Bullshit Detectors! The Garage Is an Outside Place, and a Place for Outsiders

by Iain Ellis

2 December 2010

Zach Campbell and Oscar Allen of the Rooftop Viligantes 

Throwing Garage at a Band: The RVs

Forty years after its arrival, garage rock enjoyed its most commercially fruitful heyday. While “Thee” had always been an in-crowd coded indicator of a garage band (Thee Midnighters, Thee Headcoats, Thee Oh Sees), it was the so-called “The” bands of the early 2000s (The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Hives, and The Vines) that established garage as the premier rock form of the day.  The(se) bands reflect the intertwining and winding roads that garage and punk have traveled together over the decades; they also show that whatever the existing gimmicks, fashions, and trends may be, rock will always periodically return to its “no bullshit” roots and retreats, to the rough and tumble of the garage.

While the garage boom of the early-‘00s has since faded from the front pages, the music still flourishes in its more familiar underground habitats. Thanks to supportive indie labels like Matador and In the Red, there are as many active garage bands today as there has ever been. Furthermore, corporate America is far from oblivious or unmindful to the potential buying power and/or taste-making capabilities of this ever-“cool” community. Last month, in my adoptive home town of Lawrence, Kansas, car company Scion sponsored its second annual “Garage Fest”. Featuring 28 bands from around the globe (from seven different countries), as well as from around the US (from 15 different cities/towns), this celebration of today’s broad church of garage attracted both the faithful and the uninitiated to hear and see veterans The Oblivians, The Gories, and The Clean, the carnivalesque King Khan and Hunx and his Punx, and the bright fuzz-pop of Best Coast and The Raveonettes, amongst many others. 

Representing Lawrence at the festival were Rooftop Vigilantes (no The, no Thee), who kicked off the festivities with a blistering 40-minute set of short-and-loud sonic nuggets. RVs have recently been garnering some critical buzz in the scribe community, with both Stereogum and Spin taking note of the garage charms displayed on their debut release, Carrot Atlas. Their latest album, Real Pony Glue, produced by J. Robbins (of Jawbox renown), is packed to the gills with the kind of succinct punk-pop tunes that would have Pete Shelley and Bob Pollard drooling with jealousy. Alas, this collection has yet to find a label (Come on Matador! Come on In the Red!), thus RVs currently remain (call me a homer) a contender for the best unsigned band in America. I recently had an opportunity to throw some garage-related questions at the four band members—Zach Campbell (guitar, bass, vocals), Oscar Guinn (guitar, bass, vocals), Hannah Hyde (Farfisa organ), and Seth M. Weise (drums)—and the interview went something like this…

PopMatters: Many garage/punk bands manage to capture their intended energy and intensity live then sound polished and practiced in the studio.  How do you transfer the rawness of that live performance onto wax?
Hannah: We’re all present and part of the process.
Seth: We’ll put down as much as we can live in the studio first.
Oscar: We’re all drinking!  We aim for the cheapest, fastest way of getting it done, of getting it to that level where it sounds shitty but no shittier, just this clean but no cleaner, and with a just-out-of-tune cool.  We don’t always know how to get there, but we know the right sound when we hear it.  Also, it takes a lot of mixing to make it sound live.
Zach: Real Pony Glue (the new album) could have been our (Guided by Voices’) Do The Collapse but we mixed it like Under The Bushes.

PM: Two of you are sound guys so you’re presumably sensitive to the most effective relationship between stage sound and audience appreciation. Why, then, when you perform, do you insist on bursting the ear drums of America’s youth by turning everything up to 11?
Zach: I’d always rather be too loud than too quiet. Quiet bands are weenies. We don’t want to sound like… [band names omitted at the request of the sensitive band members].
Oscar: It’s not as much fun unless you’re physically affected by the sound.
Hannah: I couldn’t hear myself for the whole first year I played with the band. One day Zach’ll drive a huge car.
Zach: Are you saying I play music loud because I have a small penis?
Everyone: Yes!
Seth: Also, I hit the drums too hard, so everyone else has to accommodate to my loudness.

PM: Do you all visit different wardrobes for the stage of rock and the stage of life?
Oscar: No. All the world’s a stage.
Hannah: Collectively, we change our clothes about every 2.7 days. I would prefer to be—on stage—an accurate reflection of how I look each day because I would find it mortifying to look as if I was trying too hard. Also, we lower expectations with our look.
Zach: And who are we trying to kid if we changed our clothes?  I guess we sometimes mimic bands we like.  We like The Replacements so we often end up wearing a lot of flannel

PM: Garage bands often proudly and loudly associate themselves with anti-commercial music, with those bands antithetical to mainstream rock/pop. What music did/do you listen to?
Oscar: We have a word for that—“Nuggetude”.  We could seriously “out” a lot of the really cool garage bands at Scion after hearing what they really listen to in private.
Zach: We only listen to vintage analog recordings!  My goal in this band is to be so cool that if we say the Gin Blossoms are cool then people will think they are cool.
Hannah: I grew up listening to Boys to Men.
Zach: I was obsessed with The Beatles when I was a kid and was made fun of because I listened to “parent” music.
Seth: I wish I had my parents’ record collection.
Oscar: In all of our musical backgrounds there’s a lot of cheesy shit, too.  We draw from it all; we’re all-purpose rip-off artists.

PM: Garage bands also habitually hail their regional identity as a badge of honor (“We’re from Detroit, maaan!”).  You have written some songs about local Lawrence culture (“After Shots at the Tap Room”).  Do you have Kansas and Larryville pride?
Zeth: Yes, we embrace it and defend it but there’s nothing we can do about it anyway, and it doesn’t work in our favor around the country.
Oscar: When we played out in San Francisco there were these people who were teasing us for coming from Kansas, so I told them that I used to ride a cow to middle school. Their response was “Oh, wow!  Even if it’s cold out?”
Hannah: In the end I’d rather just not be cool, not be from the right town, nor wear the right clothes, or have the right guitar tone or the right curly cord.

PM: How did you feel about your Scion show and about the festival in general?
Hannah: There was a good crowd. I’m glad we played first so we could get to drinking and enjoy the rest of the festival.
Zach: I’m so glad it happened; it was a great day. But I wish more local bands could have played. People would have got to see not only what a cool town Lawrence is but what cool bands we have, too.
Oscar: Although it was just a promotional gimmick for Scion, at least they didn’t put up big cheesy brand signs everywhere, as might have happened 10-to-15 years ago. Their attitude was that this is a garage festival we’re putting on but we’re not gonna be too visible doing it. And it was probably more successful for them because of it. Know thy audience.

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