by Mike Corrigan
The Volumen have shtick. Though far from the shtickiest band in this shtick-crazed modern rock era, the Missoula-based guitar-bass-drums-keys-outfit is nevertheless downright shticky.
Or rather, they had shtick.
"The shtick was fun for awhile, but it kind of got beat," says guitarist/vocalist Doug Smith (a.k.a. Volumen 2). "We sort of started with the whole space thing. We'd wear duct tape helmets and wigs and stuff. We had fun with old science projects and space launches gone wrong. We still drive an ambulance, and we all wear white suits and things like that. But we're trying to focus just on the music right now. I mean, it was funny for awhile, but it just got to be overload. After awhile, you start thinking, I'm tired of the shtick; let's just do what we do."
And what the music of theVolumen does is this: entertain (see for yourself this Saturday night at the B-Side). They entertain with guitars throwing off melodic new wave sparks, synthesizers buzzing and bleeping like a neutron star and a rhythm section that conspires to drive hips and heads into shaking mode. They swing. They thrill. They croon. They rock. They also exude a remarkable cohesiveness onstage, a sense of solidarity that is further reinforced by their peculiar space-loon performance monikers. The Volumen are: Volumen 1 and Volumen 2 (both on vocals and guitar), Volumen Squared (bass), Volumen Beta (drums), Volumen Bkawck (keyboards, vocals). Offstage and naked as the day they were born, the members -- in the same order -- go by Shane Hickey, Doug Smith, Bryan Hickey, Bob Marshall and Chris Bacon.
"It's heavy new wave," says Smith, attempting a Volumen sound summation. "It's definitely got some pop and rock sensibilities. Kind of like older Bowie and the Cars. But a bit more aggressive."
As for the band's history, well, it's an elaborate and heroic tale, cloaked in the mists of time, innuendo and rumor. But here's the short version: The Volumen's two frontmen (that's right, Volumen 1 and 2) started back in 1996 with nothing but an impersonal drum machine for rhythm. Growing weary of programmed beats, they enlisted the other members and recorded their first album (as many great, lo-fi artists have) in the basement. Last summer, the Volumen recorded their follow-up, Cries from Space, in San Francisco with Tim Green (the guy at the helm of the Melvins' recent trilogy, among other projects), blasting out the basic tracks in a grand total of two days.
Cries from Space (on Wantage USA) is a whacked-out, schizophrenic and brief seven-song collection wherein the band goes tear-assing through pop, punk, funk and metal territories with ease and only the thinnest shred of sanity keeping the vocal and instrumental dynamics from sending the whole project careening hopelessly out of control. Inspired and demented, it's as safe as milk to say that Cries from Space sounds like nothing else out there.
The Volumen sound so distinct, at least in part, because they hail from that great hotbed of artistic expression to the east, Missoula. Ask bands from around the Spokane area how they perceive their local scene, and what do you get? Tepid enthusiasm and guarded optimism at best. Put the same question to a musician from Missoula and you get a response unheard of here.
"The music scene in Missoula is great," raves Smith. "In fact, Spin magazine just had a little write-up about it. It's very nurturing, very accepting. I mean, I have only good things to say about it. People really accepted us here. And all the bands that come here from out of town tell us that they can't believe they had their best show ever in this small town in Montana. The scene feeds itself. Bands start coming here, and kids see that -- wow, we do have a great music scene, let's go out and support the shows. And the next thing you know, it's being talked about nationally. It's really great to be a part of it."
Great? Nurturing? Accepting? When was the last time you heard anyone using words like that to describe Spokane's music scene (or hell, any facet of our local arts scene)? What is tiny Missoula doing that we aren't? What do they have that we don't?
Smith admits he's no expert on Spokane's music scene (The Volumen just played their first gig here back in May). But he's willing to take a poke at the conundrum.
"I don't know Spokane that well, but it just doesn't seem like people are into music as much there as they are here. When a band plays in Missoula, people will go even if they've never heard the band. They don't have to be, like, Creed or Limp Bizkit or something to get a draw. Here we have great college radio. They've helped us out and they're bringing bands in from out of town. It seems like maybe people in Spokane are more into what MTV is feeding them."
Smith and his fellow Volumen are getting the ambulance tuned up for a little road tripping of their own. During their current West Coast mini-tour, the band will be putting the polish on a new batch of songs (destined for their third release) that will be committed to tape this winter.
The Volumen's show at the B-Side on Saturday night should be killer -- a triple bill on the lunatic fringe, with the always engaging Satan in Yellow and the always enigmatic Gorilla & amp; Rabbit opening.
The B-Side is rapidly solidifying a reputation as one of Spokane's most consistent and intriguing live music venues. Their secret? Variety, baby, and quality. And this weekend's offerings are more pudding on the B-Side's... uh... side. In fact, the Volumen gig is just the cap of a three-night live music massacre by a trio of Montana bands starting on Thursday with Six Foot Sloth -- Spokane's Bonneville opens that one -- and the progressive, elemental techno-roots of Signal Path on Friday night. Get in there for some part -- or all -- of Montana Invasion 2002 and don't be surprised if you have yourself an epiphany.
Wylie Gustafson and his band the Wild West play Western music with all the fire, conviction and emotional investment of the best rock 'n' roll. And considering the current sad state of popular music (and I'm talking pop, country and rock, here), it's refreshing -- even stimulating -- to witness a performance by any group that values musical integrity over the flimsy, fleeting dividends of commercial success.
"I was a rock 'n' roller when I was younger," says Gustafson. "And I think I've taken the good aspects of rock 'n' roll -- the soul, the character and the energy -- and used that with Western music. I'm not the first guy that's done that. If you went and saw a Bob Wills concert in the '40s, you know, those guys were rockers. That was rocking music. You can put that life into any kind of music. That's the great thing about American music. Most of the good forms of it are hybrids of blues or country or whatever. There's a lot of good music out there that gets overlooked, ignored."
Wylie and the Wild West (who perform at the Met this Saturday night) are proud purveyors of Western music, an American roots form that lost favor with country radio programmers and the bean counters in Nashville a long time ago. Gustafson -- a talented songwriter and expressive singer -- is the driving force of the band, able to win over just about any audience with his unselfconscious enthusiasm and genuine love for the music. He's also, spurs on, the most authentic singing cowboy in the Northwest. When not on the road or recording, you'll find Gustafson at home on his ranch in western Whitman County with his family, horses and cattle.
Western music first made an impact on the popular consciousness in the '30s and '40s with the flickering image of the singing cowboy on the big screen (typified by Gene Autry). Later, Bob Wills refined and expanded the genre, developing Western swing.
"Swing was a very popular part of Western," says Gustafson. "You had guys like Bing Crosby doing Western albums and having a lot of danceable Western, cowboy stuff. It was appealing to a wide audience. It wasn't a far reach for people to appreciate Western. You could throw in a pop singer and it would work. I think that could happen today. But that's not happening. That music's got character, it's got soul. It's the same thing good rock 'n' roll is made of. It's got what pop music doesn't have."
For as much ire as Gustafson has for contemporary pop, his righteous indignation hits new peaks when the subject of contemporary country is broached.
"When Garth Brooks first came out," he says, "I found myself embarrassed -- and still am embarrassed -- to call myself a country band, although we are. In the true sense of the word. There's an audience out there that will obviously go spend a bunch of money on bad music, and that's kind of what Nashville exists for. It wasn't always like that. And there's still a part of Nashville that promotes good music. There's good radio there and the Grand Ole Opry that still books good music on their show. There's a few stalwarts out there and free thinkers that are giving country music a good name."