Photo by Wild Don Lewis
When we’re backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowds begins, it doesn’t affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury . . . I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t 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 I’m having 100% fun.
—Kurt Cobain’s suicide note
The first time you see Hard Place singer-guitarist Freddy Cristy onstage you think, Rock Star. Almost too much Rock Star. Like, there’s gotta be a wink here, right? Look at that bleached hair. Those cheekbones. Those emotive eyebrows that slant up- and center-wise when he’s singing a ballad, forming the top of an arrow. Those tight jeans. That Ibanez Millennium Destroyer guitar. It’s 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 they’re 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 — he’s charming, he’s sweet, he’s clever, he’s 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. You’re delighted and a bit puzzled.
’Cause what’s going on is something you ain’t seen much of in American rock music in the last 10-plus years. You’re seeing actual Rock Starpower — you’re experiencing the joy of witnessing the perfect fit: someone who actually belongs onstage and knows it. Someone, in other words, who isn’t 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 Detroit’s 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 “Sharkey’s Got My Back” (“and she’s 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 Glendale’s the Scene and Atwater’s 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? It’s 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. There’s Sparks, Devo, Queen, Cars, Sweet and Cheap Trick in there, definitely. It’s 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 don’t even know how to sing, but they’ll sing the song to me and I know it, and it’s already stuck in my head. Like Kelis’ milkshake song — you don’t even need to know how to sing! You know the milkshake song, right? ‘My milkshake brings all the boys in the yard/They’re like, it’s better than yours, damn right/I could teach you but I’d have to charge.’ Milkshake is shaking your titties, right? I can’t think of a better answer to a riddle. But anyways, you don’t need to hear the song, you don’t need to hear the production, that’s 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! There’s different qualities of humor. You’ve got your ‘Weird Al’ humor — ‘Weird Al’ is novelty songs, joke songs. Then you’ve got Queen and Devo and Sparks, where you can laugh, but there’s something deeper in there. The reason you’re laughing is probably because there’s something really disturbing at the root of it. When I’m writing songs, sometimes I just can’t resist the humorous angle on a certain situation. I couldn’t resist writing a song [titled ‘Yeah Right’] about not being able to get it up, ’cause it’s funny — ’cause it hurts! I know that for some people, humor and music should be totally separated, but music can’t be one-size-fits-all, right? Are you gonna write the one-size-fits-all song? I guess you can do it if you’re Andre 3000 . . .”
Hard Place songs and shows are funny, but there’s 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. “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘I’m 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, it’s just not my cup of tea.’ But I can’t tell you how many of those shows I’ve been to where I’m just not particularly entertained. It’s rare that I go to a show and I’m like, yeah! It’s more like, ‘Oh, I just had my ears assaulted, again, for X number of minutes.’ We’re not about doing that. Every band that I really, really love has been huge, whether it’s 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 don’t wanna hear “Anyone can do it,” I wanna hear good musicianship,’ you know? It’s 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? I’ll take that risk. You can laugh at me. That’s fine. If I’m getting through to a couple people and a lot of people are laughing at me, that’s fine! ’Cause if you’re laughing, I’m not wasting your time, right? If you’re laughing, at least, I hope you’re having fun. If it’s at my expense, I don’t fuckin’ care! That’s why I’m 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. It’s adrenaline. It’s a rush. The reason I’m doing it is I wanna connect. We’re in a band because we’ve got something to share, you know?”
Hard Place’s 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, I’d hit a pose — that I’d practiced at home in front of the mirror, because if you want to get it right, you have to practice — I’d hit a pose, and he’d 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, that’s hot! I feel so good!’”
Hard Place performs at the Fold, Thursday, January 29.