It's a hazy Saturday afternoon at the end of August. A white Ford F-350 Powerstroke with Colorado plates whizzes down Interstate 15, en route from one legendary strip to another. The vehicle's occupants are high as hell, almost as if they've buried their faces in mountains of coke, Tony Montana-style. And while it's not a chemically induced rush they're enjoying, it sure feels like it.
They planned and saved for this trip all year, working every gig in Denver that they could. And now, after two nights of playing the odds as an out-of-town band, they're leaving Vegas as winners, ready to live like rock stars -- at least for the next couple of days.
A few hours later, as the Ford navigates through a never-ending maze of metal on the 101, one of its occupants spots the infamous Hollywood sign through the haze. The members of Semifreak -- guitarist Gary Montoya, drummer Billy Coffey, vocalist Roarke Pulcino and bassist Brian Rosenberg -- hoot and holler in unison, high fives all around. This is it, man; they've finally made it. This is the moment they've dreamed about since they were kids. To commemorate the occasion, someone slips 8 O'Clock Fix -- the band's about-to-be-released disc -- into the deck, and they roll down the windows and crank it up.
Next stop: Sunset Strip and the Hyatt House -- or "the Riot House," a name coined a few decades back because of the drunken debauchery of groups like Led Zeppelin, whose members rode Harleys up and down the corridors.
But before they reach rock's hallowed ground, one of the Semifreaks has to piss like a racehorse. He jumps out at the first stoplight after the freeway and disappears from view. "Fuckin' sonofabitch -- that self-absorbed motherfucker!" exclaims the driver. The rest of the crew is annoyed at the delay, too, but nothing's really going to bring these guys down -- not even an impetuous frontman with leaky plumbing. They're in the City of Angels, for chrissakes, and soon they'll retrace the footsteps of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
While they'll take some time to play the role of starry-eyed tourists, this is no ordinary vacation: Tomorrow night they'll perform on the same stage once graced by Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. Whisky A Go-Go: It just doesn't get any better than this.
Fast forward to the next night. The four Cowtown boys are discovering that all that glitters is definitely not gold -- especially in Tinseltown, a place that celebrates replication and fabrication.
The bandmembers double-park the Ford in front of the club and unload their gear. Before they can go inside, they must undergo an invasive pat-down that stops just short of a full body-cavity search. And despite what the marquee out front says, this Whisky A Go-Go is not the same club that Morrison played. It's also doubtful that the Doors ever had to pay hundreds of dollars to share the bill with a dozen no-name, Hot Topic punks -- and perform in front of scores of screaming, fourteen-year-old girls.
"They stuck us on this teen-night punk fest; I don't know what it is," says Montoya. "But it's like junior high."
"And this isn't the good punk," adds Pulcino. "This is that new, shitty punk. We're like, 'Eewww, man.' It's brutal with all these young hoochies. It's hi-larious. I mean, all of them walking around in plastic boots, with cell phones on their ears; it's ridiculous, man. It's like being in the movie Clueless."
Although the musicians are dumbfounded by the scene, they remain undaunted. They've gotten used to the idea that they're older guys in a much younger man's game. Semifreak's members are all in their early thirties, and unlike a lot of musicians their age, they're not afraid to admit it. They have no delusions of grandeur; they know they'll have to work twice as hard to make it. But the four of them are driven, and they display twice the passion and stamina of kids a decade younger. So rather than bemoan the fact that they had to pay to play the Whisky, they're so amped that not only are they the first band at the gig, they're also the last to leave -- a pattern they've followed at every show since Semifreak's inception.
"We show up, usually, before the soundman and stay till after the soundman," says Pulcino. "We go, we set up, we go get dinner and come back, then we soundcheck and do our show. We stay till the last band is done. If somebody wants to pay us, we take their money. And even if they don't, we open and close bars, man. We don't care if it's a dive in Nebraska; we know the privilege and honor to be able to play music live in front of people, and we respect it. We all bang gear, we all drive back to the warehouse in Henderson at three in the morning, in the middle of sunrise, and bang the gear out, because we want to do it again next Tuesday."
This shared work ethic was ingrained in the band's members long before any of them picked up an instrument. Montoya's father, a migrant laborer who moved to Brighton in search of work, bought a piece of land there for $200 and built a house for his family, one piece at a time, during lunch hours and after work. Pulcino's parents were successful musicians in their own right -- his father a celebrated jazz guitarist who played with such luminaries as Remo Palmieri, his mother an accomplished vocalist -- and gave up burgeoning careers to raise a family.
With familial influences like that, it's not surprising that Semifreak's members have bonded. After years of trying to adapt to someone else's vision, in 1999 Montoya and Coffey formed the crux of the quartet -- then known as Man in the Shade -- determined to build the band around their vision rather than vice-versa. Pulcino, a onetime bassist for Tequila Mockingbird, joined the group in 2001. With the addition of Rosenberg in 2002, Man in the Shade was rechristened Semifreak, and the circle was complete.
Since the name change, the band has played thirty shows, by Rosenberg's tally. He's kept track of every performance since he joined, and he can recite the dates as if each were an epochal event on par with his birthday or losing his virginity.
According to Montoya, all of the gigs are special. "When everyone is that focused and everyone is on, it's amazing," he says.
Pulcino has no problem pinpointing his favorite: Semifreak's return trip to Herman's Hideaway in March 2002. "We were warming up for Detrimetal and Rocket Ajax," he recalls. "I think it was their CD-release party, and for 47 minutes, not one person was checking their watch or buying a beer."
Over a year later, after playing any place that would have them, the members of Semifreak had saved enough money to finally record their debut. With provincial knob-turner Bill Thomas at the helm, the fourteen-song 8 O'Clock Fix is a solid effort. While it sounds a bit underwhelming at first, after repeated listens, it becomes evident that the disc is a slow burn. It takes a while to get your head around Montoya's textured guitar work, the casual interplay between original bassist Mike Jiron's plaintive style and Coffey's straightforward drumming. The group's dark horse, though, is Pulcino, whose soaring vocal stylings lend the album cohesion and add an element of contained fury.
Though the band is excited about 8 O'Clock Fix, Pulcino recognizes that the recordings may not mark Semifreak's most memorable performances. And so, even before Fix is officially released, the primary goal is to get back into the studio.
"The thing that this band wants to do more than anything is to make another record," says Pulcino. "And we're trying to get in the studio, but we're just about to release this one, and it's not a cheap thing to go into the studio. We've got to support this one; we've got to gig. Right now, we're slowly going to get back into the studio, because the material since I've joined and since Brian's joined is different even a little bit from the record, because it's got the influence of all four of us, very purely. It's a little more in your face; it's a little edgier. It's a little more violent, a little more bloody; it's a little scarier, and we're happy about that. We really want to get that into the studio."
Because a lot of the songs on Fix were written more than five years ago, it makes sense that the guys are eager to get back to recording. Nonetheless, the new album should have a lengthy shelf life -- as long as folks are willing to absorb it. And those who do will undoubtedly become fans of the group, especially if they see the music performed live.
The members of Semifreak have assembled on the rooftop of the Riot House, right by the swimming pool. But no one's taking a dip. They're all too busy reflecting on their time in California, laughing, sharing stories -- they just spotted Lemmy from Motrhead entering the hotel -- and soaking it all in. They're about to go into full-on tourist mode; after they check out, they'll head straight to Disneyland.
Pulcino turns to the rest of the band. "Whatever it takes," he says, "we've got to figure out how we can do this for the rest of our lives."
Really? Spend the rest of their lives stuffed in a truck, driving across the country to play a handful of gigs that cost them more than they've ever been paid at home?
"Oh, yeah, man, we're going back. This ain't no onetime thing," Pulcino says, then laughs. "In fact, next time I think we'll give them double that, so we can play on a Friday or Saturday night."
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