Just the Ax, Man

The Atomic Bitchwax and Nebula are among a new breed of bands putting the wank back into guitar rock.

"You know what amazes me?" asks Ed Mundell, guitarist and frontman for the Atomic Bitchwax but perhaps best known for his efforts in Monster Magnet. "It amazes me that there are kids out there today who don't know who Jimi Hendrix is. I'll be in a guitar store, and I'll see these kids playing guitar or whatever, and [they'll] be like, 'Hey, you play in Monster Magnet, and blah, blah, blah.' But then we'll start talking, and it turns out they've never heard of Hendrix or Blue Cheer or any of this great music that's been around for the last twenty or thirty years. I can't believe what a sad, retarded world we live in sometimes."

Mundell's choice in adjectives may not be to everyone's liking, but his point is spot-on. MTV-driven hacks like Marilyn Manson and Korn are piss-poor substitutes for rock powerhouses like the Rolling Stones and Cream, no matter how you slice it. Even more tragic, however, is that there are actually plenty of good, if not great, rockers out there right now who are being flat-out ignored by radio, television and the mainstream rock publications. Still, they are making painfully slow progress. Punk rock-and-rollers the Gaza Strippers, the Hellacopters and Zeke have built respectable followings here in the States, thanks to word-of-mouth support and nonstop touring schedules. Meanwhile, a whole different sect of decibel addicts, collectively known as "stoner rockers," has slowly been creating a foothold here and in Europe. Spurred on by Nineties heavy-rock pioneers Monster Magnet, Kyuss and Fu Manchu, these groups take the explosive energy of Eighties and Nineties punk and dress it up with colossal riffs, agile bass lines and drum fills befitting a Ginger Baker LP.

In addition, most of these bands employ enough full-on guitar noodling to choke your average Jerry Garcia fan -- a quality clearly lifted from rock's early days, when axmen like Eric Clapton and Duane Allman were treated as gods among men. In fact, if the stoner genre is to leave any sort of distinguishable historic mark at all, it will no doubt be the re-emergence of the guitar hero. Already, there are several pickers of note emerging from the pack, two of whom will be participating in the Riff Rock Railroad Tour, an extravaganza making stops in Denver, Boulder, Laramie and Fort Collins this week. The first, Eddie Glass, has been creating a stir among scenesters for a few years now with his Los Angeles-based power trio Nebula, while the second, Mundell, is bringing the New Jersey-based Atomic Bitchwax through middle America for the first time. As Mundell points out, though, the band (also featuring Chris Kosnik on bass and vocals and Keith Ackerman on drums) has been around for quite some time -- as long as he's been in Monster Magnet, anyway. He is also quick to note that not all Monster Magnet fans may necessarily appreciate the Bitchwax's decidedly different approach to rocking. "We play a lot of instrumentals. I just want to make that clear right now," he says with a laugh. "We're an entirely different animal."

Indeed they are. While Monster Magnet indulges in a more theatrical, song-oriented style of lysergic rock, the Bitchwax is purely and simply a jam band. And a damned fine one at that, judging by the outfit's new LP on Tee Pee/MIA Records. A veritable wank-fest of riffs, drum fills and guitar workouts, the self-titled platter finds the boys venturing through more musical territory in fifty-odd minutes than most bands attempt in an entire career. What's more, they do so without boring the listener to death, in large part because each player manages to apply his own personal fingerprint to the collaboration. Mundell's fretwork, of course, is always at the forefront, but Kosnik and Ackerman (who also do time in the groups Godspeed and Slaprocket, respectively) shake up the guitarist's onslaught with fills and solos of their own. And Kosnik's colorful, at times hilarious vocals -- "I hope your clothes don't fit/and I hope you hate this shit," he proclaims at one point during the tenderly titled "I Hope You Die" -- lend the whole ordeal an air of unpretentiousness that even the staunchest punkers would have a hard time ignoring.

According to Mundell, the Atomic Bitchwax has always been serious about not taking itself too seriously. "I don't know how it is in Denver," he explains, "but in New Jersey, everybody is in, like, three or four bands, trying to keep busy. When we started back in '92 or so, I was in [noise-rockers and one-time Rockville signees] Daisycutter, but I was also jamming with these guys, although we didn't really have a name yet. We would just get together in my basement, smoke too much pot and play old riff rock -- stuff like Mountain -- all day. All of us either worked nights or didn't work at all, so we were just sitting around with nothing to do, anyway.

"A few months later I got a call from the guys in Monster Magnet, asking me to jam with them," he continues. "I said sure. So I figured out the whole Spine of God album and started touring with them. But every time I came back, I'd get back together with [Kosnik and Ackerman] and write tunes. It kept me out of trouble."

As it turned out, Monster Magnet's tour schedule was near inhuman, so the Atomic Bitchwax sessions were few and far between. Nevertheless, the threesome managed to play the occasional show, including a few brief East Coast stints supporting Baltimore's kings of eccentro-metal boogie, Clutch. For the most part, these outings were met with overwhelming indifference by crowds who were more interested in discovering the next Hole or Pearl Jam than the next Beck, Bogart and Appice. Mundell and company remained undeterred, however, and continued to dig deeper into their record collections for musical inspiration. Today the guitarist cites everybody from Robin Trower and the MC5 to Captain Beyond and Mahogany Rush as influences. "Nobody these days knows who [Mahogany Rush's] Frank Marino is, because he never got any respect when he was still playing," Mundell says, sounding genuinely forlorn. "At the time, everybody just thought he was biting the Hendrix thing hard. But what a fantastic player! And a musical mind? Give me a fucking break. This guy was fucking awesome. It's too bad people couldn't get over a stupid little press clip."

Mundell's biggest props, though, go out to guitar slinger Tommy Bolin, the one-time Boulder resident and Deep Purple axman. Bolin died of a drug overdose in 1976, but Mundell says he still feels a deep spiritual kinship with the guitarist. So much so that he and the Bitchwax covered Bolin's "Fandango" on their disc. They also bypassed a chance to play Boulder's Fox Theatre in favor of performing at the much smaller Tulagi next door because, as Mundell puts it, "I've got a bunch of bootlegs of Tommy playing there. When we came through with Monster Magnet in January, we took a tour though Tulagi's while it was being renovated, and it was totally bizarre and amazing to hear all the old stories about Tommy playing there with Energy in front of, like, four people.

"I've been getting involved with the Tommy Bolin archives, and a lot of really cool stuff that I've had on tape for years now will be coming out on CD. And I hope that if anything comes out of the whole Atomic Bitchwax thing, it's that kids will see 'Fandango' on our record and go back and check out the original version instead of wasting their money on Limp Bizkit or the new Live record. There's a lot of crap out there right now, so I love it when kids actually make an effort to search out some of this really great music."

That's not to say that Mundell's head is stuck strictly in the past. On the contrary, the thirty-year-old guitarist is equally enthused about several of the newer, less-recognized acts involved in today's scene, such as Solace, Nebula, Drag Pack and tour mates Core. "The new Core record is insane," he interjects. "These guys are only 22, but they've been playing together since they were, like, eight years old."

As for the stoner-rock tag hoisted upon these upstarts, not to mention his own band, Mundell is non-plussed. "I think the whole stoner-rock thing is just a bunch of kids hanging out on a computer," he says. "But it's kind of cool, because it's a scene for a bunch of misfits -- guys who just kind of hang out and listen to records all night and don't want to go out in the day. And I'm definitely part of that. It's just kind of a scene for a bunch of bands that normally wouldn't get heard. So in that way, it's sort of a good thing."

Nebula's Eddie Glass, on the other hand, isn't quite so sure. "I like a lot of the bands who are considered stoner rock," says Glass. "I just think it's a stupid title for a type of music. You know, it's like 'stoooooonerrrrrr rock, dude.' When I was growing up, stoner rock was heavy metal. People who listened to Sabbath and Judas Priest -- that's who we used to call 'stoners.' It had nothing to do with what we're doing now. When I was in high school in the Eighties, I was into punk and skateboarding and all that, and being a stoner wasn't really a good thing to be. But in a lot of people's minds -- especially in Europe, where they came up with the name -- that's who we are. But in my mind it's just rock."

It's easy to see why Glass and his mates (bassist Mark Abshire and drummer Ruben Romano) might take issue with the label. Since Nebula first broke onto the scene in 1996, the threesome had all but become poster children for the movement -- even that hippest of hip music mags, Gentleman's Quarterly, ran an article on the genre featuring Glass and company in the lead photo. In addition, all three members of Nebula were formerly associated with -- and later split from -- Fu Manchu, arguably the progenitors of modern stoner music. But for Nebula, perhaps the worst part of being associated with the stoner-rock phenomena is that their skills and songwriters are often overlooked in the wake of all the hype. And for the record, ladies and gentlemen, these cats can play. To the Center, the band's upcoming album on Sub Pop, finds the band incorporating everything from keyboards and acoustic guitars to sitars and backward gong samples into their riff-driven mélange. And lest it be forgotten, there's lots and lots of Mr. Glass's extraordinary guitar playing on hand, too. Glass's style at times recalls the smoky overdrive of a young Jimmy Page, at others the acid-drenched psychedelia of Hendrix. Many listeners will also notice a striking similarity between Glass's fretwork and Mundell's -- an observation that hasn't been lost on either guitarist.

"A few years back, we sat down and jammed together at this rehearsal place in New Jersey," Glass recalls. "We started jamming on a riff and trading off leads, and after a while, the whole thing started to get really strange. It felt like we were playing the exact same leads. We were like, 'Holy shit! Is that you or is that me?' We tend to use the same blues-influenced scales and the same types of leads, and our bends are basically the same. It all pretty much stems from that Jimi Hendrix type of guitar playing.

"I'd say our songwriting styles are different, though," he continues. "Atomic's songs are a little bit more jammy than ours. I mean, if people think we tend to jam a lot, then they haven't heard Bitchwax yet. They go off completely, which is great. I love that. But they make us look like major singer-songwriters by comparison."

That Glass plays lead at all seems a minor miracle, considering his pedigree. Originally a drummer for San Diego grungesters Olivelawn, Glass didn't even play guitar in a band until 1993. It was then that he joined forces with the Seventies retro fetishists in Fu Manchu, a band known as much for its love of vans and bongs as for its Black Sabbath-style riffing. Still, compared to the endless stream of alternative acts being paraded before record buyers in the early Nineties, the Fu experience seemed entirely new to Glass. "I was diggin' the whole thing at the time," he remembers. "It was a little bit heavier and sludgier than all the grunge music that was happening around then."

Glass recorded three notable LPs with Fu Manchu: No One Rides for Free, In Search Of...and Daredevil. None of the LPs sold well, but thanks to a relentless touring schedule, the combo garnered substantial support both here and overseas. Unfortunately, the tours -- not to mention a spate of musical and personal differences -- ultimately led to the departure of Glass and Romano. "Me and Ruben started getting tired of the whole scene," recalls Glass. "We toured a lot after Daredevil came out -- for an eternity, it seemed like -- and after a while, personalities started getting in the way. The two of us were roommates, and we had been doing our own thing. We were writing new songs and trying to bring them to the band, but Scott and Brad just seemed content playing the same old thing record after record after record. Even their new record sounds the same as it always did. So we thought, 'They have a formula. Let 'em stick to it.' We felt like branching out a little."

The pair did just that on Let It Burn, Nebula's five-song bow for Tee Pee Records. Featuring former Fu member Mark Abshire on bass, Burn bares all the heavy grooviness of Daredevil and In Search Of..., but with a number of interesting new wrinkles, including "Raga in the Bloodshot Pyramid," an all-sitar instrumental performed by Romano. Recording-wise, the EP left something to be desired, but the toughness and originality of the songs were undeniable. The first 5,000 pressings of Burn sold out in just a few months, and subsequent pressings on New York's Relapse imprint moved just as quickly. Meanwhile, the band toured incessantly, first with Italian rockers That's All Folks! ("That was our first tour," Glass reveals. "We were like, 'Holy shit! We can't even fill a place in our hometown, and here we are, playing in Bari.'"), and later with Nashville Pussy, Roadsaw and Seattle kingpins Mudhoney. By the time the band's second EP, Sun Creature, hit the streets a year later, the hype surrounding Nebula -- and the stoner-rock genre -- was in full swing, receiving footnotes in the likes of Spin and Preview and in a swell of e-zines and metal mags. Now, with the November release of Center looming, Glass is hoping to quash any preconceptions folks might have about the record. "I have a lot of influences," says the guitarist. "I mean, I listen to a lot of stuff. Like in the last week, I've been listening to a lot of Captain Beefheart, and the Deviants, too. And Pink Floyd's Relics is on my turntable right now. But I'm also really into the new Hellacopters record.

"I hope the press can somehow get over this whole retro, stoner-rock thing. You should just call it rock by the fifth generation, because that's what it is. It all started with the Yardbirds, and then later on came Hendrix and the Stooges and the MC5. And then you go into punk rock, followed by Black Flag and the punks of the Eighties and grunge in the Nineties. And now we're all here, doing what we do.

"I mean, how many more years is rock going to be around?" he adds. "After a while, you guys are going to run out of names to call it."

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