Splayed across the floor of Fort Collins's Blasting Room studio, Jon Snodgrass--guitarist/vocalist for the punk band Armchair Martian--is fervently expounding on the virtues of one of his favorite musicians. But while Snodgrass is a modern rocker through and through, the object of his affection isn't Kurt Cobain or Dexter Holland. It's country singer Hank Williams Sr.
"Hank Williams is the king!" proclaims Snodgrass, his voice almost epiphanic. "That dude has so much soul. And he's a handsome man."
On the surface, the tunesmith behind "Move It On Over" and "I Saw the Light" doesn't seem to have much in common with Snodgrass and the other Martians (bassist/ vocalist Steve Garcia and drummer Paul Rucker). After all, the pile-driving power-pop anthems produced by these northern Colorado punksters--whose upcoming CD is slated for national distribution by Headhunter/Cargo, one of the country's fastest-rising indie labels--aren't exactly overflowing with pedal-steel guitar solos and Southern accents. But take a closer look and you'll discover that Martian ditties actually share many of the same qualities found in Williams's country shufflers: They're simple, straight-forward and, most important, catchy as all get-out.
Musically, the threesome is more often likened to HYsker DY, a power trio that put Minneapolis on the punk map during the Eighties. But Snodgrass feels the comparisons are purely superficial. "There's a million riff rockers out there," he points out. "But there's only a few that play guitar like Bob Mould. So when you hear that sound--that 'HYsker DY sound'--it's pretty distinct. There aren't very many popular bands out there that have that kind of sound."
"I actually haven't heard that comparison in a long time, though," Garcia interjects. "I guess it's because we've been playing a lot of all-ages shows lately, and most of the younger kids who come to our shows don't even know who HYsker DY is."
"Plus," Snodgrass fires back, grinning, "I don't write every song in G major anymore. So a lot of our new stuff doesn't sound as much like that."
Snodgrass's songwriting abilities didn't arrive fully formed. On the contrary, the burly guitarist has been busy perfecting his craft since his days as a teenager in St. Joseph, Missouri. It was there that he and childhood friend Garcia learned how to play their instruments in between sessions spent listening to the seminal Midwest sounds of the Replacements, Uncle Tupelo and the aforementioned HYskers. But before the pair could become a part of the Bible Belt's punk-rock legacy, Garcia's family relocated to Fort Collins. Left without a jamming partner, Snodgrass followed three years later. Today the guitarist claims he made the change for meteorological as well as personal reasons. "Missouri is hot," he notes. "And this is nice. Besides, St. Joe is a pretty depressing town. That year, Money magazine rated it the second most depressing place to live in the country next to Flint, Michigan. And that was the year that the whole Roger and Me thing was happening in Flint--everyone was losing their jobs and everything. It was pretty bad news.
"On the other hand," he continues, "I had heard somewhere that Fort Collins was rated the number-one most pleasant place to live that year. Plus they had this great place called the Hamburger Stand, where you could buy hamburgers for like a nickel. It seemed like a pretty good thing to me."
For Garcia, Snodgrass's move couldn't have come at a better time; he'd been having difficulty finding players with musical interests similar to his and had all but given up on the idea of starting a new combo. "Everybody I'd meet would be like, 'Hey, let's start a band," he recalls. "And then I'd show up at their practice space and there'd be, like, some cardboard boxes sitting there and they'd say, 'Oh, we're gonna play on cardboard boxes until we can get a real drum set.' Either that, or it would be some dude who'd be like, 'Come on. Let's jaaaaaaammmmm, maaaaaan.' And I'm like, 'Oh, isn't this nice.'"
Garcia's situation improved dramatically when his pal arrived in town. Thanks to a prolific songwriting streak Snodgrass enjoyed before leaving Missouri ("I didn't have any friends, so I spent all my time playing," he jokes), the two had oodles of original material to tackle. Within a month, they'd secured a drummer and started performing locally. Looking back, Snodgrass laughingly describes this earlier, less experienced version of Armchair Martian as "totally weak. Our first drummer didn't really work out. He was a good guy, but he smoked a lot of pot. And he really wasn't much of a rocker."
After a particularly embarrassing experience warming up for Big Drill Car at a Fort Collins club, Snodgrass and Garcia sacked their skins man and replaced him with the more competent Rucker. According to Snodgrass, the transition was a rocky one, despite the drummer's decidedly superior musical skills. "I didn't like Paul at first," he admits, chuckling. "And neither did Steve. But he was one of the best drummers around. He was playing in this cheesy jam band that sounded a lot like Pearl Jam, but with even less structure, if you can imagine that. When Steve and I saw them the first time, I remember thinking, 'Man, this band sucks, but the drummer is totally rad. I bet if you took half his drums away, he'd be a serious rocker.'"
"I was Iron Maiden boy," Rucker explains. "I learned how to play listening to Dio records. But in the last five years, I've slowly come around."
Once their personality differences were ironed out, the players in the new-and-improved Armchair Martian refined their chops, then hit the road. They've since played dates on both coasts and several points in between, including a West Coast stretch with Lagwagon, a signee to the Fat Wreck Chords imprint. For Snodgrass, the jaunt was "awesome. We played a show with them in Denver and they asked us to go on tour with them. And it was probably the best time we've ever had. They were so cool. They were like people we would have been friends with in high school. It was really sad when we had to say goodbye to those guys."
The series of shows made an impact on Lagwagon's Joey Cape as well--so much so that he included two Armchair Martian cuts on Happy Meals, a compilation of punk-pop tracks pressed on his own My Records label. Other acts on the disc include Bracket, Jughead's Revenge and Summer Camp, recently inked to Maverick, which is overseen by everyone's favorite mother-to-be, Madonna.
The Martians made an equally positive impression on the folks behind Headhunter/ Cargo. The company, once home to SoCal heavyweights Rocket From the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu, issued the act's first single earlier this year and has since agreed to front cash for a debut album. Due to hit stores in September, the disc is being assembled at the Blasting Room, an outfit owned and operated by the members of All, who recently moved to Fort Collins.
Everyone in Armchair Martin seems quite pleased with the Headhunter/Cargo deal, even though it's far from the most lucrative in pop-music history. "They're basically giving us the money to make this record," Rucker says. "But we're not going to be running out and buying any new cars or anything like that."
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Declares Snodgrass, "I don't know about these guys, but I'm not really physically or mentally rock-and-roll ready to be on some big label and be out there playing for bunches of people. If you ask me, a big/little label like Cargo can do ya just fine."
It's too soon to tell how good Armchair Martian's offering will be, but at least Snodgrass has a worthy musical role model. "I like anything that has a lot of emotion," he states. "All types of music are good, but there are only certain people from every genre that are for real. And Hank Williams is definitely one of them."
Add Snodgrass, Garcia and Rucker to that list.