The Lapse of Luxury
It's always good to put yourself in new situations," says Scott McCloud, singer, guitarist and svelte frontman of New York City's Girls Against Boys. He speaks from experience. Since the band's previous incarnation, Soulside, formed in 1986, McCloud and his bandmates have perpetually reconfigured, revamped and recast themselves -- first as hardcore crusaders, then as mock-industrial rock stars and, ultimately, as mature and self-assured patriarchs of the post-punk underground. Girls Against Boys has also weathered a perilous voyage through the nether regions of corporate America as beneficiaries of a Faustian major-label deal that wound up costing the group nearly four years of its career.
McCloud, bassist Johnny Temple and drummer Alexis Fleisig began playing together in Washington, D.C., in 1985, in the tastily titled punk combo Lunchmeat. Together with singer Bobby Sullivan, they mutated into Soulside, one of the more intriguing bands on the legendary indie label Dischord at the time. "We were all coming from a D.C. punk background," says McCloud, "but Soulside wasn't real, super hardcore, like in a New York hardcore sort of way. We were trying to kind of extend what we were doing with that type of music."
Indeed, Soulside's two studio albums, 1988's Trigger and 1989's Hot Bodi-gram, mixed the raw edge and social outrage of D.C. predecessors such as Minor Threat and the Faith with a recombinant strain of dissonant texture and fluid, almost dub-like rhythm -- much in the way that Soulside's labelmates in Fugazi were just beginning to.
"After Soulside broke up, I went to school for two years in Boulder, studying film at CU," says McCloud. "I really got into industrial music out there. In Colorado at the time, there was no punk scene like I knew it back on the East Coast. Everyone was into all that early stuff on the Wax Trax label and all this real dark, art-rock type stuff. It was all about Einstürzende Neubauten and the Swans. There used to be great warehouse shows out there, too, with all these insane bands playing one bass riff for like half an hour. That's where I first became really interested in that whole first wave of electronic-dance type stuff."
After transferring to the film department at New York University in 1990, McCloud hooked back up with Soulside compatriots Temple and Fleisig. "Girls Against Boys began as basically just an experiment," recalls McCloud. "I think we wanted to give it a little more of a darker edge than Soulside, which was kind of more explosive, you know, more hardcore. We started out with a few studio freakout sessions where we just sort of laid down some weird tracks. It wasn't like a real band then. We just kind of fantasized about playing shows. But those sessions did end up becoming that first EP we did, Nineties Vs. Eighties."
Released in 1992, the EP's title alone gives a clue to GvsB's burgeoning penchant for deconstruction. Abetted by Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, Nineties Vs. Eighties was dense with samples, synthetic rhythms and corrosive guitars in a manner that sounded retro and prophetic at the same time.
"In our minds, I think we were doing a kind of hybrid of punk rock meets dance music, this weird, dark, punk-rock/disco stuff," says McCloud. "It was a little more...atmospheric, I guess. Even though it was pretty hard-edged, we were using keyboards and real repetitive bass lines, that industrial sound fusing with the sort of punk attitude. It's like that disco-punk thing from the late '70s."
Indeed, groups such as Killing Joke and Gang of Four had beaten Girls Against Boys to the dance-punk punch over ten years before. "People like Cabaret Voltaire had kind of fucked around with that same formula already, of course," admits McCloud. "We were huge Wire fans when we started out, and we definitely also felt an affinity toward Joy Division, especially since we were such a bass-heavy band. Very few bands, even post-punk bands, put the bass up front like Joy Division did."
The bass guitar became a focal point in GvsB's sonic arsenal with the enlistment of Eli Janney, Soulside's erstwhile soundman, on keyboards and second bass. The band's first full-length, 1992's Tropic of Scorpio, seethed with pitch-black sexuality and mechanistic precision. Temple and Janney's dark, viscous bass lines oozed in and out of the mix like oil slicks. The overall effect was that of a wrestling match between a pneumatic drill and a cyborg python.
The group's incorporation of keyboards was at least as unorthodox as its twin-bass, low-end onslaught. "The first tours that we did, we'd get up on stage, and people would see all these keyboards and they'd go, 'What the fuck?' It was totally taboo in the punk scene back then," says McCloud. "Of course, Eli had his going through, like, five distortion pedals at once. What's cool about keyboards is, they all become obsolete so fast. Ten years down the line, there are all these keyboards lying around that you can pick up relatively cheaply. And they make cool sounds, sounds that only that keyboard can make. You can come up with a couple of songs on one, and then you can just throw it away. They're kind of disposable."
Disposability, at least in the pop-cultural sense, serves as both method and theme to GvsB's lyrical approach. Sound-clip inanities like "How can I feed the kitty/How can I get up and party" and "Groovy groovy/Took it high/TV TV/Took it high" are bitten off, chewed up and spit out through McCloud's tobacco-torn larynx. "One of the things about the whole goth and industrial thing is that it's so dark, it's almost kind of cliche," he explains. "With Girls Against Boys, we wanted to make this music that was kind of atmospheric and mean and then put some lyrics in there that are almost like party lyrics -- just let the juxtaposition speak for itself. It wasn't intended to be like, 'Oh, man, fucking heavy!' I've always been sort of fascinated with the total hip-hop type of lyric or the total dance-party song lyric, only putting it in a different context."
Sort of like Joy Division's "Transmission," with Ian Curtis's eerie plea to "Dance, dance, dance to the radio?"
"Yeah, yeah, exactly," agrees McCloud. "Mark E. Smith from the Fall does the same thing, taking a seemingly innocuous statement and putting it in a creepy, weird context." McCloud's reference to the British post-punk legend is no coincidence: The two have been compared many times. Smith's fractured, sneering, spoken-sung delivery has had a clear impact on the Girls Against Boys singer. "I've seen the Fall so many times," he confesses. "It's always freaky. At this point, [Smith is] so fucked up that he basically looks like he belongs in an aquarium."
After two more albums on the formidable independent label Touch and Go, including 1993's epochal Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby, Girls Against Boys was riding high. The band's indie credentials and suave, photo-op fashion sense were garnering a modest amount of mainstream press, augmented by high-profile tours with the likes of Fugazi, Foo Fighters, Helmet and Rage Against the Machine. ("The reaction of the Rage crowd to our music was really good," McCloud remembers. "People really got into it -- going crazy, crowd-surfing, that whole thing. The name Girls Against Boys probably went in one ear and out the other, though.") While the breakthrough success of bands like Nirvana and Green Day in the early '90s had polarized the underground punk scene with regard to the whole "major-label issue," McCloud and company decided once again to toss themselves into the deep end. In 1996 they signed to Geffen Records. After delivering a final promised album, House of GvsB, to Touch and Go, the band began working on its major-label debut, Freak*On*Ica. It was time to sink or swim.
"There was definitely a lot of pressure with Freak*On*Ica. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to deliver something that was still indicative of our sound. We didn't want to lose our souls in the process, you know? But, of course, it was going to be melodically a bit more friendly," says McCloud. "With major labels, the whole nutshell is: Get on the radio. If you're not on the radio, you die. You have to write a fucking hit."
With GvsB already somewhat stigmatized by its new major-label association, Freak*On*Ica was, for many fans, the final straw. All of the familiar elements of the band's approach were still intact: the black humor, the brooding intensity, the pulverizing beats. And yet, its plastic production and near-pop sensibility steered Freak*On*Ica dangerously close to the histrionic shlock dredged up by Nine Inch Nails and Prodigy.
"When we finished Freak*On*Ica and I sat down to listen to it for the first time, I didn't recognize it at all," says McCloud. "I mean, I recognized it, but I didn't know what it was. It was just so weird-sounding. When I listen to it, I hear all the gaping holes of stuff I didn't do, or stuff that didn't work. It's funny, 'cause there's a lot of people I talk to who are like, 'That's my favorite record you ever did!' I don't know how to answer that. I think we were feeling so much pressure then that we spent way too much time in the studio -- so much so that we kind of lost perspective on what was going on. I think we cracked under the pressure a bit."
Was the band simply a victim of corporate extravagance, then -- of having the luxury of sitting in a studio polishing an album for months and months?
"Yeah, the luxury of losing our minds," replies McCloud with a laugh. "It happens to a lot of bands. When you make the decision to go to a major label, part of it is, wow, I'd love to have the budget to really go do something big. But with liberty, you make mistakes. It's easy to lose it. I try to look at Freak*On*Ica as a learning experience. I learned so much about music and about the kind of music I want to make by making that record. Overall, though, I'd have to say that it wasn't worth all the soul-wrenching shit we had to go through."
In an attempt to boost the less-than-luxuriant sales of Freak*On*Ica, Geffen put Girls Against Boys on tour with Garbage in 1998. "That tour was, uh, interesting," says McCloud. "We had done so much touring with the band, but this was very different. In some places, honestly, people had never seen anything like us before. They were literally freaking out, like, 'What the fuck is this? What is this noise fucking crap?' The biggest problem was playing in seated auditoriums, especially some of them that were kind of half full, kind of sparse in attendance. But I had a 200-foot mike cable, so I'd get down off the stage and just go fucking nuts and start jumping all over the place. People went fucking bananas. They didn't know what the fuck to do. They had never seen a person in a band come down off the stage and sit behind them in the auditorium having a cigarette. And singing while doing it! It was great."
After the letdown of Freak*On*Ica and the buyout of Geffen Records in 1999, Girls Against Boys began to get the cold shoulder from its label. "We were stuck in this weird limbo," says McCloud. "We were stuck in a contract with them, but they wouldn't let us put out another album. They dropped just about all the other bands on the label, but for some reason, they didn't drop us. Even if you have 'full creative control' in your contract, you don't really have full creative control unless you want to sue the company for it. It was a frustrating few years."
A reprieve was finally granted last year when Geffen let the band's contract expire without renewal.
"Basically, when we finally extricated ourselves from the situation we'd been in, our frame of mind was pretty no-nonsense," says McCloud. "We were like, 'You know, this is fucking bullshit. We can't be a band and not make stuff. We have to make a record right now. We're not going to sit around and deliberate about a lot of issues. We're just going to make music.'"
And make music they did. You Can't Fight What You Can't See, the first new record in four years, is a strong contender for the best yet. Allied with the flourishing independent label Jade Tree, the band is at a point where it has nothing to lose: this hungry desperation, along with a certain hard-knock wisdom, is the driving force behind the new album.
"We just wanted to make a more stripped-down rock record," McCloud says. "We decided to make the record with Ted Nicely, who had recorded a lot of our older stuff. We tried to be incredibly decisive. In the early years of the band, it wasn't until we were in the studio that we discovered exactly what it was that everyone else had been playing. Now we have a better idea of when to make things more linear or when to add more chaos."
Indeed, there is no fractal geometry at work on You Can't Fight What You Can't See. Arrangements are whittled down to elemental essence; hooks are chiseled out of one-chord granite blocks. One lesson that the major-label experience seems to have drilled into the players is the power of the pop song. "Basstation," the explosive opening track, rushes through the bloodstream like the Birthday Party topped with chocolate frosting. During the song's anthemic chorus, McCloud offishly observes, "In the context of no context/Everything cool is nothing new." "All the Rage," besides appropriating Tom Jones's "What's New Pussycat," also references the wrenching thrust of Fugazi's "Two Beats Off." Throughout the album, the pop components of bands like New Order, the Psychedelic Furs and even Sugar have been hardwired to GvsB's trebly, astringent, industrial attack.
"I don't think we've ever been opposed to having some pop aspect to our stuff," says McCloud. "It's really fun and liberating in a way, though in my mind, the more pop things get, the more I want the lyrics not to reflect that. The catchier a song is, the more I want to sing about something really fucked up. We just needed to have this new realm to work in, this new element. We're not going to go back and do Venus Luxure again. I mean, we wouldn't be able to. Things change."
As things change, goes the saying, so they remain the same. In the last ten years since the players in Girls Against Boys released their first EP, the innovations they pioneered in the field of punk rock have become accepted, commonplace, taken for granted. Keyboards, experimentation and overt sensuality are not only no longer verboten at a punk show, they're actually kind of cool. Hundreds of bands, among them Brainiac, Milemarker, Refused and Radio 4, have all thrived in a weird electro/post-punk territory that didn't even exist when Girls Against Boys first pounded angular hardcore through a battered Roland synth.
"After being inspired by all the music we were listening to back like ten or fifteen years ago, it's re-inspiring to see younger bands dealing with the same kinds of sonic issues and coming up with something different," says McCloud. It's kind of validating in a way. It's good to see people continuing the sonic chaos."
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