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By Tom Murphy
How did the members of Wretch Like Me become such rude, obnoxious punks? They had a great teacher: Bill Stevenson, drummer for All and the Descendents and former timekeeper for Black Flag. Stevenson has been friends with the Fort Collins-based bandmembers for ages, and he's still providing them with valuable lessons--like, for instance, how to handle interviews. At one point during a conversation for this article, he exclaims, "Oh, come on; we are not punk." Then, as his stunned but amused students look on, he puts my microcassette recorder between his legs and loudly farts.
After the air clears, Abe Brennan, who's fronted Wretch Like Me since its 1996 birth, gets considerably more serious. Trying to put into perspective what Stevenson has meant to him personally, he says, "He's been a source of inspiration for me to keep going. His support and admiration and interest in my music over the last ten years has been very inspiring to me. To have that effect on someone who has obviously played in three of my favorite bands has really provided an impetus over the years."
As these comments imply, Brennan is hardly a newcomer to the punk field. He and Wretch guitarist Trevor Lanigan almost set the world on fire with their previous band, Tacoma, Washington's My Name, which Stevenson calls "one of the best in the U.S. in '89 and '90." Due in part to the popularity of Wet Hills and Big Wheels, an album issued by C/Z Records, My Name landed a few dates opening for All during the late Eighties, sparking a friendship that's still burning.
By contrast, My Name fizzled, prompting Brennan to start working on demos of his own. This decision eventually led him to Fort Collins's Blasting Room studio, started up by Stevenson and his All mates several years ago. There he renewed acquaintances with drummer Jason Livermore, a friend from the Pacific Northwest music scene who was working for Stevenson as a producer/engineer. With the help of All guitarist Stephen Egerton and bassist Jeff Matz, who was in town recording with another band, Brennan and Livermore completed a recording good enough to convince the aforementioned Lanigan to leave his Los Angeles home and become part of the project. With the addition of guitarist Roy Anderson, a Kansas City resident recommended by All vocalist Chad Price, the Wretch Like Me lineup was complete.
Given their wide-ranging backgrounds, the players could have put down roots in any of several places. They decided to stay in Fort Collins because of the All/Descendents connection and the presence of both the Blasting Room and Owned and Operated Recordings, a new imprint founded by the All crew along with C/Z veteran Joe Young and Joe Carducci, who'd worked with SST Records, one of Brennan's favorite labels. "It was one of the greatest of all time," he says. "They had all the bases covered, between the Black Flag stuff, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets and Bad Brains. I borrow from every one of these bands; that was what pretty much turned me on to music."
The men behind Owned and Operated promptly signed Wretch Like Me and promised to release its first album. Fortunately, polishing the demo into a full-length project proved to be a fairly easy matter for the band. "You know how recording is--there are time constraints, and money is involved," Brennan says. "But we got lucky, because All was touring for quite a while, and we were able to it during a lot of off-hours."
"Since they were a new band at the time, we let them kind of use the studio to examine some of the finer points of the music," Stevenson interjects. "It wasn't like a go-out-and-do-it-in-ten-days kind of thing."
The Wretch Like Me debut, titled New Ways to Fall, definitely has a mid-Eighties SST feel to it: The opening cut, "Seeing Me," sounds like a collaboration between All and Henry Rollins, and the chorus of "Wiggle" that proceeds the hook-laden, shout-along verses echoes the Meat Puppets. But other tunes reveal a band in the process of finding its own voice. Take "Homo," an infectious bit of post-punk popcore that uptight PC types and gay-bashers in the pit may find equally offensive. According to Brennan, lyrics like "There's a little homo in all of us, and it's just dying to get out/Like when you're with your friend and you give that guy a hug and it lasts a little longer than it should" were intended to "bum homophobes out," but they also caught flak from the thought police at Maximum Rock 'N' Roll. Paraphrasing the reviewer, Livermore says the 'zine accused the band of being "Epitaph wannabes who have a song about homophobes that makes them sound like homophobic guys. This band wins the idiots-of-the-year award."
Earning such accolades from a publication that Brennan characterizes as being "so left they're right" is a badge of honor the band wears proudly. Yet even these Maximum curmudgeons would probably get behind the words to another of the disc's songs, "Punk Is Big Business." The tune is a scathing critique about the commodification of the genre in which Brennan shouts, "There's nothing wrong with making some money/I don't give a fuck what label someone's on/What bothers me is being taken for a dummy/Selling me some bogus image that was a pose all along...selling records to the frat boys and the jocks." Adds Livermore: "I remember when you got beat up in high school for listening to punk rock. The jocks wanted to kick your fucking ass. And now it's like if you're not into punk rock, you're getting made fun of. You see kids now wearing Black Flag T-shirts, and they don't even know half the records."
So far, these ideas haven't penetrated the commercial mainstream. The CD has been available since March 1998, but as Stevenson acknowledges, "It really hasn't come out yet; we're floundering at the label. But we're going to get our shit together. We're just putting out records that we're into, and we don't have a million bucks, like another label that got started by a million-dollar Kmart punk whose name I'm not mentioning."
As a result, the players are trying to build an audience by touring, and they had some luck doing so during a recent jaunt. "All the shows we've played were great shows," Brennan says. "There weren't a whole lot of people at the shows, but the people who were there were very receptive. We ended up doing pretty well as far as selling merchandise, and overall, the response was very positive."
There were some dicey moments, though. "It was about one in the morning, and Trevor was driving through Wyoming, where everything shuts down at, like, ten," Brennan recalls. "We drove by an open gas station, but we had half a tank of gas, and he didn't stop. But after a while, we were on empty, so we stopped at a closed gas station where there was an American truck with a gun rack parked out front. And since it was his fault, Trevor ciphoned some gas from it--and since we only had a gallon container, he had to do it three times. The rest of us were all in the RV laughing. But we did leave a note on the windshield that said, 'We're sorry. Here's five bucks.'"
Now that they're back in Fort Collins, the Wretches are eager to begin making a new disc. Brennan expects it to be more varied than New Ways to Fall. "It'll probably be more rock-sounding than punk, because Trevor writes more rock-based songs, and Jeff writes insane stuff--anywhere from a punk-rock tune to something that sounds like King Crimson. Roy's songs don't sound traditional, either--they've got weird diminished chords and cool dissonant intervals--and Jason's songs are pop-based, but some of the riffs are ugly. I'm really the only one who writes the fast songs that sound hardcore."
Like teacher, like pupil.