Ever since The Strokes wowed the English press with their debut EP and subsequently earned a hefty sum when they signed to RCA in the States, making it big in England has become a prerequisite for any non-nü metal guitar band hoping to gain major label interest in the U.S. The process invariably involves the following: a limited edition single or EP to build anticipation, a few frothing live reviews, followed by a band profile in the NME. At first, the approach worked mainly because the British outlets tended to exercise a degree of quality control, promoting only those bands that they deemed worthy of hype. The Strokes, The White Stripes, and The Hives seemed to pan out to everyone’s satisfaction. However, increasingly, the NME and other British publications seem more interested in arbitrarily asserting their newfound power as opposed to reserving it for quality groups. Thanks to the recent Datsuns, A.R.E. Weapons, and Jet debacles, the formula has become increasingly unreliable.
The Hiss are the latest group to be seized upon by the British press, but it would be a shame if they were dismissed by the skeptics as yet another unworthy band coasting on empty hype. For starters, this Atlanta four-piece doesn’t traffic in the leather-jacket clad garage that has cluttered the pages of the British music magazines of late, nor will you find them posing for fashion shoots or talking up wild drug-induced escapades in print. The Hiss prefer to let their starkly elemental rock ‘n’ roll command the attention. Taking the rhythmic crunch of the Stooges and the self-assured swagger of early Oasis, The Hiss build towering pop-rock gems, laden with guitars and supported by a rhythm section that rarely opts for subtlety when it can pummel you into submission.
Singer and principal songwriter Adrian Barrera is aware that his band is working within what some might term a traditional paradigm. However, this is clearly not something he feels the need to apologize for. If anything, he’s flattered by the frequent comparisons to vintage Oasis. “We look to them as role models in a way,” explains Barrera, “They had the balls to play these blatantly classic songs and then to just stand there—no running around or crazy costumes—and fucking blow you away. After we saw them live, we just said to ourselves, ‘we need to be able do that.’ It’s something we definitely aspire to.”
To that end, the band has not only opened for Oasis, but recruited their onetime producer, Owen Morris, to man the sessions for their debut album, Panic Movement, due in mid-August on Loog/Polydor in the UK. Admittedly, by continuing to reinforce their ties to the band, The Hiss do risk that some will misinterpret their intentions. “We never said to ourselves, ‘If we do all these things, then we’ll sound like Oasis.’ It was more like, ‘We already kind of sound like Oasis because we love them.’” According to Barrera, deciding to use their producer was really no choice at all. “Their records sound great and their producer is a big reason why they sound so amazing. It was really as simple as that.”
Of course, The Hiss didn’t always look to Oasis for inspiration. Barrera and drummer Todd Galpin got their start seven years ago by providing entertainment for soused students at the University of Florida. (Bassist Johnny Kral and guitarist Ian Franco were added to the lineup after the two moved to Atlanta.) “We were the assholes of Gainesville,” cracks Barrera. “We’d get wasted and wind up terrorizing house parties. We play using kitchen spoons if need be. I think people got fed up with us after a while.” But even then, the foundation of The Hiss’s sound was recognizable—albeit not quite as developed as the present model. “We were playing similar music—really basic, stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll, although a bit more New York Dolls. What we’re doing now is a bit more focused, I’d say.”
Thankfully, even though they’ve dispensed with the kitchen spoons, The Hiss haven’t matured too much. Songs like “Clever Kicks” and “Riverbed” rumble and writhe with high wattage intensity, kicking up a spirited ruckus while still flaunting their melodic hooks. Even the supposed ballads, like “Hard to Lose” and “Listen to Me”, maintain a nervous energy and avoid succumbing to the limp arrangements or generic lyrics that often plague slower numbers. Listening to Panic Movement, one does wonder if these songs are relevant in 2003. How their brand of straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll will fare in a climate dominated by garage and nü metal is certainly up for debate, but Barrera himself doesn’t seem overly concerned. “I’m kind of bored with the whole garage rock thing, and maybe other people are too,” he muses. “Our attitude is there’s always room for great songs.”
For now, the release date for Panic Movement in the U.S. is anyone’s guess, as the band remains unsigned in the States at present. U.S. labels have noticeably cooled on signing whatever band the British publications are heralding as “the greatest band in the world” this week. But Barrera is hopeful that their imminent tour of the States will help them secure the right deal, as well as allow the doubters to see past the NME-approved tag. “There’s so much of this country that hasn’t seen us yet. We need to get out there and play. Then, once it’s done, we’ll have to sit down and weigh our offers and figure out who’s going to be in this for the long haul—and who’s just after the latest garage band.”