Monday, February 12, 2007

The Bronx

[This ran in Kerrang! in Summer 2006; one of my favourite ever trips to LA, even though I'm still aching from the bucking bronco]

Punk is dead, and it’s been dead for a pretty long time.

It’s a wild claim to make, and not one you’d expect coming from the group who have recorded the most incendiary punk album of the year. But that’s what Bronx guitarist Joby J. Ford believes.

“’Punk’ doesn’t mean anything,” he spits, down a late-night transatlantic phone-line from the apartment he shares with his wife in San Fernando Valley. When Joby talks, it’s in a dry, acerbic monologue, a venomous train of thought you don’t want to interrupt. “‘Punk’ is something that happened in Britain for a period of about two years, in the mid-seventies, something that’s been totally romanticised. The American groups you British people call ‘punk’ are like the Backstreet Boys, teeny-bopper bands. ‘Punk’ groups panhandle for food, they give blowjobs and hand-jobs for spare change. Do I do that? No. Am I in a ‘punk’ band? No.”

You can understand Joby’s ire. The first ‘punk’ groups wore the word as an insult they’d reclaimed with pride; now, any kid with a passion for loud guitars and goofy clothes calls themselves ‘punk’, without taking the lumps to earn it. Love or hate Panic At The Disco, something strange has happened when they share the same genre as genuine subversives like X, The Germs, or, indeed, The Bronx themselves.

Joby left his native Colorado for California back in 1994, when he was 19, gaining a Graphic Design degree at Biola University and going on to work as a sleeve designer at Vagrant Records. He played in a slew of groups: one, Jack Ruby, featured transplanted-Canadian James Tweedy on bass, a role he now fills in the Bronx. Another, The Drips, featured Vince and Dave Hidalgo – sons of David Hidalgo, of venerated Tex-Mex rock legends Los Lobos – as their rhythm section, and Joby’s best buddy’s goofy younger brother, Matt Caughtran, on vocals (their much-delayed debut was finally recorded this year, the perfect melodic compliment to The Bronx’s fierce attack).

When Joby and Matt began writing songs that didn’t quite fit the Drips’ Descendents-on-steroids sound, they formed the Bronx with Tweedy, bringing Seattle native drummer Jorma Vik onboard. Soon, they were recording their self-released debut album with ex Gun Gilby Clarke, and embarking on a never-ending tour across the world, including a stint touring with unlikely soulmates Aveneged Sevenfold and lostprophets (“Ian Watkins is insane,” says Matt, approvingly. “They’re totally self-aware,” adds Jorma. “They know they’re a fuckin’ ‘boy-band’ and they don’t give a shit, they revel in it.”)

Their new album finds the Californian quartet signed to a major label but still rocking like the bastard offspring of QOTSA and Black Flag, railing against the sort of ‘Shitty Future’ a life on the poverty line has bred them to expect. A group delivering powerful anthems, crackling with a palpable sense of danger and chaos.

“For us, it’s about the spirit of it,” avers the group’s gregarious bassist James Tweedy, sharing brunch with Matt, and Jorma a couple of days earlier. The night before, The Bronx played a heroic homecoming show at legendary rock venue The Roxy. This morning, the group are chasing away hangovers with bloody marys and shots at the Saddle Ranch, a bar’n’grill on Sunset Strip. “It’s about doing something you wanna, because you believe in it. People struggle to make a living off their music, they compromise. We were asked to do a Burger King commercial, offered a quarter of a million dollars. Its tough making those decisions, during the dark days when you’re broke… But we’ve done this on our own terms.”

“I sold all my CDs so I could afford to travel to our practice space,” grins the irrepressible Caughtran. “You get to a point where you just have to laugh at it all. I mean, fuck, it’s not cool, but it’s all part of the experience. Recording the album, Jorma and I were so broke we’d sleep in the studio. And it was haunted, man… We had to get drunk every night and pass out to get to sleep, because we were all so weirded out. But it’s cool, man. Everything’s a great story, it’s great to have an ‘eventful’ life!”

You sense that these guys relish every tiny detail of being The Bronx, making the best of every opportunity.

“We look at being on tour as a chance to party, but also to experience the world,” smiles Matt. “We take fishing poles in the tourbus – America has so many beautiful bodies of water, and it’s a trip to visit them. That’s what we love – playing music, travelling, hanging out with friends, and doing stupid things, like jumping off rocks into freezing cold water!”

Another of their favourite ‘tour-sports’ is Beer Jousting. We’ll let Matt explain…

“We played the Hultsfred festival in Sweden, and our buddy Ryan from the Distillers was there, wasted, dressed up like some sort of a pirate. I slapped him across the face with one of his gloves, challenging him to a duel, so we ‘Beer Jousted’: you stand back to back, take ten paces, drink half your beer and then throw it at the other guy! Half a can of beer can do some damage, so we were all aiming at our bellies or arms, whatever. But then Ryan slapped Joby – uh oh! Cuz Joby went to college on a baseball scholarship, he was a pitcher. They squared off, and Joby hit Ryan in the face with the beer! BOOM! Blood everywhere… It was the funniest thing I ever saw.

“You reach a point where you’re on the road for so long, you just go insane,” he grins. “I’m looking forward to it, actually. I’m glad, as a band, we’re all on the same page. Loving touring so much, because we’re such adventurous and outgoing people that its so much fun., The memories we have, of playing music and goofing off and stupid shit, you can’t trade that for anything.”

If punk is dead, picture The Bronx as righteous zombie torch-bearers for punk’s spirit. Their second album finds them signed to a Major label, but that hasn’t dulled their attack any – they’re only using ‘The Man’ to get their resolutely uncompromised music marketed to all those kids who honestly think Fall Out Boy are ‘punk’.

“We have a drive to do things, artistically and musically, that are different to everybody else,” explains Joby. “If things do ‘happen’ for us, that’s fine. We’ll keep doing the same thing, which is blasting other bands off the fuckin’ stage. My favourite bands have always been the ones you either love or hate, like The Icarus Line… I’ve seen them clear venues, because the audience didn’t ‘get’ what they were doing. I love it, because they want a reaction, anything other than indifference or mediocrity. If you’re not up on that stage, causing people to do something, then get the fuck out of the way.”

Back at the Saddle Ranch, the manager has recognised his patrons as nascent rock’n’roll stars, and offered them a ride on the restaurant’s famous Mechanical Bull. Unsurprisingly, Matt’s the first in the saddle, hurling himself onto the Bucking Bronco. With his bandmates and other lunchtime barflies cheering him on, the frontman holds tight on the rein, his free hand proudly aloft, as the hulking beast jerks and lurches. He lasts about thirty seconds, before he’s hurled off again, into the cushions; he falls hard, but the shit-eating grin on his face proves that the ride is worth whatever bruises come along the way.