Size Matters

It's a story as old and tired as Liam Gallagher's liver. A group releases an album on an independent label. Shortly thereafter, said combo is dubbed an "indie" band and in turn receives undying praise from the rock-and-roll press and indie-rock devotees who admire its staunch "DIY sensibilities." But unfortunately, this adulation fails to pay the rent--so after five years of living on Budweiser and Top Ramen, the outfit in question chooses to make an agreement with a larger label, which presents its members with a little walking-around money. Incensed by this decision to "sell out," fans go berserk. They immediately disown the group in favor of a newer, allegedly hipper act, leaving our hypothetical heroes to twist in the wind, forever stripped of their precious "indie cred."

Sound familiar? It sure does to Gaunt singer/guitarist Jerry Wick. Having lived through the hype that surrounded the Columbus, Ohio, music scene a few years back, Wick has watched many of his friends (including ones in the New Bomb Turks and the Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments) endure these sorts of growing pains, each with different results. Now he and his mates--guitarist Jovan Karcic, drummer Sam Brown and bassist/new addition Brett Falcon--are about to make the same transition. After seven years of recording with some of the country's most acclaimed indies, Gaunt has inked a deal with Warner Bros.; Bricks and Blackouts, its WB debut, is due to hit stores March 24. Given their background, it seems inevitable that the four will suffer some sort of backlash from longtime boosters. But Wick isn't worried. In fact, he writes off the entire indie-vs.-major controversy as a load of bunk.

"I think when bands start out, they should start out on an indie," he admits. "But then you have to progress. I mean, when Sylvester Stallone was doing pornography and he got the part of Rocky, nobody called him a fucking sellout. I think Patti Smith said it best when she said that rock and roll will be the new religion--the new Christianity. There's a certain piousness that goes along with this kind of music. Everybody has these certain rules and regulations and commandments they think need to be followed. But I don't really care about any of that. When you write songs, that's all that you should really care about. None of that other stuff matters."

Gaunt's new record is ample proof of that. Produced with the help of Tim Mac (Green Day, Halo of Flies) and Brian Paulson (Son Volt, Superchunk), Bricks and Blackouts picks up right where its critically acclaimed predecessor, 1995's Kryptonite, left off. "Anxiety," the raging salvo of an opener, kicks off a diverse collection; also on hand are bittersweet sing-alongs ("97th Tear," "Don't Tell"), whipstitch rockers ("Pop Song") and obstreperous power pop ("Powder Keg Variety") that's delivered with a feverish candor worthy of Jawbreaker and Samiam during the height of their underground glory. As for the title cut, it's a risk of the sort Gaunt has never taken before; were it not for Wick's raspy vocals, which hint at the ear-shattering gusto that drives the rest of the platter, the number could almost pass for an REM weeper. "This is the first time we've tried a ballad like that," Wick notes proudly. "It's almost kind of corny."

Corny or not, such adventurous detours set Gaunt apart from its scruffy contemporaries. Straddling the line between the bubblegum cool of the Monkees, the inebriated wisdom of the Replacements and the melodic brutishness of the Buzzcocks, the quartet continually smashes the stereotypes assigned to them by lazy but well-meaning rock critics like yours truly. "Punk pop" seems to be the most accurate description of the group's music, but Wick quickly dismisses the tag--particularly the "punk" part. "We've always considered ourselves a rock-and-roll band," he insists. "I don't even listen to any punk rock. I've always listened to rock, like Springsteen and John Cougar and Tom Petty.

"Our first tour was with the New Bomb Turks," he continues. "So everybody who came to the show thought we would sound just like them. But after they heard us, they were like, 'You guys aren't punk rock! You just did a slow song! You have a Smiths shirt on!' They were very disappointed that we weren't your typical testosterone-driven punk-rock band. We had a lot of complaints."

Reactions like these haven't prevented the musicians from recording with the punk-friendly imprints Crypt, Bag of Hammers, Amphetamine Reptile and Ohio-based Datapanik, which put out their 1991 debut, a split single shared with the Turks. The band's relationship with Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records, a firm whose lineup is dominated by electronic artists, is even harder to figure--on the surface, at least. Prior to hooking up with Warner Bros., Gaunt released three fine records on Thrill Jockey (Sob Story, I Can See Your Mom From Here and the aforementioned Kryptonite) that had virtually nothing in common with the cerebral, Can-like noodlings of Jockey signees Tortoise, Oval and Trans Am. According to Wick, however, label founder Tina Richards is "a rocker at heart. We were actually the first band she asked to be on Thrill Jockey. We did this show in New York that [Matador president] Gerard Cosloy asked us to play at, and she saw us there. About three weeks later I got this call, and there was this real timid voice on the other end. It was Tina, and she was like, 'Is Jerry from Gaunt there?' She told me that she had been trying to get up the nerve to call us for three weeks. At that point, she was too shy to call up bands and ask them if she could put out their records. Later on she hooked up with Eleventh Dream Day, which eventually evolved into Tortoise, and it was through Tortoise that she became interested in electronic music. But she still has a wide variety of tastes."

Richards remains loyal to Wick and company; she encouraged them to jump to the majors, knowing that Warner Bros. would be able to provide them with the exposure they deserved. Even now, Wick feels confident that Gaunt still has a home at Thrill Jockey. "She's assured us we can come back if things don't work out," he explains.

In the meantime, the players are focusing on the business at hand. Their Denver stop is part of an extensive tour that will take them through the South and up the West Coast. The band is then scheduled to make an appearance at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, followed by more lengthy jaunts across the East Coast and Canada. Wick, for one, is curious to find out what sort of crowd will turn out to see them now that they've moved on to bigger and better things. "After we toured with the New Bomb Turks, we went out by ourselves and we had all the quieter kids there who knew all the words to our songs," he remembers, laughing. "It's been two years since we toured. We'll just have to wait and see what kind of people we attract this time around."

And if the indie snobs decide to stay home and listen to their Fugazi records, so much the better.

Gaunt, with the Emirs and Sizewell. 9 p.m. Tuesday, February 17, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $5, 572-0822.

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