By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
When Backbiter singer-guitarist Jonathan Hall says, “We’re the weeds of the L.A. rock scene,” he means it in the same way that Johnny Rotten once railed, “We‘re the flowers in the dustbin,” and Neil Young described his “cowgirl in the sand” as a “ruby in the dust.” It’s Hall‘s polite way of stating, “We’re still alive, you stupid, nearsighted morons! We‘re glittering diamonds in the goddamn dirt and shit right under your clumsy feet, you idiotic oxen! We’re going to keep shining whether or not you fucking notice, even after 10 years in a city that tolerates more bad rock than any other municipality in this galaxy!”
Okay, Hall‘s too modest to actually say any of that (except the part about the weeds), but he’s undeniably proud and excited about the surprises planned for Backbiter‘s 10th-anniversary show Saturday at Mr. T’s Bowl, including sets from the Jack Brewer Band, Nostradumbass (ex-Dicktit), Star Athena, the reclusive Suplex Slam (a RamonesDictators--style group with drummer Bob Lee, Hall, Angry Samoan Billy Vockeroth and Hall‘s brother Charley) and rising superheroes Biblical Proof of UFOs, who’ll team with Backbiter in an apocalyptic jam that‘ll no doubt be the equivalent of combining The Who and Cream. Mike Watt, the Amadans’ Jon Wahl and Steve Reed, the Porno Sponges‘ Dave Adae, the Dagons, the Rotters’ Phester Swollen, Greg Rogers and Guy Pinhas of the Obsessed, Trinket‘s Curt Anderson and the Motorcycle Black Madonnas are among the underground celebrities scheduled to jump onstage with Backbiter.
“We want to round up as many people we’ve played with as we can,” says Hall. “It‘s our take on The Band’s Last Waltz, except we‘re not going to break up, we’re going to linger.”
The lingering began October 23, 1991, at the Shamrock (now a strip bar) in Los Feliz, on a bill with Dicktit, the Jack Brewer Band and the Drills (whose keyboardist, Jeff Muendel, later joined Backbiter for a few years, adding churchy swells of distorted Hammond B-3 organ to an already massive sound). Hall and bassist Heath Seifert had been playing together in Texorcist (with Tex & the Horseheads‘ spacy cowpunk diva Texacala Jones) and the Angry Samoans, as well as in the final incarnation of the Porno Sponges, Hall’s high school garage-punk combo in Barrington, Rhode Island, who released one 7-inch (1985‘s “Going Places, Eating Things”“Hanging Around”) and broke up after the inevitable ill-fated move to L.A. Hall says it was “instant chemistry” when he and Seifert jammed with Bob Lee for the first time. “Bob and I realized that we were listening to the same Who bootleg, Live in Amsterdam ’69, an early Tommy performance, so we ended up playing a lot of that record just off the top of our heads.”
“With Backbiter, the idea was to keep it as low-maintenance as possible,” says Lee. “For the first year, we were doing more gigs than practices.” Every so often the band pulls off a live performance of the complete Tommy rock opera, or even Sell Out, just for the hell of it. With Lee‘s relentless Keith Moon--like tom-tom pummeling, Hall’s clipped power chords “and me probably overplaying at times,” says Seifert, “there‘s always going to be that Who thing. There’s a lot of common ground, but we also have some pretty diverse influences.”
The band occasionally cranks out throbbing versions of psychedelic obscurities like Hawkwind‘s “You’d Better Believe It,” the Small Faces‘ “Afterglow” and the Wigs’ “Forever and a Day,” but it‘s Hall’s original songs, dazzling guitar work and scarifying Janis JoplinRoky Erickson howl that elevate Backbiter to the level of their heroes. “Flying,” from Get Together, the band‘s first CD (released in 1993 on Seifert and pal Josh Mills’ Blue Man From Uranus Records), is wreathed in a flurry of hummingbird-quick guitar hammer-ons that shimmer gloriously like aureoles around rueful lyrics (“All awash in starsthey left some scars”). “That summer, my mom died, my girlfriend dumped me, and I got laid off from my job all within a couple of weeks,” Hall says. “That song was written pretty fast, without any thought. Some songs you labor over, and two lines take forever. This one was like someone dictated it to me.”
Was it God speaking through him? “No, I‘m agnostic,” Hall says. “I think Jonathan seems most motivated to write when he goes through periods of small depression, and takes it out on his guitar,” offers Seifert.
“I’m past bitter,” Hall says about Backbiter‘s decade of frustrating near misses. The band’s always played a curiously timeless brand of lost classic rock that‘s closer to hard rock than heavy metal. In the early ’90s, A&R types kept taking them to lunch, trying to determine if Backbiter were grunge. Influential music-biz lawyer Rosemary Carroll also seemed interested in helping Backbiter for a spell, but after Kurt Cobain‘s death she moved back in shock to New York City, and the band was left behind. Hall says, “I was thinking at the time, ’I‘m only going to take this job two months, because I know I’m going to get signed,‘ and then seven years later, I’m still there.” a 34