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."

The irony here is that Scared Straight doesn't suck at all. While it may lack some of the live-wire emotion of Destroy, and takes a few sonic steps away from the raw production of the band's early singles, Scared Straight, as Davidson puts it, isn't exactly a "Meatloaf album with tons of strings, or a lushly orchestrated Yes album." Indeed the swagger of "Jukebox Lean" and "Wrest Your Hands" isn't much different from the squalling power-chord wallop of older songs such as "I'm Weak" and "Grounded Ex-Patriot." And Davidson can still turn a phrase better than anyone currently lauded in the pages of Maximumrocknroll.

"It's not that radically different," says Davidson of the new album. "This is the record we wanted to make. We had an engineer who pretty much did what we told him to and we did exactly what we wanted. It's more our record than any of the three."

Certainly the album marks the progress the band has made since their first few singles, recorded just after the Turks were formed about five years ago. Inspired by the primal early punk of such groups as the Saints, the Pagans, and Radio Birdman, Davidson and Weber met fellow Ohio State students Randt and Reber and soon started writing songs within the framework of the quartet's limitations. "When we started, Jim had been playing guitar less than a year, and I had never been in a band," Davidson recalls. "So we just hashed out some three- and four-chord songs just to see what would happen. And at that time Jim and I had been listening to a lot of the Stooges and the Saints, so what we were doing grew out of that."

Early songs such as "Tail Crush" and "Cryin' in the Beer of a Drunk Man" were rooted in both the old-school punk of the mid-Seventies and the crude garage-rock of the Sixties. Where too many late-era punk groups have roots that go no deeper than Black Flag or Minor Threat, the New Bomb Turks showed the extent of their knowledge through heated versions of lost nuggets by obscure groups such as the Nervous Eaters ("Just Head"), the Queers ("This Place Sucks"), and Radio Birdman ("Do the Pop"). Their penchant for peculiar covers has also brought them to sources both likely (the New York Dolls' "Bad Girl") and unlikely (Darlene Love's "Christmas [Baby Please Come Home]" and Hawkwind's "Ejection").

"I think it's important to find the connections between anyone from a Little Richard to a Sonic Youth," Davidson says of the band's eclectic tastes. "You have to find something in all those sorts of music that captures you, and not try to stick it down to decades and genres and trends.

"Kids talk about punk dying -- well, that's what kills off the genre," he continues on another impassioned roll. "When you set up these parameters and this exact definition of the music, that's when people move on to something else, because it gets so boring. When we got together, nobody was dropping names like the Saints or the Angry Samoans that much. And as a band, I don't really know or care about any influence we've had so far. That's not for me to say, and we are kind of a small band. But the most I can hope is that maybe in a small part of the garage-rock, single-buying public, we've maybe had people thinking back about more obscure stuff that has a lot of energy to it."

And that may be the best Davidson can expect, at least in Columbus, where the hometown press roundly ignores the New Bomb Turks and some of the city's other innovative noisemakers. "I'm very happy with our success," says Davidson, who is able to survive solely on the band's income. "To most people in Columbus, though, it's not real music because it's not on MTV all the time and there's no radio single. That's how people think here and it's really sad. They're all watching some Joe Blow bar-band fucks who get a $200,000 advance from a major label and get all this attention and then the album comes out and it doesn't do a thing and they get dropped a year later and everybody's saying, 'Why can't one of our bands get big?' Well, we've toured Europe four times, gone to Japan, we've put four albums out, I'm able to live off this band. Is that big enough for you? For Columbus, I'd say it is."

The New Bomb Turks perform Saturday, March 1, at Cheers, 2490 SW 17th Ave; 857-0041. Showtime is 8:00 p.m. Cover charge is $6.

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