Jerks of a Feather
It's almost a given that if you put a tape recorder in front of a band and ask its members questions about their place in the music universe, sooner or later there's bound to be excessive speculation on every aspect of the music industry, from analysis of the current rock climate to projections of next year's trends. These days, it seems, all it takes to become an industry insider is a half-stack and a stage to stand on. When Fort Collins's Knee Jerk Reaction shuns the opportunity to play armchair A&R man, then you know something must be going down.
"We'd rather not talk about music," says singer/guitarist Steven Garcia. "We'd rather talk about TV, sports, celebrities, the Academy Awards and movies. They are so much more fun to talk about."
Considering Knee Jerk's position in rock and roll, Garcia's dismissal isn't as surprising as it may seem. Last year, the band released its debut CD, Modern Pop Rockets, on Arizona's fledgling Knot Known Records, and the release is slated for national distribution later this month. Knee Jerk Reaction finds itself triumphing a hearty love for pop punk, a style considered passé by most of the punk world. From Garcia's warm, blaring guitars and clarion voice to bassist Jeff Tejcek's dancing low-end melodies and Ty Dokken's stable beats, the Jerks don't take the blueprints of nth-generation oi! or surf punk nearly as seriously as their counterparts. It's a difference the trio takes pride in, though it often drives a wedge between them and many of the region's junk rock and hardcore acts.
"We'll play with another band that is heavier, and they'll be talking amongst themselves while we're present, because we're so poppy," Tejcek says, describing the usual indifference toward his band at gigs. "Or, if we went on before them, they'll be on stage and say 'Yeah, we're going to play some real rock,' and emphasize the rock, just to emphasize 'We're not the sensitive, faggoty shit like you're playing.'"
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As the band would soon learn from the comments of their rock comrades, the music scene isn't the idealistic love-in many would like it to be. Scenesters can draw lines in the sand, form cliques and talk smack as well as any high school cheerleading squad; often the Knee Jerk popsters are as popular as the kids in the AV club. "A lot of times, I feel like we're sort of an outcast because we're not heavy, we're not angry," Tejcek says, absently fingering the arm of his heavy-rimmed glasses. "Because we're not hard, none of the hard-asses want to come out and see us."
Feeling like outcasts isn't a new feeling for any of Knee Jerk Reaction's members, however. Garcia cut his teeth in the Fort Collins scene as the original bassist for Armchair Martian and covered the four-string duties for that act until just before its debut album hit stores in spring of 1996. Citing a growing distance between his love for pop's melodies, hooks and straightforward arrangements and his former bandmates' Hsker D-meets-Merle Haggard sound, he amicably parted ways with the act and returned to his studies at Colorado State University. Or so the plan was supposed to go; the rock-and-roll temptress quickly seduced Garcia again, and he began laying the groundwork for his next project.
"I went back to school in the fall of 1997 and got a whole bunch of school loans," he says. "I started buying guitars and amplifiers for no reason. I started writing songs. I hadn't been writing songs for a long, long time. By the winter of 1997, I was ready to put something together all over again."
Meanwhile, Garcia's departure from the Armchair Martian flock led that band to court a near-legendary number of short-term bassists. Tejcek decided to pursue Garcia's old position after reaching an impasse with his then-current band, a combo whose name he either won't own up to or can't remember. "One guy that wrote music ripped off the Smashing Pumpkins with every song, and he'd use the stereo chorus," he says, miming a stomp on an effects pedal for emphasis, "so it'd sound like a jet landing when he played. The other guy, every song was a hippie song with 'chika-chika,'" he continues, imitating the guitar stylings of Parliament. "It was all right. It was a good experience. I learned a little. Maybe."
The possibility of hooking up with an established act that aped neither Billy Corgan nor George Clinton seemed promising to Tejcek. After failing to secure even an audition with Armchair Martian, he delivered an angry phone call to the band's frontman John Snodgrass, who in turn pointed Tejcek in Garcia's direction. Soon, Garcia and Tejcek were jamming and searching for a drummer.
The band worked its way through three drummers -- including Damon Smith, who appears on Modern Pop Rockets -- before the Jerks finalized their lineup last summer with the addition of Ty Dokken. The band plans to test the waters of national exposure with an impending tour. Garcia says he hopes to open people's eyes to the possibilities of the band's emotionally driven pop, a sharp contrast against the floods of novelty bands running amok in the pop-punk playground.
"It used to be bands like us that would be writing songs that spoke to the troubled seventeen-year-old or the troubled 27-year-old," Garcia says. "It used to be bands like us that would speak to that kind of person. Now bands like us only sing about Claire Danes or Neve Campbell or whatever their favorite supermodel is right now."
Modern Pop Rockets certainly doesn't waste its time professing a love for starlets. Instead, Garcia, the band's songwriter, aims his focus on more weighty topics, from the post-breakup blues of "Crush Me" to the urban psychoses of "Scared," themes recently migrating to the songbooks of emo-core acts. Despite Knee Jerk Reaction's affinity for the embellished musical psychodrama reigning supreme in the world of post-hardcore, it's a style Garcia's pop mindset can't quite fathom. He stops to ponder an act the band once played with while on tour, an emo outfit that displayed the typical post-rock flourish for grand arrangements.
"They just emoed it up for about 45 minutes, playing seven songs!" he says. "They were pretty good and everything, but man, oh, man, why do those guys have to play so long?"
In spite of Garcia's aversion to artsy arrangements and his preference for three-minute scorchers, there's no challenging Knee Jerk Reaction's affinity for songwriting's darker side. Inspiration flows from many different springs; Garcia just happens to drink from one that doesn't give birth to novelty pop numbers. His strength lies in his ability to cloak downbeat themes in sparkling pop outfits. Lyrically, his muse may be a surprising one.
"Jeff writes all the songs, if not lyrically, then in spirit," Garcia says. "Everything that comes out of his mouth is a new song. He has so many issues! That's why our songs are so depressing. If we had a happy-go-lucky fun guy in the band, rather than Jeff, the songs wouldn't be so depressing."
Though the trio's work blends gray emotional depths with catchy arrangements, its members don't see the rise of gritty pop anytime in rock's foreseeable future. With an insightful, if complacent, air of self-defeat, Tejcek knows that many listeners associate the kinds of themes the band broaches through alienated poetry -- shattered hearts, disillusioned youth -- with forms more suited for dark hearts like harder punk, goth or emo. It's a dilemma Knee Jerk is familiar with: They're too pop for punks, too depressing for popsters and too straightforward for the emo set.
"As far as the emo thing goes, I think emo will always stick around, because it will appeal to a certain type of seventeen-year-old who has issues, or in my case, a 27-year-old who lives with an evil woman," he quips.
Jokes aside, both Tejcek and Garcia, 28, bring a sense of maturity to pop punk that's missing from a genre that threatens to buckle under Blink 182. Their ages also provide the pair with fodder for more self-abusive ribbing: As the two consider the effects the dreaded process of maturation has had on their favorite acts -- many of whom toned down their power pop for softer acoustic fare, à la the Goo Goo Dolls -- they see something similar in their own future.
"We've got about one good rock record left in us," Garcia says, "and then it's acoustic all the way."
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