Summer of Hate
Okay, it may be more than a leeetle hard for most people to believe that the forthcoming album by the Hate Fuck Trio represents a new level of maturity for its members.
After all, their latest is called Good Songs to Fuck To, even though, as singer/guitarist/provocateur Sam DeStefano concedes, anyone who actually tried to do the strange with the disc playing in the background would have to be "fucking crazy." Moreover, tunes on the platter include "Liverworks," a finger-poppin' tribute to peddling human organs whose first line is, "I think it's groovy that we found a corpse in your backyard"; the sunny, non-judgmental "Grandpa D. Was a Gangster," about a man reputed to have brutally slain a baseball team's worth of people; and "Uncle Tickles Me a Lot," a brassy portrait of a lascivious grab-ass artist that displays not the slightest hint of moral condemnation. Indeed, Sam feels the last ditty's protagonist has a lot in common with his band.
"'Uncle Tickles Me a Lot' is walking a fine line between doing something questionable and actually committing a crime," he says, "and in a way, that's kind of what we do, too. We relate."
Dig beneath the tracks' sensational aspects, though, and there are surprises aplenty -- not only more musical variety and production acumen than these guys have demonstrated in the past, but a thematic approach that's almost (gulp!) serious. "All these songs are about not judging a book by its cover, how not to be seduced by words, and looking beyond the superficial," declares Jon DeStefano, Sam's bass-playing, vocalizing brother and co-conspirator. "That's like the secret part of the Hate Fuck Trio that nobody knows about."
It's not the only one. The last couple years in the life of this four-man Trio (which also includes guitarist Bart Dahl and drummer Tim Reed, occasionally supplemented by official "band drunk" Tommy Simonich) have been dominated by the sort of close calls and near misses that many Denver combos experience when trying to expand their following beyond the city limits. But while most of these stories tend to turn sour, the Trio's tale has thus far avoided an unhappy ending. Depending upon who you ask, that is.
"Our girlfriends and our parents are like, 'Get a job, get a job, get a job!'" Sam notes. "But we're like, 'No way. We hate that shit.' We love music, and it's cool that we're still getting to spend our time making it."
Back in 1999, this pursuit seemed well on its way to becoming a profitable career. Thanks to its releases on Seattle's Shaky Records (namely the entertaining full-length You Know, For Kids and the Frank Sinatra-obsessed EP Ol' Blue Eyes, both issued in 1997), the Trio came to the attention of nationally known punk outfits such as NOFX, a pop-punk powerhouse whose leader, Fat Mike, just happens to run his own successful label, Fat Wreck Chords, as well as overseeing a spin-off imprint, Honest Don's. After the DeStefanos became snowboarding buddies with NOFX guitarist Eric Melvin, the Trio was invited to open for the group during a tour of Japan and to make a long-player for Honest Don's. But although the Japanese jaunt went well, the sessions for the album, conducted at San Francisco's Motor Studio, eventually ran out of steam.
A lack of pre-production time was partly responsible for this turn of events, but the main culprit in Sam's view was the collision of the Hate Fuck Trio's eccentricities with the fine-tuned, assembly-line Fat Wreck Chords style. In the hands of engineer Ryan Greene, who oversees most of the label's studio sessions, and producer Melvin, the band began sounding like practically every other horse in the stable, which Melvin and the players eventually agreed was not good for anyone; according to Sam, "It was like hammering a circular peg into a square hole." In the end, all concerned cordially chalked up the project to experience and walked away. But what happened to the recordings? Jon smiles: "There are $20,000 worth of tapes sitting in a trunk in our garage."
These days, that garage is much more than a place to park cars. Upon returning to Denver, the brothers DeStefano decided they needed to build a studio of their own -- and despite a decided lack of funds, they set out to do so. They eventually financed the purchase of such high-tech gear as a 64-track digital ProTools sound board (not to mention the construction of a skateboarding half-pipe out back) using the proceeds of weekly yard sales. Much of the merchandise consisted of old clothing raided from the closet of guitarist Dahl's mother. "She didn't mind," he insists. "She said she thought it was cute."
Even after the newly christened El Recordo Studio was completed, the Trio still had one more obstacle to overcome: The band had lost its drummer along the way, and was having a helluva time finding a replacement. Eventually Dahl and the DeStefanos recruited Reed, who also smashes the snare for Agent Minor, a punk act that's in the midst of putting down tunes of its own at El Recordo. (So, too, is a likeminded band, O'er the Ramparts.) But prior to bringing him aboard, they poured their creative energies into a hip-hop project with a distinctly Denver feel; most of the beats were lifted from local punk singles. The players were so pleased by the results that they've transformed this experiment into a side project dubbed the Headless Hobos. The name was partly inspired by decapitated homeless men found near Union Station last year, but for Sam, it also has a deeper meaning.
"We are headless hobos," he says. "We're idiots and we're busted -- busted in the gutter."
"I'm still living at home," Jon chimes in. "I'm living at home in the basement even though I've been married for three years."
The impending appearance of Good Songs to Fuck To may not change that, but at least the CD will be widely available. In the U.S. it's being put out by HairBall8, a division of San Diego's Cargo Records that's home to Barnyard Ballers, the Scotch Greens and Furious IV (Cargo is also re-releasing the Trio's Shaky Records material); in Japan and most of Europe, it'll come courtesy of England's Boss Tuneage; and in Poland, it's set to wear the logo of Lasagna Records, chosen in deference to the DeStefanos' Italian ancestry. Says Sam, "We're really hoping they'll put out a seven-inch of 'Grandpa D.'"
Ah, yes -- Grandpa D., better known among true-crime aficionados as "Mad Sam" DeStefano, a contemporary of notorious capo Sam "Momo" Giancana who Sam and Jon say was their paternal grandfather. "I'm named for him," Sam declares about the man FBI-agent-turned-author Bill Roemer once described as "the worst torture-murderer in Chicago's history," with more than two dozen cadavers to his credit.
Considering the DeStefanos' well-earned reputation as pranksters, doubters are hereby given permission to do their thing -- but let it be known that the sincerity with which they talk about "Mad Sam," not to mention the voluminous detail they offer, is awfully convincing. They clearly enjoy being thought to have inside-the-Mafia knowledge that still might be dangerous to divulge: When Jon mentions Giancana, who reportedly shared a lover, Judith Exner, with President John F. Kennedy while JFK was in office, and then says, "You know, about the Kennedy assassination...," Sam yells, "Stop!" But at the same time, they're careful not to imply that they are living such lives themselves -- "I don't want anyone to think we're connected," Jon allows -- and argue repeatedly that people with a vested interest in keeping the mob legends alive have exaggerated the sins of the man the Chicago Tribune once called "a notorious extortionist, juice-loan operator and psychopath." In Jon's mind, "A lot of that is just lore."
And what lore it is. Author Roemer, in his book Man Against the Mob, writes about a back-up in a Chicago sewer that was caused by the frozen carcass of a guy "Mad Sam" had finished off using his signature weapon, an ice pick, while the May edition of Playboy recalls the demise of William "Action" Jackson, an overweight bag man whom "Mad Sam" left hanging from a meat hook for two days, during which time he was "beaten, shot, carved with a razor and burned with a blowtorch; a fed bug caught one of his killers gleefully reminiscing about the ordeal, regretting only that he died too soon."
"Mad Sam" met a violent end, too; in 1973, when Jon and Sam were three years old, he was shotgunned to death, allegedly at the hands of Tony Spilotro, the renowned goon who served as the model for the Joe Pesci character in the Martin Scorsese film Casino. (The DeStefano boys say that their grandmother received a courtesy call from the mob in 1986 informing her that Spilotro himself had been offed; his body wasn't found until several months later.) But the lyrics to "Grandpa D. Was a Gangster" don't linger on such moments; instead, they declare that "Mad Sam" had "enough juice to be a rock star" before reassuring their own loved ones, "Don't worry/I'm not gonna kill you/Let's enjoy the evening."
"If Jonny and I want to scare ourselves, all we've got to do is imagine, 'This is in our blood,'" Sam says. "So the song is really about breaking free from our history at the same time that we're celebrating the good side of him. And there was one."
Elaborates Jon, "Our grandpa had so much pride in Sam and I, because we represented a bright future free from all that crap. He saw us as hope for the future." After a pause for comic effect, he adds, "And now, of course, we're in the Hate Fuck Trio."
That's not so bad. The new CD, featuring guest appearances by pudgy porn celebrity Ron Jeremy ("Coming Soon," March 23) and All bassist Karl Alvarez, plus bassist John "Norwood" Fisher and saxophonist Angelo Moore of Fishbone, which may tour with the Trio later this year, is jammed with catchy, good-timey tunes. Highlights include the acoustic "Tomato Tomahto," the hooky slam-fest "Hit by a Bus," the battle-of-the-sexes farce "My Girl Do Not Think I Funny" and "My Dog, Auto," about Sam's excitable German shepherd, who's "bitten more people in the balls in this town than I can count," his owner admits with delight. But even though humor is sprinkled throughout the LP, Sam doesn't see the songs as mere jokes.
"We're experimenting, but we're doing it in a different way than we used to," he says. "We're actually trying to sing, which is a big change; when we first started, the best we could come up with was trying to sound like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. But now we can even sort of do harmonies, and we're getting more of an understanding of how really simple music can still be really great."
So does that mean you're maturing?
"Maybe," Sam says. "But hopefully not too much..."
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