Let's be honest — it didn't quite work out the way many of us predicted for Bullets and Octane. Having formed in 1998, the band was already six years old when they put out debut album The Revelry in 2004 (produced by former Guns N' Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke).
Two years later, Page Hamilton of post-hardcore punks Helmet produced their sophomore effort and major-label debut, In the Mouth of the Young, and it looked like the world was their oyster. Signed to RCA, Bullets and Octane had both the image and the sound to cross the sleaze rock/emo punk divide. Fans of Mötley Crüe and My Chemical Romance could both get on board. They had it made.
But that major-label fun only lasted for that one album; by 2007's Song for the Underdog, they were back on an indie. But the DIY ethic and hard work doesn't scare these guys. While critics have accused them of being pretty-boy band-wagoneers in the past, this is a band that has lived and died by their own sword.
Singer Gene Louis is proud that he's made this thing work for two whole decades, as he should be. The seventh full-length album, Waking Up Dead, is due out this week — quite an achievement for a band that many expected to go quietly into the night when the RCA deal fell away. Band members have come and gone, as the band has evolved. The singer says, though, that the current lineup is the best yet.
“I think this one is the lineup I feel the most confidence with,” Louis says. “Everyone has equal ability and something to bring to the band. I think over the years, you realize what elements need to be in place to make Bullets sound the way Bullets is supposed to sound. I love that we all respect each other and there's a confidence when we get onstage that feels a lot more than four guys.”
Jonny Udell is a recent addition, and the drummer says he was a Bullets and Octane fan before he joined.
“As an outsider looking in, I would say that the rock & roll part of it has really stepped up a bunch recently, and maybe a little bit of the punk element is not as much there now,” Udell says, “just as an outsider who was a fan of the early albums and then had a great opportunity to be able to play with the band that I loved already.”
The band play at the Viper Room this week, a record release party for Waking Up Dead, which officially drops that same day. Keen fans might recall, and have benefited from, a Spinal Tap–esque fuck-up last year, when the band accidentally released the album to the public when they actually intended to release the “Waking Up Dead” single.
“It got released by accident for 24 hours,” Udell says. “It got leaked. What had happened was, we released three singles because we started touring again overseas to see basically if anybody cared about the band anymore. Things went really well while over there and we ended up signing a new deal.”
As is so often the case in this day and age, it was social media that clued the guys in to the fact that they'd inadvertently let loose the full album.
“All of a sudden we started seeing things pop up on our Facebook page going, 'Your album's amazing,'?” Udell says. “We were on tour at the time, we were in Sweden. We were like, 'What do you mean, the album's amazing?' Talk about running around like a chicken with no head at the moment. We were like, 'Oh my God!'?”
Those who bought the album on iTunes were allowed to keep it. On the plus side, the band received some early feedback, and, when they rolled into some of those shows on that tour, there were a good number of people who knew the words to the new songs.
“The feedback was great,” Udell says. “We did get some reviews from back then because, like I said, we were doing it on our own, not sure if we were gonna sign with anybody. However, once we got signed, we pulled everything off the internet and then started over by releasing the first single back on April 13. Last Friday, we released the second single. The new album comes out on May 25 and then we have the third single, 'The Fuck You Song,' which will be released at the end of June before we go back to Europe for festivals in July.”
The St. Louis band have been based in Los Angeles for more than a decade now, and it has been 12 years since they recorded the song “Cancer California,” about artists coming to this part of the country and then fading away. Does Louis still stand by that sentiment?
“I don't necessarily think it's something you have to do anymore,” the singer says. 'But so many things that got done with Bullets — videos, art, photography — that's a lot of meeting people out here and networking to make those things happen. I don't necessarily think you'd get any in small-town Kansas. There's not anything going on there. So I still think it's important to surround yourself with like-minded people. It's easy to become a big fish in a small pond anywhere else.”
The Viper Room seems like the perfect venue to see Bullets and Octane. Intimate, with just the right balance of Sunset Strip sleaze and Hollywood glitz, the room is a second home for the band.
“A lot of us do this for the love of playing in front of people,” Udell says. “Creating the music is definitely a passion, but after you create it, getting out and putting it in front of people is important. Playing on the Sunset Strip, because of the history, all the legends that have come there, that's amazing. We play all over the place, and I couldn't even tell you where the hip spot in town was to play, these days. But just playing at the Viper Room is like going home and playing, for me anyways.”
As for the set, Louis says we can expect a solid combination of old and new. At this point, these guys are only doing this because they love it, so they're answering to nobody.
“When you're younger, you get caught up in the business side of it all,” Louis says. “It gets scattered and squirrelly. A lot of influences that you don't really need and the pressures of certain things. You have to block out some of that stuff. This time around, we're enjoying playing together, laughing and smiling while we say 'Fuck you.'?”
Bullets and Octane play with Die Fast, Sticky Dirt and Five Headed Cobra at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 25, at the Viper Room.