Something to Crow About
On wax, Bantam Rooster's T. Jackson Potter comes across like a certifiable head case, whooping and hollering like a man on fire and twisting his vocal cords into all sorts of intriguingly weird positions. But away from the mike, the native Michigander is amiable, soft-spoken, even inhibited--the polar opposite of his musical alter ego. So why the dramatic contrast? "Well, if the truth be known, I'm usually pretty loaded when I go into the studio," Potter confesses. "We usually lay down the guitar tracks first, and then I go back and do the vocals. And [producer] Jim [Diamond] likes to make sure I'm pretty liquored up before I go in there. Matt Smith, the guy who plays organ on one of the songs on the new record, is still talking about the whole thing. He says, 'Man, you looked like some kind of Tex Avery cartoon in there. I can't believe you were standing, let alone singing.'
"I've kind of got that whole Midwestern reserve going for me," he continues. "So that's my chance to get all that nasty stuff out of my system, I guess."
Nasty ain't the word for it. The Cross and the Switchblade, Rooster's new full-length on Crypt Records, is a downright wicked collection of shifty, soulful garage-blues freakouts wherein guitarist/vocalist Potter and drummer Eric Cook (recently replaced by skins man Mike Alonso) figuratively whip the ever-lovin' shit out of the basest works of Billy Childish, Ron Asheton, Charlie Feathers and Son House with the business end of a hickory switch. Some have called the end product rockabilly or psychobilly, but Potter takes issue with these tags. As he's quick to note, "Most of the stuff we do really isn't that calculated. It has more to do with what we're listening to at the time and what we're throwing into the blender at the particular moment. I mean, I work in a record store, and I listen to just about everything, so if I had to list all our influences, it would be a mile long."
Still, the guitarist's ears do prick up at the mention of the legendary Gibson Brothers, the brain-damaged Memphis outfit credited with spawning a slew of like-minded rhythm-and-blues terrorists, including Pussy Galore, Rocket From the Crypt and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Says Potter, "I'm a big fan of everything by those cats. And 68 Comeback, too. [Gibson Brothers/Comeback honcho] Jeffrey Evans has influenced me in more ways than I could begin to say, really. You know, I grew up listening to hardcore and punk rock and indie rock--that sort of stuff. And then I started to get into blues and country, and stuff like the Gibson Brothers and Tav Falco helped turn me on to a lot of different sounds I didn't know about at that point. They would cover a song by this guy or that guy, and I would be like, 'Oh, they did a song by him. He must be cool.' Then I'd run out and buy the record."
By 1994, Potter and his longtime friend Cook were ready to tackle a few obscurities of their own. The guitarist's former band, Kill Devil Hill, had thrown in the towel, and the pair started spending a lot of free time together pounding brews, watching old Hong Kong action flicks and generally fighting off the boredom of living in Lansing, Michigan. ("Lansing is a college town, and like most college towns, you tend to run out of things to do pretty quick," Potter explains.) The two also started woodshedding in Cook's basement, where they compiled what later became Bantam Rooster's first demo tape. After making a halfhearted attempt at finding supplementary members, they started gigging as a duo, both in Lansing and nearby Detroit. According to Potter, the two-piece arrangement worked out fine from the start. "All of our songs were written for a two-piece anyway--and we didn't want any excess baggage. In a town like Lansing, everybody wants to be in a band, but nobody wants to do the work. They think it's fun, and you make a lot of money and you meet a lot of chicks--but, of course, the horrible truth is that you do but you don't. So when it comes time to knuckle down, people tend to split."
Potter and Cook, for their part, were eager to stay the course, and upon relocating to Detroit, they found themselves rubbing elbows with modern Motor City favorites like the Henchmen, the Witches, the Go and Outrageous Cherry. Naturally, Potter took to his new environs like an alcoholic to Jack Daniel's. "There's so many great bands in Detroit right now, people who really know the history of this town--and they're really trying to do something with it. The roots run really deep here. Of course, there's plenty of lame bands, too. But it always seems that when a good band comes out of here, it's always really fucking good."
Apparently, Tim Warren at Crypt Records felt Bantam Rooster fell into the latter category. Upon hearing a demo, he called and offered them a record deal on the spot. The result of this newly forged alliance was 1997's Deal Me In, a record that has since become a classic in the minds of many modern-day garage-rock collectors. Produced at Ghetto Studios by the aforementioned Diamond, the eighteen-cut raveup finds Potter and Cook at their hell-raisin' best, teeing off on minimalist slop-rock masterpieces such as "Mix Luxury," "Man of Wealth & Taste" and the super-groovy "Sassy Blac*Tress." Looking back, Potter says he's still quite pleased with the effort. "When we did the first record, that was the sort of record we wanted to make. But this time around, Jim had a lot of new equipment and a nice, big, fat two-inch reel-to-reel tape machine. So we decided we were really going to up the ante."
They've succeeded. Whereas Deal is at times restricted by a spare, almost squelched tone, Switchblade plays more like a full-blown rock LP. In fact, tunes like "Safe Cracker," "Shot Down" and the frenetic "Electricity" sound as if they feature a full band--a trick they achieved by running Potter's guitar through three different amplifiers all miked and set to different levels. What's more, Cook uses a full set of drums on the CD, as opposed to the snare and kick drum heard on Deal, thereby enhancing the rhythmic depth of the songs. "The snare/bass drum thing worked pretty well originally," Potter says, "but it's one of those things where when you're a two-piece, your options are pretty limited. We didn't want to add somebody else, and we didn't want to add a bunch of crappy effects or whatever, so we opted for more drums instead."
The new configuration has certainly made things easier for Alonso, who, as the former drummer for the Detroit metal act Speedball, is accustomed to having plenty of things to hit. His skills should come in handy this summer, when the band is scheduled to tour both coasts in support of Switchblade and an upcoming EP on Australia's Au-Go-Go Records. Chances are this will be the duo's last fling with Crypt, as Warren has decided to get out of the record-making business and become a full-time ski bum. For some, this news may come as yet another sign that the popularity of underground rock in the Nineties is on the wane, but Potter isn't worried. "We're by no means done with what we're doing. I'm always hearing, 'Oh, the rock scene is dying out, and people aren't going to shows as much,' and stuff like that. But we haven't noticed any of that at all. We've been getting good responses everywhere we go.
"This is what I want to do," he says. "I'm not making a ton of money doing it. But right now, we're at the point where we can go out on tour and make more than what we'd be making if we were working. And I've got a job that lets me take off two or three months at a time and they don't squawk about it. So I see no reason to quit at this point."
Neither does his alter ego--especially after he's had a few drinks.
Bantam Rooster, with Teen Idols and the Hate Fuck Trio. 9 p.m. Friday, June 25th, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $6, 303-572-0822.
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