In September, Joe Cardamone was backstage preparing to play the Glass House in Pomona. His new project Holy War was opening for electro-Goth group Cold Cave, and he was shaking from nerves.
Cardamone was deep into one of the most emotionally trying times in his life. He’d been working with his dear friend Annie Hardy on her new album, made in the wake of the deaths of both her young child and partner just months apart. Around the same time, his longtime band mate in the scabrous L.A. rock group the Icarus Line, Alvin DeGuzman, was quietly dying of cancer and would succumb just days after this show.
That night, for the first time in Cardamone’s life, he’d walk onstage completely alone and play sample-driven songs almost no one had heard before. After all he’d been through, if the crowd hated it, he was nearly prepared to give up on music.
“Whenever I’d go onstage in the Icarus Line, I never needed the audience, I’d always been so confrontational,” he said. “But that night, if someone in the crowd had yelled at me, I would have dropped the mike and walked offstage. One person could have just destroyed me.”
Instead, the crowd was into it and that volatile half-hour onstage was a turning point in Cardamone’s life. Now with several new projects afoot — a huge cache of Holy War material and a starring role in an almost-biopic feature film “The Icarus Line Must Die” — one of modern L.A. rock’s most important and antagonistic figures is finally ready to let the world in.
“That crowd carried me through that show,” he said. “People came up and thanked me for what I’d shown them. Strangers held me up, and I wasn’t used to that.”
For anyone who came of age in L.A. music in the early 2000s, Cardamone and the Icarus Line were the judge, jury and executioner for the rock and roll life here. His band made some of the most venomous, thrilling music of the era, and Cardamone was an inheritor of Iggy Pop’s dark sleaze and fearsome sex appeal.
In alliance with the brutally hilarious music-gossip site Buddyhead, the band earned almost as much attention for ego-poking stunts: they spray-painted a delightfully gross insult on the Strokes’ tour bus; they smashed Stevie Ray Vaughan’s framed guitar at the Hard Rock Cafe in Vaughan’s own home base of Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest music conference and festival.
But bands like that tend to burn out or implode, and the Icarus Line did both. It had made hugely influential friends — Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age and Yeah Yeah Yeahs were all admirers — but Cardamone was adrift after having come so close to rock stardom.
He built a recording studio in Burbank where he cut records with pals like Ariel Pink and the Cult. But when his wife struggled with severe depression, and a disastrous tour with Scott Weiland ended with Weiland’s overdose death, Cardamone found himself without a band or direction.
Coupled with Hardy’s tragedies and DeGuzman’s death, it was hard to see the way out. Sometimes it seemed like music was salvation; other times, it didn’t matter at all.
“I almost didn’t want to do music anymore. I just didn’t care,” he said. “But things like helping Annie and Alvin, throwing myself into their world, I got to be a caretaker and help process grief. It strips away all your pretext and ego so quickly.“
If nothing else, Cardamone also had several lifetimes worth of tales from the rock trenches, and maybe there was something meaningful in there too.
When music video director Michael Grodner approached him with an idea for a feature — a semi-fictional biopic of the Icarus Line’s flame-out, a moody tone poem of Cardamone’s life in the spotlight and on the margins — the singer was skeptical, to put it mildly.
“I hate looking backwards. I haven’t listened to any of my records since the day we finished recording each of them,” he said.
But Grodner seemed to understand that refusing complacency was what made the band significant. As L.A. has gentrified its musicians out of town, and pop culture shifted toward either performatively-woke call-outs or vile internet cesspools, perhaps the Icarus Line’s earnestly transgressive ideas were newly relevant in 2018.
Anyone who prowled filthy Hollywood rock clubs in the early Bush administration will have plenty to recognize in the film’s noir-ish mood. But there’s something universal in its haze of raw abandon twinned with slinking fears of time passing and doors closing.
The film is incredibly personal (not least because it’s Cardamone’s first starring role in one). But as the sort-of-fictional version of Cardamone scraps to keep his life and music together in L.A., it hit home that his fans really cared about him, and not just the entertaining chaos in his wake.
“This isn’t just about my life or some rehash,” he said. “A lot of people are living a similar existence, and we wanted to make something that could represent a whole culture, one where people are struggling to get by in L.A. today.”
When the film premieres at the Regent on Wednesday, it’ll mark the end of perhaps the most trying chapter of his creative life and kick off a new one with a radically different outlook. The film will open locally Friday at Laemmle's Royal Theatre and then be available digitally July 10.
It’s not that Cardamone’s gone soft — the Holy War records are noise-drenched, sometimes frightening productions written and recorded in a flurry of single takes. If he stopped too long to think about what he was doing when recording, all the death of the last few years would creep back up and paralyze him.
What’s different now is that he finally feels ready to open up and admit that, at 39, he can’t get by on sheer antagonism forever. And he’s ready to trust that fans will let him in too.
“It always seems to happen in my life that I get exactly what I wish for, but something comes along to take away what I’ve always relied,” he said. “It’s become clear that I’m going to need people, and it’s been one of the most liberating experiences of my life.”
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“The Icarus Line Must Die” premiere
With Joe Cardamone, Annie Hardy and Melissa Brooks
Where: Regent Theater, 448 S. Main St., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday