"I learned a few chords a few years before [the Emmas], and I never learned any more," says vocalist/guitarist/driving force Lisa Cook from a bar stool at the Kentucky Inn. "Three-chord punk rules. You can make so many great songs out of the same three chords."
"I don't know what a sixteenth beat is, or any of those drum words," adds drummer Eliza Jane Smith. "I have no idea what they're talking about, and I prefer it that way."
The Emmas probably horrify just as many gig-goers as they delight. Think of a hybrid of the Ramones and the Shaggs fueled by a disdain for the mainstream. Theirs is undiluted punk, complete with papery, catchy guitar noise, a basic blitzkrieg rhythm and a range that fluctuates from grungy rumble to barbedwire screech.
"I really, really, really get a kick out of offending people," says Cook, who writes the lyrics and sings them with such abandon that she occasionally appears to lose consciousness. "You think you can't go further, and you can -- you always can. Eventually, no one will be there, but until that point, you're always going to offend somebody."
The Emmas, named for Cook's recently departed kitty, were born in 1998 in a Denver church, where Cook and a since-departed rhythm section were afforded a practice sanctuary. The band -- then a hardcore outfit -- recorded a four-song EP, I Hate People, on a boombox. ("I fucking hate people," a misanthropic Cook now says of the title track, the first song she ever wrote. "I hate their fucking herds. I hate the way they're pigs. I hate the way they're cattle. I hate the People's Fair.")
Thankfully, the band's recordings -- two full-length discs in the past two years -- have progressed markedly since that initial EP. Last year, the band released more than a dozen catchy, raw tracks under the title The Emmas Turn 31 (a parody of the title and cover art of The Donnas Turn 21). That album was primarily shaped during a series of basement sessions recorded by Denver's Play Dead Records; Sherrie Hern, a former Rainbow Sugar member and onetime Emmas guitarist, appears on the disc alongside Cook and Smith. Candy, the band's second, soon-to-be-released effort, is a bit more polished. And though the Emmas have resisted production sheen in the past, the new songs work because the songwriting and lo-fi guitar noise shines. Recorded earlier this year by Dinnermints drummer Todd Ayers (who also manned bass for the Emmas on Candy), the album is only a studio bill away from seeing the light of day. ("Donations?" asks Smith.)
"It's so poppy," says Cook. "It doesn't have that garage-punk sound anymore. It's really easy to move your head to."
That wasn't always the case. The Emmas' first lineup disintegrated soon after one show, during which the drummer turned green with anxiety and vowed never to play live again. Cook was soon evicted from the church, but she possessed enough equipment for an entire band and began a search for new Emmas. Initially, she had trouble finding players who jelled with her jagged artistic vision.
"All these guys would come over," Cook recalls. "I could barely ever find girls. They would start playing, um, what's that stupid band I hate? Sublime. They would start playing Sublime songs, and I would just go upstairs and sit there."
Cook and Smith first met in 1999, after a day spent drinking on opposite ends of the Skylark's well-worn bar. "She had a little tiny tank top on," Cook says. "But she had never played drums before. I told her we had a show in two weeks."
"I told her I'd do it even though I didn't know how," recalls Smith. (Adds Cook: "It didn't matter.")
The new two-piece incarnation of the band thrilled the Cricket on the Hill crowd at its first gig. Cook and Smith's second performance together, however, was a step backward. The duo took the stage at a punk-rock warehouse party but left without playing anything more than a series of distorted E chords and a basic beat. "I spaced every one of my songs," Cook says. "We stopped and got off the stage."
The Emmas then got serious -- sorta. They established a thrice-weekly practice schedule and began to hone and refine their stripped-down sound. Hern lent her guitar to the mix for a spell but left the band last year. Following her departure, a bassist came and went as the result of a personality conflict with Cook. Current Emma bassist E-N (pronounced "Ian") Pumpernickel joined the fray earlier this year.