“Load was better than AC/DC!”
That's the sort of sentiment you'll hear from the mouths of nostalgic fans, for whom the Miami-based band represented the power and angst of South Florida’s punk and hardcore sound from the '90s.
To honor the group, brothers Gary and Tarek "Rick" Ahmed, Connecticut natives, blow the dust off Load's rise and fall in Whiskey on Beer, an hourlong documentary that features interviews with musicians, club owners, bartenders, and fans who lived to tell the story. Among those who appear in the film: Shai Hulud's Matt Fox, Marilyn Manson's Scott Putesky, and Interpol's Sam Fogarino.
The film will premiere at Savor Cinema November 8 as part of this year's Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival (FLIFF).
The beauty of Load’s sound was layered in punk, alternative, and sludge, but more crucially, it emerged from deep in the soul of the group's charismatic and erratic frontman, the late Robert Johnston, AKA Bobby Load.
“For anybody that remembers that time, it was very difficult to see past Bobby. He was so exceptional as a frontman. He epitomized what a punk-rock singer should be onstage,” former Load drummer Fausto Figueredo remembers.
Johnston's songs endure as a document of a time and place. “He would take articles from the newspaper and he would elaborate on it — he would sing about things that were relevant to the times," says the singer's younger brother, Jeff. "At the time, Dr. Kevorkian was putting people to sleep illegally, and Bobby even wrote songs about that. He throws twists of religion in there too; he would stimulate people’s minds and get people thinking who they are, where they are from, and why are they here.”
Whiskey on Beer does an exceptional job of capturing that moment in time.
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“I thought that it was a great story of one of those bands from that era that never got the recognition that they deserved to get," Gary Ahmed says. "They were so popular in Miami and the Southeast, and they never broke out of that. It was something that it was kind of mirrored nationally at the time — that was youth culture in the '90s, and Load was a regional example of it.”
The Ahmed brothers learned of Load via tapes sent their way by a Florida friend. What they heard inspired them to buy a van and drive to Miami.
Figueredo says he was skeptical about the documentary at first. “My initial thought was, These guys are crazy and probably just want money. But once I started talking to Rick [Ahmed], I realized that they were doing it because they loved the music and they loved the band. He even has my face tattooed on his arm!”
As was the case with much of the rising talent that inhabited Miami’s underground music scene, plenty of excess surrounded Load. Johnston struggled with alcoholism and died in 2012 at the age of 42. Guitarist Jeff Tucci died of an apparent overdose two years later. So the filmmakers main challenge was, as Gary Ahmed puts it, “to document a subject that is not alive anymore. We couldn’t interview Bobby or Jeff. The people who are the most important part of the story had passed away before we even started making the film."
In the early '90s, Johnston and Tucci lived at a club called the Junkyard, on Washington Avenue at Second Street in Miami Beach. “It was a really dumpy, dirty, sleazy punk-rock venue, and a lot of the neighborhood South Beach punks lived there or hung out there,” Figueredo says, noting the club hosted one of Load's first big shows. “It was with the Exploited and Biohazard. Type O Negative was supposed to play that day and they canceled, so we were able to jump on that bill.
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“That was a very important show," Figueredo continues, describing how Exploited frontman Wattie Buchan welcomed the local bandmates as equals. "It kind of introduced us to Miami, but also we were meeting one of our idols and got to party with him all night long.”
Following its auspicious coming-out, Load saw its popularity skyrocket. The group would go on to share bills with bands such as the Ramones, Murphy’s Law, and L7 and tour extensively throughout the Southeast. But despite Load's adoring fan base, record-label executives didn't share the feeling.
Jeff Johnston sums it up thusly: “I think really what surprised everybody is that as well as they did with their songwriting, it never took off like everyone thought it would.”
Whiskey on Beer. 9 p.m. Friday, November 8, at Savor Cinema, 503 SE Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-3456. Tickets cost $12 via fliff.com.