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
It would also be seven years between the release of Get Together and Backbiter‘s second effort, a CD split with Swedish band Elope that came out in May on Man’s Ruin. Hall doesn‘t sing about warlocks and unicorns, nor does the group sludge it up in an overtly Sabbathy fashion, but the association with Man’s Ruin has stirred some welcome interest from modern-day heshers.
“We‘re on the fringes of stoner rock,” Seifert says. “I really like that down-to-earth rock, and we’ve often played with Fu Manchu and Nebula. I don‘t know if we necessarily fit that category; we don’t tune down to D. But it‘s ostensibly less image-conscious, more jeans and a T-shirt, and more about the music.” Backbiter’s 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 it‘s also a bit of a tragedy that other great Hall originals like “I Understand” and the epic pent-up-lust explosion “I Can’t Wait,” from the same recording sessions, had to be left off for space reasons. Man‘s Ruin apparently intended to release a full-length Backbiter CD next year, before the label recently fell apart. “It’s probably our biggest-selling record so far,” Hall jokes, “even with the record company going out of business.”
It‘s somehow fitting that “Nova,” the fastest and most exhilarating tune on the new CD, was inspired by riding around in former keyboardist Muendel’s clunky ‘65 station wagon. “The song’s about being in a car that‘s really old and loud,” Hall says. “It’s a song about freedom and doing what you believe in even though the vehicle you‘re in could break down at any time. The Nova symbolized the idea of music for me, because obviously the music business isn’t a smart place to go into, but if you feel compelled to do something, you have to do it.”
“I‘m 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.
“We’re not going to make a living doing this,” Hall agrees. “But I still like playing with these two guys, and I‘m still writing songs that I like. Not playing would be easy if I weren’t coming up with anything anymore. But when I‘m writing what I think are some of the best songs I’ve ever written, then it‘s hard to stop.”
Backbiter plays at Mr. T’s Bowl, Saturday, December 8.