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With the programmers at MTV playing far fewer music videos than they have in years past, simply getting a clip onto the network is a victory of sorts for young bands on the rise. But for the ska-punkers in Detroit's Suicide Machines, breaking onto the airwaves has been a mixed blessing. When VJ Matt Pinfield, the Uncle Fester of alternative rock, recently mentioned the group, he claimed that its name had been changed from its original moniker--Jack Kevorkian and the Suicide Machines--because of the threat of a lawsuit by Dr. Death himself. And as Machines guitarist Dan Lukacinsky tells it, "That was totally wrong. There was no legal trouble at all." The real reason the players shortened their appellation, Lukacinsky claims, is because they feared that people would come to their shows expecting Kevorkian himself to be on stage with them.
Even so, Kevorkian references are not wholly inappropriate when it comes to the Suicide Machines. Live, Lukacinsky and his mates (singer Jason Navarro, drummer Derek Grant and bassist Royce Nunley) are stone killers whose relentless approach to the melding of ska and punk has inspired listeners to liken them to the undeniable kingpins of the subgenre, Berkeley's late, lamented Operation Ivy. And for once, the comparisons are justified. The Machines are definitely worthy of this legacy.
The band got its start during the early Nineties in the Motor City suburb of Livonia. Back then, Navarro was a bored teenage skate rat who used to hang out at the convenience store where Lukacinsky toiled. Because there was no heaven at the 7-Eleven, the pair soon found themselves talking about their favorite music--particularly New York's hardcore Gorilla Biscuits and the straight-edge outfit Youth of Today. These conversations ultimately led to a decision to start an act of their own, even though the ska-punk community in Livonia pretty much consisted of them. "It just really wasn't a big thing then," Lukacinsky remembers. "The scene was dominated at the time by hip-hop."
Nonetheless, Navarro and Lukacinsky set out to find other instrumentalists who shared their passion for underground sounds. The roster turned over several times before the duo finally settled on the rhythm section of Grant and Nunley. Immediately thereafter, they set out to land bookings at area clubs. At first this seemed all but impossible, but after several rollicking basement gigs in the provincial wasteland they called home, the Machines graduated to decent venues in the city, eventually becoming the house band at Detroit's now-defunct Falcon Club. By 1993 they'd grown popular enough to open a show for Rancid, an act that features onetime Operation Ivy member Tim Armstrong.
Before long, major-label reps came knocking. The players eventually decided to sign with Hollywood Records, in part because one of the firm's talent spotters, Julian Raymond, was so enthusiastic that he once flew out from Los Angeles to see them play in Lukacinsky's house. "I thought that was really cool that an A&R guy would do that," Lukacinsky says.
Of course, Lukacinsky knows that by getting into bed with Hollywood, the Suicide Machines risked incurring the wrath of punk purists. But in his mind, the indie-versus-major-label debate is little more than overblown hype.
"I think in a lot of ways, indie labels are more exploitative of their artists," he says. "We've had situations where we've recorded stuff and never seen royalties--and although Skank for Brains [a split CD shared with San Francisco's Rudiments] did a lot to get us known, the guy who ran that label was extremely evasive with us. At Hollywood, if they say they're going to do something, they do it. And they've let us pretty much do what we want."
This was certainly the case with Destruction by Definition, the Machines' Hollywood debut. Cut in November and December of 1995, the disc was produced by Raymond and Phil Kaffel and mixed by Jerry Finn (who has worked with Rancid and Green Day) in a fast-paced, straightforward style that allows the music to speak for itself.
According to Lukacinsky, the Machines think of themselves as "a message-oriented band." This quality comes across clearly in "S.O.S.," a track whose earnest lyrics ("I take a look around/I don't like what I see/A bunch of people/Who don't know shit about unity") are underlined by a video that intersperses live shots with footage from a demolition derby that Lukacinsky says symbolize "people consistently, self-destructively crashing into one another." But that's not to suggest that the quartet lacks a sense of humor. "The Vans Song," for example, playfully lambastes expensive footwear and includes the inspirational line "Worship Jeff Spicoli/Not Chris Cornell."
In December the four will begin working on their followup to Destruction. Lukacinsky hopes the result will be "less pop and will reflect more of what our shows are like," especially since a solid year on the road has made the band's concerts more powerful than ever. Among his favorite tours during that period was one headlined by the Descendants. "We learned a lot from them," he says. "It's just amazing to see guys in their thirties really enjoying themselves by doing what they've always wanted to do. They're true professionals."