Falling Off Allege: How Online Accusations of Rape Helped Break Up Drunkdriver
On a message board last week, one commenter posted a picture of a smashed Drunkdriver record.
Fan Death Records co-founder Sean Gray came across the rumors last Monday night, accusations he’d encountered before, researched, and cautiously dismissed as hearsay: Did Jeremy Villalobos, the drummer for two of the Maryland label’s bands, have a history of sexual assault?
The rumors had circulated in whispers since 2005, ever since Villalobos parted ways with Wives, the Los Angeles punk band whose other members soon after formed No Age and put that city’s noise rock on the map. And the rumors had followed Villalobos across the country to New York, where he began drumming in a number of skuzzy, noisy groups, including Pygmy Shrews and Drunkdriver, which, until its breakup last week, seemed to be on the cusp of wider attention outside the noise and punk-rock circles in which it made its name.
Pygmy Shrews were set to play Fan Death’s annual showcase, DNA Test Fest, which takes place this Saturday at Sonar in Baltimore. And Villalobos, in Gray’s experience, was a good guy playing in an exciting band. “Drunkdriver was a good band, it was a special band,” he says. “They were able to go from circle to circle, in terms of punk kids, in term of hardcore kids, in terms of indie kids. That’s a very rare thing for bands to do.” The seven-inch single Drunkdriver released last year on Fan Death is the biggest seller in the label’s history, Gray says.
Last Monday night, after several message-board threads had begun to explode, Gray and Fan Death’s co-founder, Chris Berry, asked Tracy Soo-Ming Neale, who helps run the label, to craft a statement. The next day, after several bands playing the showcase and on the label expressed discomfort being near Villalobos, Gray decided Pygmy Shrews would not play Test Fest.
On Wednesday, they cross-posted Neale’s statement on several boards: “The crowd Fan Death Record tends to cater towards is an especially male-dominated one, and I speak from personal experience when I say that it can be daunting to get involved when you feel like the odd girl out. One of the reasons why I’ve been happy to help Sean out with label stuff over the past nine years is because our personal politics line up pretty well; we both agree that women need a place to feel safe and empowered, and he’s proud of the women who take the initiative to get involved in music.” What was most important to Fan Death wasn’t Villalobos’ history; it was the comfort of its bands. “It’s a tough situation, and I think nobody wins,” says Gray. “Our stance is we have to protect our bands and the people who are involved in Fan Death.”
By the end of last week, a thread at board.crewcial.org generated more than 1,500 comments; they ranged from outraged to offensive to confused. One user posted a picture of a broken Drunkdriver record. Another wrote, “WHAT IS SO FUCKING HARD ABOUT GETTING A NEW DRUMMER THAT ISNT A RAPIST.” By midweek, the band had called it quits; by last Friday, it had canceled its record release show at the Market Hotel in New York, which was scheduled for this past Saturday. Gray says the Internet rage was a large factor in Drunkdriver’s breakup.
Michael Berdan, the singer of Drunkdriver, posted a statement (comment No. 1485 on the crewcial.org thread): “i won't lie and say that i don't care about jeremy. when he's told me what he's told me in the past, i really want to believe him. still, i know that a number of people involved in his past have absolutely no reason to lie to me and if this is true, i absolutely cannot live with myself. The thought of it disgusts me and breaks my heart.” He wrote that he couldn’t continue in the band with a clear conscience. As of last week, a new Drunkdriver LP was still set to drop on April 16 on LOAD Records.
Pygmy Shrews also released a statement of sorts, updating the information on its MySpace page for April 3, the day the band had planned to play at Sonar: “masturbating and crying in a corner so that everyone stays safe at DNA Test Fest.” (That text has since been taken down.)
Timmy Hefner first heard the rumors eight or 10 months ago. A booker in Austin, Texas, who organizes the annual Chaos in Tejas festival, he had booked Drunkdriver before. “I’ve heard so many rumors in the punk scene and I take them with a grain of salt,” he says. “But I didn’t blow it off because it’s a serious matter. I brought it up with Berdan, the singer, and he kind of gave me their side and I kind of left it at that.” He eventually scheduled the group to play a showcase at last month’s South by Southwest. Then, in early February, he was alerted to a comment on a blog post on the Web site MishkaNYC.com citing Villalobos’ alleged history of sexual assault as the reason he was kicked out of Wives. Fourteen comments later, someone claiming to be Villalobos replied:
This is Jeremy from drunkdriver. I am not a rapist. This is based on an accusation from when I was 15 years old. Years after that when I was 23, a friend of mine and I got drunk and slept together. We were on tour and a friend of her’s overheard about the incident from when I was 15 (from that girl’s best friend) and put this story together like so.
After all this Dean and Randy were by my side. I got irresponsibly blackout drunk in Texas and was inappropriate, woke up with my clothes on but I definitely did not rape anyone or do anything that could be called rape. I was a drunk asshole that night. NEVER was the word “NO” or any force ever used in ANY of the instances.
After years of being there for me, Dean and Randy of Wives couldn’t continue being in a band with me and that was the end.
According to the statement, Villalobos visited New York City not longer after Wives disbanded and decided to stay there. “Had I stayed in LA I’m sure I could have defended myself,” he wrote, “but I most definitely did not flee here.”
When Hefner read this he called No Age drummer Dean Spunt and got his take: “I don’t feel like it’s a rumor,” Hefner says. “[Spunt] gave me three separate incidents…the third incident got him kicked out of Wives.” With South by Southwest about a month away, Hefner called Berdan to tell him Drunkdriver could no longer play the showcase. “He understood, and I think he’s been put in a corner. He’s only ever been treated great by Jeremy,” Hefner says.
According to Berdan’s statement, the New York–based indie-rock promoter Todd P dropped Drunkdriver from his Monterrey, Mexico, festival MtyMx at the request of No Age, who refused to play on the same bill as Villalobos. Todd P did not return a request for an interview, and No Age declined to comment.
Reached earlier this week, Villalobos wrote in an e-mail that he would not answer questions about the allegations of sexual assault. “Answering and explaining my story on the record is ultimately what has been much more hurtful than helpful,” he wrote. “This is a personal and legal matter and I hope you understand why I have to be cautious of everything that is said and take no offense to what I am saying.”
Asked why Drunkdriver broke up in a subsequent e-mail, Villalobos wrote, “Berdan quit. He told [guitarist] Kristy [Greene] and I one thing and the internet another about why he left. Its very sad and disappointing. There are/were no interchangeable members of the band, so when he quit we broke up. Kristy and I are closer than ever and we are very proud of Drunkdriver.”
“We were just a band, and bands are only distractions from things that happen in real life. To many people this is just escapism that doesnt effect their day to day routine. Someones 3 months of drama is someone elses real life and a lot more harm was done than good to many other people than me. Ultimately a ‘scene’ that we were not involved in or embraced by ended up effecting the band. We have gotten a TON of support from people from a lot of different ‘scenes’ but I dont really know what it says about them besides that a lot of different people liked this band for the music we made.”
Database searches turned up no criminal history for Villalobos.
Some of the commenters claimed to know the women involved in the alleged incidents of sexual abuse. “I think a lot of people involved with it thought Jeremy was playing in some silly local band,” says Hefner. “I think a lot of people involved got bothered when they realized the band was getting popular.”
While stressing she doesn’t know any details and therefore couldn’t speak to Villalobos’ character or actions, Neale says that Villalobos hasn’t satisfied his detractors. “He has to explain himself,” she says. “He hasn’t said much, and when you don’t say much people start to fill in the blanks.”
Gray says he’s disappointed with how unproductive the crewcial.org thread ultimately became (threads on other boards were as explosive if not as long). “It’s a mob mentality in the sense of ‘Let’s rally behind something and get this job done.’ When that stuff happens, once the job is done, people leave and disperse, and you know, that’s it. It’s really not conducive to figuring out what do you do from here, to ensure this doesn’t happen again.” That goes for preventing rape, he says, as well as discussing it. “Did they do the right thing for the victims? I don’t know if people are asking that question.” But he thinks Fan Death did the right thing. “There’ve been lines drawn and people are pissed off at us, and that’s OK,” he says. “I know we have this reputation, especially in the D.C. area, of being assholes. There’s a difference between us saying that D.C. bands suck and this.”