Most stoner-rock bands draw from the same template: Black Sabbath. Kyuss. The Melvins. But when Puny Human constructs its songs, instead of consulting the gospels of St. Iommi and First Josh, the band's members summon divine inspiration from an entirely different book: St. Mark. Farner, that is.
"The thing about us is that we all sort of adhere to the Grand Funk Railroad principle," says drummer Iann Robinson. "If we're at a part in the song where we don't agree on something, we'll say, 'What would Grand Funk do here?'"
Grand Funk Railroad? The Cheez Whiz, Flint, Michigan-based band that made Little Eva's "The Loco-Motion" famous in the 1970s? Surely, Robinson's kidding; he's gotta be. After all, he's on the payroll of MTV -- the supposed progenitor of all things hip since 1980 -- so it's his job to be on the cutting edge of cool. He must know there are about a bazillion other bands that would be cooler to list as an influence.
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But Robinson's not trying to be cute. He's dead serious. And when he speaks of Grand Funk, it's with the religious fervor of a Mormon bishop pontificating on the virtues of Brigham Young.
"We just worship them," declares Robinson from his office in the heart of Times Square. "We first found out about them from a friend of ours who had an old vinyl copy of E Pluribus Funk. We had all heard 'We're an American Band,' 'The Loco-Motion' and 'Mean Mistreater' and all that stuff. Then we heard E Pluribus Funk -- with 'People, Let's Stop the War' and 'I Come Tumblin' -- we heard these songs, and me, as a drummer, I was like, 'What the fuck, dude!' We just freaked out.
"Then about two years after that, they did a reunion tour, and we went and saw them, thinking, 'Well, it might be a bum-out 'cause they're older.' And they just fucking nailed it, dude; it was like we were seeing them in 1974. Then we read their history -- they have such an awesome, dynamic history, and they're such great players; we all agree on that."
Today the members of Puny Human are united by music, but at New York's Hunter College, where Robinson first met twins Jason and Josh Diamond, they didn't share much common ground. Robinson was a homeboy dialed into the hip-hop realm, and the Diamond brothers were dyed-in-the-wool hardcore skinheads with an affinity for metal.
"I was just kind of getting out of rap music by '86 or '87. Friends of mine were taking me to hardcore shows, and I was like, 'That's okay,' but I still dressed and acted like a homeboy," Robinson remembers. "So I met [the Diamonds], and I thought they were the two coolest people in the whole world because they lived on their own. They had their own apartment in New York City -- which was no small feat, because even back then it was expensive -- and I went over there, and they started playing me all this shit that I didn't know anything about, all this metal. I knew about hardcore and punk rock, but I didn't know anything about metal. So they played me all this metal and really got me into it."
The twins may have exposed Robinson to all things metallic, but had it not been for his father encouraging him to consider music without prejudice, he might never have listened in the first place. Robinson was 24 when his father died of AIDS, and the event had such a profound impact on his life that it fashioned who he became.
It was fitting that his dad turned him on to Queen, he jokes, because his dad was gay.
"It's funny when you have a gay father, people think all he's going to get into is Streisand and show tunes," Robinson says. "But my father had really awesome, eclectic taste. My dad turned me on to a lot of bluegrass and American roots music. My father and my mother both always taught me that genres of anything don't matter, as long as it's good. I run my mouth and I talk a lot of shit, but if somebody puts out a record -- even if I don't like the band -- and it's good, then I'm fine with it."
Even though it's been nearly a decade since his father died, Robinson's customary smart-assed, cynical tone becomes reverential as he talks about his dad.
"My father was pretty much the only human being in the world that I felt gave a shit about me," he says. "I mean, my mom and I eventually worked everything out, but at that point, our relationship was pretty strained. My father was a great human being, and it was my first real introduction to the idea that bad things happen to good people. However, it also forced me to grow up. You know, I used to be kind of a dick. Everything that I do now that's kind of tongue-in-cheek and funny used to be really mean-spirited. I just had a big chip on my shoulder. Then I watched a sweet, wonderful man die, and it taught me to never lose sight that life is a pretty all-right thing. It made me wake up to what I was doing to my friends. I mean, I still fucking hate humanity with an unbridled passion, but the people that I'm close to, the people who are my friends, I would do anything for them -- which is not always how I was."
The Diamond brothers fit into that small circle. Outside of his wife, Shelley, Robinson says, "They are the only family I've ever known. Everything that's been good in my life has pretty much included Josh and Jason at one point or another. They're the only two constants that have ever been in my life that have not been constantly bad."
Even if at times they quarrel like a gaggle of old women fighting over the pinochle deck at a nursing home, the chemistry they share has seen them through the bad times and has opened doors. Soon after Robinson's dad died, the threesome created a local cable-access show, Monkey Butt Sex, which eventually led to Robinson's being hired by MTV.
The twins also inspired Robinson to become a musician. Both had played instruments since their early teens -- Jason the bass and Josh the guitar -- and after hanging out and watching them rehearse, Robinson decided to follow suit. He chose the drums, he says, because "I didn't have the fucking patience for the guitar." As a drummer, he prefers the simplistic style of guys like Phil Rudd of AC/DC to flashy timekeepers who use every tool in the shed.
"All my drum gods are based on the same idea of feel over 100 percent technical precision. All the kids were jerking themselves off over Neil Peart, but there was just no feel there for me; it was like listening to a machine," Robinson says. "I totally appreciate what he does, and I obviously see where he took drumming to another level, but for me, I just don't care, 'cause there's nothing to it."
After honing his skills in several New York-area bands -- Splitscream, Squeal and Trust -- Robinson had pretty much given up on any rock-star fantasy; conveniently, the Diamonds had reached the same conclusion. So in 1997, with no intention other than keeping up their chops and hanging out, they formed Puny Human, taking the name from a song by the Gotham hardcore band Deadguy. Puny Human played exactly one show with its original lead singer -- "too Poison for our tastes, with his snakeskin boots and karate kicks," Robinson remembers -- before the band retired indefinitely.
In 1998, taking funds that he'd inherited from his father, Robinson and the Diamonds founded a New York City-based video post-production company called MBS Productions, after their cable-access show. But then Robinson's work on Monkey Butt Sex caught the eye of MTV brass and landed him the gig as a news correspondent, and he had to bow out of MBS to avoid any possible conflicts of interest. The brothers Diamond run the company to this day. Although their business collaborations ended, the trio continued working together musically, resuscitating the band and adding Jim Starace, former vocalist with such New York hardcore stalwarts as Norman Bates and the Showerheads, and Sere. In 2000, Puny Human released its debut full-length, Revenge Is Easy. On both Revenge and the band's new album, It's Not the Heat, It's the Humanity, Robinson displays a no-nonsense, straightforward approach to timekeeping.
Robinson's preference for substance over style carries into his everyday life, too. He doesn't give a shit about looking cool, and he doesn't suffer gladly the fools who disrespect him or his band because of his bigger-than-life television persona.
"Once the MTV thing happened, it became like a mission," he says. "This is not Iann Robinson and the Iannettes. This is not some band the MTV guy does to be cool. This is something I was doing before MTV, and I will do it when MTV has forgotten all about me. Playing drums is a part of my life.
"We've had a couple of hecklers, but I'm good at shutting hecklers up. So they usually turn that over to me. Every now and then you get someone who's got some shit to prove. Mainly the way we deal with that is we introduce the crowd to the idea that I'm not Carson Daly. If you say something bad about me, I'm going to bring it to you. And if I bring it to you, you better be ready to defend yourself, or I'm going to fuck you up. And I don't care about getting punched in the face, 'cause no one is selling me on the image of beauty. So if you want to go at it, I may get my ass kicked, but I'll be goddamned if you're going to talk badly about my band."
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But Humanity, which is chock-full of balls-out, visceral rock, will inspire more boogying than heckling. The flawless Corsican interplay between Josh's unwielding groove and Jason's lucid, fluid bass lines can only be credited to their fraternal bond, and Robinson's solid drumming anchors the scuzzy underbelly of the "Champagne Minivan." Meanwhile, behind the wheel, Starace's muscular, Danzig-like vocals ensure that the entire crew is rolling stoned.
Puny Human is about to kick off a two-week tour, and its members can hardly wait.
"We don't tour that much, so for us, it's not a chore," says Robinson. "A lot of bands tour all the time, and it becomes like a job. I think once bands start seeing touring as a job, they should just stop touring. For us, it's two weeks away from whatever job we're doing, where it's just us sitting in a van listening to music, fucking talking and being dicks."
In a world filled with death and destruction, Puny Human is just what you need: an American band, coming to your town to help you party down.