Some things – “kids’ stuff” as self-righteous adults like to call it – nearly everyone eventually outgrows: skateboarding, weekly binge drinking, celebrity obsessions, emoticons. Maybe we just get bored of them (really, how long can you spend perfecting your beer-bong design?). Some are, to be honest, just darn juvenile (we’re looking your way, Mr. Sideways-Hat Wearer). Others, well, they just get too confining and full of baggage the longer you cling to them – by-the-book punk rock is surely of that stripe.
There’s a big difference between by-the-book punk (read: the ridiculous world of studded underwear, a safety-pin addiction or sophomoric skate-punk pranks) and real punk, as many a twentysomething’s had to figure out on his or her own. (Editor’s Note: Before you dash off a nasty email telling me Duane Peters rides a skateboard, sports enough black leather to outfit a couple herds of angus, and is so damn punk, he could cave my head in faster than you could say “stuck in the past,” I know. Yeah, but he’s got really bad teeth and hasn’t made an original noise since before we were born, so stick it.). No matter what sociologists, musicologists and that marketing whiz say, punk isn’t a youth culture. It is, in its truest form, something larger.
Nobody has the time to waste splitting hairs about whether it’s a feeling, a grassroots movement, a way of life or any of that other crap. Either you fundamentally get it – and know that it touches you so deeply you never really leave it behind – or you’d rather spend your life pretending it’s the mid-’80s. Jade Tree’s These Arms Are Snakes certainly fit with the notion of punk as something larger than a uniform and a catalog of out-of-print vinyl. The Seattle band’s full-length debut, this year’s The Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home launches into a densely packed sonic assault that takes punk’s ethos of individualism and hardcore’s blistering fury to create a sound that reluctantly drags punk and hardcore’s full-frontal power into places usually touched by indie bands.
Calling These Arms Are Snakes (singer/bassist/keyboardist Brian Cook, guitarist Ryan Frederiksen, and drummer Erin Tate) a post-hardcore act would certainly be a misnomer. Although the band takes post-hardcore’s notions of updating punk for a new millennium, it doesn’t use the same Fugazi and Refused inspired tools. Instead of cranky tempo shifts and wiry guitars, The Lion Sleeps alternately blazes with slinky keyboards to which, were it not for the upheaval of guitar and thundering drums, you could almost dance or roars with the apocalyptic roar of hardcore – filtered through an avant-garde lens that distorts its clichés into something fresh. It’s neither a sonic assault nor an indie-rock cop out. It’s both melodic and abrasive. It knows the difference between pretense and sophistication. It’s the Playboy Man of the post-hardcore world: Erudite enough to know about fine wines, moog sounds, cigars, art-rock aims and cripplingly expensive hi-fi systems, yet naughty enough to indulge in centerfold-gazing and stiflingly hot hardcore riffs.
“We had a meeting with Jade Tree today about how that works in our favor, but is also to our detriment,” Frederiksen says from a phone in his label’s office. “We’re not 100 percent marketable to kids, but we’re not 100 percent marketable to the older crowd, either. We’ve got that weird gray area. It makes it hard to sell yourself 100 percent to one particular thing. To me, I think that’s awesome.”
A little indecision in the marketing department shouldn’t come as a shock for the band. Formed by former members of hardcore heroes Botch and Kill Sadie, the act released a debut EP last year from Jade Tree, This Was Meant to Hurt You, hopped in the van and did some old-style touring. Along the way, it had some old-school differences in opinion with its keyboardist, who later left the band.
”It just wasn’t for him,” Frederiksen says. “It wasn’t really something that we felt we wanted that much anyway, was a keyboard player. It just kind of worked out for the best in the end. We went our separate ways and it helped us out quite a bit.
“There’s definitely a hell of a lot more room,” he continues. “We enjoy ourselves while we play live. Having that keyboard player up there with the other three or four of us was a little bit ridiculous as far as room’s concerned. Now we’re able to run free across the whole stage.”
The lineup change, which culminated earlier this year with Tate taking over the stool, did a lot more than give the band – which is now playing as a trio, but, according to Frederiksen, could expand at a moment’s notice – enough elbow room to prance around on stage. It shifted the dynamics of the band, changing its keyboards, now manned off and on by Cook, from a necessary part of songwriting (if you’ve got to crowd the stage with a keyboard player’s body, he might as well be playing, right?) to an as-needed accent to its songs. Now, with the same sort of metaphoric room to jump around in a trio’s stripped-down, spacious arrangements, TAAS stretches its legs on its latest.
In “Angela’s Secret,” a danceable Korg melody tangos with abrasive riffery, while “Gadget Arms” tilts at the highbrow world of modern prog rock, space rock and, of course, the band’s beloved punk/hardcore roots. The wonderfully named “The Shit Sisters” builds up from the half-broken synths of dance-punks, though blossoms into a corrosive guitar melody that juggles post-hardcore and post-punk overtones without catering to either fashion. Through it all, one thing’s clear: Between the melodies, the grooves and the wreck-your-hearing guitars, TAAS pushes punk into new avenues.
“I think we kind of keep playing and how it comes out is how it comes out,” Frederiksen says. “It’s not anything that we’re necessarily trying to prove to anybody. It’s just the way that it comes out and that’s what you hear. It’s not something that we think about much. I’d like to think that we are pushing some kind of ground in some direction. It means we’re doing something right. We’re definitely trying to keep on our toes and push ourselves as much as humanly possible. If that comes across as that way, that’s great. I love that. It makes me feel that we’re doing our job.
“I think my guitar playing is more melodic, but we still have these moments where we’ll just play something fucked-up and heavy that will fit well here. It’s never anything intentional, really, but I could see how it comes out that way.”
You can partially chalk up TAAS’ ability to bust out of punk cliché to its members’ long tenure in the punk world – they already got every formula out of their system a long, long time ago – and their forward-leaning artistic sensibilities, but there’d be little room for the band if audiences were still stuck sucking up to traditionalist copycats. The Lion Sleeps is as much a product of the punk world’s expanding palate as anything else.
For anyone like Frederiksen, who grew up amid the stringent, lock-step conformity of days of hardcore past, the sudden 180-degree flop from close-minded to eager isn’t just surprising, it’s a godsend for bands like his.
“Maybe people just don’t want to miss the next big thing,” Frederiksen speculates. “There’s so much out there, you hear on MTV or on the radio that are on a smaller label, not a small label, but they’re not on Geffen, or Columbia or Interscope or Sony. They’re on Victory Records or Vagrant and they get MTV play and they get so much radio play it’s making the market flooded with a bunch of bands. It’s not who’s huge and who isn’t anymore. It’s a lot easier for bands to make a living off what they do and support themselves.
“We toured with Blood Brothers last year. Blood Brothers are so abrasive and kids just eat it up. I think that’s awesome. As far as marketability, how the hell do you market The Blood Brothers? Do you hear the same thing I hear? It’s insane, but kids eat it up. I think it’s cool that there’s so much out there that’s just so absolutely insane and kids just totally seem to get into it.”
Yes, these times are a-changin’. Thankfully, with bands like TASS to lead us, the punk world might never stagnate again.