Talking Columbus Blues

On the surface Columbus, Ohio, isn't very different from a lot of not-so-progressive midsize cities in the Midwest, from its long, hard winters and obsession with college sports to its myriad flourishing country-and-western bars. Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll find what may be the most vibrant and varied underground music scene in the nation -- the dissonant but exquisitely hummable pop of the Yips, Moviola, and Belreve; the snarling, tuneful punk of Gaunt and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments; the avant-garde oddball-isms of Jim Shephard and Sam Esh; the white-hot screech of Monster Truck Five, Greenhorn, and Appalachian Death Ride; and the low-fi rock and production wizardry of Mike Hummell. Since the early Nineties, Columbus has produced more worthwhile indie-label bands than Seattle, Athens, and Chapel Hill combined.

Yet even in this wide-open rock and roll mecca -- certainly no stranger to experimentation or noise judging from the deluge of records produced by the city's many labels -- the New Bomb Turks have never been quite embraced by the Columbus cognoscenti. At least that's the contention of Eric Davidson, the Turks' 29-year-old vocalist who, during a recent phone interview from his apartment in Columbus, talked about his town's seemingly perfect music scene and how his quartet fits into it -- or maybe doesn't fit into it.

"When we started it was mostly hippie bar bands and a couple of noisy grunge-type bands," says Davidson, a native of Cleveland who formed the Turks in 1992 with guitarist and fellow Ohio State dorm buddy Jim Weber. "So here we come playing this sort of ragged punk stuff and doing Ramones covers -- we're drunk, jumping around on-stage, doing these goofy songs, you know, having fun. Even now there are all these serious indie types here -- these self-absorbed, serious people -- and they all think we're kind of silly. I think they just wanted us to come and go. But we didn't go. We just kept sticking around and kept putting out more and more records and getting more and more press and kept touring and touring."

While Davidson claims his band still isn't quite accepted in Columbus, they're at least tolerated. And even if they weren't, it wouldn't really matter: The Turks have garnered plenty of critical praise from punk critics around the globe, and built a sizable following on the basis of their molten, minimalist punk sound and their prodigious output. Since their 1992 debut -- a split single which paired them with like-minded Columbus contemporaries Gaunt -- the Turks have released three albums, several EPs, and close to twenty singles (some of which were collected last year on their Pissing Out the Poison compilation). The Turks' first two albums, 1992's Destroy-Oh-Boy and Information Highway Revisited, from 1994, were issued on the revered punk label Crypt, and they've released singles on some of the finest indies in the U.S. and Europe, from Bag of Hammers and Sympathy for the Record Industry to Demolition Derby, Get Hip, and Columbus's Anyway.

The Turks' latest release, the self-produced Scared Straight, marks their debut on Epitaph, the Los Angeles label owned by ex-Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz and loathed by punk elitists mostly for its success via the platinum-selling groups Rancid and the Offspring. Although Scared Straight contains the Turks' usual blend of blistering guitars and howling vocals underpinned by the pummeling rhythm section of drummer Bill Randt and bassist Matt Reber, the band has drawn fire from underground tastemakers for the horns and keyboards added to a few cuts. Likewise the Turks have been skewered in the fanzine press for jumping from the highly touted Crypt to the better-distributed Epitaph.

Davidson is first diplomatic when talking about the flak the band has taken for Scared Straight, but he soon grows agitated. His words come faster and faster, like his vocal climax on the Turks' driving version of "The Girl Can Help It," issued on the Live 1993 EP. "I think right away some people thought we were immediately going to suck," says Davidson of the audience reaction to the Epitaph move. "But my thinking is, if you liked our band all along and you think we're immediately going to change our style and start sucking, then you've liked a kind of stupid, spineless band for the last couple of years -- or you've never really had much faith in us in the first place. We would have to do a lot of changing to really sell out.

"The hardcore fans who liked the first record or the first few singles don't want to see you change at all," he continues. "And that's so closed-minded. It reminds me of all the rock fans I knew when I was a kid, when disco was getting big and they would rag on any band that didn't just play huge arena rock. It's like, yuck. I hated those people then and I don't like them now. If you're really open-minded and you like music, and not just one particular genre, you can deal with change. If you don't like it, fair enough, but don't think we did it because of money. It's not like we're becoming millionaires here. And if you think it sucks, fine. You don't have to buy the record."

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