Music News

Snake Appeal

Blood isn't supposed to be pink. But it was that night as it dripped down, thinned by soapy water, and flowed into a bathtub drain. Aside from a bit of shock, I was okay. After all, the blood wasn't even mine. It belonged to Zach Brooks, singer/guitarist of Call Sign Cobra. Just a few hours and swigs of whiskey earlier, I would never have guessed that the band's debut performance would end in projectile hemorrhaging.

"I could see my tendon," Brooks recalls three years later, pointing at a sizeable scar just below his wrist. "At the hospital, I was, like, 'Is that my bone?' They said, 'No, that's your tendon.' Then they asked me if I was doing any drugs, and I said, 'No, I've just been drinking.' And they said, 'Yeah, we know.'"

Sitting with his bandmates on plush couches at Lounge, Brooks looks a lot less pale and crazed than he did on that cool fall night a few years back. It was a warehouse party down the alley from Monkey Mania, and Call Sign took the stage late. Brooks's other band, Scott Baio Army, was notorious for its pranks and hardcore insanity, but nothing quite prepared the crowd for his new group's mix of shitty rock and raw violence. After drunkenly punching through a pane of glass with his bare fist, Brooks took one look at his spurting arm and started waving it at the audience, splattering everyone with gore -- which all of us at first assumed was fake.

"Everyone was covered in blood," remembers Mike Howard, Brooks's accomplice in Scott Baio Army and the current bassist of Call Sign -- though at that inaugural show, he was just a horrified onlooker like the rest of us. "There was a trail of blood. That's how we found him in the waiting room at the hospital, by following his blood."

Likewise, a scalding pulse of visceral force is splashed across the act's sophomore full-length, aptly dubbed Call Sign Cobra II. Although conceived as a trio, by the time of II's recording, Call Sign had swelled to a full octet: Brooks, Howard, drummer Chuck Coffey, guitarist Don Bersell, trumpeter Mike Taylor, saxophonist Nick Krier and backup singers Lauren Shugrue and Jenn Callaway. But what should have been a sloppy clusterfuck turned out to be a sweaty, soulful orgy. Bristling with energy and anger, the disc blows away the act's eponymous 2003 debut -- a disc long on fun but short on fidelity.

That's not to imply that II is some kind of polished jewel; in fact, it's as jagged as broken glass. But refracted through its sharp edges is a whole spectrum of rock and roll, both arena-dwelling and subterranean. After thirty seconds of Shugrue singing an operatic, note-perfect aria, "Stillwater" kicks the album off with a blunt thump of drums and growls that resurrects the lost greatness of early Rocket from the Crypt. "The Tundra" sounds like Mountain gargling a lava flow of vomit. Then, adding insult to injury, Brooks confesses to pilfering riffs from Australian punk legend Radio Birdman in the shamelessly self-referential "8 Piece Band."

The Aussie fixation doesn't end there. Throughout II, the horn-slashed savagery of the Saints's Prehistoric Sounds is clearly evident -- especially on "Doo-Wop," in which mutilated R&B meshes with messy intensity and brassy punctuation. But Call Sign's retroactivity is most plainly spelled out in "Do the Cobra," a venomous cut that swipes liberally from the Stooges's anthem, "1970."

"I just wanted to be in a band that sounded like '70s rock, like Deep Purple," Howard admits. "That's what we grew up on, '70s rock shit."

"It all started with this song called 'WWJD' -- 'We Want Jack Daniels,' Brooks elaborates. "Scott Baio Army played it one time. It was like a '70s punk, rock-and-roll type song. No one liked it, so I decided to start a classic rock band, just for the amusement of being in a band like that."

Many diehard fans of Scott Baio Army's thrash-heavy hardcore were not as amused. "At first they didn't get the music," Howard recounts. "I think most people didn't. It's sad, because as much as everyone likes to think they're open-minded, something has to be kind of safe for them to get into it and get behind it."

The irony of oldies-inspired rock being seen as somehow radical isn't lost on Howard. "Kids wearing hot pink blazers and shit will hear us and be, like, 'What the fuck is this? What are these people doing?'" he relates. "Our music is something their parents would have been into. Just because it's not like Hot Hot Heat, and there's not a keyboard player and some guy making weird noises, it's not cool."

No keyboard, true, but Call Sign makes plenty of weird noises of its own. With brass horns and backup singers on stage, the outfit's berserk live show is a melee of skronks, shouts and rattled tambourines. The components of that sound evolved with the band's membership. After a revolving lineup finally solidified with Brooks, Howard, Coffey and Bersell, the horn section was brought on board -- but not without a few reservations. "We were really scared about having all that stuff in the band," Howard confesses. "When Chuck first said he wanted horns, me and Zach said, 'No. Fuck, no. We don't want to be associated with ska music whatsoever.' So we brought a Sonics record and an Ike and Tina Turner record to practice, and we were, like, ŒThis is how the horns have to sound.'"

The addition of Callaway and Shugrue went a little more smoothly. "They really add a whole other element," Taylor says. "We sound totally different with them singing."

"Yeah, we actually sound good," Howard adds with a laugh. "Their vocals on the record sound pro or something. I'm in a band right now with people that can actually fucking sing. That's kind of weird."

It's not just the caliber of larynxes that separate Call Sign Cobra from its predecessor. Where Scott Baio Army -- which is breaking up and playing its farewell show later this month -- coasted on jokes and sheer velocity, Call Sign has broadened and honed its sound and performance, validated by a nod as Best Live Band earlier this year in Westword's Best of Denver issue. Not that being a bunch of drunken fuck-ups isn't still high on the agenda.

"We enjoy being outlandish," Coffey asserts. "We're all assholes. But we're the nicest assholes ever."

"I don't think people liked us at first," Howard affirms, "but kids are getting more hip to it now."

Brooks is a bit more critical. "It's still hit or miss," he says. "Definitely some of the Scott Baio fans are not down with what we do. It's just a really bad rip-off of Atlantic soul and the Rolling Stones. With us screaming over the top of it."

"This band doesn't make people go crazy the same way that Scott Baio Army did," Howard points out. "People don't start a circle pit. They're just rocking out and trying to figure out what we're doing. They're, like, 'This is too bizarre for me. I'm going to wait at the bar until the band that sounds like the band that sounds like the band that sounds like the Strokes comes on.'"

Bersell had no such trouble getting the attention of an audience a couple years ago. Pulling double duty in Call Sign Cobra and his other group, the now defunct Five Day Messiah, he collaborated with Taylor on a fiasco nearly as bloody as Brooks's infamous glass-punching stunt. "When we were leaving Oklahoma to go to Kansas, I saw this house with two ceramic chickens on the front porch, and I thought, 'These will be good to steal. We can use them some other time,'" Taylor confides. "They came in very handy the next night when we were playing in Wichita. Five Day were finishing their set, and Don picked up one of the ceramic chickens, threw it in the air and swung his guitar like a baseball bat. Shards of ceramic glass flew out into the crowd, and all these kids started yelling. They were all bleeding from these tiny little cuts all over their faces."

"It's awesome," says Howard, "to have kids come up after a show and say, 'Dude, thank you for making our faces bleed.'

"You know, when we were nineteen and twenty, we were, like, 'Yeah, maybe we rock,'" he adds with a huge grin. "But now that we're 25, 26, 27, we know we rock, even if no one outside of this band knows. We fucking rock. You'll realize it later."

Even if it takes a little bloodletting.

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller