Scott Drake is old enough to remember a time when traditional high-energy rock and roll and guttural punk rock shared more than a little common ground -- when the squalling racket of the Damned, the Dead Boys, and the Vibrators revealed an obvious debt to the blues-derived work of the Rolling Stones, Mott the Hoople, MC5, and the New York Dolls. Drake can also recall a time in the very early Nineties when you could count on one hand the American bands mining that fertile patch of rock and roll soil, his Long Beach group the Humpers being chief among them.
"When we first started, hardly anybody was playing this kind of stuff," recalls the 32-year-old Drake during a phone interview from the Los Angeles offices of Epitaph, the Humpers' current label. "We had that against us from the start. Then there's the fact that we didn't come from Los Angeles or Hollywood. It's not easy breaking into clubs there. The club owners will say, 'You're from where? Long Beach? Well, we can put you on at seven o'clock on a Tuesday night maybe.' And Long Beach has more of a hardcore punk history, a lot of skateboard kind of stuff, so no one really cared about what we were doing."
Truth be told, not that many people care about the Humpers today, maybe because not that many people even know who the Humpers are. Over the last seven years, though, the band has been cranking out records and expanding its minuscule audience slightly with each one. They debuted in 1990 with a fine if decidedly obscure album issued on an indie label in Yugoslavia (My Machine, on Listen Loudest), then hooked up with Los Angeles's Sympathy for the Record Industry for a few singles and a pair of longplayers (1992's Positively Sick on 4th Street and Journey to the Centre of Your Wallet from '94). They signed with Epitaph in 1996 and re-recorded some of their older songs on Live Forever or Die Trying. Their latest release, Plastique Valentine, was issued in early February.
Not an especially forward-looking combo but hardly bound by the shackles of the past, the Humpers specialize in a no-shit style of rock and roll that is rooted in the three-chord verities of the New York Dolls and especially the Heartbreakers, a short-lived but influential group formed in the mid-Seventies by ex-Doll Johnny Thunders. Like Thunders, guitarists Billy Burks and Mark Lee add piercing leads to the hairy raunch of their power chords, and drummer Jimi Silveroli and bassist Trucker Cartwright keep the rhythm bed crisp and tight. It's a sound that balances the chaotic pulse of early punk with bar-band grunge and a shot of white-boy rhythm and blues, and is well-suited to Drake's gruff, nicotine wail, which recalls a young David Johansen.
"My theory has always been, why can't you have traditional rock and roll but played with that kind of punk-rock energy?" says Drake, whose father exposed young Scott to the vintage-rock hits of Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. His older brother introduced him to the Stones, the Dolls, and Mott the Hoople, and by his early teens Drake was checking out the then-new punk records of the mid-Seventies. "Everyone was saying, 'Oh, punk rock is this new revolution, this new explosion,' but to me it was just rock and roll," Drake says. "Then when I was about sixteen, hardcore bands like Black Flag started coming out. I really liked the energy of it more than the music. A lot of it became too metal for me -- just speed for the sake of speed without any hooks or anything catchy about it."
Drake's first band, the Suicide Kings, found him grappling with the weight of his influences during the mid- to late-Eighties, playing what he describes now as a "less-high-energy" style of primal rock and roll. They stuck around for about five years, releasing a single, an EP, and one album (also on that Yugoslavian label). Drake wrote the songs and played rhythm guitar, but eventually had to step up to the mike to relieve the Kings' bombed-out vocalist. "I'd go to rehearsal and the singer would be sitting in the corner, just loaded and smoking cigarettes or whatever and not wanting to learn songs," Drake grumbles. "A lot of the guys had drug problems, so I figured I would start a new band and be the singer, get rid of these guys, and get some people who were actually interested in learning new songs and actually doing shows."
Already committed to releasing a second album with Listen Loudest, Drake scrounged around Long Beach looking for a drummer to help him patch some songs together. Through mutual friends he found Jimi Silveroli, who, in addition to Drake, has been the one constant member in an otherwise revolving cast of Humpers. They've gone through several guitarists and at least three bass players. "One quit because he had a drug problem, one quit because he hated my songs, and the other one got fired for not showing up at gigs," recounts Drake of the streak of bad bassist luck. "Right now, though, the lineup has been pretty solid for the past few years. Once the band started doing better, things got more solid and stable, whereas when we were drawing ten people to our shows the band members were like, 'Oh, whatever.'"
Certainly the group's affiliation with Epitaph has helped strengthen its drawing power. Drake says that, unlike Sympathy, Epitaph has the financial clout needed to put the band on the road and get the records into stores across the country -- not just in the usual speciality boutiques and hipster outlets. "We left Sympathy on very good terms," Drake says. "We just hit a point where we had to get on a better label if we were going to tour, and we talked to [Epitaph head Brett Gurewitz] and he said they'd give us this much for a recording budget and we could play what we wanted, do whatever artwork we wanted, and it sounded great."
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Before they moved to Epitaph, the Humpers were courted briefly by a few major labels, including Warner Bros. and MCA, but the band was unimpressed. "They approached us with such arrogance," Drake complains. "They'd send these label lackeys to the shows and they'd ask, 'Oh, do you have a demo?' It's like, 'We have three albums out. What do you mean a demo?' Then you'd find out that this person can't even sign you, that you have to stroke them to get up to that second level of lackeys, and I just didn't have the energy or ambition to do that."
And like every other underground act that's made the move from a respected indie to the much-loathed Epitaph, the Humpers faced the usual backlash from obscurantist tastemakers. Drake asserts, however, that "most people who like the band know what we're into and that we aren't hung up on being an anti-success, corporate-machine-fighting band." He also maintains that the Humpers' music has, if anything, gotten harder and more bare-boned since making the move to Epitaph. The production is no doubt sharper than it was on the pancake-flat Positively Sick on 4th Street, and the new songs from Plastique Valentine (especially "Here Comes Nothing" and "Mutate with Me") swagger with more assurance and confidence than the frantic older stuff. They may sound slick to the connoisseurs of scuzz-rock, but the Humpers can still scare the hell out of Bush fans.
"I think some people confuse success with selling out, but everything we've done [since signing] has come straight from the heart of what we're all about," says Drake. "Almost all of it has been cut totally live, whereas 4th Street was an overdubbed nightmare. Basically, we're playing what we want and finally getting somewhere by doing it. And we've never had any morals or integrity to be begin with, so the whole point of selling out is just ridiculous when applied to us."
The Humpers perform Wednesday, March 12, at Squeeze, 2 S New River Dr, Fort Lauderdale; 954-522-2151. Opening acts include Load and Radio Baghdad. Showtime is 10:00 p.m. Cover charge is $5.