When I was in ninth grade, punk hadn't been invented yet. Scratch that. It had been invented; it just hadn't trickled down into my hometown (Spokane), into my suburb, into my brain. It was too late to save me. Too bad. Maybe if it had, I would've found something to do with all my teenage frustration and non-athletic skills other than throw eggs at cars and run from Johnny Law. Maybe I would've found constructive liberation in the power of three chords and a simple backbeat. Or maybe not.
In any case, I'm glad DEK has found punk rock salvation.
DEK (that's "deek," not "deck") is a Seattle punk band comprised of four high school friends: Mark Vraney (guitar/vox), Bret Chernoff (guitar/vox), Nick Myette (bass/vox) and Thani Suchoknand (drums). They play it old-school (a la early-'80s hardcore) with a ferocity, abandon and unsullied joy that could only come from a group of teens playing for the sheer fun of it. Their sound, style and attitude spring from the source -- Buzzcocks, the Damned, TSOL -- punk rock that existed because it needed to exist, long before the form was corrupted by the lure of Bud endorsements and seven-figure recording contracts. Catch them on their first trip to Spokane when they play the Spike's Underground this Saturday night with the Sadie Hawkins Rejects (also from Seattle), Scatterbox and the Shoebombers.
This thing called DEK ("Don't Even Know") first started coming together in the summer of 2002, when the members were still too young to drive (Chernoff was just 13). Back then, just getting through one song without having everything fall apart was a struggle. Yet they had all felt the power at their fingertips.
"I was in sixth grade," says Chernoff. "And a couple of my friends got guitars and let me play them. I thought it was really fun, so I bugged my dad and got one for Christmas. After the break, I came back and me and this other kid started trying out some chords. I had no idea what I was doing, but it was like everything I thought a guitar was all of a sudden sort of just changed. I looked at it differently. You know, it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. Then I actually started learning it. And then it got hard."
DEK is loud and fast, but there's nothing too heavy or even remotely ponderous here. The band's debut album, Boner (Finger Records), contains 17 original blasts of pure teen angst made refreshingly fun with liberal doses of humor tossed in (hinted at in titles like "Captain Pickle," "Monsters Crash the Party" and "Killer Gorilla"). They've opened shows in Seattle and Los Angeles for some of their heroes -- Social Distortion and TSOL among them -- yet take nothing for granted and are grateful for the opportunities that have come their way.
Truth be told, members of DEK have received more support from their elders than have many of their peers. Mark Vraney's dad, Mike, is the band's manager.
"He's definitely a huge part of the band," Chernoff says. "A few bands over here hate us because we have Mike -- somebody who wants to help us."
The elder Vraney is also president of Something Weird Video and at one time managed both the Dead Kennedys and TSOL. When DEK first started practicing, he made them a deal: If the guys got serious about their music and kept their grades up in school, he would do for them what all great managers do -- that is, handle all the messy business gunk and leave the music-making to them. The other kids' parents signed on as well and, to date, the deal remains intact. Vraney, for instance, managed all As last term (except for that one B in wood shop). Chernoff says that doing well in school is just a given, that it's locked in his head.
"Yeah, once we saw that this band thing was going pretty good, we were like, well, we should probably keep the parents happy, getting good grades. As a plus, we could maybe get into a good college."
DEK breaks another stiflingly predictable modern punk mold by dressing the way they like. Onstage, they glam it up with vinyl pants, fur coats, animal prints and Halloween costumes. In "Back From the Dead," the band rails against what they see as the strangely conservative attitudes of mainstream punk, ending with the hilarious but insightful couplet: "You're not cool till you wear a chicken suit / Now that's how things should be."
Chernoff explains: "When we first started, we looked around and everybody else had black and red skulls and everything -- you know, the hardcore look. That to us is conforming. It's like a uniform. When punk rock first started, it was a rebellion against conformity."
Couldn't say it any better myself. So why not shut my gob and leave it to the kids?
"To me, punk is about having fun and enjoying being a kid," says Chernoff. "Even when you're an adult. I mean, you have to pay bills and stuff, but you can still have fun and do your own thing without caring about what other people think."
Stranglehold on the Art of Hard -- There are bands in this world that can change lives. I have no reservations whatsoever saying that These Arms Are Snakes is one of them. In early 2003, this band was putting on its first-ever show in Spokane at Sole (where the now defunct Detour stands). Those in attendance that night were part of a special energy that flowed through the club like an unstoppable current that would become the live performance signature of These Arms Are Snakes. The band -- still in the infancy of its existence -- would go on to sign with Jade Tree Records and release This Is Meant To Hurt You, an EP of heavy-handed art rock that would help define its sound. These guys are headed back to Spokane for a show this Friday night with Isis and the Awesome Miami at the new Fat Tuesdays (at 109 W. Pacific Ave.) -- and they're bringing their ass-kicking shoes with them.
The Snakes have toured the entire country with bands like the Blood Brothers and have slain audiences in some of the most respected rock clubs in the nation. During breaks from touring, the band put together its first full-length album, again going with Seattle production mastermind Matt Bayles.
"We weren't really going in a specific direction consciously," says guitarist Ryan Frederiksen. "We just holed up for three months and wrote as many songs as humanly possible."
The result is an album that's decidedly forward in its approach. Oxneers or The Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home (Jade Tree) was released in early fall to considerable buzz.
"We realized after touring for a while that we were a different band," says Frederiksen.
Different in the sense that the tight one-two punch of bombastic, dissonant riffing and vocalist Steve Snere's contemptuous delivery are still intact but hold a heavy undertone of a darker energy that manifests itself in a much more free-form attack.
The allure of These Arms Are Snakes is being felt on a broad spectrum, thanks in part to its alliance with Jade Tree. The band has national distribution and the opportunity to tour relentlessly.
"These guys are awesome," says Frederiksen referring to the band's label. "It's kind of a half-business, half-friendship deal. Any criticisms on either side can be expressed, it's all very open."
The Snakes have a new drummer in Ben Verellen; Brian Cook plays bass. Things will be rolling on for these Northwest boys over the next six weeks as they crisscross the nation again.
"We're really excited about these upcoming shows," Frederiksen says. "I'm super-excited to play the American Music Hall, and we're playing the Bowery Ballroom in New York."
This leg of the tour finds the Snakes touring with their hard-rocking brethren, Isis. Frederiksen speaks highly of their tour mates.
"We're really trying to build on what we've got going right now, and this time around, Isis is really helping out."
Both bands are drawing from one another's fan base, and the results have been impressive. Find out just how impressive this Friday night. -- Clint Burgess
Airehead Nation -- For me to draw any conclusions about Chip Davis, the red-faced, bespectacled, Middle American behind the Godzillan musical force that is Mannheim Steamroller, would just be unfair. Because Chip's story in its simplest form says enough.
Getting started wasn't easy for Davis, who had what he thought was a record company's dream album on his hands back in the late '70s. After hawking Fresh Aire to every agent and record company imaginable, he was still coming up short. But Davis, a long-time musician who had a formal music education and had spent years writing jingles for advertisements, didn't take the hint. He got even. He formed American Gramaphone Records, and that's where his "18th-Century Rock and Roll" finally found a home.
After Mannheim Steamroller was formed and Davis began composing song after dramatic song of strings and every other instrument imaginable, he released Mannheim Steamroller Christmas, which miraculously sold six million copies. It was a shameless amalgamation of noise that tapped into every genre, every style and every format imaginable -- something that Davis has been known to chalk up to his inability to be categorized. He's been quoted saying that he doesn't believe in music being completely acoustic or electronic, or even all digital or all analog; he says he fits in that place where they all meet.
Whatever it was, Mannheim Steamroller caught on fast, becoming a staple in cassette and eight-track libraries across the country. Davis' work became the demo music for stereo and speaker dealers across the country. It has invaded the warmth of every home during the holidays -- whether it's A Fresh Aire Christmas, Christmas in the Aire or Christmas Extraordinaire. Davis was smart; he made his music inescapable. And, in doing so, over the past 15 years he has grossed more cash than Billy Joel, Sting or the Boss.
It gets worse: Davis has made sure that his music can be used for any occasion. His album American Spirit hit shelves last Memorial Day. And then there's Romantic Melodies for that special candlelit dinner. (I can hear the thud of plastic wine glasses toasting now.) Sunday Morning Coffee is intended to evoke a beautiful morning with clear blue skies and chirping bluebirds.
Might sound cheesy (or, if you own A Fresh Aire Christmas, it might sound fantastic), but people eat up Davis' music like a super-sized order of Freedom Fries. All of it -- the blazing trumpets and theatrical strings and the songs cleverly laced with the twittering sounds of nature -- earned Davis a pretty $70 million last year.
Could there be more of this nightmare? Why, yes, there can.
Davis has raked in another $2 million on his "Mannheim Steamroller Lifestyle Products." There's a spray-on barbecue sauce that Davis cooked up in his own kitchen, a blend of cinnamon hot chocolate and a line of his favorite coffee. (I recommend sipping it along to Sunday Morning Coffee.) There are also body products: melon-cucumber candles and patchouli-ylang ylang lotions.
Davis has produced Christmas specials for NBC and made frequent appearances on televangelist Robert Schuller's Hour of Power. Put it this way: Mannheim Steamroller is Rush Limbaugh's favorite band. -- Leah Sottile