Hometown Band Takes On Tokyo
Story by Justin Morris • Photo by Matthew Ison
Dagostino’s. Nate’s. Pourquois Pas. These names will only mean something to you if you are of a certain age and were of a certain age back when these places were in their heyday. At one time, they were the spots where one went to see local live music in the Lake City. They hosted many an act whose times have come and gone: Pink Noise, Lingus, The Groceries, Frig-a-go-go … One name graced many a marquee back in that day; and the act is still at it today, nearly 25 years after they first kicked it off. That band is Choke.
Southwest Louisiana has never been known as a breeding ground for metal acts. But if one was the standout that came as close as any to putting Lake Chuck on the metal map, it was certainly these guys. After two and a half decades, the band has seen some talent come and go. The current line-up is taking its South Louisiana metal sound across the Pacific to play Choke’s first international shows on Japanese soil later this year.
Since the group of musicians who became Choke took the name, Lake Charles native Tracy Mcginnis has fronted the band. Now 48 years old, Mcginnis shows no signs of slowing down or that the decades of shouting metal lyrics into a microphone has tempered him musically. In fact, he’s more excited than ever to do it. He took some time to chat with us about Choke then and now, and about how to prepare for an international tour in style and what it is that’s taking Choke to the Land of The Rising Sun.
Justin Morris: I know the background of Choke is pretty extensive. When and how did Choke first form?
Tracy Mcginnis: Well, I had been living in Austin, and I moved home for a bit before I was going to go to New York City to be a musician. The guys in Choke heard that I was in town, and they said, “Hey, would you come sing with us”? I said, well look, I’ll sing with you until you find another singer. This was October of ‘94. I really liked their music. They played me something and it spoke to me. It was kind of Faith No More, but it was like Pantera and was heavy enough. I heard a lot of melody, and I was like, “man, I really like this,” because I wasn’t really a heavy metal singer, you know. So, I joined and 24 1/2 years later, I’m starting to think they’re not looking for another singer anymore. (Laughs.)
JM: So how long had they been together before you got on with them?
TM: They were called the Air Junkies then. They’d been together a couple of years when their singer quit, so there was an opening. I mean, these were all my buddies I went to high school with, you know? I’ve been knowing them since junior high, so I loved them all as people and as musicians, and it just kind of accidentally worked, you know?
JM: So, who was in that original line-up of Choke?
TM: It was myself, and Jeremy Bouillon and Jason Fuselier and Brian Hood. Out of the original four, me and Brian Hood are left. Jason left last year. He’s still, on paper, our bass player. But he can’t travel with us on this tour, so we’re going to have a touring bass player for this run.
JM: And Charlie (Frye) has been with you guys for a long time, right?
TM: Charlie joined us five or six years in. So Charlie’s been with us 20 years. I consider Charlie an original member, because we were just kids those first few years, and then when Charlie joined, we were a touring band. Charlie was with us for all the good stuff, you know? He didn’t play on any of the early albums, but he got to do all the tours and the fun stuff. At this point, he’s got the job, you know? (Laughs.) Jeremy left about a year and a half ago, and up until then, it was mostly the original members.
JM: And back then, what was it that made it happen for Choke? How did you guys get to be known as quickly as you were?
TM: Choke was just a local band, and we’d been a band for like three months before we went and played in Morgan City, opening for Acid Bath. And their manager signed us to a managerial deal. We’d only been a band for three months, and all of a sudden, we’re on the road, meeting record labels and getting bounced around. But major labels said we were too heavy and heavy metal labels said we were too mainstream. They couldn’t put us in a hole. They couldn’t pigeonhole us. We were grunge; we were metal; we were … weird; you know, I heard it all. I was like, OK, so we’re unique. Sign us because we’re unique! Because we’re different.
We even had our opening band sign our Maverick deal. We got offered a deal from Maverick Records and Drowning Pool took the deal because they wanted us to … Like they wanted us to sing, “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor”; wanted me to dread my hair; [wanted] us to be more rap rock; and I was like, “I’m not going to be like this, dude.” And then a month later, Drowning Pool got the deal. They were opening for us for like a month in Texas and Oklahoma and Arkansas and Northern Louisiana. I mean they’re old friends, you know.
But we’re the only band from Lake Charles that’s ever played CBGB’s in New York City and sold it out. And I’d like to think that other than the Hackberry Ramblers, we’re the longest continuous running band down here. Maybe The Kadillacs? Maybe us and The Kadillacs are tied, but other than the Hackberry Ramblers … October makes 25 years. You know what I mean. We’re not going to beat the Ramblers since they had 90 years or something, but hey, I’ll take 25 years. Let’s do it.
JM: Did you ever guys ever take like a hiatus?
TM: Well, not really, because we had kids, and three of us had kids in the same month. (Laughs.) We were touring at the time. We were busy, and our wives or girlfriends, they all came to New Orleans to spend the weekend with us, and we all saw what happened nine months later. (Laughs.) We figured that while we were sleeping in the hotel, our wives all went to the French Quarter and went to a voodoo witch doctor to get us off the road. (Laughs.) That definitely slowed down things. In fact, it’s still slowed [down]. This is 14 years later, [and] it’s still slower than we were then. We don’t play 280 shows a year like we used to. We’ve done two shows a month since we had kids. But no, we never took a break. There’s been guys come and go. There was one point where I was the only original member. I just wanted to keep Choke alive, and the rest of the guys were tired of it, so I brought guys in. I brought young guys in town who were Choke fans to be in Choke for a year. Once the original members saw me kicking ass with these young kids, they were like, “No, **** that. I’m back in the band.” (Laughs.)
And in 25 years, we’ve only had 11 people who can say they’ve been in this band. That’s not bad with a five-member band, you know what I mean?
JM: So how did the local scene treat you over the years? Did you always feel embraced by it, or did you really find your stride outside of Lake Charles?
TM: There was not a scene here when we started; there was no place to play, so we had to go out of town. And that’s why when I hear the people crying now … I mean, OK, Luna Live just shut down. OK. And I heard something about Sloppy’s Downtown. But I mean, come on dude, there’s at least seven or eight clubs to play in locally now for bands and people are still crying that “there’s nothing to do.” Go back, man. We used to have to rent the VFW halls. That’s how we used to have to do it.
When Choke first formed, that’s how we played. We had to either play Pourquois Pas or we had to play Woodmen of the World or the KC hall or we had to rent the place — rent the police and rent the PA and everything. It was punk rock, you know, like the Kilowatt Club shows …
JM: I was just about to ask about Kilowatt Club and Jody Taylor. That was where a lot of those DIY punk kind of shows came from.
TM: Jody was one of our early promoters. So yeah, we’re definitely from that whole scene; even though we played metal, we were definitely punk rock DIY from day one. But then we would leave out of town and go to, like, Muncie, Ind., and there would be 200 people who were Choke fans. And we’d go to the next town an hour over, and nobody knew who we were. (Laughs.) It was because we were on public access TV for some shows we played in New Orleans, and it just depended on where they were airing it. This was before YouTube, so you had to watch public access to see new bands, and it just depended on where we were hot.
JM: What do you think was the single best thing that got you guys out there and got you moving into other states? Was it that deal with Dax Riggs (Acid Bath, Deadboy and The Elephantmen manager) that you hooked up with?
TM: Yes, it was. That was the one, because we played that Friday night in Morgan City. I mean, it was packed. It was 200 people, and there was nobody else that was a bigger name on the show, right? So, the manager said, “What are y’all doing tomorrow night?” So, we went to New Orleans to open for Acid Bath, and we met Phil Anselmo and White Zombie, and I met all the guys from Nine Inch Nails and from Marilyn Manson. In fact, I went to an after party with Marilyn Manson and the whole band.
So, we met everybody and I was like, wait a minute, this is it; we’re doing it. And then the next night we played in Lafayette with [Acid Bath] again. So, that just opened all the doors. We went from being the opening band of Acid Bath to a headliner in New Orleans in a month’s time. It was really fast, and probably too fast, because we were really rock star ***holes, you know, and then we came back to Lake Charles. They said we had the big head, but we did, because we were really doing it.
The guy who recorded our two albums used to manage the Eagles. We had no idea he had been basically blacklisted from the music business after that. He was trying to start over, and he was finding a few bands in New Orleans and such, and we were one of the bands he liked. So we were like, “Dude, The Eagles’ manager … We’re about to be rich and famous, you know …”
JM: But you didn’t realize what a lid the industry had on him.
TM: Exactly! We had no idea that that put a big, big red X on us. We see that now. But, oh well, (laughs), I mean, what do you do? You’re young and they’re buying you drinks and bringing girls to the studio. What can you do?
But, we’ve been lucky, too. Something that a lot of people don’t know is that Juvenile, the rapper, paid for Choke’s last album. It was recorded in 2001, and we’ve never released it. But Juvenile paid for it. He showed up at the studio and he needed it and we had the studio booked. He said, “No, I need it. I need it now. I have a deadline.” And he asked, “How much does it cost? I’ll pay for their entire record.” So, we got a call: “Don’t come to the studio for three weeks.” But we were also told that our entire album was payed for. (Laughs.) So we got to go in and make it right. We were on a weekend budget, and now we got to go in and spend a month in the studio and do a Rolling Stones full-on harmony thing and everything. We got to go in and do a real album. It’s just sad that nobody’s heard it, because it’s really good.
JM: So there’s probably not a whole lot of original successful touring metal bands out of Louisiana. How do y’all feel about kind of being one of, if not maybe the iconic Louisiana touring metal band. And if you’re not, who is?
TM: Well, Crowbar is really world famous right now and they’re friends of ours, so kudos, you know. I’ll give it up to Goatwhore, they’re huge. I’ll give it up to both those guys. Those are all very close friends. But when the singer for Goatwhore found out we were playing in Japan, he was like, “How in the hell did y’all do that? We’ve not even played Japan!” and I was like, “Well, you know, we have connections over there.”
JM: Well, let’s talk about that. You guys are going to Japan. You’ve never played outside the U.S. How’d this come to be?
TM: Well, there’s a band from Tokyo called Gunship666, and they toured America 10 years ago with another band called Six Past Hell from Houston. Choke jumped in on two or three of the dates at the beginning of the tour, and ended up doing some dates with Slipknot on the tour as well. So, we became friends with them, and we’ve kept in touch with both bands over the years. Well, about a year and a half ago when Jeremy left the band, we needed a guitar player, and we actually discussed breaking up. But Charlie mentioned that Scott, the guitar player from Six Past Hell, was getting a divorce; moving from Hollywood back to Orange, Texas, where his mom lives and … he wanted to be in Choke. And I was like, “Oh my God, he’s like my dream guitar player.” And he’s toured Japan a couple of times and is kind of famous over there.
He’s got an underground cult following in Tokyo. So we’re going over there with him now and he’s going to be the rock star. I’m the lead singer, but all the posters have him on them, and everyone there is like, “SCOTT’s coming. Yeah!” (Laughs.) Man, it’s always been my dream to go to Japan, and so about six months ago, I said, “Hey Scott, what’s the possibility of Choke going to Japan”? He goes, “I’ll make some phone calls,” and that’s literally how it happened.
JM: Wow. So, when’s the tour?
TM: Mid-September. We’re going to fly in and do an autograph signing at a record store and then we’re going to play — I think the first night is Tokyo, and then we’re going to do Nagano and Nagoya, which is basically all-around Mount Fuji. So, we’re going to kind of go around on bullet trains around Mount Fuji. It will always be at our right, which is really cool.
JM: So, you mentioned a place and time when you were “too hard for this” and “too mainstream” for that. Metal is one of those things that I’m very picky on. I’m not a huge metal guy, but what I like I really like; and have always claimed to like everything from Mozart to Metallica. I do think that a lot of metal is very baroque in structure …
TM: Oh yeah, man. I’ll listen to Mozart when I go to sleep. The Requiem is the most beautiful piece of music ever written. I did the honor chorus, state chorus, show chorus, you know … church choir. I have that background: using the diaphragm. So I do sing proper. There’s a reason I’m almost 50 and can still scream, you know? (Laughs.)
JM: That was another question I was going to ask. How old are you guys now, because, well, you’re not kids anymore.
TM: Yeah, I’m 48. I’m the oldest member, and I think Charlie, the youngest, is 43 or 44. So we’re all in there somewhere.
JM: So, we’ve got a fundraiser coming up to support this tour. Touring is not cheap, but I know you guys are crazy hip to get over there and do what you guys do.
TM: Yeah. So it’s Saturday, June 16 at My Place. It’s [an entire] day of music from 2 pm to 2 am and I’m starting the show acoustically; just by myself. I figured I’m going to be the master of ceremonies, so I figured I’d start the show. And then there’s going to be six or seven acoustic acts. Then at about 7, the electric music starts. And man, we could have just brought in a bunch of heavy metal bands, but we decided not to. Choke’s the only really “heavy metal” band that’s playing. Vection is playing. They’re not metal. They’re heavy, but not really metal. And there’s some punk bands. Femaregionsix will be there and the Von Dukes are playing, so ya got rockabilly, too. So, all the bands are different. I wanted it to be like that. I didn’t want to just be heavy metal all day.
JM: So why was it important for you to do that? That eclectic thing gives it a pretty inclusive feel.
TM: These are our friends, and most of the bands are our side bands. I’d say 90 percent of the bands that are on the bill are our side bands or, I’d say, my and Charlie’s side bands, because me and Charlie are the really eclectic members. But other than that, it’s just our friends that have supported us, you know, for 25 years. And like Vection … when we were forming Vection, we were all in three or four other bands. So, you know Crown Shift, who will play before Vection, has Brian Fruge. When I said I kept Choke going with me as the only original member, Brian was our guitar player then, so it’s kind of a Choke family reunion and barbecue. That’s really what it is, because Kim Janes is playing and all my side bands. And then Jesse’s playing; he plays in four of my side bands with Brian Moore. It’s the best musicians in town in every genre, you know?
JM: So, what’s the admission?
TM: It’s going to be 15 bucks to get in, but that gets you 12 hours of music and a barbecue plate.
JM: So, who’s doing the barbecue?
TM: Well, actually Charlie and Brian work for Reeves Uptown Catering. Brian’s a chef and Charlie is a chef’s assistant. I still don’t know the menu. I said, look, let me do the live music and you guys do the food and we’ll make it work. So, I haven’t even asked.
JM: Anything else you want to add about the event, about the tour, or about that album that Juvenile paid for that hasn’t been released yet?
TM: We’re going to be selling t-shirts that are just exclusive for the barbecue. Just going to be a one-time only thing. And I think we’re planning the barbecue part two later on, maybe, if this one goes well, because this is going to pay for the whole tour. So, if we have a barbecue part 2, then we’re gonna sell the Japanese tour shirt for that one.
JM: And maybe that next go-around goes towards getting that record put out there?
TM: Well, we’re on a label in Japan that’s putting out an EP just to have some music over there. And then we’re hoping to get a full-blown record deal over there, because if you get a record deal in Japan, it opens up the doors to Australia and Europe, where metal is really popular. Maybe. We’ll see.
JM: What do you think has kept Choke alive … has kept you kind of relevant and hip and in all the hearts and minds of the people who have heard you over the years?
TM: We’re friends first, you know what I mean? You don’t want to screw your friends over. So, if we have a problem, we take it up with each other and sometimes it’s not nice, you know? We put guys in time-out and we put guys in check and I’ve even been put in time out. We’ve all been put in time-out.
So, we kind of treat it as a business. And now I’ve been in this band half of my life. How many people can say they’ve done anything for half of their life?
One thing you know, this has been my passion. I mean, I do have a 15-year-old daughter, and I love her more than anything in the world. And I have a wife of 17 years. But Choke’s my baby. October will be 25 years.
JM: You put that long into anything, music or otherwise, and it becomes something you are responsible for and take care of.
TM: I love it when people come see us — local people who have never heard us before, but have heard the name for 20-plus years; when they actually come and see us, it’s always like, “Man, that’s not what I expected. That’s so much better than I ever expected.” Because, it’s heavy metal, but we’re not heavy metal … We have our own thing, whatever it is. It kept us from being famous, but we have our own thing. And you know what, I’m going to stick to that. I’m gonna stick to it.
Choke will be taking on Tokyo on Sept. 14, with dates following in Nagano and Nagoya on Sept. 15 and 16. But if you want to see the hometown rockers do their thing and get 12 hours of live music and barbecue to boot, make your way out to My Place on Saturday, June 16, starting at 2 pm, for the Choke barbecue event, and help send these guys east proper. Konnichiwa! And I’ll see YOU at the show!