They're Just Men From Detroit
Photo by Wild Don Lewis
When were backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowds begins, it doesnt affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury . . . I cant fool you, any one of you. It simply isnt fair to you or me. The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if Im having 100% fun.
Kurt Cobains suicide note
The first time you see Hard Place singer-guitarist Freddy Cristy onstage you think, Rock Star. Almost too much Rock Star. Like, theres gotta be a wink here, right? Look at that bleached hair. Those cheekbones. Those emotive eyebrows that slant up- and center-wise when hes singing a ballad, forming the top of an arrow. Those tight jeans. That Ibanez Millennium Destroyer guitar. Its like the dude was test-tube-designed at the Lab of Rock.
So you double-take. You look for the wink. And just when you think this is pure jive, you realize something: This song theyre doing fucking rocks. And so did the last one. And the one before that. And here comes another one. Your gag reflex, well-honed from years, possibly even decades, of experiencing music via MTV, Clear Channel, OmniCorp and Hollywood showcase bullshittage, suddenly . . . disappears. You stick around. You watch how all the girls in the audience are dancing, how Freddy has everyone laughing by the end of the show as he walks out into the audience hes charming, hes sweet, hes clever, hes at ease. You get into it. You buy the home-burned CD-R from Freddy for 5 bucks after the show. You play it three times in a row the next morning. Youre delighted and a bit puzzled.
Cause whats going on is something you aint seen much of in American rock music in the last 10-plus years. Youre seeing actual Rock Starpower youre experiencing the joy of witnessing the perfect fit: someone who actually belongs onstage and knows it. Someone, in other words, who isnt faking it someone who is actually having that 100 percent fun that so eluded Kurt Cobain.
Hard Place is a trio. Freddy and keyboardist Nathan Shafer met on campus at Detroits East Michigan University. Soon they took acid and were writing music together, using the name Cabal. Freddy moved to San Francisco a few years ago; Nathan soon followed. There they started Hard Place as a duo and a drum machine, attracting instant followers. Their first fan found them their now-permanent drummer, Tom Marzella (also, coincidentally, from Detroit), and designed their Web site; they wrote a song about her, one of their best, called Sharkeys Got My Back (and shes got my front as a matter of fact, the lyrics go). Work dried up, and Freddy and Nathan moved to Los Angeles less than two years ago, working day jobs and picking up gigs at hole-in-the-wall bars like Glendales the Scene and Atwaters Bigfoot Lodge and doing shows at the Silverlake Lounge and the Derby when Bay Area friends like the Cuts and Bart Davenport come through town.
Their music? Its catchy rock. Sticky hard pop. Melodic hooks, good rhythms. Vocals you can actually hear, lyrics that are fun and smart and funny and sometimes a little sad. Theres Sparks, Devo, Queen, Cars, Sweet and Cheap Trick in there, definitely. Its everywhere/anytime music, meant to be heard in a club, in an arena, in the mall, in your car, and fer shure, on the radio.
Top 40 radio is hugely important to me, explains Freddy. I love songs where someone can sing the song to me, they dont even know how to sing, but theyll sing the song to me and I know it, and its already stuck in my head. Like Kelis milkshake song you dont even need to know how to sing! You know the milkshake song, right? My milkshake brings all the boys in the yard/Theyre like, its better than yours, damn right/I could teach you but Id have to charge. Milkshake is shaking your titties, right? I cant think of a better answer to a riddle. But anyways, you dont need to hear the song, you dont need to hear the production, thats not the important part, the absolutely crucial part of the song can be repeated by anyone on the planet with two lips and a tongue. I love that. Of course, as a songwriter you can probably go too far in that direction pretty easily . . .
Which is where the humor comes in.
Yeah! Theres different qualities of humor. Youve got your Weird Al humor Weird Al is novelty songs, joke songs. Then youve got Queen and Devo and Sparks, where you can laugh, but theres something deeper in there. The reason youre laughing is probably because theres something really disturbing at the root of it. When Im writing songs, sometimes I just cant resist the humorous angle on a certain situation. I couldnt resist writing a song [titled Yeah Right] about not being able to get it up, cause its funny cause it hurts! I know that for some people, humor and music should be totally separated, but music cant be one-size-fits-all, right? Are you gonna write the one-size-fits-all song? I guess you can do it if youre Andre 3000 . . .
Hard Place songs and shows are funny, but theres no winking going on, even while Freddy is singing about feeling sexy or striking a particularly Rock! pose, which he does both proudly and often. It can be confusing for audiences.
There is a suspicion about us, says Nathan. Ive heard a lot of people say, Im not sure what to think about that. A lot of people would come to see us in S.F. that were into more hip musical circles, and they just would not be down for it at all. The nice response I would get would be, Oh, its just not my cup of tea. But I cant tell you how many of those shows Ive been to where Im just not particularly entertained. Its rare that I go to a show and Im like, yeah! Its more like, Oh, I just had my ears assaulted, again, for X number of minutes. Were not about doing that. Every band that I really, really love has been huge, whether its the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or the Smiths. The whole indie thing of Anyone can do it? Around 94 I started saying, Well, I dont wanna hear Anyone can do it, I wanna hear good musicianship, you know? Its funny to see the way things have gone, because now, it seems like big rock & roll music is what people wanna hear.
I realize that what we do is probably ridiculous to a lot of people, says Freddy, but you know what? Ill take that risk. You can laugh at me. Thats fine. If Im getting through to a couple people and a lot of people are laughing at me, thats fine! Cause if youre laughing, Im not wasting your time, right? If youre laughing, at least, I hope youre having fun. If its at my expense, I dont fuckin care! Thats why Im up there. Everyone gets their kicks in different ways. You could go climb a sheer-faced rock and risk your life and get your adrenaline kick that way, or you could get up in front of a room full of people and risk total embarrassment and get your kicks that way. Its adrenaline. Its a rush. The reason Im doing it is I wanna connect. Were in a band because weve got something to share, you know?
Hard Places recent show at Tangier sucked. The sound collapsed a few songs in, the audience dissipated, and the band members were dejected for days afterward. By the end of the set I was bummed, says Nathan. Still, says Freddy, When the photographer from the L.A. Weekly was taking pictures, Id hit a pose that Id practiced at home in front of the mirror, because if you want to get it right, you have to practice Id hit a pose, and hed be right there with the flash in one hand and the camera in the other! He was a total pro!
And I was like, Damn, thats hot! I feel so good!
Hard Place performs at the Fold, Thursday, January 29.
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