A lesson from Music Biz 101: Profit margin is not part of the equation when an unknown, greenhorn punk band leaves home for that first cross-country tour. Still, more and more, ambitious young bands are discovering that if they cut out the booking agent, the promoter, and the typically do-nothing manager -- in fact, if they eighty-six pretty much everyone who stands between them and the stage -- they might actually see a few dollars at the end of the road. It's called DIY: Do-It-Yourself, the crafty alternative to placing your career in the hands of greedy lawyers, creatively vacant bean counters, or, worse yet, slimy promise-'em-everything-then-run-out-the-back-door-with-the-money con men.
Run-ins with characters such as these -- or, probably just as often, the "We'll do lunch, babe" blowoff a lot of out-of-the-mainstream artists received -- were undoubtedly the impetus for the first modern-age indie releases by punk artists like the Buzzcocks (the 1978 album Another Music in a Different Kitchen is often credited as the first indie punk record) and for the entrepreneurs who formed labels such as Stiff, Rough Trade, SST, Dischord, and Merge. More recently, bands such as Minor Threat, Fugazi, Superchunk, and Tsunami have used DIY ethics to launch successful careers, hoping, it could be reasoned, to mirror the tremendous showings of superstars Nirvana and Soundgarden. Both were graduates of perhaps the most well-known alternative indie, Seattle's Sub Pop Records.
Understanding this history and witnessing a movement that has fueled accelerated independent-label startups and grass-roots promotional efforts, many musicians realize that if they want their careers to run like the frequently bragged-about but rarely driven well-oiled machine, they had better check the dipstick themselves.
Motor City natives the Suicide Machines have done just that. Except for a little grease under the fingernails and maybe a couple of instruments pilfered along the way, the band has emerged from its first seven DIY years unscathed. In fact, the quartet isn't doing bad. Since its inception in April 1991, the Suicide Machines have cruised the DIY highway all the way from home-grown cassette albums and self-booked national tours to a pair of major-label releases and an ever increasing fan base. Along the way the band has found that even the hard lessons of the road are best learned firsthand.
"It's a humbling experience, getting ripped off," says Jason Navarro, lead vocalist of the ska-punk quartet via cell phone as his band heads down a Wisconsin freeway, en route to a concert in Minnesota. "Getting your van broken into and getting stuff stolen all the time. Never having any place to stay. Learning the hard way is the best way." It's not the education of choice for everyone with stars in their eyes, he admits, but still it's an undeniably effective substitute for the rumor and conjecture that confound many players' understanding of the business side of the music industry.
Long before the Suicide Machines recorded the recently released Battle Hymns, and several years before their 1996 Hollywood Records debut Destruction by Definition, the band was just another foursome bashing it out on the Detroit punk scene. While trying to get themselves noticed in the clubs, Navarro, guitarist Dan Lukacinsky, bassist Royce Nunley, and original drummer Derek Grant (replaced last year by Erin Pitman) found the means to record Green World, a full-length cassette, and The Essential Kevorkian, an EP also issued on tape, both released on Grant's label, Sluggo's Old Skool Records. Later the group cut a seven-inch for the tiny Detroit-based Youth Rendition label (which featured an early version of "The Vans Song," an attitude-drenched homage to the famous footwear that would later resurface on Destruction) and a split LP with the Rudiments (also including tracks by Minor Threat, Link 80, Rude Bones, and Nothing Cool) released in 1996 on San Francisco's Dill Records.
Inspired after opening for Rancid and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones at Detroit gigs, Lukacinsky and Grant booked a 1994 West Coast tour. In 1995 the band joined San Diego ska-punks Buck-O-Nine for a nationwide jaunt that opened the door for the deal with Hollywood Records, an uncharacteristically rebellious fraction of the Disney empire.
But despite ties to Disney, the Suicide Machines won't be sharing the spotlight with Mickey and Minnie any time soon. The group's aggressive musical attack is expressed in ska-tinged punk conflagrations that average less than two minutes in length and address issues on which even gullible Goofy couldn't be duped into commenting.
Sonically heavier than the already raging Destruction by Definition, Battle Hymns is indeed laced with touchy social discourse, including much that echoes the pleas for social change and warnings against close-mindedness that many punk and ska bands have repeated over the years. "A lot of us want to try to change things," Navarro observes. "A lot of us have the same ideas of what we want to change. We want to weed out racism, homelessness. We support the ARA (the national organization Anti Racist Action). That's anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobe. There are a lot of things that we all want to change."
Noble thoughts, sure, but is bringing about world change in the realm of possibility for a mere punk band? Especially one with a following -- judging by sales figures for Destruction -- of just a quarter-million? Navarro, a voracious reader with little patience for those who hop on bandwagons after thumbnail introductions to new philosophies, is a realist. Still, he remains optimistic.
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"It would be silly for me to think that I can change anything," Navarro admits. "But I'm trying. I think a lot of younger kids come to see what we're doing, and they read what we think and they get into what we're talking about, or whatever our lyrics are about, and it kind of brings them into the scene. They'll go in and start checking out other things, and as they grow older they'll become active politically. It makes them think, and that really needs to be done nowadays because a lot of music that's being played on the radio doesn't make people do that. They're happier not to think about what they're doing. Most songs on radio today are just pointless. I'd like to hear something that means something."
Perhaps something like "Hating Hate," in which Navarro emphatically shouts, "We must fight prejudice/Our nation's biggest sickness." Or "The divisions of society into two separate classes/There are those of us who work and we make up the masses/Slaving for the corporations raking in the profit/Someone's got to take a stand/Someone's got to stop it," his call to organize in the Pete Seeger-like "Strike." Or maybe "Keep your head, use your voice, speak your mind" from "DDT," a blustery condemnation of pollution and corporate greed.
Fortunately the Suicide Machines' sense of humor -- although more evident on Destruction than on the new album -- has not been extinguished by despair over the woes of the world. Navarro assures that, despite the serious bent of most of the 22 tracks on Battle Hymns, the four friends still know how to enjoy a good laugh and how to balance the weight of social statements with the jollity of being in a band. "We're just silly guys, plain and simple," he claims. "We get on-stage and we have a really good time. I take the things we say very seriously. But it's like good and evil: You can't have one without the other. You have to have some sort of happiness and fun going on or it just doesn't work."
The Suicide Machines perform Saturday, June 20, at 9:00 p.m. at the Button South, 100 Ansin Blvd, Hallandale; 954-454-3301. Tickets are $8.