By Drew Ailes
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By Tom Murphy
The first time Paige O'Meara met film director James Merendino in a Salt Lake City dive bar, he was convinced that the square-looking guy swilling beers behind Buddy Holly specs was, to put it delicately, full of shit.
"I've met a lot of delusional people," O'Meara says. "I met this guy in a gutter once who said he was John Cougar Mellencamp's uncle. Another guy told me he used to be in the Ramones. People just lie to me all the time."
So when Merendino, who'd seen O'Meara and his bandmates in the 8 Bucks Experiment (Paige's brothers Evan and Alfred, and now-former experimenters Dan Epstein and Bart Dahl) gigging in a nearby club the night before, asked the bandmembers if they'd like to appear in a feature film he was shooting in town, Paige was more than a little skeptical.
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"The Bucks Stop Here"
"I asked him if he was the guy who made Jaws," Paige says. "When he said no, I basically told him to fuck off."
"This was just the diviest, diviest bar in the world, and there were all these people in there who looked like they were straight out of a Jane's Addiction video," says Evan, the oldest O'Meara, who handles vocal duties. "They were wearing furs and boas and stuff. There were these British girls who said they used to date the Sex Pistols. We were like, 'Whatever.'"
"Yeah," adds Alfred, "until we found out they actually did."
As the night and the beer wore on, the bandmembers stopped snickering and started listening to Merendino a bit more closely. The former punk rocker, who'd spent a fidgety youth in Salt Lake, had left the city to pursue a career in film. By the time of the 1997 meeting, he'd already done the festival circuit with his features Toughguy (with Heather Graham) and Livers Ain't Cheap (with Twilight Zone icon Rod Serling). What had brought him to the diviest bar in the world, then, was not a lack of funds or an alcoholic bent, but a location scout for SLC Punk!, a feature film then in production. The film, Merendino explained, dealt with suburban teenage angst in the '80s, the same time punk rock started making its way across America, even to the temple-lined avenues of Joseph Smith's town. Matthew Lillard, described by Paige as "the tall goofy kid in Scream who gets a TV jammed on his head," had signed on to play the film's lead role, and legions of Salt Lake youth -- more than willing to put some Manic Panic dye in their hair and slamdance for the cameras -- had volunteered to be extras in a club scene Merendino was staging. All he needed was the right band to play the part of Extreme Corporeal Punishment, a British band modeled after punkers GBH, who visit Salt Lake on an American club tour. In a narration, Lillard's character, Stevo, describes ECP as "one of the toughest, most hardcore bands in the UK. Good band as well."
More than three years later, the brothers and new bassist Joel Kline drink beer and vanilla Cokes while sitting around a faux diner booth at Gunther Toody's in Englewood. It's the kind of place where fully grown adults unlucky enough to be celebrating birthdays in the establishment are forced to wear paper hats and harassed by clapping, singing waitresses bearing free sundaes. Amid the cacophony of the restaurant, the brothers recall the encounter and agree that the decision to make the film was a no-brainer.
Since forming in 1995 as 8 Bucks (they later added "experiment" to clear up confusion that the band's name referred to the price of show admission) and first playing out in 1996, the boys struggled to make a dent in the local scene -- playing occasionally at clubs like the Raven and the 15th St. Tavern as well as warehouse parties that often were reduced to little more than drunkfests. Denver, they say, seemed to embrace pop, garage bands and straightforward punk efforts but didn't quite get the Experiment's, well, experiments. Epstein was handling the songwriting then, and he preferred weird time signatures and spacey guitars to the simple song formulas of much of the punk cannon. The band's first recordings -- a handful were released on Blue Moon Records, a nationally distributed local imprint manned by Evan -- were more Pink Floyd than Minor Threat, more Jesus Lizard than Dead Kennedys.
"It was sort of like music that other musicians would really appreciate," Kline says. "But it wasn't really something that would draw crowds to clubs."
"People didn't get it a lot of the time," Paige adds, "but when they did, they really got it."
"Back in those days, we'd go play a pop-punk show, and people would expect us to come out and play like Blink 182," Evan explains. "We'd come out there and stomp a mudhole in their ass."
The Experiment, though, has never felt limited to Denver audiences, and the group began touring frequently in 1996. Strange things sometimes happened on those early tours. As one would expect when a group of squirrelly young men are cramped in a van for weeks, some of the stories are disgusting, some sweet, some painful. There's the time Evan vomited a complete circle around the van, twice, in front of Emo's Club in Austin. And the time he made out with a girl in a treehouse for hours after a show. Alfred once broke his arm and had to be rushed to a hospital after leaping over a drum kit in Utah. And once he watched a patron in the men's room of a Mexican restaurant scrape drugs off the interior of a urinal. Yet every now and then, something just plain cool would happen -- like meeting a like-minded film director over draft beer.