HELL ON WHEELS
The rock press can be both a boon and a bane for emerging rock bands that fall into the all-encompassing phylum now known as alternative music. No one knows this better than the foursome in San Diego's Drive Like Jehu. Although this cataclysmic act has garnered more than its fair share of positive press over the past three years (Spin magazine included them in its "1993 Map of the Stars"), most of the praise has been overshadowed by the circumstances surrounding its recent signing to Interscope Records.
Rumor has it that head Jehu Rick Froberg and his bandmates--guitarist John Reis, bassist Mike Kennedy and drummer Mark Trombino--were snatched up by the Atlantic subsidiary as part of a package deal involving Reis's other band, the highly publicized Rocket From the Crypt. In typically reckless fashion, the underground media ran the event into the ground. Half-baked stories soon popped up, many claiming that Drive Like Jehu was just another item on Rocket From the Crypt's bargaining table--the musical equivalent of a set of Ginsu knives. By the time the hubbub died down a year later, the group seemed doomed to be known as Rocket From the Crypt's stepchild.
All the negative hype hasn't swayed Froberg's outlook, however. The 26-year-old guitarist claims to be more than happy with the way things worked out. "I've heard [the rumor] so many times that I'm immune to the whole thing," he says from a pay phone in New Orleans during a stopover on the group's current four-month tour of the U.S. and Canada. "For all I know, it may be true. But that's not what Interscope is claiming. I mean, we actually got a pretty decent amount of money for a band like ourselves, and we don't have any impositions on our music--or on anything else. Essentially, we don't have to do anything we don't want to do. If we were just [a bonus], I don't think we would have been offered such a good deal."
Nor would they write brilliant material of the sort found on Yank Crime, Jehu's latest Interscope release. Featuring eight new songs and a blistering remake of "Sinews" (previously released on Cargo's Headstart to Purgatory compilation), Crime has enough raw passion and coercive fury to satisfy even the most resistant critic. Throughout the disc, Froberg and his colleagues deliver sharp fragments of aural shrapnel straight out of Sonic Youth's melodic abattoir. Unlike the Youth's pseudopsychedelic noodlings, however, Drive Like Jehu fires its metallic squalls straight from the hip: When Froberg and Reis aren't tickling their instruments in quiet introspection, they're kicking up a commotion that's musically reminiscent of the L.A. riots. Add Froberg's bloodcurdling falsetto and urgent rhythmic blasts from Trombino and Kennedy, and you have a sound that is as meticulous as it is impulsive.
Froberg believes that the group's disparate style can be attributed at least in part to its free-form approach to songwriting. "There's definitely a lot of spontaneity involved in the performances of our songs," he says. "But as far as actually writing the songs, there's not a lot of spontaneity. In fact, in some ways it's pretty controlled. So I guess you could say there's definitely elements of both in there."
It didn't take long for Froberg and Reis to strike this balance. Before joining forces in Jehu, the pair played together in a now-defunct San Diego band called Pitchfork. In its four-year history, Pitchfork managed to release a record and develop a marginal following on the West Coast, but beyond that, Froberg says, "Nobody anywhere else really cared. We never got anywhere as far as getting out of town and touring. We had local popularity, but we were pretty obscure everywhere else."
After a lineup change in 1990, Reis left Pitchfork to pursue Rocket From the Crypt, at the time considered a side project. Pitchfork subsequently dissolved, but Froberg and Reis continued to work together under less structured terms. Soon thereafter, friends Trombino and Kennedy, formerly members of San Diego's Night Soil Man, came aboard. Drive Like Jehu recorded its first album a year later: Released on San Diego's Headhunter imprint, the self-titled collection was one of the year's more impressive debuts, as well as a touchstone for the band's later projects. Songs such as "Caress," "Atom Jack" and "Good Luck in Jail" found the quartet dissecting the dynamics of punk rock with musical twists and turns befitting an Alfred Hitchcock film.
Atlantic/Interscope signed Jehu and Rocket From the Crypt in 1992 amid the heavily hyped discovery of the San Diego scene. In some observers' eyes, the deal marked the sellout of the American punk-rock movement--an accusation that Froberg meets with mild indifference. "I guess there are people that would like to give us heat [for signing to a major label]," he notes, "but it really doesn't work, because we have no problem doing whatever the heck we want. We act in our own interest, and [signing to Interscope] was definitely in our interest."
So is maintaining a firm grip on their early DIY roots; despite signing on the dotted line, Froberg and company still function like a band straight out of the garage. The quartet continues to produce their own albums, book their own gigs and design their own cover art. In addition, Froberg, a freelance graphic designer, personally silkscreened the T-shirts for the current tour--all 2,000 of them. "We wanted to get them done fast and we wanted to get them done for cheap," he enthuses.
Like other back-to-basics performers on the underground circuit, Froberg is adamantly opposed to making videos. As he explains it: "I like [videos] and everything. I mean, I grew up watching MTV just like everybody else. But I think it would be nice not to do one and see what happens. You know, just let people listen to the record like they did back in the olden days. l just think it would be fun to try that out."
Froberg and the other Jehus can afford to take risks with their music, since they all have other careers. Kennedy, for example, is a freelance environmental analyst, Trombino is an accomplished engineer, as well as the possessor of a degree in computerized music. As for Reis, he has his hands full with Jehu and Rocket From the Crypt. His schedule might seem like a logistical nightmare in the making, but Froberg claims that the musicians in each camp are pleased enough with the situation to overlook any drawbacks.
"It's more than just having John in both bands," he says. "Everyone cooperates and everyone shares everything where Rocket and Jehu are concerned. We all know each other and we all share everything. Right now, Andy, Pete, John and Atom [of Rocket from the Crypt] will be on tour with us. Andy and Petey are roadies. Atom is doing half the tour with us. And John, obviously, will be playing with Rocket. It all works out."
And how have things changed for Drive Like Jehu since it emerged from Rocket's shadow?
"Well," replies Froberg, "we're a better band, we have a bigger practice space and we're going on longer tours.
"Other than that," he adds, "it's business like usual."
Superchunk, with Drive Like Jehu, Doo Rag and Polvo. 8 p.m. Monday, June 20, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $8.40-$10.50, 447-0095 or 290-
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