Don't get a Chevy," warns Sonya Decman, bassist for the Symptoms. "Bad crash-test ratings."
Sprawled in the living room of guitarist Josh Bergstrand's Highland home, Decman is giving advice to Bergstrand's roommate, Eli Mishkin, who is shopping for a tour van for his own band, Hot IQs. But like some punk-rock Ralph Nader, Decman is more concerned with safety than with sweet stereos or sun roofs.
"Know what's the worst?" she quizzes. "GMCs. They're terrible. Get a Dodge. Their engines are great, and they hold together in an accident."
Speaking of high-speed pileups, you might want to flip through Consumer Reports before strapping yourself into Middle Finger Romance, the Symptoms' debut full-length. While the group's previous effort, an eponymous EP released in 2004, hit with enough impact to deploy airbags, the new disc is a veritable demolition derby of sleek riffs, mangled screams and piston-pounding beats. And yet the trio (Decman, Bergstrand and drummer Rob Burleson, who wields the sticks under the name #3) knows how to pace itself. Amid fits of chaotic velocity, Romance veers expertly and shudders to abrupt halts with all the precision of a finely tuned machine. The album's opener, "Seatbelt for My Mustache," is the perfect encapsulation of the Symptoms' coolly channeled road rage. Aerodynamic and thoroughly kick-ass, the track burns rubber across the scorched asphalt of Bergstrand's vocals even as Decman's yelped accompaniment keeps it tightly locked into its track.
"It's about van safety," Bergstrand notes, assuming the voice of a high school driver's-ed teacher. "Keeping it safe on the road." The crew has moved to McCoy's Restaurant on Federal Boulevard, ordering eggs and milkshakes while two old men sitting nearby flash dirty looks at every loudly exclaimed profanity and burst of laughter. "We went on tour with Hot IQs last year," Bergstrand continues. "Back then, they were still the Royal We, and Sonya felt the need to give everyone advice on how to drive the van. Which is a good thing. It probably kept us all alive."
"They were teasing me because I was like, ŒYou guys have to be careful. We're top-heavy, and we could roll,'" Decman counters. "And what did we see on the way to San Francisco? A fucking van, just like ours, rolled on the side of the road, one that obviously belonged to a band."
The episode is detailed in the lyrics of "Seatbelt." After Bergstrand sings in a panic-stricken screech, "Ten and two/Hold on tightly to the wheel at all times/It's for your safety and for our safety," he adds almost gloatingly, "We saw your van on the side of the highway/When we brought the blitz on California."
"These kids were on the side of the road with their van flipped over," he jokes, "so we stopped and asked them where they were playing that night. We figured, hey, whatever the venue is, they were going to need a new band."
Even more viciously funny is Bergstrand's explanation of where the "mustache" part of "Seatbelt for My Mustache" comes from. "I don't know if you've noticed, but this guy has got a sweet mustache," he says, pointing to a gruesome nest of facial hair on Burleson's lip that's about as hard to miss as a Mohawk on the Mona Lisa. "In the van, we were listening to this David Cross bit where he's talking about how Dubya executes retards. They're about to execute this guy, and as they put him in the chair and start strapping him in, he goes, 'Cool, I'm on a ride! Seatbelt for my arms! Seatbelt for my legs!' So I start yelling at Rob, 'Seatbelt for my mustache!'"
Of course, the Symptoms aren't the first punk band to sing about automobile safety, be it pro or con: The Buzzcocks preached the abstinence of acceleration in "Fast Cars," and Black Flag celebrated sheer automotive nihilism in "Drinking and Driving." Fittingly, the music of Bergstrand and crew is suspended vaguely between the two, spiking indelible pop melodies with jagged angst and amps full of blistering treble. At the same time, the sound of '90s Ohio -- in a roundabout way, the Symptoms' spawning ground -- has been a huge influence on the outfit, with nods to such lauded acts as Brainiac and New Bomb Turks evident in its angular yet garage-framed style.
"I started playing bass when I was seventeen," Decman explains. "I was living in Baltimore and D.C. right when Fugazi and Shudder to Think and Lungfish and Moss Icon were starting. I wasn't in a band then, though, because all my friends were rock stars. I didn't feel like I was good enough to play."
But after a succession of projects -- including Brain Police, an outfit that recorded and toured extensively with heavier bands like Eyehategod -- Decman wound up attending Ohio University and playing in a group called the Knives. Frequently sharing a stage with her was a local band, Jet Lucas, which featured fellow OU student Bergstrand on guitar.
"I started writing songs when I was seventeen, but I didn't start my first band till I was 21," Bergstrand recalls. "Radio was really good at the time in Cleveland. The first time I heard Pavement and Sonic Youth and Mudhoney was on the radio. When I first met Sonya, it was at a record store. I sort of unofficially worked there, since I hung out there so much. She came in and bought a Shellac record, and I was like, 'Well, she must be cool.'"
Although the Knives and Jet Lucas toured together briefly, the bands eventually broke up and their members moved on. So when Decman relocated to Denver in 2002 and attended one of her first concerts, she was surprised to find an old comrade here.
"I had no idea Josh was moving to Denver, too," she says. "Then I went to see the Makers at the Bluebird, and the first person I see there, leaning up against the wall, is Josh."
Taking it as an omen, the two quickly began writing and rehearsing. With the addition of Denver scene veteran Steve Shiramizu on drums, the threesome played its first show in February 2003. Shiramizu left soon after, though, and following a miserably failed attempt at using a drummer that Bergstrand will refer to only as "#2," Burleson hopped in the back seat.
"I went to high school in Reno, so a lot of our weekends were spent in the East Bay area, the whole hardcore scene out there at the time," Burleson recounts. "This was back when punk rock was still respectable. We used to go to shows at Gilman a lot. I remember seeing AFI at the third show they ever played. Then I moved to Pittsburgh for college, and that's where I got into the political-punk scene, bands like Submachine and Anti-Flag and all those guys.
"But then I got burned out and didn't want to play drums at all anymore," he confesses. "To be honest, I enjoyed that whole political scene. In the '90s, that's what it was all about. But it weighed too much on me. It seemed that, on an everyday basis, you can't change the world. So I just started listening to music and not playing at all until I moved to Denver in '97. Then I started listening to a lot of San Diego bands like Fishwife and Drive Like Jehu. That's the stuff that made me want to play again. It's not flashy, but it makes a point."
And while the Symptoms openly extol the virtues of defensive driving, that's about as blatant a point as they choose to make in their lyrics. As Decman elaborates, "We don't like making grandiose political statements. Back in D.C., everything was political. It was inescapable. We used to do these punk percussion protests in front of the White House. It got really annoying, though. I mean, it was great that people were taking action, and the scene was very close. But they were a lot of really wealthy kids still living at home, bitching about oppression.
"When an artist or a band is young, they're idealistic, and they have this simplistic viewpoint," she adds. "They're singing about changing the world, when in reality, if you focus on yourself and things that have happened to you, you actually make a clearer statement about your beliefs. It becomes more genuine and more accessible. I think there's always political or social commentary running through our songs. But we're not here to change the world."
Just to make it a little safer.
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