Animal Suit Driveby: 110 Miles

Imposter costume

Animal Suit Driveby only look like an ordinary band

Have you heard? They have the Internet on computers now! Sorry for the tired Simpsons reference, but it so nicely captures what seems to keep happening with everybody’s favorite way to waste time at work. Just when it seems like the Internet isn’t going to be the great equalizer that will allow talent to disperse itself regardless of the great arbiters of taste, another distribution medium comes along and recharges my hopes that the good old World Wide Web just might allow great music to find its way to just about everybody who wants it, whether they know it or not.

It should come as no surprise that the bands taking advantage of every newest thing are young, hungry, talented, and playing music that’s new and original, and therefore very, very scary for those sorts of people who run radio stations and labels and have to worry about what Wal-Mart and Circuit City want to put out on their shelves for the masses to consume in mass quantities. Take the case of Animal Suit Driveby, who, hailing as they do from the sprawling metropolis of Hampden (though they’re now living down south, and by that I mean Massachusetts), the band didn’t exactly have a huge base from which to draw local fans. So they got themselves a Web site, of course — der, everybody does that.

But it’s not enough to have a site with a bio and show listings and some mp3s anymore. Bands have to utilize other Web sites to attract fans: www.purevolume.com, for instance, where, despite competition from 95,000 other bands (yep, 95,000), Animal Suit Driveby currently find themselves as one of just 17 featured bands on the home page. And, at 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday morning [in February of 2005; currently, a search on PureVolume for Animal Suit Driveby produces zero results], there were 7500 or so people online checking out the site, all of them surely at least glancing at their album cover. Apparently, people are taking the bait. By last count, more than 18,000 people had chosen to play one of the five songs available for listen, with about a third of those people choosing to download “Bottomfeeder” to have for their very own.

Fans can also choose to “spread the virus,” clicking on a fan page that allows them to download posters for ASD’s upcoming EP-release show, or put Animal Suit in their email signature, or tell people about Animal Suit’s page on myspace.com, where people who become their “friends” can get immediate updates on show information, download information, just about any friggin’ information the band wants to disseminate. And this isn’t spam. This is stuff fans actually want. This is real-deal, exciting stuff, driven by the new affordability and availability of high-speed computers (does that sound archaic?) and broadband connections. With these Internet options, the band’s fanbase becomes an instant community, taking the concept of the fan club, where kids used to get a signed eight-by-10 glossy every once in a while, to an entirely different level of intimacy.

It’s intimacy these fans are clearly desperate for, if they can in any way identify with ASD’s lyrics and music. On their 110 Miles EP, produced by Jon Wyman (who maybe I wouldn’t talk about so much if someone else in town could hold his jock, production-wise), and set for release this coming Tuesday, Animal Suit paint portraits of the disaffected and the disturbed. Which makes the album’s opening, about 15 bars of acoustic guitar and maybe a cello, so sweet. The suits these animals wear have hard shells, for sure, but cover a soft underbelly.

That first tune, Subject A, is the standard radio rock organization of guitars idling like an engine, popping like there’s maybe a cylinder somewhere that needs work, before roaring to life with the chorus [above, it’s performed by The Killing Moon, a band that grew out of Animal Suit, but it’s the same song]. Here, though, the chorus really hums with Chris Michaud’s baritone sax and Dan Lafayette’s trombone, a descending riff that supports lead singer Ryan Hannan’s exhortation that “we’re all just shades of grey.” The subject A, in particular, “wants to throw it all away/ He’s sick of all the pain, want to turn it into rage.”

Whatever it is that Hannan uses for fuel, his choruses are certainly pyrotechnic. In “Sugar Pills,” he’s spectacular, pulling the listener along into a manic frenzy without actually speeding anything up, really above average in delivery and timing, holding onto a final “yeah” to make you hold your breath. What’s beautiful is that he contrasts these muscular choruses with a conversational verse structure that should remind of indie soul singers like Living Colour’s Corey Glover, or TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, his band supporting him with alternate rhythms like you might find on a Fishbone or Police album (pre-Synchronicity).

But what’s driving this disaffection? Per usual, it’s a disappointment with the very people who are telling kids what to do all the time. “Bottomfeeder” gets at this notion’s core. Opening with a Toad the Wet Sprocket guitar tone and featuring a little bit of that heavy white-boy reggae thing, but in a way I haven’t really heard before, Hannan wonders: “Aren’t you supposed to be the bigger one?/ My dagger alone facing your big black gun/ Ease the hammer back real slow/ Press the barrel to my throat and say,/ ‘There was a time there for poking fun/ Seems it has turned into obsession/ It’s been overdone’/ Look what I’ve become/ Parasitic leech, bottom feeder.”

It’s a distrust of flawed judgment, the same kind of judgment that probably tells young bands they have to get signed, get a label, get management. But in that game, as Hannan notes in the chorus, “deception’s always been your best friend.”

The hope comes in “A Book of Love Stories,” featuring little guitar trills that break down at the beginning, a reminder of prog rock — Yes, especially. The verse is engaging immediately, Hannan’s older-than-his-years voice accompanied by the sax with a mournful harmony that’s much more thoughtful than simply mimicking his melody. “Your skin is a canvas for my heart to paint,” Hannan sings, “so let go/ And if we’re careful not to wait, we’ll hear nothing and see everything we all believe in each other’s eyes/ We can share one sensation.”

Wasn’t that the promise rock and roll made to us, that we could all tap into something bigger? Well, hey, they’ve got rock and roll on computers now.

Big Meat Hammer: Please Keep Portland Clean

Big Meat Hammer

Older, louder, snottier

Punk rock has always been a genre of dichotomy. On one hand, working class folk trying to set things right; on the other, a bunch of bloody wankers. Like the Sex Pistols final UK concert: a 1977 Christmas day show for the children of local firemen, laid-off workers, and single parents that featured the consumption of 1000 bottles of soda pop. Pretty riotous stuff, that.

Such are Big Meat Hammer, a seemingly grimy lot, with a guitarist named Skummy Man, who are more than how they appear. Central is Jordan Kratz, over 40 and still sporting that leather jacket with the dangling chains, scraggly oft-died hair, and a grizzled set of pipes at the mic. His attic apartment is a punk rock shrine, covered with Misfits, GG Allin, Brood, and other punk fliers from the past 15 years. Martha Stewart would be frightened out of her wits.

But, off to one side, covered in protective plastic, is some serious stereo equipment, connected to Kratz’s computer. Kratz may be a punk from way back, but he’s also a computer geek — and that’s not a derogative term. Kratz had a web site for the Hammer as early as ’95, and was one of the first in Maine to introduce MP3s and streaming video to his site. But the punk comes out when you ask him how he got into it: “Because I like to do my own shit,” he says.

He certainly did his own shit on Big Meat Hammer’s debut disc, 10 years in the making, being released tonight [Thursday, March 22, 2001] with an in-store show at Bull Moose on Middle Street and a gig with Hate Crimes, the Marvels, and Swampwitch Revival at their old haunt, Geno’s. Please Keep Portland Clean is chock full of 28 tunes, some of which were recorded as far back as 1990.

“I took my time at it,” says Kratz, with a series of sessions at Frasier Jones’s Independent Audio out on Deerfield Road. “But it’s not like I was in there every night.” The result is a clean, thoughtful, straightforward disc reminiscent in its production values of Never Mind the Bollocks. “The sound is right up front,” says Kratz. “It sounds good.” That’s clear off the opening track, “Evolution Leap,” which leads with crisp Mark Peterson drums — no longer with the band — a blazing Skummy solo overtop Jim Rand’s rhythm, and indignant vocals from Kratz.

[Editor’s Note: This video is from 1998, three years before the album was released.]

The recording quality and the overall catchy quality of the tunes underscores yet another dichotomy Big Meat Hammer and the punk scene must contend with: This genre, founded as anti-establishment, just isn’t very scary anymore. People were wandering around the office recently humming the words to Big Meat Hammer’s cover of the GG Allin tune “Drink, Fight, and Fuck.” When you have Eminem gaining national fame rapping about raping his mother, that mantra seems pretty tame.

“When the Ramones hit,” says bassist and Portland punk historian Lenny Smith, “you had to twist people’s arms. Now everyone loves the Ramones.”

“Yeah, it takes more than punk to piss off your parents now,” says drummer and newest member Caleb Wilson. “You put on the Clash and they’re like, ‘Cool, the Clash.’ ”

“Now people listen to it for the poetry of it,” says Smith.

Things have also fractured quite a bit since the days of the 1980s when, as Skummy remembers, “you were either a punk or a new-waver.”

“There’s a lot more punk bands now,” says Kratz, “but they’re all different types, there’s too many classifications: straight-edge, spiritual punk, Jesus punk. There’s people who think they’re playing punk rock, but I don’t know what they’re doing.” Big Meat Hammer attribute the perceived drop in show attendance to this phenomenon.

“In the old days, it was just punk,” says Smith, “now there’s just too many choices.” And when a punk show does come together, Smith sees the day-long, 10-band extravaganzas as counter-productive. “People go for an hour to see one of the bands and then split. Who wants to sit there for a whole day of pot-luck bands?”

Luckily, there’s always Geno’s, which, in 18 years, has yet to get stale. “There’s enough different types of bands that I don’t feel like it’s the same thing all the time,” says Smith. “Bars close down and then another opens up. Clubs change. I like that Geno’s has had that longevity.” And Kratz may have put his finger on the reason for their success.

“A lot of acts have played there because Geno is their friend,” he says. “He stays open, he pays you out of his pocket if he has to, and he allows nearly everyone to play.”

Every scene needs a club like Geno’s to keep it alive, even punkers, famous for relying on no one. “That’s the downside to DIY,” notes Skummy, “you have to do it yourself. We don’t know how to do it ourselves, we’re just punk rockers.”

There’s also a downside to being a veteran statesman of the punk rock scene. “Twenty years ago,” says Smith, “we could have jumped in a car and drove off across the country,” to support the new disc. “But I was 30 when I joined the band. It’s not as easy to drop your job and go. Maybe that’s an excuse, but it feels harder.”