During his interview with Westword, New Bomb Turks vocalist Eric Davidson interrupts his frenetic monologues only long enough to take quick slurps from what must be his twentieth cup of joe that day. But caffeine isn't the only explanation for the frantic pace of Davidson's music. He and his cohorts (guitarist Jim Weber, bassist Matt Reber and drummer Bill Randt) admit to a propensity for speed that has defined everything from their recordings to their gigs, which pick up more momentum than a runaway boulder heading for a coach full of tourists. But with Scared Straight, their third release, the Turks have slowed down enough to disassociate themselves from the brittle, humorless genre that is hardcore punk. And as a result, they've hit their stride.
The evolution of the band mirrors the development of a more expansive approach to songwriting and music-making. "On our first record, we were very drunk," Davidson concedes. "And that's fine. But we probably played a couple of songs way too fast, which got us lumped under the hardcore tag--and we never really thought of ourselves as a hardcore band. Some of the lyrics are good, some are just tossed together, but you can't really hear them anyway, because the music is too fast."
These qualities are also present on the Turks' second album, Information Highway Revisited, but at least the players, who met as English majors at Ohio State University, grapple in a more overt way with the dilemmas presented by velocity. According to Davidson, "I was writing those lyrics right when I was actually loving college--my last three quarters. I had some great teachers and really started getting into my writing a little more. I was writing record reviews for different magazines and stuff, so I had all these ideas just flying around, and I tried to fit them all in. They're hard to sing sometimes, because when we play live, invariably the songs get a little bit faster. I had to learn to find a middle ground--kind of emotional and simple but fitting in a lot of thoughts."
The ideas that made their way onto Straight, the act's first release on Epitaph, aren't necessarily of a lyrical nature. Breaking faith with their ex-manager's counsel to "stick with what you know," the Turks have begun to incorporate songs and sounds into their oeuvre that fall outside punk's tried and true (and often redundant) format. It's something Davidson's been itching to do for quite some time. "On our first album, we recorded a song called 'Last Lost Flight' that was like a Fifties doo-wop sort of thing with a fast ending," he explains. "We put it out as a B-side because it was funny and we liked it a lot, but we didn't think it fit on the record. And then we did a song called 'My Hopes Are Copacetic,' which was my lame attempt at coming up with an Otis Redding kind of soul ballad. We recorded that and used it as a B-side, too. People were coming up and saying these were some of their favorite songs of ours."
Moving such material off B-sides and onto an album is only one of the changes that distinguishes the new disc; just as important is a willingness to diversify that breathes life into a musical style deep in the throes of rigor mortis. For example, "Wrest Your Hands," the Stonesy brawl that finishes the CD, is the product of improvisation and disparate instrumentation that the band was able to attempt thanks to its decision to record Straight closer to their Columbus, Ohio, homes. "We had to get the first and second records done in five days," Davidson says of their earlier efforts, "and we didn't have the money to be flying back and forth from New York and Austin and hiring studio musicians. So it had to stay pretty basic." But this time around, the Turks set up camp at a low-rent studio in Cleveland, where the performers could take their time without breaking the bank. Better yet, the facility was close enough to Columbus that musician friends who live there were able to commute to it. "We finally got to put some horns and piano on some songs," Davidson points out--and these additions elevate several of the CD's best cuts. On "Professional Againster," the combination of frantic piano and Davidson's yelping vocals turn the tune into a hooch-fueled bang that could make Jerry Lee Lewis's wives turn in their graves. Likewise, the horns heard through "Cultural Elite Sign-up Sheet" provide Who-like power rather than comic relief, thereby giving Weber's guitar something to scrawl against.
These signs of growth render the New Bomb Turks more interesting than the majority of their brethren. But their appeal runs deeper than that. Although they're unmistakably punky, they share more in common with the Ramones than they do with the poker-faced punks canonized by Maximum Rock and Roll during the past decade.
"Growing up in the Eighties, I didn't at all get into Chain of Strength and Youth Brigade, because it was boring," Davidson reveals. "It was all too fast and too macho and heavy. There was no trickery in it--no action or air in the songs." Among the Cleveland-area acts he most admired back then was Death of Samantha, which he describes as a cross between Roxy Music and the Sex Pistols. "What impressed me was their sense of humor. The drummer would come out on a pogo stick. He was this big fat guy, and here are these hardcore fans who are so serious--who think they've seen it all and that they know about death and anger and betrayal and government oppression. And a guy on a pogo stick pisses them off? I thought that was so fucking great!"
Davidson and Weber spun this type of punk--a breed exemplifed by the Didjits, the Supersuckers and the Devil Dogs--on "Poodles: Great Eating," a show they deejayed at WOSR, a now-defunct college radio station. "That's more what I think of as punk rock," Davidson enthuses. "It's fun, energy, good hooks and loose guitar playing. I don't think I could ever get tired of that, because that would be like getting tired of the Rolling Stones. It's just that it's faster."
As anyone who has seen middle-aged punkers stepping from poshly detailed tour buses will tell you, punk has a short shelf life and is the near-exclusive property of youth. But although the Turks are approaching the age when many onetime punks relegate their seven-inchers to the nostalgia portion of their collections, they continue to believe that they strike a sympathetic chord with their audiences. "Right now I feel energetic enough that the shows we put on--at least on the simple energy level--connect," Davidson says. "I can connect with kids who want to go see a good rock show, because I still like to go see a band really have fun and put it out for me. I can still connect to, 'Jesus, I had to pay the only five bucks I have this week to get in, and I'm gonna have a good time.' I can always relate to that."
Nonetheless, Davidson acknowledges that he has difficulty relating to several of the adjunct interests associated with the punk subculture. "I don't really understand a lot of the group fashion thing that goes on. A lot of kids are really into looking the same, but I never did, even in high school, when you're supposed to. And I don't understand a lot of the political fanzine stuff--like, 'Does Green Day sell out or not?' I don't care about any of that crap."
He's equally dismissive of both the violence that occurs in the modern mosh pit and the sex segregation it occasions. "If I'm on stage and if all these guys rush to the front and start moshing like crazy, sometimes I'll make smartass comments. Because I was never like that. If there were girls up front, I would never immediately go, 'Get the fuck out. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,'" claims Davidson, affecting the voice of a thick-necked thug. "I don't believe in that. They paid their money. You can just pogo up and down--you don't have to be wailing your fists all over the place." He adds, "We do have more mixed crowds, which is something I pride our band on."
When vicious knots of humanity form at the foot of the stage, Davidson uses a method of his own devising to untie it. "If the crowd is getting too mean up front, I'll make a comment like, 'Oh, you boys look really cute down front tonight.' They'll fan out, grumbling, 'Fucking fag,' and a few guys will leave--and it'll be good. Fucking beat it.
"Then again," he goes on, "I won't stand there like Ian MacKaye and lecture them in a parental tone for twenty minutes. People are fucking moshing at Hootie and the Blowfish shows, and it's pathetic. Guys think they're being macho, but it's stupid and sad, because a lot of women--and some guys, too--don't even want to go. I've been encouraged at most all-ages shows we've been doing lately, because I've seen that go down a little bit. Most people just jump up and down or squiggle around and shove each other. I wanna see more people doing the Watusi."
In the end, the New Bomb Turks are rock-and-roll purists, tracing the thread that runs through punk rock, garage rock and rockabilly. Theirs is the sound of hormones racing. "Each song and album as a whole should be a big, fuzzy, flaming ball that comes and goes by you, and then you let it sink into you later," Davidson declares. "Most of my favorite records are like that--the first Saints, the first Dead Boys, the Ramones. They hit you viscerally, and then later you realize, 'Hey, the Ramones are doing a song that sounds like a Beach Boys song but they're talking about sniffing glue.' And that, in a weird way, is a really artistic thing."
New Bomb Turks, with Dead Bolt. 8:30 p.m. Thursday, September 26, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $6-$7, all ages, 830-
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.