Running on Fumes
"We're basically just a ham-fisted punk band," declares Matt Wright, lead singer for Seattle's Gas Huffer. "But I like to think that there's a little finesse to our music, too."
There is, but it may not be apparent upon first listen. After all, the four-on-the-floor ditties produced by Seor Wright and his compadres (guitarist Tom Price, bassist Don Blackstone and drummer Joe Newton) deliver more hair-raising thrills and spills than a Jackie Chan film retrospective: Touches of A-Bones garage skronk, Cramps-like psychobilly and Ventures-esque surf grooves all help fuel the quartet's nitro-burning charge. Yet the Huffers also have plenty to say. Like backwoods philosophers from a Li'l Abner comic strip, the musicians address many of the heated issues of our time--such as the perils of performing an appendectomy at sea ("Appendix Gone") and chronic foot odor ("Remove the Shoe").
For Wright, whose mighty sideburns leave him looking like a cross between Joe Strummer and Jethro Bodine, levity is an important part of the Gas Huffer ideology. "The main thing for us is that we don't like to take ourselves too seriously. Rock and roll is supposed to be dumb, and I think humor is an important function of music. I like to be able to write songs that are about breakfast or some weird bug I saw on the way home.
"That's not to say that we're some totally stupid goof band, either," he continues. "There is some thought that goes into the writing of the lyrics and the songs."
Indeed, Huffer does have its semi-earnest moments, as in "The Sin of Sloth," about the evils of apathy, and "Tiny Life," which takes a cartoonish poke at consumerism and conformity. Also weighing heavy on Wright's mind these days is the state of rock music, which he feels has taken a severe turn for the worse in recent years. "I'm trying to be positive and happy about the whole thing, but every now and then you can't help but think, 'What the fuck is up with rock and roll today?' Everything on the radio now sounds like, you know, Alanis Morissette. It's all that lame, manufactured, alternative-rock crap.
"Nowadays, when I go to buy records, I find myself delving deeper and deeper into the past to find new musical kicks," he adds. "Older music--like old soul music--is more of an exploration for me, even though I'm starting to lose track of what's going on, brand-new-wise. I used to be more up on it. But anymore, people come up to me and say, 'Hey, man, have you heard the new record by Super Jesus Box?' or, 'Have you heard the new Flood Shovel?' or something like that. And I'm like, 'Oh, yeah, that sounds familiar--I guess."
Not that the feisty singer has given up on modern rock completely. When prodded, he volunteers the names of a number of up-and-coming bands he holds in high esteem, including Austin's Lord High Fixers and Seattle's Steel Wool. But what truly inspires him is mention of the now-defunct U-Men, an abrasive postpunk combo led by Huffer guitarist Price during the mid-Eighties. Although the U-Men disbanded nearly ten years ago, Wright still cites them as one of his biggest influences. "Live, they were something to behold," he gushes. "They had a lot to do with the way I think about music."
The singer's admiration for the U-Men dates back to his days as a student at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. However, it wasn't until he booked them to play the town's local community center that he actually got to know Price. "I saw Tom on the street one day, and I asked him, 'Hey, how much would it take to get the U-Men to play in Walla Walla?' And he said, 'Oh, I don't know. About two hundred bucks,'" Wright remembers. "So I took it upon myself to promote this show.
"I'll never promote a show again as long I live," he goes on. "God, it was a hassle. I was pacing my dorm room. I was about to blow--the stress was just too much."
Despite this painful ordeal, Wright and Price kept in contact after the gig. Price subsequently invited the singer to join his U-Men side project, the Kings of Rock, which Wright describes as "this super-drunken cover band that played a lot of garage stuff as well as some Motsrhead songs and more punk-type songs."
Before long, the Kings ditched the cover tunes, changed their moniker to Gas Huffer and started writing original compositions. The first official Gas Huffer single, "Firebug," hit the streets in 1989. The disc was followed by two stellar LPs on Seattle's eMpTy imprint (Janitors of Tomorrow and Integrity, Technology and Service) and a truckload of singles on cool labels such as Estrus, C/Z, Sub Pop, Black Label and Sympathy for the Record Industry.
Thanks to the band's prolific nature, this red-hot material soon caught the attention of critics. Alternative Press touted Gas Huffer's sound as "high-concept punk" produced by the "hardest punk-rockin' bunch of boneheads in the whole Northwest." Billboard, a publication not exactly known for its punk allegiances, claimed that "the wound-up, bristling tunefulness of Gas Huffer is very good indeed." Even Maximum Rock 'N' Roll, a rag with a reputation for hating just about everything, proclaimed Gas Huffer as no less than "the single most important band today."
The group's reputation convinced Epitaph Records to sign Gas Huffer in 1994. The recorded spawn of this deal, One Inch Masters, and the recently released The Inhuman Ordeal of Special Agent Gas Huffer find Wright and company at the top of their form. Characterized by a hearty pinch of punky swagger and a heapin' helpin' of clever/stupid fun, these comic masterpieces are the perfect antidote to the Green Day soundalikes that lately have been swarming the radio waves like locusts. Together, Masters and Ordeal stand as two of the strongest entries in the Epitaph catalogue.
When asked about Gas Huffer's contract with the mega-indie, Wright quickly glosses over the subject. "Epitaph good," he grunts. "Be nice to Gas Huffer." But he's decidedly more loquacious about the act's contribution to Twisted Willie, a Willie Nelson tribute album that features such notable
performers as Johnny Cash, L7, the Supersuckers and Kim Deal. "Our friend [Supersuckers manager] Danny Bland was organizing the project. So we got him into a back room and, you know, kind of gave him a body rub and plied him with money and sexual favors until he just had to say okay for us to be on the record," he explains, his tongue definitely in the vicinity of his cheek. "He was just so relaxed he couldn't resist. He had that afterglow going on."
These efforts paid off: Gas Huffer's rendition of Nelson's "I Gotta Get Drunk" is one of the most entertaining--and fitting--paeans on the record. Wright, too, is pleased with the version. "I was amazed," he asserts. "I learned a lot just by trying to do a Willie Nelson song about Willie Nelson. I mean, his stuff sounds pretty straightahead on the surface, but a lot of what he does is really unique--like his vocal phrasing. He definitely approaches music in a strange way--much like Gas Huffer!
"There's your segue," he gleefully interjects. "It all comes full circle."
Gas Huffer, with Hagfish and Odd Numbers. 9:30 p.m. Thursday, April 4, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $7, 830-TIXS or 294-9281.
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