Them's Fightin' Words
For somebody who just got his teeth knocked out, Mike Damron looks no worse for wear.
In fact, aside from slightly chipmunked cheeks, you'd never know the frontman of I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House had just had his wisdom teeth pulled a few hours earlier. Damron is polite and animated as he sits with his bandmates in a cramped, hospital-hued conference room in Austin during the South by Southwest showcase, discussing the outfit's latest release, Live at Dante's.
While most live records seem more like a band's attempt to fulfill contractual obligations rather than create a vital document, it's hard to fathom why the Portland-based Sonofabitch has ever put out anything other than bootlegs of bar gigs. Dante's is a bucking bronco of blistering riffs, with a rhythm section that sounds as if it's about to careen off a cliff, and the vocals of Damron, who howls like a tent preacher with a lit shot of bourbon in his lungs. "The live record is a good representation of who we are," says guitarist Jon Burbank of the straight-through set that includes expletive-laced between-song banter and a couple of graceful fuckups. "We really love our studio records, but we wanted something that could capture what we do live, mistakes and all."
"We also wanted to capture how the songs change over time," adds harmonica player David Lipkind, who digs into the bottom of each song with playing that's heavy, rough and percussive. "You record something in the studio, but when you tour with it, the songs change, and we wanted to find a way to let people hear that."
Sonofabitch's loquacious moniker comes from the autobiography of John L. Sullivan, the last world boxing champion to fight bare-knuckled -- which makes perfect sense as soon as you hear the band's gloves-off approach to its music, an unholy fury of punk, outlaw country, big-balled AC/DC rock and frenzied blues. If B.B. King downed a fifth of Jack Daniel's and got into Motrhead, it might sound something like this. Damron shrugs off such a comparison.
"I guess it's blues-based," he says. "I just like big, '70s guitar rock and some hillbilly stuff, too. I don't really know what I'm doing when I'm writing. It comes out how it comes out."
Damron has clearly found his muse in Sonofabitch's music, which is a far cry from that of his previous outfit, Tablet, a late-'90s Brit-pop act from Dallas that once toured with Oasis. That band got jockeyed around and back-burnered by its label, in part because of the frontman's indulgence in rock-and-roll-junkie cliches. Damron, who played bass in the group, creatively disconnected himself and eventually parted ways with the other members. He soon began playing in an acoustic duo that invoked the earnestness of musicians such as Townes Van Zant, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark -- artists he drank with when he worked at Poor David's Pub in Dallas. Damron later emerged with Sonofabitch, whose songs have vitriol to spare. With the band's unkempt looks and broken-glass blues rock, you might expect it to trod safe, time-tested terrain, with songs about fighting, fucking and drinking. But Damron is a man with axes to grind, who gets riled just talking about the band's buckshot political swats. Take "Westboro Baptist Church," for example, which takes on Fred Phelps, the virulently homophobic preacher who gained infamy by protesting Matthew Shepard's funeral with signs that read "God Hates Fags."
"My brother's gay," Damron reveals, "and I hate bullies."
Granted, the track is more of a middle finger than a call to arms -- with such choice couplets as "Fuck Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church/Fuck him long and hard until his rectum hurts" -- but Damron is a blunt, honest guy. "Maybe it's an easy target," he admits. "It's not brilliant or anything. A lot of writers crap on it, but it's just my way of saying ŒFuck you.' Someone like Fred Phelps doesn't need any subtlety."
But the act's ire isn't focused solely on the elderly Kansas-based hatemonger, whose congregants recently made headlines in Denver for carrying signs reading "Thank God for dead soldiers."
"It's not just about Fred Phelps," Damron explains. "It's also about the whole mentality of fundamentalist Christians. The part of the song I wanted to showcase most was the part about the president. It's a very thin line that separates his ideology from Fred Phelps's belief system. They basically have the same beliefs as most born-again Christians. I'm aiming my venom at the whole ball of wax."
Although Damron spent time in the U.S. Army (101st Airborne/Air Assault division), he claims his anti-authority ideas and staunch liberalism did not come from his time in uniform. "The military taught me how to get along with people from other cultures and backgrounds," he notes, "but not my political views." Indeed. Damron's belief structures were already firmly in place long before he ever became an enlisted man. A precocious child of parents who were committed Democrats, he once fired off a missive to President Nixon, calling him a "murderer" for his involvement in the Vietnam War.
Damron and company are equally exasperated by the current commander in chief. Straightening out of the slow, slinking slouch that overcomes musicians when they're answering the same interview questions over and over, trying to forcibly analyze something they just feel in their bones, they all take enthusiastic turns pummeling the president.
"The whole situation is so simple and ironic," Burbank points out. "Christianity is supposed to be based on love, peace and compassion, and people like Bush dedicate their lives to everything that's the complete opposite of all that."
"I saw Bush before he got elected," Damron remembers. "He was talking with Pat Robertson on the 700 Club, and I said, ŒIf that guy gets elected, we're in for a world of shit.'"
Needless to say, Sonofabitch isn't playing any Republican fundraisers this week in Dubya's old stamping grounds. Neither are any of its shows sanctioned by SXSW; despite all of its passion, talent and acclaim, Sonofabitch didn't actually make it into the festival proper this year. Instead, the guys are in Austin performing at a few of the counter festivals, meeting their European booking agent and taking their music to the people.
"You don't need a fucking machine behind you to make music," Damron notes. "Just get out there and do it, if that's what you want to do. If you have to sell your records from the trunk of your car, that's what you gotta do."
Touring about half the year, the working-class Sonofabitch is getting closer to the goal of playing music full-time. "We're able to do music about half-time now," says Damron. "We've all got jobs where we either work for ourselves or bartend, and other musicians cover our asses when we're on tour. But it's all starting to fall into place. We're heading out to Europe, we've got great management, a great label and a great booking agent. It's taken about six to eight years to make a career out of this, and we're ready."
"It's more than just having a career," he goes on. "I feel like we have something to say. It's not like we've got this big grand scheme to save the world, but I feel like we've got something to say. Even when we're being stupid, we've got shit to say."
Sonofabitch has certainly had its say. Surprisingly, though, as outspoken as Damron and crew have been and as proactive as their performances are, the members have yet to be challenged to live up to their name. Apparently, Damron's dentist is the only one interested in extracting teeth.
"That's never really happened," he says. "Sometimes I've had good debates with people after shows. But good dialogue is a way for people with different opinions to see the other side a bit, even if you completely disagree."
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