The members of San Diego's Deadbolt have labeled their group "The World's Scariest Band," and their latest disc, Tijuana Hit Squad, shows why. On it, guitarist Harley Davidson, drummer Les Vegas and a shifting series of accomplices portray a team of greasers who kill for hire, and they do so with aplomb; a liner photo shows them finishing off a bloody, bullet-riddled victim in a motel bathtub. But before you decide that these guys are worthy of the contempt that's usually reserved for death-metallers, think again. Deadbolt proffers a wittier brand of terror. "Scary has a bunch of different levels," Davidson says. "There's John Wayne Gacy scary, there's Freddy Krueger scary, and then there's cheesy scary."
When it comes to this last category, Deadbolt rules. The performers slather their homicidal odes in a glorious Velveeta of bad-movie kitsch and switchblade-sharp gallows humor, causing songs such as "Prison Shank" and "A Hit Gone Wrong" to seem more diverting than threatening. The result has a lot in common with the rockabilly hybrid known as psychobilly; in fact, Deadbolt is coming to the area to headline the first night of an event labeled "The 1st Ever U.S. Psychobilly Weekender." But whereas most of the subgenre's practitioners employ blazing chops and barn-burning fury to get their point across, the Bolters opt for a serpentine sound distinguished by slow tempos, heavy reverb and drive-in theatrics that they deliver with their smoking .38-calibers buried firmly in their cheeks.
"We do concept albums, where I get a theme and work off it," Davidson notes. "For Tijuana Hit Squad, I'd been listening to Nick Cave's murder-ballads record, and I was thinking it was kind of wimpy--but I kind of liked the idea of him killing a bunch of people. So I thought a good album would be about a bunch of Tijuana assassins, and we just built off of that. We had some fun, tortured somebody live in the studio, dumped a body in the desert. A couple buckets of chicken, some Jim Beam, turn on the tape machine, and pretty much there it is."
Deadbolt's sound, a skin-and-bones blend that recalls the Cramps during their "Goo Goo Muck" period, is more concerned with mood than movement, which may leave blue-suede purists wishing for weightier riffs. But the other elements in "El Perversio," "Convict Man," "Dad, Why Did My Friends Explode?" and the rest of the tunes on Squad provide a fair tradeoff. The long-player is a virtual bloodbath of hilarious gun-for-hire yarns and pulp-fiction romps delivered by Davidson in a hard-boiled monotone that perfectly complements his back-alley lyrics. He says that his stylized narratives "give you something to write about. So many bands, when it comes time for them to do another album, are like, 'What do we sing about?' This takes the listener on kind of a mythical journey--a mental journey through our twisted minds, with a little story to boot."
Squad's title track should hit home with everyone from Matt Helm buffs to Quentin Tarantino aficionados. Its plot concerns the residents of a small Mexican town, who hire a pack of hitmen to off a pair of fez-wearing Shriners who violated a young villager. In exchange for a fee of 100,000 pesos and a case of El Presidente brandy, the gunmen perforate the Shriners at a parade back in the States, then slay a drummer friend of theirs, along with his entire band.
Shriners as vicious criminals? Any bellboy who's waited on a hotel filled with these business-community pillars will understand this casting. "That's why we used them--because of that creepiness," Davidson gleefully reveals. "Who knows the real Shriners? I mean, you see them at the parades on St. Paddy's Day and they're all kind of drunk. I had a friend whose grandfather was in them, and it's a really secretive society. My friend would ask his grandfather, 'Do you guys have any secret rituals?' and his grandfather would say, 'Ask me again and I'll tell you.' So my friend would ask him again, and he'd say, 'Ask me again and I'll tell you.' That was his answer." Davidson got the same response when he tried to quiz some Shriners, but he wasn't insulted. "Hey, it's okay to be a little seedy," he says.
He should know--he wears sideburns and a slicked-back 'do that makes him a dead ringer for Jethro Bodine. On the surface, Deadbolt's stripped-bare sonics are just as low-rent, but they have a noble ancestry. "You have the rockabilly that Elvis and Carl Perkins started," Davidson remarks. "And it developed into psychobilly, with bands like the Cramps and Reverend Horton Heat. Well, we coined the term 'voodoobilly,' which is a mix between psychobillly and rockabilly but over to the darker side. With rockabilly, some guy may be singing about his '57 Chevy and his baby and milkshakes. We're singing about killing people or something." Musically speaking, the group "is pretty simple, because we're not really good musicians," he admits. "If you took us all apart and put us with a bunch of good musicians, they'd laugh at us: 'You suck.' But being a good musician isn't up there on the list for Deadbolt members." Requirements include "a sick, warped sense of humor, and then a love of guns and cheap B movies--Blue Velvet, Russ Meyer films," Davidson says. "We were into that kind of stuff, and then we found out that there were a lot of people around the country who were, too. They were like, 'Finally a band comes along that has a soundtrack to my way of thinking.'"
The act was formed in response to San Diego's music scene, which Davidson and his peers deemed puny and uninspired. "Everything was so boring--a lot of spandex, hippie-dippie kind of early-Nineties stuff, and everybody was politically correct and singing about trees and rainforests," Davidson declares. "Every concert was like a sermon for all these beatniks and animal-rights people. So we started a band. Then we started to grow and have fun, we learned to play a few songs, and it snowballed after that. And we were never in any bands before or anything. We were all drunks living together, thinking, 'Hey, let's do something.' The band gave us something to do. Instead of wallowing in our misery, we could take it out on an audience."
To put it mildly, other musicians in San Diego didn't always appreciate Deadbolt's theatricality. "We were playing shows with all of these local schmoes and we'd do our shtick opening up for them," Davidson remembers. "And they would say, 'You guys are scary'--but they were saying it sarcastically, as a put-down. So I kind of got the idea from Reverend Horton Heat. When I first saw him, he was calling himself 'The Best Rockabilly Band in the World,' and I liked that. I like a guy who can give himself a title--the sheer balls of it, you know? So I thought we needed a title. 'Scariest Band in the World'--how about that?"
Although Davidson and Vegas--who share an abode they affectionately call "Disgraceland"--are the masterminds behind the Deadbolt experience, they are usually joined on stage by the Wall of Thunder, a revolving group of bassists who round out the band's live sound. "Their main mission is just to look pissed off," Davidson reveals. "Some of the guys, if they don't know the part, they'll just stand around and smoke a cigarette and flip off the crowd. But we won't be bringing the Wall of Thunder for the Denver show. It's not economical on the road; we don't want to have to pay some other guys and have to smell them, too."
Fortunately, Davidson and company (including bassist R.A. MacLean, who appears on Squad) plan to compensate for the Wall's absence by offering Denverites such bonuses as seemingly dangerous posturing, martial arts displays and an onstage metal grinder. "Bands nowadays sit around and look at their shoes," Davidson says. "But, come on! I want to be entertained! Our motto is, either you'll hate us or you'll become a willing victim for life. With us, it's back to the basics of why people started bands in the Fifties--to entertain people, give them their money's worth and have fun. And to enjoy life."
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Davidson hopes fans will also enjoy Deadbolt's upcoming release, Zulu Death Mask, which centers around a group of mercenaries and witch doctors who discover an ancient mask with incredible powers. But this new direction doesn't mean that Davidson is no longer in a Tijuana state of mind.
"Actually, I've been going there to have my teeth worked on," he says. "There are some really cheap dentists there, and they do real good work, too. And we're doing a 'Day With Deadbolt' bullfight thing. Our first one was last year, and it was a pretty big success. We all meet down there at a little outdoor cantina, drink beer and then load into cabs and go to the bullfights."
Sounds like a new Deadbolt album just waiting to happen.
The 1st Ever U.S. Psychobilly Weekender, with Deadbolt, Hayride to Hell and the Hellbillys. 7 p.m. Friday, March 27, Bluebird Theater, 3220 East Colfax, $15, 333-7749.