Language of the Body
John Sant on the Blood Brothers
"If God was a punk, shredding complex guitar rhythms like illegal documents, splattering drum beats like blood in a sniper attack, snapping bass lines, and unfurling unearthly banshee screams, he might come close to the genius of the Blood Brothers."
-Jennifer Maerz, The Stranger (27 Feb 03)
What Jennifer Maerz (along with most every other critic covering the Blood Brothers' music right now) missed when she wrote the quote above in Seattle's local alternative news weekly The Stranger, is that the genius of the Blood Brothers is not so simply described. It's not the guitars, it's not the vocals, and it's not how those elements work together. For as attractive and seductive the Blood Brothers' sound might be - and it is, believe me: It's a tight, sexy little package - that's merely a secondary concern to what makes them truly great. Hell, even the band has become tired of being admired critiqued solely for their aesthetic.
"Journalists often try to pin us as this band of 'crazy maniacs,' states Johnny Whitney, who shares vocal duties with Jordan Blilie. "Our writing process is very spontaneous, [whereas] everything we've attempted to do in the band with a pre-determined set of goals - such as making it 'manic' - turns into creative suicide."
That's why you have to move beyond the surface of the music - beyond Whitney and Blilie's snotty, prissy vocals, the dynamic chord progressions of Cody Votolato (younger brother of noted Seattle singer/songwriter Rocky Votolato) and Morgan Henderson, or the quasi-jazz style of drummer Mark Gajadhar, because this is a band concerned with anything but being "crazy."
The importance of the band, and this is what makes their music great, is that they're one of the few bands today that are intellectually and passionately concerned with the Commerce of the Body. They're conceptually obsessed with what daily life has become - a commodity that is bought, traded, and held up as the guinea pig of modern science and an object of social control. Whether it's by addressing the culture's practice of exploiting youths through sex for profit, or the morbid habit of keeping people alive through synthetic means, the band is making very deliberate ontological points.
For example, the song, "The Salesman: Denver Max," was inspired by the short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates. "It's basically my interpretation of the meaning of her story," Whitney says. "On the surface level, the song is about a kidnapping, but through the dialogue in the song, Denver Max is shown to represent society at large and its expectations of women. So, on a more metaphorical level, Denver Max isn't just kidnapping the girl, he's kidnapping her soul through these expectations, which in a way is what society and the media do."
On the band's previous release, March On Electric Children, the Blood Brothers explored how people try "to hold on to things that are ephemeral, such as youth and sexual power, and what this does to them," Whitney says. "Burn Piano Island, Burn has no unifying concept, [but] there are similar themes in the lyrics on both records. You could say that the lyrics to Piano's 'Fucking's Greatest Hits' are similar to [songs on] March, in that they are about what happens when people invest only in what's external, and how that is a fleeting thing, and what happens when good looks go sour."
Whitney asserts that "in general, Burn Island, Burn has a lot more to do with death," but he wouldn't go so far as to say that it's a concept album. "'Ambulance vs. Ambulance'" shows ambulance drivers intentionally bringing people so close to death that life becomes charged with meaning. 'Cecilia and the Silhouette Saloon' is kind of an exploration on how death changes the meaning of certain things, and sort of asks whether love can exist after death. 'Every Breath is a Bomb' is about Jordan's grandma's death, and kind of deals with modern medicine's fetish with keeping human beings alive after they are vegetables, or so fucked up that they aren't really living."
Despite this evidence to the contrary, what makes Whitney hesitant to call Piano Island a concept album is the presence of different lyrical topics woven through the record.
"For example," Whitney explains. "'The Shame' is about the expectations that the world places on people that all that you embody or represent is what you can sell, or how much money you can earn. 'Six Nightmares at the Pinball Masquerade' and 'God Bless You Bloodthirsty Zeppelins' are kind of poking fun at the bourgeois. 'Six Nightmares' [describes] a masquerade ball where the guests permanently become what they dressed up as, and through that see how intrinsically ugly they are. 'God Bless You....' is a mock offensive by a giant zeppelin shaped like Marilyn Monroe on those who objectify women ... the specific place [described] in the song is a country club.
"In general, I think that money turns the world to shit," Whitney expounds. "Songs like 'The Shame' deal with the sense of helplessness in the wake of commerce, and its intense power. 'God Bless You' and 'Six Nightmares' deal more with how material wealth often makes people spiritually bankrupt."
"No! Wait! They're ONTOLOGICAL MANIACS!"
The arrival of Piano Island isn't without its mystery. The album was produced by, of all people, Ross "I love me some nu-metal" Robinson, a man responsible for some of the most flaccid butt rock to come out in the mainstream of late (Slipknot and Limp Bizkit being recent names on his resume). The band ultimately made the decision to work with him due to his redeeming project, At the Drive-In's Relationship of Command.
Regardless of the producer, the album still bleeds prime cerebral punk rock. Actually, some people have a stronger opinion - people who ought to know.
"This is the greatest punk band in the world," Jeff Suffering announced, confident that he can back up his hyperbole. Suffering is a veteran of several Seattle bands, and currently the leader of Suffering & the Hideous Thieves and a local all-ages promoter with an enormous collection of hardcore records. Suffering has opened for and booked the Blood Brothers many times.
Sitting on the ratty couch at the BANDOPPLER house, we watched the band perform "Cecilia and the Silhouette Saloon," from the Blood Brothers' new DVD. Suffering added that the reason why they're the "greatest punk band in the world" is that "they are revolution without ever saying the word."
Afterwards, we spent hours listening to Gravity Records' early 90s releases, including the Get Hustle and Antioch Arrow, tracing the musical lineage of the Blood Brothers to the Swing Kids and the VSS. Suffering worked his way through a heaping stack of albums, pointing out similarities and developments, even stopping to acknowledge his own debt to the San Diego scene as we listened to VSS' 21:51. "This is what I was really trying to do with my own band Ninety Pound Wuss when we did our final album, Shorthand Operation," he shared.
"See, this is where the Blood Brothers comes from, too," Suffering claimed. "It's not the Refused. Don't even mention the Refused! Everyone else has said that, and they're wrong. Here, listen, it's in this song...."
At that point, he turned up the volume on our more than adequate stereo, cramming the psychotic strands of Angel Hair's "New Rocket" into the now shaking living room. The similarities were striking - the same chaotic punk mess was coming through the speakers, albeit in a somewhat less refined fashion.
Whitney doesn't specifically cite those inspirations, but does admit that members of the Blood Brothers listened to the VSS, and "so much [other] stuff as well. Dead Kennedys, Misfits, Black Flag, Swing Kids, Murder City Devils, Sunny Day Real Estate, Engine Kid, Woody Gutherie, Rye Coalition, Jawbreaker...."
Whitney used to be in an another band with Blilie and Gajadhar called Vade, and was also in the Vogue, whose stylistic influences seem to finally be coming out in Burn Piano Island, Burn, with the more art-punk direction the Blood Brothers' sound has taken. Votolato was initially in local Seattle faves Waxwing with his aforementioned brother, and Henderson came from Nineironspitfire and Sharks Keep Moving.
Around the same time the Blood Brothers formed, Whitney had also formed the noted band Soiled Doves, but it was eventually set aside. "Everybody in Soiled Doves was and is extremely talented, thus everyone needed to be able to commit full time to the band," Whitney said of his departure. "The reason we broke up was as simple as that. I couldn't physically put in the time to make the band a priority, so they made Chromatics a priority. It wouldn't have been fair or practical for the members of Soiled Doves, since I had to tour eight or nine months out of the year for the Blood Brothers."
"Wait ... WHAT THE HELL DOES 'ONTOLOGICAL' MEAN?"
When Maerz wrote her piece on the Blood Brothers for The Stranger, she wrote something unbelievably Californian, and by that I mean she attributed genius and greatness to a very superficial thing - only the band's musical aesthetic. As a recent transplant from southern California, this startled me. The irony of all this is that the Blood Brothers do owe a certain debt to SoCal, musically speaking, but that isn't the source of their greatness. Having lived there for twenty years, I know that the southern half of the state in particular is obsessed with presentation. The music scene, the fashion, the intellectual crowds - all of them are concerned with appearances. Hollywood isn't just a city any longer, it's a way of life, and it has affected all of American culture - including the music scene in Seattle.
While their first EP, This Adultery Is Ripe, was a mixture of various themes and ideas, the band eventually solidified their focus with Electric Children. Here the band was confronting the world directly in a conceptual suite of abrasive tracks, but the message seemed to go largely unnoticed. Few critics figured out how fiercely political the band was, and fewer took notice of the band's attack on society's demand for making a profit at the expense of cheapening life. Hopefully, the Blood Brothers' treatment of death/class struggle on Piano Island will not suffer the same fate.
"I think there's an exact quote from some [critic] that goes, 'These guys have to be on drugs to make this music,'" Whitney concludes. "When in fact, quite the opposite is true."Return to Fine Print Magazine