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J. Ryan, leader of Six Finger Satellite, from Providence, Rhode Island, has a message for Westword readers. "When we were in Denver, I saw a lot of people in fuchsia-colored Jaguars with hippie crap all over them," he grumbles. "I'd like to tell them to get their heads out of their asses."
Fighting words? Not to those of us who can't afford Jaguars--and those who can should know that Ryan's got nothing against Coloradans in particular. It's just that his personality (and his group) are a little, shall we say, direct. "The papers here [in Hamilton, Ontario, a recent stop on the Satellites' current tour] have been describing us as kind of confrontational," he reports. "I guess we're the kind of band that people really have to go see. I know we're the kind of rock band I'd want to see--entertaining and a little confrontational. Kind of macho."
The Satellites--Ryan, drummer Richard Pelletier, bassist James Apt and guitarist/keyboardist John MacLean--shouldn't be confused with neo-neanderthals of the hardcore or heavy-metal varieties, however. While the outfit's punk roots show on its new release, the appropriately titled Severe Exposure, the players' favorite instrument is the synthesizer, trademark of distinctly nonconfrontational Eighties-bred types like Depeche Mode and Flock of Seagulls. In fact, the act's list of prized possessions features such classic contraptions as a Sequential Circuits Prophet 600, a Mattel Synsonics and three types of Moog synths, described by Ryan as producing "Tron-soundtrack stuff."
But Ryan insists that the band's fascination with these machines doesn't portend a synth-pop side. His taste in synthesizer modulations runs toward the music developed by the medium's pioneers. "Old Kraftwerk records--those things were immense," he notes. "Kraftwerk live was like Black Sabbath. I had a friend who went to see them, and he said it was the loudest thing he'd ever heard in his life. He said they were really pronounced and exaggerated.
"Synthesizers don't just make this ambient, fill-in noise," he continues. "We've always had synthesizers, and we were looking for a way to integrate them. We like strong sounds. And there are parts on this record where people don't know if it's synth or guitar."
True enough. When Six Finger Satellite's synthesizers are combined with the racket from relentlessly aggressive guitars and drums, the din that's produced falls somewhere between the Lower East Side art-core of Cop Shoot Cop and the monochromatic future-pop made by Devo. Like their Providence forebears in Pussy Galore, the bandmembers reinvent rock and roll by twisting its cliches.
Ryan credits the isolation of Rhode Island's capital city with a good deal of the Satellites' individuality. Although little more than an hour from Boston, an ever-thriving hub of new music, Providence marches to the beat of a considerably less predictable drummer. "In some ways, it's not unlike anywhere else," he concedes. "But there's a certain kind of creepiness to the place. It's kind of a small New England town and kind of a city. It's a working-class town, and people are hyper-aware of their space. I don't know if Providence's influence is a conscious thing that we think about, but our music probably has something to do with that environment." The group formed in the late Eighties, he elaborates, because "we got sick of seeing rotten bands. We figured we had something going we could do. But we always thought what we were doing wasn't very accessible."
Inviting or not, their music bears the mark of what Ryan calls "a love of melody, if I might use that term, and hooks." That craft, combined with the outfit's attitude, landed Six Finger Satellite a deal with Sub Pop, the Seattle label that began moving beyond grunge in the early Nineties with the signings of collectives such as Washington, D.C.-based indie popsters Velocity Girl. A split single, a pair of EPs and a long-player, The Pigeon Is the Most Popular Bird, followed. And now, with Severe Exposure (recorded in its private studio, dubbed "The Parlour"), Six Finger Satellite stands on the brink of greater success--or, at least, the opportunity to avoid day jobs. "I work because I like it," claims Ryan, who masquerades as a manager at a fish shop while the sun shines. "But everyone else in the band does various service-industry-type crap. It's easier to leave that way."
And how does Ryan like to spend long summer days when he's not working or touring? His response has nothing to do with luxury sports cars--but it does involve heads. "Every once in a while I like to open up the freezer and stick my head in there," he says. "I also like to cut the grass."
The Human Touch Tour, with Six Finger Satellite, Zumpano and Hardship Post. 9:30 p.m. Monday, July 31, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $5, 830-2525.