Figuratively speaking, traveling musicians are used to taking the occasional shot from locals. But when Custom Made Scare toured Colorado last spring, the concept reached a literal -- and dangerous -- level. As the band rolled up Interstate 25 after a show in Denver, a sniper took aim at the band's vehicle, sending a bullet through the group's bus and into the shoulder of guitarist Kevin Caruso. In addition to scaring the hell out of the band, the shot nearly killed Caruso and put a swift end to the act's tour. When frontman/vocalist Charlie (who goes by one name only) recounts the near-fatal tale, it's clear that explosive excitement on the highway is nothing new to him and his mates -- Caruso, bassist Sammy Justinich and drummer Dave Conrad.
"We were about ten minutes out of Fort Collins. We were blowing off firecrackers in the back of the bus, like little kids," Charlie recalls. It's not typical behavior, he notes, but rather the result of the band's earlier jaunt through Wyoming, where the crew had loaded up on fireworks. "We can't get that stuff in California," Charlie explains, "so having it was a real treat for us. Anyway, we cease fire, and about five minutes later -- bang! We thought it was a dud or something that finally went off. Then Kevin, he's driving and starts screaming at us, thinking we hit him with a firecracker. He pulls over and gets out, bleeding all over the place. I look at the door and see a bullet hole. And we're all standing outside the bus like targets."
The band jumped back into their vehicle, applied pressure to Caruso's wounds (shrapnel from the bullet, Charlie says, resulted in 32 pieces of the driver's-side door ending up in Caruso's torso) and headed to a Fort Collins hospital. While Caruso was in the emergency room, the band was taken to a room for questioning, and security placed the hospital in lockdown mode. Jones says hospital staffers weren't sure of the band's story at first, and one staffer wondered if the whole bloody mess was some sort of publicity stunt. "It was ridiculous," Charlie says: "'Oh, yeah, our guitarist just decided to take one for the band.'"
Later that day, Caruso was released from the hospital and told to fly back to the band's Southern California home to have the bullet removed. In the meantime, Charlie returned to the scene of the crime with Fort Collins police, who were unable to find any suspects. ("The cops were real cool, though," Charlie says. "They all signed the inside of the bus after they tore it all apart.") The matter left Charlie and his pals to ponder the caliber of Coloradans on the drive home. "We travel in a little yellow 'tard bus," Charlie says. "You know -- the special-ed bus. And from the outside, there's no way you're gonna think there's a rock band traveling in it. So my first thought was, 'Who is this sick bastard shooting at a special-education bus coming down the highway?'"
Most likely, Charlie will never know the answer to that question. But chance encounters with bullets and trigger-happy weirdos haven't deterred the band from hitting the road and exposing the curious to the firepower of its current platter, Greatest Show on Dirt. The disc, on the Side1/Dummy imprint, is a punky explosive guaranteed to wear out even the most seasoned headbanger. Bristling with ground-gaining tempos, groaning guitars and Charlie's devil's-auctioneer delivery, it's a thunderous collection sure to tempt believers in the Supersuckers, the Gaza Strippers and Zeke, acts with whom Custom Made Scare has toured. The disc's opener, "Peterbilt," features the gunmetal merits found throughout. Speedy polka-pounding drumming and amphetamined bass lines push the band through highway-friendly anthems, which are all coated with chord-heavy guitar parts and touches of crunched country. "White & Lazy," "5 O'Clock" and "White Trash Girl" celebrate the band's vices of cars, women, beer and various trailer-park pastimes. Adding to the grits-and-hand-grenades fun is a redneck battle cry ("Wake Up & Smell the Gunpowder") and a souped-up cowboy cover ("Sick, Sober and Sorry"). There's also the band's ode to self-help, "Cud," which offers this fresh-from-the-farm credo: "Don't sit around playin' with your pud/Don't be another cow just chewin' on your cud."
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The eleven-song proceedings clock in at a relentless nineteen minutes and nineteen seconds, and if it all blurs together like one tune slightly tweaked eleven times, that's cool by the band: "Yeah, but it's a great song," Charlie chuckles. And what about the band's quick-fire work methods? "If you go see a band and they play forever, you get bored," Charlie points out, "so we get up there, show them what we're all about and move on. If they dig it, it's going to leave them wanting more, and if they don't like it, they didn't have to hear too much of it. Even if you love a band, after the fourth or fifth song, you're still going to want to go get a beer, so we squeeze ten songs into the time it takes somebody else to do four or five. The next record," he adds, "we're going to try and make it at least twenty minutes."
According to Charlie, Custom Made Scare isn't cheating its fans with these short salvos, since the band matches brevity with gusto and show. It's a reflection of a belief that today's younger set is yearning for a brand of entertainment ignored in the wake of slacker rock and staring-at-the-shoes grunge acts. There's a reason, Charlie says, that bands like Nashville Pussy and other over-the-top live acts are playing to elbow-to-elbow small theater crowds. "This whole Nineties-rock thing -- it's a little contrived, and people are starting to realize it," he says. "The punk stuff on the radio is really pop music. And the kids, they never got a taste of that old big-arena rock, and there really aren't any rock bands doing arenas anymore. These days people want to see a show -- something larger than life, but at the same time not fake. I think the new wave is going to be that real hard rock, and rock is going to live again."
The members of Custom Made Scare fit in well with the rock resurrection, though their close call in the Centennial state could have brought about their premature demise. Upon their return to Denver and the 15th Street Tavern, the boys will bring along a few new additions, thanks to the shooting nightmare. Caruso will be carrying lead in his shoulder, for one, since doctors decided the best course of action for his bullet wound was to leave the projectile buried in his flesh. But the band will also debut a new song, "Brand New Bullet," which could further the state's reputation for having a collective fondness for guns.
"We love Colorado," Charlie notes. "It's a beautiful place; the people there are great. We just had a little unfortunate mishap. But our guitar player decided when we come to Colorado this time, he's going to drive a rental car and follow the rest of us in the bus. If you see that short yellow bus coming through, that's Custom Made Scare. Don't shoot at us -- it's just a rock band."