Bloody Shows, DIY Grind, Rare Merch: Meet Gulch, New Hardcore Cult Favorites | Revolver

Bloody Shows, DIY Grind, Rare Merch: Meet Gulch, New Hardcore Cult Favorites

"If we're fucking bleeding, punching ourselves or destroying our bodies, that's just what we do"
gulch 2020 BECERRA, Gabe Becerra
photograph by Gabe Becerra

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"When Gulch tours again and we're in your city, I want you to point out anyone who is at the show who has flipped Gulch merch for a ton of money and we will beat their ass in the street."

Gulch guitarist Cole Kakimoto fired off this tweet last summer as a word of caution to the T-shirt profiteers currently making bank off his band merch, sometimes inflating the asking price on a design into the hundreds. Considering the carnage the Northern California hardcore quintet get up to onstage — albeit self-inflicted — you'd be hard-pressed not to heed Kakimoto's warning.

Since 2017, Gulch have been gaining traction for their brutal blend of buzzsaw death-metal trilling and street-wise Oi beats — as heard on their unflinchingly ugly, barely 16-minute debut album, last year's Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress, as well as their newly released split 7-inch with Sunami. Vocalist Elliot Morrow has also garnered notoriety for his chaotic live presence, oftentimes whipping his bandmates with a belt during performances. Kakimoto is quick to point out, however, that the singer also racks up his fair share of on-the-job injuries.

"After a set, his hands are just bloody, or he fucked up his knee," the guitarist reports to Revolver. "I've given myself a black eye while playing. We get self-destructive! I saw someone accuse our [stage] presence as [being] a gimmick, and it fucking boiled my blood. I would never do that. 'Oh, this looks edgy,' or some dumb shit like that."

He continues, "This is who we are, and if we're fucking bleeding, punching ourselves or destroying our bodies, that's just what we do."

Propped up by a dangerous live show and their equally punishing recordings, it's no surprise Gulch have become one of the most highly-touted heavy bands of 2020, nor that the demand for Gulch mementos has become so rabid. Outside of streaming services, copies of Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress are just as hard to come by as their T-shirts. Two vinyl pressings through indie imprint Closed Casket Activities have already sold out since the album's release at the end of July — with copies now predictably commanding stupid asking prices on Discogs. All this is to say that Gulch have become big business in hardcore, though Kakimoto is more interested in connecting with his community than price-gouging it.

Kakimoto's family moved around California and Nevada in his youth, but his roots ultimately lay in San Jose. Introduced by a mutual friend while in their teens, Kakimoto and Morrow have been making music together for a decade since the former linked up with the latter's beatdown hardcore crew, True Hearted. Later, Morrow would ask the guitarist to join a more death metal-focused group called Spinebreaker (Morrow still maintains the project in altered form).

As he was coming up in the NorCal hardcore scene, Kakimoto also had dreams of working behind the scenes as a recording engineer. After finishing school, he tracked scores of demos for area bands including Hands of God, Step 4 Change and his own Spinebreaker. Years of balancing low-paying recording sessions with shifts at a local coffee shop, however, led him to reconsider his career path. When Spinebreaker was in need of merch ahead of a tour, an industrious Kakimoto contemplated a new music-adjacent hustle.

"I thought, 'What else can I do [for a living] that's still involved with music?' Well, my band needs merch printed ... I don't know how that works, but that seems like something that would be cool," he explains. "I just went on YouTube and looked up how to screen print. Luckily, there are endless videos. I just taught myself through that, bought a small set up and started doing shit for my homies."

It's been a blur for Kakimoto since founding his Print Head screening business in his parents' garage in 2015. While he admits that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic grounded productivity at his current San Jose warehouse location to a halt this past spring, it's since rebounded via recent merch drops for fellow NorCal crews Drain and Scowl, shirts raising funds for the Black Lives Matter movement, and, of course, various Gulch designs.

You can actually thank T-shirt sales for indirectly getting Gulch off the ground. Spinebreaker would occasionally share local stages with Santa Cruz thrashers Drain, but Kakimoto and Morrow were put even closer into Drain vocalist Sam Ciaramitaro's orbit when they moved 30 miles south of San Jose into the Scotts Valley area of Santa Cruz County in 2016. One night, Kakimoto was asked to bring a box of freshly-screened Drain shirts out to the first show from Ciaramitaro's new hardcore group, Younglove. Kakimoto expected to see his new friend behind the mic, but was instead blown away when Ciaramitaro started devastating a drum kit. Having just started to workshop gnarly riffs for an as-yet-unnamed new project, the guitarist figured he'd just stumbled into the perfect percussive foil.

"It's funny, the footage of that set — I like to think of that moment as the inception of Gulch," Ciaramitaro recalls through his enthusiastic beach-town drawl. "You can see Cole and Elliott in the crowd nudging each other and pointing. No one really knew that I played drums!"

By 2017, an early lineup of Gulch coalesced around Kakimoto's M.O. of "death metal-style riffs with punk beats." On Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress, Gulch — whose lineup is now rounded out by guitarist Christian Castillo and bassist Mike Durrett — take the formula to the extreme. Kakimoto and Castillo's guitar tones are totally corroded by distortion, while Ciaramitaro is an otherworldly force of relentless blasts. ("I just try to give it 110 percent and put all my body weight into those dang drums," he says endearingly.) Morrow's fevered howl, meanwhile, pierces the soul with tales of psychological hellscapes ("Self-Inflicted Mental Terror") and sadomasochistic pleasure ("Fucking Towards Salvation").

Surprisingly, Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress' blitz of mutated street punk caps with a black-trench-coat-clad cover of Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Sin in My Heart," a nod to Morrow's love of early death rock, instilled in him by his mother. Closing in around 3:30, it's the longest piece on the album by far, and the only reason the record crosses the 15-minute threshold.

"It surprised me how short they all were. I write them and, damn, it feels like a lot of riffs, but once we recorded it all, the songs were two minutes long," Kakimoto says with a laugh, before offering a pragmatic reason for why Gulch keep things curt.  "Stats on Spotify or Bandcamp. The first song will have three times as many plays as the last song. You see the interest taper off as the album progresses. I don't want [to make] a 12-track album, because no one is going to give a shit about those last four songs."

People are clearly clamoring for more from the band, though. This summer Kakimoto and Ciaramitaro —his lone employee at Print Head — hand-screened close to a thousand Gulch shirts, which were all snapped up immediately. Inevitably, some have hit the resale market. "It's gotten really ridiculous with merch," Kakimoto says through a sigh, "People being very demanding. People flipping the merch before they even have it."  

The pros outweigh the cons at Print Head, though. While the ongoing pandemic has decimated the concert circuit, Kakimoto's company has been helping a number of bands make tangible connections with their audiences. Ciaramitaro, meanwhile, is happy to be working with Kakimoto in a controlled environment, rather than holding down his old restaurant job in Santa Cruz in less predictable conditions. Whether it's getting to work with his friend or via the many Gulch and Drain fans buying merch online in these financially precarious times, the outpouring of support he's received throughout the crisis has not gone unnoticed.

"We've been very blessed by everybody," Ciaramitaro says. "I know it seems dumb, but that's kind of the most you can do for now. You can't see them in person and tell them to buy a shirt! I'd much rather be selling them over the table, you know, and talking to everybody, but I really appreciate everyone that's been showing up for us."