The Lapse of Luxury

After a four-year hiatus, Girls Against Boys is back in the high life again.

It's always good to put yourself in new situations," says Scott McCloud, singer, guitarist and svelte frontman of New York City's Girls Against Boys. He speaks from experience. Since the band's previous incarnation, Soulside, formed in 1986, McCloud and his bandmates have perpetually reconfigured, revamped and recast themselves -- first as hardcore crusaders, then as mock-industrial rock stars and, ultimately, as mature and self-assured patriarchs of the post-punk underground. Girls Against Boys has also weathered a perilous voyage through the nether regions of corporate America as beneficiaries of a Faustian major-label deal that wound up costing the group nearly four years of its career.

McCloud, bassist Johnny Temple and drummer Alexis Fleisig began playing together in Washington, D.C., in 1985, in the tastily titled punk combo Lunchmeat. Together with singer Bobby Sullivan, they mutated into Soulside, one of the more intriguing bands on the legendary indie label Dischord at the time. "We were all coming from a D.C. punk background," says McCloud, "but Soulside wasn't real, super hardcore, like in a New York hardcore sort of way. We were trying to kind of extend what we were doing with that type of music."

Indeed, Soulside's two studio albums, 1988's Trigger and 1989's Hot Bodi-gram, mixed the raw edge and social outrage of D.C. predecessors such as Minor Threat and the Faith with a recombinant strain of dissonant texture and fluid, almost dub-like rhythm -- much in the way that Soulside's labelmates in Fugazi were just beginning to.

"After Soulside broke up, I went to school for two years in Boulder, studying film at CU," says McCloud. "I really got into industrial music out there. In Colorado at the time, there was no punk scene like I knew it back on the East Coast. Everyone was into all that early stuff on the Wax Trax label and all this real dark, art-rock type stuff. It was all about Einstürzende Neubauten and the Swans. There used to be great warehouse shows out there, too, with all these insane bands playing one bass riff for like half an hour. That's where I first became really interested in that whole first wave of electronic-dance type stuff."

After transferring to the film department at New York University in 1990, McCloud hooked back up with Soulside compatriots Temple and Fleisig. "Girls Against Boys began as basically just an experiment," recalls McCloud. "I think we wanted to give it a little more of a darker edge than Soulside, which was kind of more explosive, you know, more hardcore. We started out with a few studio freakout sessions where we just sort of laid down some weird tracks. It wasn't like a real band then. We just kind of fantasized about playing shows. But those sessions did end up becoming that first EP we did, Nineties Vs. Eighties."

Released in 1992, the EP's title alone gives a clue to GvsB's burgeoning penchant for deconstruction. Abetted by Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, Nineties Vs. Eighties was dense with samples, synthetic rhythms and corrosive guitars in a manner that sounded retro and prophetic at the same time.

"In our minds, I think we were doing a kind of hybrid of punk rock meets dance music, this weird, dark, punk-rock/disco stuff," says McCloud. "It was a little more...atmospheric, I guess. Even though it was pretty hard-edged, we were using keyboards and real repetitive bass lines, that industrial sound fusing with the sort of punk attitude. It's like that disco-punk thing from the late '70s."

Indeed, groups such as Killing Joke and Gang of Four had beaten Girls Against Boys to the dance-punk punch over ten years before. "People like Cabaret Voltaire had kind of fucked around with that same formula already, of course," admits McCloud. "We were huge Wire fans when we started out, and we definitely also felt an affinity toward Joy Division, especially since we were such a bass-heavy band. Very few bands, even post-punk bands, put the bass up front like Joy Division did."

The bass guitar became a focal point in GvsB's sonic arsenal with the enlistment of Eli Janney, Soulside's erstwhile soundman, on keyboards and second bass. The band's first full-length, 1992's Tropic of Scorpio, seethed with pitch-black sexuality and mechanistic precision. Temple and Janney's dark, viscous bass lines oozed in and out of the mix like oil slicks. The overall effect was that of a wrestling match between a pneumatic drill and a cyborg python.

The group's incorporation of keyboards was at least as unorthodox as its twin-bass, low-end onslaught. "The first tours that we did, we'd get up on stage, and people would see all these keyboards and they'd go, 'What the fuck?' It was totally taboo in the punk scene back then," says McCloud. "Of course, Eli had his going through, like, five distortion pedals at once. What's cool about keyboards is, they all become obsolete so fast. Ten years down the line, there are all these keyboards lying around that you can pick up relatively cheaply. And they make cool sounds, sounds that only that keyboard can make. You can come up with a couple of songs on one, and then you can just throw it away. They're kind of disposable."

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