California, it would seem, has pulled a Microsoft on punk rock. If punk is your thing, you'll almost certainly have to buy the California variety, because Golden State bands have handily crushed the competition. Look around. You've got your Green Day, your Offspring, your Rancid, and a dozen or so up-and-comers collectively monopolizing the new punk marketplace. Go ahead and name your brand -- just about any punks selling records these days did their earliest boot-stomping in California.
But punk rock, like most musical styles, rebels against delimitation. And Miami, not surprisingly, boasts its share of punk profligates, propagandists, and pretenders. None of them, it can be defensibly argued, has twisted their punkish musical underpinnings around more than the high-spirited, Kendall-based three-piece the Agency: drummer-vocalist Mike Marsh, guitarist Klaus Ketelhohn, and bassist Chris Drueke. The band released the fourteen-song CD Rock to the Apocalypse in February on local indie Habitual Records, and has been a regular nightclub attraction on both sides of the Dade/Broward county line since 1994. At least as regular as a faltering club scene will allow, especially for a band as quirky as the Agency.
Maybe "quirky" is too polite a term. The group's debut slams tense, cut-time sonic hellfire -- so essential for a healthy mosh pit -- face first into dulcet three-part vocal harmonies and complex guitar and bass riffs not too far removed from a musical genre early punks pissed all over: progressive rock. The album reels with the aggression of punk but rocks with the instrumental agility of Eighties techno-metal pioneers Rush, or, more recently, Dream Theater. Given that the Nineties has been a decade ruled by a less-is-more artistic sensibility (with the possible exception of the movie industry, electronica, and bands following in the footsteps of the Grateful Dead), the Agency's progressive punk could prove musically suicidal.
"In a scene that's so anti-tech, we're about as tech as you can get away with," admits bassist Drueke before a recent performance at the Hungry Sailor in Coconut Grove.
Actually, whether the Agency will get away with its rousing genre-crashing remains to be seen. Sure Rock to the Apocalypse is receiving some spins on WVUM-FM (90.5), on UM's local-music radio show, but that and cheerleading by a handful of South Florida followers have been the highlights of the band's career so far. Perhaps that's because much of the group's music whizzes right over people's heads. The trio admits their disc is slightly schizo, partly because it represents three years of writing -- and all the attendant maturation that forces itself on just-out-of-their-teens suburbanites.
The album-opening "Adrenaline," marked by metal-bred guitarist Ketelhohn's crisp chordings and quick fills, is pure progressive rock, updated with a late-Nineties, postalternative feel. As is track two, "What About Me," though it adds a hint of ska. Track three, "Duck and Cover," with Ketelhohn temporarily taking over lead vocal responsibilities from Marsh, marks the apex of the band's techno virtuosity. By track four, a humorous tune called "Fat Guy" sung by Drueke, the group moves decidedly toward ska-punk.
Thereafter Rock to the Apocalypse fits right in to the current California ska-punk ethos. Until track twelve, the instrumental "The Iliad," that is. At that point the Agency reverts to riff-rocking art geeks. "Leave," number thirteen (a hidden cut follows "Leave"), contains elements that are almost orchestral in a bombastic, hard-rocking sense. According to Drueke, that the band even dares to stray across such divergent musical boundaries has caused consternation in some quarters.
"What kind of sucks," says Drueke, "is that when we play a punk show and you've got real punks there, they resent us. The new kids like it, but with a lot of the old-school fans you can see a lot of resentment."
Atypical of punk, resentment doesn't show its ugly face in much of the Agency's music. Maybe that's the problem old-schoolers have with the band. In fact, surly vocals are nowhere to be found. Happy harmonies supplied by Drueke and Ketelhohn are woven around Marsh's chirupping lead vocals. His rapid-fire percussive barrage provides most of the group's punk-rock edge, but Marsh isn't particularly worried about pleasing punks or skankers. He just wants to make good pop music.
"Pop is basically what we've always wanted to play," notes the multitalented musician, who created the new album's Rockwellian cover art. "We don't want it to sound like third-wave ska. We just want it to sound like pop music. We just want kids to dance to it. Even though we do play a hundred miles an hour sometimes, and that's the punk thing to do, there's still pop in our music."
Pop and prog-rock influences would be a natural. At a time when all the kiddies around them at Sunset Senior High in Kendall were going gaga over minimalist-leaning groups such as Nirvana, the members of the Agency (then called Abstract, and including a series of bassists before Drueke joined) were almost exclusively playing covers of Rush, the Police, and Primus. Simply put, today's version of the the band features skilled and musically agile players who adamantly refuse to dumb down their music just to fit into a scene.
"We try to push it as far as we can," says Marsh. "We just want to open the door a little bit more. There's so much of the four-chord thing going on. It's cool to stand out against that. It's cool to have your own little style going on. We try to be as original as we can as far as the scene is concerned. Everyone's trying to do the punk thing; we're trying to separate them out a little and trying to do our own thing, which is usually technical."
It's fitting that Marsh uses the phrase "do our own thing," because the Agency is embracing the do-it-yourself ideology now more than ever. With the CD out (and its followup nearly in the can), the band is eager to step on the accelerator and get on with the business of stardom. All three members agree that moving beyond Miami is a must.
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"There's not any connection within the local scene," Marsh observes. "There's not really any place to play. Everyone's just kind of trying to do their own thing as much as they can, and it's so hard because there's no place to play. So local bands don't really get a good chance to meet each other and converse and do the whole local thing. It's not like it used to be when Washington Square was open, having shows every night, when Cheers was down here. There were shows every night, and the local scene was really booming then."
But from their point of view, things are far from booming now; hence the determination with which the Agency is now attempting to put together their first road trip, a self-booked summer jaunt up the Eastern seaboard (Marsh has already quit his day job). The three realize that, in the beginning at least, touring life may not be all five-star hotels and limousines.
"We figure we're gonna have to use this first tour to just pay a lot of visits to radio stations and press," observes Ketelhohn. "Right now I think more than establishing a following nationwide, we just want to let people know that we exist."
The Agency performs Friday, June 19, with Unwritten Law and Sprung Monkey at Spanky's, 500 Clematis St, West Palm Beach; 561-832-7964. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. Admission is $8 in advance, $10 at the door. The Agency also plays Friday, June 26, at the Underground, 400 SW 27th Ave, Fort Lauderdale; 954-792-9473. Doors open at 6:00 p.m. Admission is $7 under 21, $5 over.