeting. They had pretty much split up at that point and were all doing their own things. Occasionally you could see some of them together at a local bands show. Here and there they would make appearances and often they were asked about playing again. They decided amongst themselves to have one more last hurrah. The plan was to play all of the towns that they had loved to go to one last time. They reconvened with a new bass player. This bassist wasn’t just a fill-in, he had been one of Choke’s biggest fans since the very early days. Luke Duke was a natural replacement on bass. He had spent all of his life in bands around Louisiana ranging from crusty street punk to Southern metal and everything in between.
The addition of Luke brought on a new era of Choke. Since he had always been a fan, his input was an invaluable source of pride and information. Tracy gets excited talking about him, “He really reminds us of what we are and how much fun it can be.” Luke has been assigned with deciding on what songs they play each night. “He picks out these songs that we haven’t played in a long time, really some fan favorites that we forgot about,” Charlie adds. This advantage of having him playing with them gives them a perspective long forgotten. This new era of Choke has been more fun and less grinding than ever before. “There’s a lot of pressure taken off when you’re not worried about making it or trying to accomplish a bigger goal,” says Tracy. “Now it’s just really us being friends and having a good time on stage with each other. Like it should have always been.” What started as a last 'hurrah' has been going on for 3 years.
21 Years of Loyalty
Both Tracy and Charlie often bring up the Lake Charles bands that have come and gone. They both acknowledge how much this city and the scene means to them.
Even Trey recalls how much this area meant to them, “They were always repping Lake Charles. Everywhere we played, all of the out of town shows, they never stopped talking about how great Lake Charles was or trying to get those bands to come and play here.” From the early days getting their start here, to constantly trying to bring high profile bands here, their focus has always been the Lake Charles scene. Even now, their Facebook pages are filled with reminders of shows coming and what’s going on around town.
Often during our interviews, other local bands were brought up. Their faces light up when they mention how excited they are about any local band that is doing something right. “I want to see everyone succeed. I’ve always felt that way,” Charlie shifts forward getting excited. “You have some of the best musicians I’ve ever seen around here and I love the vibe that this city has.” The relationship, while not always reciprocal, was always at the forefront of Choke’s mind. They would rather toil away in obscurity than to turn their back on this place to succeed, and that means something in this day and age. The landscape of music has changed immeasurably in the 20 years since Choke formed. They came from a DIY era that meant constant touring and pushing yourself to limits. If Choke were to have formed in the Myspace age, their music would have reached a far wider audience more quickly than what they were capable of in 1994. Would this have even made a difference?
After 21 total years of Choke one thing remains certain. Their fans are still some of the most loyal and diehard you can find. Charlie jokes about it, “We’re still playing the same songs from 10 years ago, but on the other side of the coin at least we’re consistent.” Indeed, every Choke show is filled with songs that have become a soundtrack to a generation of Lake Charles’ own counter culture. Looking through the crowd quickly becomes a family reunion of sorts for musicians and fans alike from all areas of genre and time. With the new fan favorite set lists set by Luke every night, the crowd is always primed and eager to hear their local heroes kill the stage one more time. It’s these fans that understand what Choke did for Lake Charles. Not only did they give hope to a young musician who thought only zydeco artists came from Louisiana, but they also kicked down doors for Lake Charles to become relevant again. They proved that you could leave this town and do great things without having to move permanently. They are Southern boys through and through, more importantly they are Lake Charles boys through and through. “I love this place, I’m never gonna leave it. Why would I?” Charlie asks enthusiastically.
Year after year passes and each member of Choke gets older. With age came wisdom and a healthy respect of what exactly their mark is. This band has been the impetus for an entire subculture that needed them, for better or worse. Choke never forgot where they came from or what that place meant to them. Some could say that they let the opportunities pass them by, but their contribution was their opportunity. In a new age where social media makes a star out of the undeserving, these pioneers not so quietly made stars out of themselves with nothing more than a presence that can’t be faked. While Choke might say they need Lake Charles to survive, the truth is, Lake Charles needs Choke.
Hell, every town needs a band like Choke.
Readers Also Enjoyed...or, at least they clicked on...
Founded in Lake Charles, LA. Subscribe to Exposure today and receive our biweekly newsletter, a digital version of Exposure Magazine, and a physical copy of Exposure Magazine mailed directly to your house every month. It's free to subscribe!