Rebirth of the Uncool

Rust never sleeps, so the saying goes, but neither does the endless remaking and remodeling of the past. Credit the advent of CD technology that makes old shit sound sort of like new shit; credit the idea that the primitive human psyche can‘t keep up with the speed of change, or that the passage of time blurs away the obnoxious edges of certain trends. The most blatant example, disco, may have been a suffocating octopus wrapped around the head of pop culture back in 1976 to 1979, but now that it’s harmless, it‘s kitsch.

So the idea that the sound of the new wave -- stiff-backed eighth notes and cheesy synth farts and gulped, glottal vocals -- would return isn’t that unusual, in fact it‘s bizarre that it’s taken so long, since it‘s never really died. Tuning in to KROQ or other oldies formats these days will get you heavy doses of Human League, Soft Cell, A Flock of Seagulls, Culture Club and, of course, mainstays Duran Duran and Depeche Mode. It’s even hip to be digging the sounds of the soulless early ‘80s -- when Pirate Cat 87.9 was alive and well, their crew spun a ton of this venerable noise.

Kicked off by the Faint, a glum and completely faithful-to-form group from Omaha (newly signed to Capitol), the newer-wave revival is slowly coming into bloom, abetted by the Northwest’s veterans of skinny ties and stripes, Epoxies (whose CD on Dirtnap is as hooky as a tackle box), the Cars-y Red Planet, and the most prominent of the local crew, Orange County‘s the Von Steins. Formed awhile back in the last decade, the fun-filled suburbanites Von Steins attempt a trip down a memory lane that none of them was old enough to experience the first time around.

”We had new-wave days at school, and we’d bust out our mom‘s new-wave records and rock out,“ confides bassist Magnus Von Stein (like the Ramones, they’ve all adopted their band‘s name as surname). Magnus is a cheery lad of 22, resplendent in a worn Jam T-shirt and obliging a request to pound out the bass line to that band’s ”Start“ on his Rickenbacker bass (not so coincidentally the same model favored by Jam bassist Bruce Foxton). That the Jam ceased to be three years after he was born is of no consequence to Magnus or the other Von Steins as they endlessly debate the finer points of junk culture during rehearsal; the climax is a discussion of whether to cover the new wave--sounding song from Revenge of the Nerds.

The Von Steins‘ sound is based on the analog-synth lines churned out by the band’s keyboard guy, Udo -- no samples, sequencers or digital diddle for this purist, no sir. Udo decorates and informs the band‘s hyperactive chugs (de-punks them as well), giving songs like ”Cosmic“ and the should-be-a-KROQ-classic ”Wavelength“ their poppy identities. Over Magnus’ picked thrum and drummer Helmut‘s light but quick martial rhythms and guitarist Miak’s choppy slashing, the Von Steins are the polar opposite of everything else that currently clogs the clubs, now overrun with ”Cookie Monster“ bands aping Limp Bizkit or -- blecch -- ”emo“ bands.

”That shit is such a drag,“ sighs Magnus. Worse, says the bassist, is that said proliferation of downtuned aggro or whiny shoegaze has limited the band‘s live options. ”We’ve played sports bars and little places here and there down in O.C.,“ he says. ”And we‘ve been treated great by Rodney, playing the opening of the English Disco. But generally, there are so few bands like us, and putting a bill together is almost impossible.“

Luckily, such a show happened a few weeks back at the Garage, where the Von Steins (supporting the equally retro Briefs in what seemed like a battle of 1977 vs. 1980) played to a full house of the sympathetic and the almost-converted. Onstage, however, the self-conscious posturing of these fellows in their creepers and button-downs goes right out the proverbial window. If the original new wavers were carefully bloodless as they imitated the cold, calculating stage demeanor of a Bryan Ferry or Ric Ocasek or David Bowie, the Von Steins are just too damned young and silly to stand and bellow out stentorian anthems to alienation. Lead singer Gunther is a gawky yobbo who hurls himself around the stage with eye-rolling abandon, shattering the band’s adherence to new-wave orthodoxy and placing it squarely in the more recent Orange County tradition set by that area‘s most popular export, the equally ’80s-crazed No Doubt.

Which would surely please the Von Steins. ”We love pop and have no problems with major labels,“ says Udo. Perhaps with the recent shifts in the Zeitgeist, the Von Steins will get a chance to see how that stroll into success plays out.

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