There’s been some good ones, and some really bad ones, but I think Excelsior just might be my favorite
band to ever come from the city of brotherly love. If you haven’t heard them, which is surely
the case for most people out there, do yourself a favor and find MP3s or used vinyl or something –
they wrote these gnarly, catchy rock songs that were as thick as they were punk, like if The Monorchid
signed to Man’s Ruin but not without completely offending all art-rockers and stoners first. Their
social alienation is palpable, from the ridiculous Dungeons & Dragons artwork to the stories they share
below. I recently met the drummer Rod, and bumped into the bassist, Ryan, for the first time in what
might’ve been ten years, so I figured it was time we talked. It’s a long one, so if you don’t like it,
suck an egg!

How did Excelsior get started? Did you guys all know each other beforehand,
or come from other bands or what?

Rod (drums): Excelsior got started in the fall of 1997, in South Philly, in
a literal and figurative dark, dank stankhole. This hole was a basement that was
shared with a dude that lived there named Dan Gill (of early ’90s radical punk band
Kitschchao), who released some music on Brian Dilworth’s Compulsiv Label. By this point,
Dan was teaching us the ways of depravity, drugs, and drinking. We asked him if we
could build a practice space in his room, next to a soiled mattress. He would bring
girls down there, and a few times, other strange dudes would bring girls down there…
It was the nastiest of spaces, but perfect for broke losers to fulfill their unbridled,
never-ending teen-angst…
Tim (singer) and Chris (guitar) were in another band that recently broke up, Goodbye Blue
Monday. They were emo, I was not into them, but they were swell dudes. I was in a couple
of mediocre bands that year with guys from Fracture and True Hi-Fidelity. Ten Gun Sloop
ended the year previous with me, some of those dudes, and Atom (of Atom And His Package).
Then we formed into The Sickness for awhile, minus Atom and including Jesse Boz (Fracture,
Vexers, Mountain High), Dave McCall (True Hi-Fi, Clockcleaners’ 1st bassist), and Brad
Thompson. The very moment The Sickness ended, Chris and I started playing some tunes, with our high school friend Justin on guitar as well. We were listening to heavy music at the time, and
plenty of rock, punk rock. One day Tim was bored and said “I’ll sing for ya’.” We didn’t
hear a word come out of his little bearded face for almost a year.
At this time, we didn’t have a bass player. We got another Fracture dude, Jeb Bell, to
play bass when he was around. We recorded some demos with him, and wrote some weird,
frantic songs that did not make any sense. For our first show at the First Unitarian
Church (then run by The Cabbage Collective: Bull and Joe), we didn’t have a name. The
flyer read “Tim and Chris and Rod and some other Philly Folks…” We played a few more
times around, and at Stalag 13. At about our third of fourth show, we decided to throw
a party at our new house in West Philly. We got a keg of cheap, domestic brew. Before
we knew it, we were wasted and sucking terribly. Our bass player, Jeb, had a paper bag on
his head and wasn’t plugged in, but he was sure flailing about like a spazz. That’s when
things got wild… our friend Ethan (our album cover artist) shaved all his body hair off
that day for some reason, and then attempted to suck his own wang, right there in the crowd.
This event did not sit well with Justin’s middle-aged woman-friend. She ran away, and
Justin unplugged his guitar and chased after her. I would’ve let her go, she was lame, and
the cause of Justin breaking his arm at a later date when he punched a brick wall whilst
thinking about how lame she was, no doubt. Soon after this, Jeb was away, and we wanted to
play more. So we got my big fuckin’ older brother to sit in on bass for awhile. He played
in that sick Philly band Franklin. He was a maniac, and impossible, much like me. He took
interest in our band, telling us we were good, and then showed up to a practice after
ingesting some ectasy. He was very enthusiastic! He helped us write a couple tunes, and we
started in with the open tuning. Don Devore, “the mayor” as he was known back then, asked us
to open a few shows for Ink & Dagger. They wore makeup, and tried to screw us out of money
on more than one occasion. Tim confronted Don in the stairwell to the Church after being
shorted once again. Tim said, “If he gives us any less than $100, I’m taking him down.”
Unaware of our ultimatum, Don gave us $90. I think Tim spit on him and called him a phony,
but I can’t be certain. Roy soon quit, writhing in a heap of manic-depression and paranoia,
and then left us holding our tits in our hands at a recording session. To this day, we
are arch-enemies. Ha. Here comes Ryan. Tim mentioned he knew Ryan a little bit, and we all
went to Temple together for about a year. Ryan was fresh off the recently disbanded Encyclopedia
Of American Traitors, some hardcore curb-dogs with lots of energy. I have to say, Ryan didn’t
know any of us really, but he came over, learned some songs, and stuck with us in all our
introverted insanity. Tim’s not introverted, he’s a ladies man… the ladies loved his small,
stout little body. Chris and Ryan and I never had any girls around, and most Excelsior shows
were sausage parties right up until the end. Occasionally I’ll run into a nice-looking woman
reminiscing about Excelsior, and I’ll wonder where this girl was amidst all the sweaty man-boys.
Around this time we started writing pretty decent songs, Tim was singing sorta, and we played
some shows here and there, but no one really came out, or watched us. I think we cleared some
rooms on a number of occasions.
Ryan (bass): I had met Tim when some of his other bands back in the day had played in my hometown.
And I would see him when my old bands played in Philly. When I moved to Philly, he was
here, and I would see him around at shows and we’d shoot the shit and stuff. Lo and behold,
I wound up living not too far away from Tim in West Philly. Since Tim and his friends liked
cheap beer, certain drugs, basement punk shows, and other West Philadelphia degenerate
behavior, I began to see more of Tim around the neighborhood, and through Tim, I met Rod.
I was at University when, one fine day on campus, I ran into Tim. Tim told me he had a new
band, and that the tall quiet dude with him was in the band too. That tall quiet dude was
Rod. Not sure if it was called Excelsior yet or not, but I didn’t get around to seeing them
play until they played a show in my basement one sweaty summer’s eve. They had a different
bass player at the time. There were several before I joined the band. My previous band had
called just called it quits, and one night, probably while drinking forties on an abandoned
train bridge or somewhere equally romantic, they mentioned that their band was looking
for a bass player. I didn’t know those guys too well, but I said, “Hey, if you need anyone,
I can play bass.” And it went from there. We had other mutual acquaintances and such, but
I can’t remember if Rod and I really hung out before Excelsior, or if my induction into
Excelsior was when we first started to hang and actually interact. I do remember hanging
at some bar on South Street that let underage kids drink, and talking to Rod about hopping
trains to NYC. When I tried calling him to make the plan, I couldn’t reach anyone (this is
in the old landline days). He told me later that his phone had been disconnected for
non-payment. That trip never happened… Anyway, I’m sure we were in the same place at the
same time pretty regularly, but Philadelphians are pretty awesome at interpersonal
interaction and self-introductions and stuff like that. Joining Excelsior is pretty
much how I met the rest of the band.

How did you guys settle on your sound? That first LP is a pretty strange rock
record, especially when considering the popular styles of the time (crusty punk, emo,
grind-core, youth-crew hardcore)… Was there any sort of initial plan for what
Excelsior were going to sound like?

Ryan: Hmm, coming into the group a little later, I feel like at first there was more of
a melodic-yet-angular, DC-ish dual guitar thing going on with Excelsior. Not sure if
any recordings of this exist. It was good and “rocked”, but wasn’t as heavy. Less “musical
muscle”, perhaps? (That sounds like an insult, but isn’t meant to be. It just wouldn’t be
right to say “prettier” about Excelsior.) Circus Lupus was a pretty good reference point
for those early days. I know there was a rehearsal early after I signed on where a song was
being written or re-worked, and the idea of Jesus Lizard type bass and drum interplay with
slide guitars making noise overtop was bandied about. It sounded pretty cool when we did
it – heavier and more raw. Justin and Chris were really into old blues guitar players (Son
House, Charley Patton, etc.) at that time, so they were pretty used to playing with slides
and open tunings. Once we heard how awesome those guitars sounded coming out of the Marshalls
all tuned down and opened up for the slides, it just fell into place, and we started doing
everything, more or less, in that tuning. I feel like that was a pretty pivotal moment in
developing our sound. And Rod’s oversized bass drum, the envy of many a player, definitely
played its part.
The early days of that were so dumb live, though – we didn’t have many songs, so our sets
consisted of some songs in standard tuning, others in slide tuning. We definitely maximized
audience boredom with our between song tuning and re-tuning.
If memory serves, that first record was kind of a bridge between the pre-slide tuning phase
and the later, beefier stuff. I don’t think the first record is all slide tuning. That came
with the second record. And maybe I should go back and listen to the first record. I’m
intrigued by this “strange rock record” of which you speak. I’m just going by memory here.
It’s been years. We weren’t the only band to come out of the “serious” punk scene who decided
it was way more fun to just try to rock out.
Rod: Ryan hits it pretty good there. Before he started playing with us we were kind of
wimpy, unable to settle on a sound, heavily DC influenced… The Jesus Lizard, AmRep bands,
Melvins, Karp, Touch & Go, and AC/DC definitely played their part once Ryan stepped in. You
can hear some of those weird demos and early tunes on the Hot Shit Sandwich discography, minus
the last record (on Planaria Recordings). The first record (on Broken Glass Records) was
strange, and very sloppy. Bad sounds rear their ugly head on the vinyl, but it sounds a bit better on that discography. We couldn’t quite nail our ideas in the studio. I do remember playing
those pseudo “rock” riffs with tongue firmly in cheek. Sorta making fun of it at times,
getting wasted and laughing at how retarded riff-rock and solos can be… but then realizing
how riffs can rule, and how the emo, hardcore, and other sounds of the time could be
way too serious. Mixing all that together with the open tuning and heavy rhythms. First
record side-note: Phil Leone (of Broken Glass Records) showed up to Chris’s apartment to meet
us and talk about putting out a record. He entered with no less than Philadelphia punk
stalwarts Richie Charles and Sean Agnew; I think they were helping with the label at that
point. All three of those dudes helped us out more than we gave them credit for at the time.

When I say “strange rock record”, I’m thinking of a song like “All American Lover”,
which is some sort of weird silly dungeon dirge. But anyway, around that time, were
there any contemporary bands you felt some sort of kinship with, either musically or otherwise?

Ryan: I would venture to say that we were too drunk, introverted or socially awkward
to have much “kinship” with anybody… I know that I was coming out of a band that was very
much of the whole late ’90s political noisy screamy hardcore scene. And when I met up with
the Excelsior guys, they very much were not. So it took a little adjustment for me, because
I had a somewhat different musical background/vocabulary. But I think we all had some common
ground in loud rocking grooves and older punk stuff, to varying degrees. There was always a
lot of Melvins, Minutemen and Monorchid in the van. And who was that band that sang “Steve
Albini Fucked Pac Man?” They were on a lot, too…
Our existence as a band seemed to coincide with the whole garage-rock renaissance. So,
because our sound “rocked”, we shared stages with a lot of those bands that thought they
were the new MC5 that were coming out at that time. Those bands all (well, almost all) sucked –
they did not rock at all. If I had a dime for every obligatory Stooges or MC5 cover I
heard back then… If anything, I think it made us more antagonistic than kinship-seeking,
and far less interested in what was going on at the time. It kinda fit hand in hand with
our whole Planet of the Apes mentality, which is probably where our sound came from – the
desire to rock but not revert to typical sped-up rhythm n’ blues-type rock forms. Or maybe
we were trying to be Chuck Berry, but just sucked at it… Not so sure any of us cared
about much contemporary music, at least as far as the underground/independent rock vein
went. I only seem to get into bands after they have broken up. Maybe Skull Kontrol or the
Tight Bros first 7″? They were on a lot around the house. Actually, looking back at it,
that might make a lot of sense. Early on I would say a band that we had a bit in common with
was another example of a band that also emerged from the mid to late ’90s HC/punk/emo world
to play rock music to no one in basements – Hacksaw (ex-Chokehold). We did two or three
little summer tours with those guys, often with our bands taking turns as performer and
audience. Who else? Q And Not U? Oh wait… Other than that, it was Philly bands like The
Chickens, When Men Hug, Band Of The Hand, and the Pittsburgh gang, bands that were our friends,
who rocked, and who always made for the best times ‘cuz it was all of our friends just going
nuts for each other.
I just went and looked up “All American Lover.” I believe the working title was “The Pirate
Song.” Came about just by dicking around at a practice, trying to coax something new, something
cool out of the guitars, by just playing and seeing what happened. We were amused. The
idea was for it to be a warm-up tune, a tune to open the set that went into something else
that was faster and louder, kinda like how it goes into “Captain Broadshoulders” on the record.
But I don’t think we ever adequately rehearsed “All American Lover”, just decided every now
and then to pull it out of the hat. And so it usually was Shambles City whenever we tried it
live… drink tickets also helped speed along that outcome.

What do you mean by “Planet Of The Apes”?
Ryan: It wasn’t a sci-fi thing for me at least – I have still never watched one of those
movies in its entirety. “Planet of the Apes” was our term for a certain bunch of folks in
town at the time who seemed, to us, to espouse some pseudo-mod retro-rock bullshit, thinking
they were full of “soul,” but they were mostly full of smack. A few of them had Small
Faces-type hairdos, which we thought looked much like the hairdos on the apes in Planet of the
movies. Hence the record insert (second 12″?). Don’t know if you were around the
Philly scene much at that time, but if you need an example, check out any Delta ’72 show from
around 1999 that may be on YouTube. That should give you an idea. Also, I have no idea why
we hated on that scene so much – maybe because we couldn’t afford stylish hair products?
Rod: Ha, “Steve Albini Fucked Pac Man” is a Sockeye reference, best band ever. That first
record, Battle Dudes Unite, was rife with dungeon-y pirate, messy punk stuff. Trying to be
funny while trying to be serious was definitely not a new thing, but we’ve always been fans of
bands that didnt take themselves too seriously. Sockeye and even Karp comes to mind. A little
Monorchid, too… Reviews would mention them alot as a vox comparison, but I think Tim shed
that a bit by the second record. DC bands, Baltimore bands, Candy Machine, The VSS, Lungfish,
we traveled all over to see them multiple times. But we didnt have any kinship with anyone,
we were kinda “hard to approach”, I’ve been told – standoff-ish, but not because we thought
we were awesome. On the contrary, no one wanted us to play anywhere. It was hard getting shows
in most cities, even Philly at times, so we just played in our basement for the first two years
or so. All those “rock” bands came in a little later. Yes, as Ryan says, most were not good,
not even worth talking to. I’m thinking The Mooney Suzuki as one case in particular. Bands
like them, buncha’ turkeys. Friends’ bands that were around at the time were way more fun to play with. Oh and that CD is actually mis-labeled somehow, “All American Lover” is actually a different
song, but who cares, the vinyl has the correct listing.

I feel like you guys really beat all those rock revivalists to the punch, and put them to shame.
But it’s never the first band to do something that gets the credit, it’s always the squeaky-clean
second or third band to come along doing it. Anyway, the second record I feel like is your watershed
moment, and about as flawless a Philadelphian punk record as YDI’s Place In The Sun. How’d you get
hooked up with Belladonna out of Florida – weren’t they putting out Palatka records and screamy
stuff like that?

Ryan: I don’t think we had anything to do with a rock revival. At all. We never had any
intention to unabashedly ape anybody’s sound unless it was an acknowledged cover song, of
which we didn’t do many. There were a lot of bands that just wore their copycat schtick as
a point of pride – hey, we sound like The Dead Boys! We sound like The Dictators! We sound
like the MC5! etc… Perhaps because it was slightly before Napster, and just before everybody
with a computer knew everything about every band ever, some of the very blatant influences were
still not as well-known to the young’ns, and thus weak-ass bands could get away with a revival?
I mean, The Stooges were the best. And if you had never heard The Stooges before, but some
band was doing their songs and riffing like them, and you heard and saw that, you would think
it’s pretty awesome, right? At least until you hear The Stooges. That’s what happened…
Anyway, I don’t think we really had anything to do with reviving anything – except for broken
down vans or passed out band members… Sorry. Longwinded. Does that make sense? Did you
even ask anything about that? I have no recollection how the Belladonna thing came about. Rod?
Rod: I feel like we somehow straddled the tall grass area in-between the rock revival thing,
and more underground punk stuff of that era. I think that’s sorta why we couldnt get any shows; people
didn’t get it or something. We would play weird shows with straight-edge and hardcore bands, just
because our former bands dabbled in some hardcore. The response was usually mild. When other “rocking”
bands would come around, we would play with some of them. Some were awesome, some were try-hards,
but we just didn’t care to dress well, or worry about our shtick on stage… We sorta just stood
there, and tried to play well, and if the crowd wasn’t into it, fuck ’em. Our few friends would
always show up and we just played for them. Don’t get me wrong, playing live means you want people to
watch you, and take something away from the experience, or have a good or bad time at least. But
after three years, I think the whole touring, playing live thing turned us even more cynical…
We just honed our tunes, and played. Jason Teisinger was the man behind Belladonna; I
believe he played in Palatka. He put out some Florida bands and others. He said he saw the ridiculous
record cover for the first record (Battle Dudes Unite) and checked it out. He thought the
strange semi-rock, semi-punk, semi-stupid jams on there were worthy, I guess. Nobody else was
knocking, except Troubleman, but he just blew smoke, and jerked us around. Still a phony to this day
I hear. So we played a show down there with The Dillinger Escape Plan, Converge, and a few others.
Those bands did not care for us, and we did not lose any sleep over it.
Jason wanted to put
out a record, and he had an affiliation/distribution thing with No Idea Records, so we recorded six
tunes with Terry Yerves, gathered up some more art from Ethan, made it look awful, and there it was. I
do think that record is the best. I like the third almost as much, but the second record (The Land Of
) had some kind of strong fuel in there. Early twenties rage and insanity probably.

I feel like your Dungeons & Dragons-style artwork totally predated the underground scene’s
interest in mythical monsters and that sort of thing. And also they looked outrageously stupid,
which I loved. How did you get the entire band to go along with artwork so heinous? I love it,
but I feel like there had to be one guy that wanted something normal-looking.

Ryan: I got more enthusiasm about that first record cover than I ever heard about the music
contained within, especially when we still had the felt covers available.
Rod: At our first punk house in West Philly, I lived with five or six other derelicts, one of
which was the ‘unsung hero of making art like an eight year-old before anybody else did, hands
down’. Ethan Montgomery, a very humble man, super talented artist, and one of the most hilarious dudes
you will ever meet (same guy as the self-fellatio incident). That first record cover was an Ethan
original, a giant painting hanging on our wall. One day me and Justin were sitting below it, crushing
brews, thinking about album art and how it can really make your record seem ultra-lame if it’s real
bad. “That” he said, at Ethan’s painting. From that point forward, Ethan did all our covers, Justin
(who is a great artist as well) did some of the other art, and I filled in the pieces. Everyone
else was surprisingly on board. All of us did some art on at least one of the records…

So did most of your shows usually involve some sort of hairiness or drunken mishaps? I saw you
perform an in-store at Double Decker Records in Allentown, and remember hearing something about
you guys stealing a U-Haul to drive to the show?

Ryan: I don’t recall our shows being too fucked up by drunken nonsense, etc., I think we
usually controlled that until after we put our instruments down. The exceptions would probably be
house shows, or every now and then at The Khyber (where it feels like we played almost weekly).
There were certainly a few house shows where we may as well have all been playing different songs.
I remember a basement show with Rod turning to me between songs and asking “Dude, what song did you
just play?” (thanks to Mr. Keg and Mrs. Whiskey), but those shows weren’t really meant to be artistic
showcases, anyway. And The Khyber was always so nice to us with their abundant drink tickets (and
not checking bags to see if we were bringing in our own booze). And the shows always started way
behind schedule, which gave us a lot of extra time to kill.
What do you mean by hairiness? I mean, there were mishaps aplenty. A non-stop string of ’em. Not
really drinking-related, though. Most probably due to us being socially retarded and lacking interpersonal
communication skills. And shitty luck. As for stolen vehicles – Rod, I think this is your cue for a U-Haul
tale most excellent…
Rod: Yes, we were all social retards. Again, the exception was Tim, but he didn’t want to be
band leader, so I took the reigns. I think we broke up, or someone quit the band at least every six
months. Tim quit at least four or five times. Each time I turned on the tractor beam, and told him
how much we loved him and needed him to stand there, with his back to the audience, and yell
and scream lyrics about how much working, jobs and “The Man” were keeping us down. We did get wasted
quite a bit, but never too much before playing, mostly it was all our close friends and
housemates that would instigate stage diving and pseudo-moshing, heckling us, heckling the crowd.
A lot of this spazzing out, drinking and drugging heavily (mostly just reefer) came about from an
Anti-Squares mentality running through our veins. Many of our friends & acquaintances, and
bands of the time, had a little bit of the edge, or preachy about how and when to get wild, how to
have fun. Judging everyone along the way. We were tired of it, didn’t give a crap about some bullshit
scene that has an unspoken set of rules. Having fun in our basement was our pushback against
everyone who thought our music was lame, and our attitudes sour. Anyone who wanted to join in was welcome,
just as long as they curbed their square and sensitive ideas at the door. Of course, we were also as incredibly stupid as we could possibly be.
But here is a story of those two worlds colliding… We did “borrow” a large 20-foot box truck
from this art handler/mover almost all of us worked for at some point, and that truck was borrowed
again for a night of infamy at Swarthmore College. We had just played a handful of shows with Q And
Not U and Turing Machine around the East Coast. We had another show to play with Q And Not U at
Swarthmore a few weeks later. Up until then, we had been on our best behavior, But this time we loaded
up the box truck with fourteen of our closest friends, a couch, and copious amounts of alcohol.
We pulled up to the college, and our friends spilled out of the back of the truck like a ton of bricks,
completely flam-basted, raging, and ready to party. Luckily for them, there was a frat party right
across the way. There was free food, and drinks for the bands, but our friends began helping
themselves to everything, mostly the beer. Q And Not U seemed to be getting upset, although, let the
record show that they did not drink a drop of alcohol at that point in time. Ethan flipped over the
food table like a crazed maniac. We played, caused a ruckus. Beer cans everywhere, stuff flying off
the balcony, wrestling in the pit, etc… As soon as we were done, “the dudes” tried to get in
to the frat party. The frat was not having it, so they broke in through the basement window.
Everything was great for a few minutes, then the frat boys’ incredible intuition kicked in. They
realized that some of the dudes partying were not their own, and
soon there was a
brawl about to be had, but these frat boys werescared and wimpy. Nevertheless, we decided it best
to load up and roll out to another rager back in the city at the R.U.B.A., so everyone climbed
aboard, I backed into something large, thought nothing of it, and burned out of there as fast as
possible. All of this melee took place during Q And Not U’s set. They were not amused. I tried
to explain that judging us based on the actions of our friends was not the way to go, but they were
not hearing it. We almost didn’t get paid, and to this day, the best quote of the night was from Q
And Not U: “We can forgive, but we can’t forget…” Yeah.

So what brought about the end of Excelsior? Do you think the band ended too soon, overstayed its
welcome, or died right on time?

Rod: I guess we sort of self-imploded. I’d say it was perhaps a few shows too soon… It seemed
like right the moment we broke up, all of a sudden people were into it. The third record, Can We Get
Some Satisfaction Up In This Piece?
, came out exactly the day we broke up. Touring on that record
would’ve been rad, but it was not to be. We came back after a year-and-a-half “break-hiatus” to
play a bunch of shows, which was pretty awesome, but did not last. I think we’d all like to see all
these records available on vinyl again. The third record never came out on vinyl, so that would be
swell. Maybe some dark brown vinyl… gatefold cover. And the other two are out of print, available on
the Planaria CD, but more vinyl would be nice. Got lots of really good live footage that would
be great to let loose as well, including a rare fourteen song set, and some 4524 Pine Street basement
shows. Anyhow… blah, blah. Playin’ in bands.
Ryan: There was some sort of final blow-up that I missed out on, if I remember correctly.
Nothing really exciting like someone screwing someone’s girlfriend or anything like that. It might
have had something to do with Tim playing synths and singing since the electroclash thing
was getting hot — just kidding. As we have probably made rather clear, our outstanding social
graces and superb communication skills put the nail in the coffin more than any one incident. I
remember at the time feeling that it was a relief. I had heard from various sources that people
were starting to give a shit about Excelsior after that last CD, but when we played those post-hiatus
shows, other than in Philadelphia, I sure couldn’t tell that anything was different – more
shitty shows for nobody all across the USA (well, I lasted as far as the east coast…). I still
think it ended at the right time. Why torture ourselves?