When Backbiter singer-guitarist Jonathan Hall says, Were the weeds of the L.A. rock scene, he means it in the same way that Johnny Rotten once railed, Were the flowers in the dustbin, and Neil Young described his cowgirl in the sand as a ruby in the dust. Its Halls polite way of stating, Were still alive, you stupid, nearsighted morons! Were glittering diamonds in the goddamn dirt and shit right under your clumsy feet, you idiotic oxen! Were 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, Halls too modest to actually say any of that (except the part about the weeds), but hes undeniably proud and excited about the surprises planned for Backbiters 10th-anniversary show Saturday at Mr. Ts 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 Halls brother Charley) and rising superheroes Biblical Proof of UFOs, wholl team with Backbiter in an apocalyptic jam thatll 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, Trinkets 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 weve played with as we can, says Hall. Its our take on The Bands Last Waltz, except were not going to break up, were 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, Halls high school garage-punk combo in Barrington, Rhode Island, who released one 7-inch (1985s Going Places, Eating ThingsHanging 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 Lees relentless Keith Moon--like tom-tom pummeling, Halls clipped power chords and me probably overplaying at times, says Seifert, theres always going to be that Who thing. Theres a lot of common ground, but we also have some pretty diverse influences.
The band occasionally cranks out throbbing versions of psychedelic obscurities like Hawkwinds Youd Better Believe It, the Small Faces Afterglow and the Wigs Forever and a Day, but its Halls 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 bands 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, Im 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.
Im past bitter, Hall says about Backbiters decade of frustrating near misses. The bands always played a curiously timeless brand of lost classic rock thats 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 Cobains death she moved back in shock to New York City, and the band was left behind. Hall says, I was thinking at the time, Im only going to take this job two months, because I know Im going to get signed, and then seven years later, Im still there. a 34
It would also be seven years between the release of Get Together and Backbiters second effort, a CD split with Swedish band Elope that came out in May on Mans Ruin. Hall doesnt sing about warlocks and unicorns, nor does the group sludge it up in an overtly Sabbathy fashion, but the association with Mans Ruin has stirred some welcome interest from modern-day heshers.
Were on the fringes of stoner rock, Seifert says. I really like that down-to-earth rock, and weve often played with Fu Manchu and Nebula. I dont know if we necessarily fit that category; we dont tune down to D. But its ostensibly less image-conscious, more jeans and a T-shirt, and more about the music. Backbiters five tracks on the split CD are among their finest, and the additional songs from the Pretty Things--influenced Elope (ex--Union Carbide Productions) make for a simpatico combination, but its also a bit of a tragedy that other great Hall originals like I Understand and the epic pent-up-lust explosion I Cant Wait, from the same recording sessions, had to be left off for space reasons. Mans Ruin apparently intended to release a full-length Backbiter CD next year, before the label recently fell apart. Its probably our biggest-selling record so far, Hall jokes, even with the record company going out of business.
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Its somehow fitting that Nova, the fastest and most exhilarating tune on the new CD, was inspired by riding around in former keyboardist Muendels clunky 65 station wagon. The songs about being in a car thats really old and loud, Hall says. Its a song about freedom and doing what you believe in even though the vehicle youre in could break down at any time. The Nova symbolized the idea of music for me, because obviously the music business isnt a smart place to go into, but if you feel compelled to do something, you have to do it.
Im attracted to the idea of playing with people who play for no reward other than what you get out of playing, says Lee, who also fronts the Rotters and The Bob Lee, and has played with Crawlspace, Fearless Leader, Claw Hammer, Paper Tulips, Nastassya Filippovna and Wayne Kramer, among many others.
Were not going to make a living doing this, Hall agrees. But I still like playing with these two guys, and Im still writing songs that I like. Not playing would be easy if I werent coming up with anything anymore. But when Im writing what I think are some of the best songs Ive ever written, then its hard to stop.
Backbiter plays at Mr. Ts Bowl, Saturday, December 8.