There's often something mysteriously admirable about people who grow up in absurdly strict, ultra-religious families. Unable to cruise along as mindless, PlayStation-loving drones, these kids are immediately given something to care about--or, more typically, rebel against. From the get-go, they're forced to wonder: Why is this fruit forbidden? Why will I go to Hell? And, in the case of Federation X frontman Bill Badgley, Why is rock and roll so evil?
"I got constant sermons on 'doorway to the devil' and all that," Badgley says of his devout childhood. "We weren't allowed to listen to anything. When my mom would find records, she would throw them away. I remember listening to records totally covertly, under the blanket."
Oppressive religious indoctrination is a challenge. Either you carry on believing in spite of imposed guilt and sensory deprivation, or you shatter your bonds to reinvent yourself spiritually and socially. Badgley, who grew up in Bellingham, Wash., and endured 14 years of private, fundamentalist Christian education, seems to have chosen the latter route.
He's dedicated himself to mastering rock's allegedly dark arts with Federation X, a dirty squall rooted in muddy '30s and '40s blues. Yes, the trio is a sludgy, metal-inspired punk band known for a blazing live show, but it's something else, too. American Folk Horror, the band's 2001 album on Bellingham's Estrus Records, speaks of the Big Themes--murder, addiction, love--and finds each member contributing haunted songwriting. Federation X achieves power and poignancy reflecting Badgley's years of contemplation, and the band is frank about its aim to raise rock's spiritual stakes.
"There's this thing where something else happens," says Badgley of playing live with guitarist Beau Boyd and drummer Ben Wildenhaus. "You're not just playing songs. It happens at a point where you feel extremely vulnerable. All those energies that people in the room have come straight into you and there's nothing you can do about it. That's the most beautiful thing."
Badgley believes in music's power. He believes it can connect worlds, strip away the layers of fear and structure that stand between just hearing music and actually feeling it. Badgley says he doesn't want to come off as some karma-spreading, cosmic-eyed hippie. But, eager to share his life philosophies, he'll take his chances.
"It's a constant process of learning how to break yourself," he continues. "Like that point when it can almost be a little bit scary, inviting this mood down into it. I think that mood needs to be equal parts desperation and vulnerability. It's a hard thing to do, but we get closer and closer to doing it on a reliable basis."
Tuesday at Blackbird, Federation X will prove just how close it's come to reaching its own ideal. Whether or not the three tap into what Badgley calls "the soft core that lies beneath everything," the attempt will be wildly deafening and out-of-control fun.
"I really like it when a band can go rock, bring this energy level into it and, at the same time, turn it into something that you can go home thinking about, rather than just like, 'Woo-wee, we danced and now I don't remember anything. We flopped around and then it was over,'" says Badgley.
"The strongest point for us as a unit is the fact that we're very equal," he says. "It's nice to have the people in the band have a real emotional connection with the entire song so that they feel like they have a part of themselves in every piece of it. I wanna see me and Ben and Beau always getting progressively better at loving each other and knowing who we are as people, and hacking away at ourselves enough so that we get closer to knowing what's at the middle of all of us. Then we can pump that directly into the music with no superfluous additives."
Federation X may sound like a band that's been to hell and back, but its three members are surely on the road to their own form of salvation.