Pain is the great motivator, anguish the most compelling muse. In other words, a world of hurt can go a long way. Just ask Chris Fogal, singer/guitarist of Denver's the Gamits. His group's brand-new disc is called Antidote, and it's meant to be exactly that: an anodyne for crushing agony, a Band-Aid slapped on the abrasions of the soul.
"There's sort of an overall concept for this album," Fogal confesses. "It's supposed to be about using whatever creative outlet you have, be it music or art or football or whatever, as your antidote, the thing that gets you through your otherwise empty, meaningless, shitty life. It comes from a time a couple years ago when I had this really, really bad herniated disc in my spine. It caused sciatica through the whole left side of my body. It got to the point where I was on crutches or bedridden all the time. Unless you go through it, it's really hard to understand. It just eats at you after a while."
Accordingly, Antidote's heart-devouring refrains are jabbed into the listener's veins via sharp hooks and glinting melodies. The disc's centerpiece, "Golden Sometimes," is inescapably catchy, a dose of maudlin sentiment soaked in ambrosia and sprinkled with ahs and ooh-la-las. "Open Window" wraps a gauze of acoustic guitars around hand claps, vocal harmonies and organic tempo changes transplanted straight from the Beatles' Rubber Soul. The album closes with "Bridges," an unplugged, cello-swept requiem for virility and pride in which Fogal laments, "Like an old man on his way to the grave, I never stay out late/I'm in too much pain/Darling I can't walk that fast/When you see me coming, please don't laugh on the broken back."
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But Antidote isn't all frilly chords and cloudy skies. As baroque and downcast as the Gamits' music can get, the band is still proudly, inextricably rooted in punk rock. Sure, the minor-key chorus of "Never Before Noon" could be straight out of a Shins or Elvis Costello song, but it's scraped up with distortion and bloodied by a pummeling backbeat. Even more injurious, though, is "Born and Raised Afraid," a metallically melodic take on pure pop that resembles Weezer breathing heavy all over Pyromania-era Def Leppard. Amid menacing arpeggios and strutting riffs, Fogal remembers his dark days of being laid up and depressed: "Wake up around the crack of dawn/Take pills at night but not for fun."
"I ate a lot of pills during those days," confirms the singer with a laugh. "Living in that much pain every day fucking sucks. I was trying to write songs, but it was hard to stay motivated. I spent three grand at a chiropractor and that just made it worse, so I was about to take out a huge loan on my house to get this super high-tech surgery out in California. At that point, there was no hope at all except for surgery. I didn't know what the outcome was going to be or if I was going to be able to continue touring or anything. There could have been some permanent disability."
Luckily for Gamits fans the world over, Fogal recovered, and the band eventually resumed its hectic schedule of recording for the eminent local label Suburban Home and touring across the U.S., Europe and Japan. Not that the lineup itself hasn't required a little surgery: The original Gamits roster, circa 1995, consisted of Fogal, Matt Martinez on bass and Matt Vanleuven on drums. After Martinez's departure, Vanleuven moved to the four-string, and the kit was manned by Forrest Bartosh, of Pinhead Circus and Ladonnas fame. Fogal's current team -- bassist and backup vocalist Scott Swarers, formerly of the Last Chance Diaries, and drummer Jason Walker, a veteran of local punk and hardcore acts like Angels Never Answer, Pariah Caste and Contender -- came together about a year ago, after illness and inertia had nearly put the Gamits down for good.
"The old lineup was disintegrating," recalls Fogal. "We wanted to keep going and touring and everything, but things just never really fell into place. It was never the perfect band with all the right people at the same time. I think we were just stagnant then. We were like this machine that didn't have a goal at all. And then I got into my really bad back problems, and that was a huge deal.
"At that point, I wasn't sure that the Gamits were even going to be a band anymore," he goes on. "I had some wacky ideas there for a while. I was thinking about doing this solo project called the Chaperone. I was getting older, but I kept playing to the same age of kids; I felt like I was chaperoning parties when I played shows. Our friends and the label really encouraged me to keep the Gamits going, but it was a huge bummer at the time. It was growing pains, you know?"
Fortunately, the Gamits' aching adolescence is over. Fogal, now thirty, has let his picked-at scabs heal over, leaving song-shaped scars that mark both the traumas and triumphs of his twenties. And although Antidote is technically the group's seventh CD, 2000's Endorsed by You is its only other true full-length. The jump in maturity between the two is almost jarring. While Endorsed had previously scribbled outside the lines of orthodox, post-Blink pop punk, Antidote is a rich and fully fleshed work that far outdistances the lip-pierced mewling of your typical Warped Tour attraction.
"I feel like the songs we write are the songs that I really want to hear," Fogal explains. "I kind of think of it as filling that void in my own record collection. I want to hear more mid-tempo, melodic rock songs that stick in your head, the kind that people years from now will hopefully still be able to listen to. Not too trendy, not too stuck in any one time frame. Our stuff is more melancholy now, less bubblegummy. Of course, the first thing the more punk-oriented fans say is, ŒWhy do you guys play so slow now?'"
"People keep throwing around the 'emo' word at almost every show," says Walker. "It's really weird. I guess we're just more streamlined, more subtle."
"I think the lyrics are the main thing that sets us apart from all the Blink-182s or whatever," chips in Swarers. "Everybody needs some good pop and rock, you know what I mean? But you don't want to hear every band singing about getting dumped at the prom."
"I wish there were more pop-punk bands out there trying to do something original," Fogal sums up. "Not that I'm like Captain Original or anything, 'cause I'm not. But I think there was some intention on the new record to steer away from what most other bands were doing. It's still going to be pop and it's still going to be rock, but we're going to avoid all the shitty cliches. I read a review of our new album that said, 'It just seems like this band knows what not to do.' When it comes to pop, I think that's somewhat of an achievement. We don't want to fall into that cheesy crap-rock territory."
And yet, cheesy crap-rock territory is the soil in which the Gamits' sound was cultivated. When Fogal and Vanleuven -- friends since childhood who still work together running the popular recording studio 8 Houses Down -- first became infected by the rock virus in their early teens, they certainly weren't geeking out on the harmonic opulence of classic pop.
"We were raised on hard rock and shredding guitar styles," notes Fogal. "Me and Vanleuven were all about precision as kids. That's one of the good things about metal: It teaches you to play tight. But, yeah, I lived for that shit. I remember telling my dad about how stoked I was on this Testament record. I mean, I can hardly stand listening to Testament now, but I remember playing it for him and saying, 'Can you hear it? Can you hear what's going on?' I thought it was so cool."
But bad '80s metal is not the only white-trash pastime that Fogal has issues with. After fifteen minutes of sidestepping exactly how he messed up his back, he finally caves in and names the death-defying activity that sent his life into such a catastrophic downward spiral.
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"Bowling," he says sheepishly. "But it was years of skateboarding, too, and bad posture and bad habits. It all just caught up with me. But the actual thing that did it was bowling, which is actually number one on the list of sports injuries in America, percentage-wise. A lot of people go through it; it's a huge problem in this country. It's a bunch of fat, out-of-shape men like myself standing crooked on one leg with a fifteen-pound weight in one hand. You're just begging for your disc to explode right out your back."
"I actually just heard this ad on the radio for a back doctor where there's this guy saying, 'Yeah, it's great. I can bowl again!'" teases Swarers. "And in the background, you can hear the pins and shit."
When asked if he realized the seriousness of his injury right away, Fogal replies, "It was mildly painful. I was drunk, though."
Be it booze or music, the guys in the Gamits, like everyone else, choose their own anesthetic. On the song "Bridges," Antidote's glumly strummed closer, Fogal distills into verse his band's struggles over the last decade as well as his own personal archive of cuts, scrapes, bruises and burns: "What's a year in life/Just some made up time/All in all I think I'll be just fine."