The Bottom Dollar
The first time Paige O'Meara met film director James Merendino in a Salt Lake City dive bar, he was convinced that the square-looking guy swilling beers behind Buddy Holly specs was, to put it delicately, full of shit.
"I've met a lot of delusional people," O'Meara says. "I met this guy in a gutter once who said he was John Cougar Mellencamp's uncle. Another guy told me he used to be in the Ramones. People just lie to me all the time."
So when Merendino, who'd seen O'Meara and his bandmates in the 8 Bucks Experiment (Paige's brothers Evan and Alfred, and now-former experimenters Dan Epstein and Bart Dahl) gigging in a nearby club the night before, asked the bandmembers if they'd like to appear in a feature film he was shooting in town, Paige was more than a little skeptical.
"I asked him if he was the guy who made Jaws," Paige says. "When he said no, I basically told him to fuck off."
"This was just the diviest, diviest bar in the world, and there were all these people in there who looked like they were straight out of a Jane's Addiction video," says Evan, the oldest O'Meara, who handles vocal duties. "They were wearing furs and boas and stuff. There were these British girls who said they used to date the Sex Pistols. We were like, 'Whatever.'"
"Yeah," adds Alfred, "until we found out they actually did."
As the night and the beer wore on, the bandmembers stopped snickering and started listening to Merendino a bit more closely. The former punk rocker, who'd spent a fidgety youth in Salt Lake, had left the city to pursue a career in film. By the time of the 1997 meeting, he'd already done the festival circuit with his features Toughguy (with Heather Graham) and Livers Ain't Cheap (with Twilight Zone icon Rod Serling). What had brought him to the diviest bar in the world, then, was not a lack of funds or an alcoholic bent, but a location scout for SLC Punk!, a feature film then in production. The film, Merendino explained, dealt with suburban teenage angst in the '80s, the same time punk rock started making its way across America, even to the temple-lined avenues of Joseph Smith's town. Matthew Lillard, described by Paige as "the tall goofy kid in Scream who gets a TV jammed on his head," had signed on to play the film's lead role, and legions of Salt Lake youth -- more than willing to put some Manic Panic dye in their hair and slamdance for the cameras -- had volunteered to be extras in a club scene Merendino was staging. All he needed was the right band to play the part of Extreme Corporeal Punishment, a British band modeled after punkers GBH, who visit Salt Lake on an American club tour. In a narration, Lillard's character, Stevo, describes ECP as "one of the toughest, most hardcore bands in the UK. Good band as well."
More than three years later, the brothers and new bassist Joel Kline drink beer and vanilla Cokes while sitting around a faux diner booth at Gunther Toody's in Englewood. It's the kind of place where fully grown adults unlucky enough to be celebrating birthdays in the establishment are forced to wear paper hats and harassed by clapping, singing waitresses bearing free sundaes. Amid the cacophony of the restaurant, the brothers recall the encounter and agree that the decision to make the film was a no-brainer.
Since forming in 1995 as 8 Bucks (they later added "experiment" to clear up confusion that the band's name referred to the price of show admission) and first playing out in 1996, the boys struggled to make a dent in the local scene -- playing occasionally at clubs like the Raven and the 15th St. Tavern as well as warehouse parties that often were reduced to little more than drunkfests. Denver, they say, seemed to embrace pop, garage bands and straightforward punk efforts but didn't quite get the Experiment's, well, experiments. Epstein was handling the songwriting then, and he preferred weird time signatures and spacey guitars to the simple song formulas of much of the punk cannon. The band's first recordings -- a handful were released on Blue Moon Records, a nationally distributed local imprint manned by Evan -- were more Pink Floyd than Minor Threat, more Jesus Lizard than Dead Kennedys.
"It was sort of like music that other musicians would really appreciate," Kline says. "But it wasn't really something that would draw crowds to clubs."
"People didn't get it a lot of the time," Paige adds, "but when they did, they really got it."
The Experiment, though, has never felt limited to Denver audiences, and the group began touring frequently in 1996. Strange things sometimes happened on those early tours. As one would expect when a group of squirrelly young men are cramped in a van for weeks, some of the stories are disgusting, some sweet, some painful. There's the time Evan vomited a complete circle around the van, twice, in front of Emo's Club in Austin. And the time he made out with a girl in a treehouse for hours after a show. Alfred once broke his arm and had to be rushed to a hospital after leaping over a drum kit in Utah. And once he watched a patron in the men's room of a Mexican restaurant scrape drugs off the interior of a urinal. Yet every now and then, something just plain cool would happen -- like meeting a like-minded film director over draft beer.
Merendino and SLC Punk! came out of nowhere, one of those fairy-tale discovery stories bands dream about while highlighting tour routes on a map. If 8 Bucks accepted the offer, Merendino said, the band would be paid, its music would be featured in the film, and the footage of its performance could be used as a music video. There was also the possibility that the band's warped rendition of Hendrix's "Hey Joe" would be included on the soundtrack CD released by Hollywood Records, a placement that would find it sharing liner notes with the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols, the Specials and newcomers the Suicide Machines. (The song did wind up on the soundtrack's European issue, and the corresponding video has seen some play across the water and locally on Teletunes.) It would help pay for upcoming recording projects. It would make their musical parents proud (prior to serving as the driving force behind O'Meara Ford Center and O'Meara Isuzu, father Ryan was the guitarist for the Daniels, a Denver band that enjoyed success in the '60s; mother Jody is a former singer.) And maybe, for a moment or two, it would make them feel like rock stars and movie stars. After signing off on the project, each bandmember was required to join the Screen Actors Guild, and Evan was even trusted with two speaking lines. (Both were delivered in an admittedly bad British accent: "Fuck off and die," he says in one scene; "He's too bloody violent," he snorts in another.)
"We were there for three days," Paige recalls. "We had our own trailer, and we were treated like kings. I asked this one person for a towel, and they brought me three different kinds of towels. I cannot imagine how real actors get treated."
The band's moment in the floodlight was, typically, somewhat short-lived. SLC Punk! wasn't released until two years after the filming, when it enjoyed a screening at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and a very limited theatrical run (including screenings at Denver's Mayan Theater). About a month ago, Blockbuster licensed the film for national distribution, and the film can now be snatched from the mega-chain's New Releases shelf amid myriad copies of She's All That and Shakespeare in Love. But after the filming, things changed within the band musically and personnel-wise. Epstein and Dahl left to pursue other projects, which left Paige in charge of playing both bass and guitar as well as writing songs. For a while, 8 Bucks was strictly a brother act, yet the trio continued touring -- no doubt fielding the occasional Hanson joke -- and redefining its sound. With Paige penning the tunes, the 8 Bucks sound veered into more accessible territory, away from the sometimes meandering style Epstein had made the Experiment's signature. The band's first full-length, Cockstocking, was recorded and released on Blue Moon in 1998 and was more straightforward in its aggressions. Still, the sound was tight, full, creative.
Local audiences responded to the change in a way that increased the group's fan base exponentially. Suddenly, rather than confounding audiences with discordance, it was winning them over. Today the band refers to its followers as the Legion of Doom, a mix of punks, music geeks and, as Evan describes them, "waiters -- clean-looking guys wearing Abercrombie & Fitch who come to the shows and just freak out." The band has also found considerable favor with hardcore females enamored with the brothers O'Meara (some of whom sport bicep-long Experiment tattoos, a thick black illustration of a flaming numeral eight).
Kline, a former independent band manager and booking agent who cut his teeth as a bass player in a "cheesy pop band" called Psychic Sedition, joined the Experiment in July. Psychic Sedition, which favored playing Aerosmith covers in parks and at house parties, didn't quite prepare him for life as a full-time 8 Bucks member. "It was very intimidating," he says of those first practices. "My hands were shaking so much I could barely play." Kline might have overcome some of his early apprehensions had he joined his bandmates on a regional summer tour, but his parole officer didn't see it that way. "They call me the jailbird," he says of a period he spent in Denver County for parole violations following a DUI arrest. "I don't care if you print that, because I guess it's kind of hardcore and fitting."
"Hardcore and fitting" might suffice as a descriptor for the band's latest studio project, a soon-to-be-released full-length recorded at the Eight Houses Down studio with local producer Matt Luwen. Loud, at times even funky, the energy between players practically leaps out of the skin of the melodies. This is hard music -- tough themes, tough delivery -- something that probably won't dissuade those who describe the 8 Bucks sound as difficult to listen to. Lyrically, the themes are angsty, restless, at times confused and sad ("Columbine Death March," for example, finds Evan expressing his frustration with both high school bullies and the massacre last April). Easier to take this time around, though, are Evan's vocals -- softer than on previous recordings, they skirt dangerously close to something resembling singing. "Yeah," he says. "I thought I'd try that out. Singing."
The album is as yet untitled (the brothers don't seem to share Evan's enthusiasm for "Shit Eating Grin"), but that hasn't stopped them from shopping it to potential label sponsors. If there are no takers, they'll simply release the thing on Blue Moon sometime in early spring. The band is also in the midst of shooting a video -- and live footage from Friday night's show at the Raven is likely to be included. "After that, the videographer is going to use a chroma-key to put us wherever he wants," says Kline. "I'm hoping for Radio City, or maybe on top of the Apple building."
To hear the bandmates chatter optimistically about their plans, it's hard to imagine the hardass cynicism that led them to assume that James Merendino -- an ambitious, bright-eyed guy confident enough to approach a virile group of young punk strangers -- was a phony back in that Salt Lake bar. Today, they plan to make it -- or at least produce something worthwhile -- and to have fun doing so. Could it be they learned a lesson from the SLC Punk! experience? That maybe, though the sentiments of their songs reflect something different altogether, the world isn't always shit? That sometimes the nerd at your elbow is the guy who's going to give you your first break?
"I guess he had the last laugh," Paige admits. "Because now he's working for Miramax, and I'm eating dinner at Gunther Toody's."
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