The New Puritan ReView;
Nice Strong Arm. As a phrase, the words suggest an adequate physical power, without suggesting how such power might be used. As a phrase, the words might suggest approval or pride, without suggesting that such power is of great consequence. So what does "Nice Strong Arm" suggest, if it turns out to be the name of a band from Austin, Texas? A band who have released three LPs, an EP, and a 45 in less than three years, with titles such as Reality Bath, Mind Furnace, Cloud Machine, and Stress City? A band whose songs examine point blank the situations of ordinary lives, while wringing out all of the adventure and wonder you never knew existed? In this case, the answer lies within the question.Read more or less
The nice strong arms in the band are Jeffrey Kent Hoskins (drums & percussion), Jason Asnes (bass, piano & vocals), and Kevin Thomson (guitar & vocals). I met with Kevin at Lee's Liquor Lounge during the band's recent month-long hiatus in Minneapolis, and talked with him about some of the trials and tribulations of being an integral part of the alternative music "scene", and life itself. Joining us for the interview was the band's longtime friend and colleague, Mike D., gentleman of leisure and sanity monitor.
What were the circumstances that brought you together as a band?
They were pretty weird circumstances, actually. Jeff didn't enter the band until after the first album (Reality Bath) was recorded. We started out with two drummers - male and female. We went through two female drummers, and just had the same guy, Steve McMurray, who's now in NYC. I was hanging out with a guy named Jon Pearson, who used to be a guitar player in a band that I sang in and Jason played drums in, back in Austin in '86. Jason and John and I were all kind of thinking along similar lines. There was a bunch of people involved, and a practice space came about. Steve was forced to miss a bus, and being the kind of person he is, once he missed the bus and realized he could be in a band, he decided not to go home and to stay in Austin and drum with us. We hooked up with this other woman - Ethel - who drummed with us, and we started the band.
It started out in a small garage - it really was a garage - sometimes it was just the four of us, other times it would be like six, eight, nine people all just flippin' out or whatever, just playing and having fun. Eventually the band kind of whittled out of that. We got this other girl - Jamie Spidel - to drum after Ethel left the band. She's on Reality Bath. Jamie and Steve got together and had some kind of love affair, and left the band. Jeff entered the band right after the album was recorded, and that's how we arrived at the present line-up, which we've stuck with ever since then. He's as devoted as any one of us ever could have been to the band - more power to Jeff Hoskins!
Do you feel that your sound belongs in any existing genre?
I see a few genres that are really plain and obvious - not that the genre itself is an obvious thing to do, but it's obviously picked out, it's that sort of a genre. I don't see us right now fitting into what is currently in vogue, which is maybe kind of light '60's/early '70's - not to say "rehash" in a negative way - but deriving from that sound to get a new sound, which is something we don't do. Nonetheless I still love music from that period, and I think all of us do to one degree or another, but that's not exactly what we're doing. I think we're kind of hard to peg, which might kind of piss people off.
How do you feel you fit in with the Homestead roster? Do you feel that the label itself could be considered a genre of some sort?
I feel like we don't. Yeah, the label becomes almost more important than the bands in some cases. At this point, with the current Homestead line-up, I don't think we really fit in with anybody on that label, except for maybe Bastro.
What kind of obstacles were you faced with when first starting out?Mike: Money.
Kevin: Money has always been an obstacle.
How about obstacles in terms of the kind of music you were playing?
We did fall into categories like Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers. I think the Butthole Surfers thing was mainly derived from the fact that we had two drummers - male and female - and we hailed from Austin, Texas. I really don't think we had that much more in common with Butthole Surfers. The other band we got pegged with right off the bat was Sonic Youth, and at that time I think there was definitely a bit of an influence. We had all just learned to play our instruments, and you know, who impresses you the most when you start learning how to play is definitely going to have an effect on how you learn how to play. Which is why some people play a certain style of metal or rock, because when they first learned how to play, that's what they were hearing. Jason and I learned how to play our instruments at most four years ago - actually five, I'm gettin' older. Jason's been playing for even less than me.
Anyone who says they don't have an influence is lying through their teeth - unless they were living in a monastery, sitting with a Zen master who said, "Here's a Fender guitar and an amp... why don't you just figure it out, you know, think like one with the string." That doesn't happen. It wasn't like anybody tried to figure out what other bands were doing or anything like that, but that creeps in. It did on Reality Bath, and I don't think any one of us is gonna deny it that much. We don't think we sound like it, but we do feel that there is a bit of an influence there. It's not such a big deal, why does it bring so much derision upon your head, just because there's not twenty years between the two? Maybe some people should give it some thought.
One of the bigger obstacles was not really knowing how to play very well when we started, and I think that obstacle has come and gone. Money is always gonna remain an obstacle until you're fucking rich. Learning how to play is something we all care about, and I think that we've done a really good job. We've done the best we can to learn our instruments - what we're doin' and how we want them to work.
It would seem that you give a good deal of attention to the entire packaging concept of your records, posters, t-shirts, etc. Do you believe that there is an important visual aspect to your work as well as the music itself?
We still sell - exclusively - hand-screened t-shirts. The screens themselves are hand-painted, not photo emulsion. Alan Burris - the guy that painted our first cover - has historically, from day one, hand-painted - right onto the silk itself - our screens, and then we've screened them either with his help or by ourselves. I think it's kind of a neat thing, just 'cause every shirt looks a little bit different.
We're really into that, we like the packages. We all are supporting that whole thing. I think visuals are really great, we all love to look at cool shit. We're art lovers. Go ahead, make fun of us - it's true! We just like something that's gonna make you look at it and go, "What is that? That's kind of neat. I can't place it, but it makes me feel good, and I like to look at it... so, maybe I'd like to listen to it". I don't want to have the same kind of shit that's on every album cover - you know, guns, chicks, cars, motorcycles, whatever.
Mike: Hair-flinging photos of yourself.
Kevin: Yeah, we've totally not been into the photos of ourselves. It wasn't until Stress City that we even released any likenesses of ourselves at all - but even then, Jason's got his back turned... you're not gonna pick us out in a crowd!
Has the scope of what you hope to accomplish in a band changed since you started out?
Some things - at least for me - have remained the same, and other things have changed. As far as trying my best - our best - to make the best music that we're capable of at all times; that goal was there from day one. We did our best, and will continue to do so until our demise as a band - and even after that, I hope that will remain a goal with all of us, whatever happens to us after the band's over.
Other things have changed - when we first started out it was like, "Oh wow, yeah-yeah-yeah, everything's so fucking cool, we got a record label, who cares about money... " Anyone who's gonna tell you they don't care about money is lying again. What are they eating? What are they drinking? What are they wearing? How are they gettin' somewhere? You live in America - you need some money! Nobody wants to work as a cook, dishwasher, bartender for the rest of their lives. You'd like to see the thing that you devote your most time to, help you out in some way. There's nothing dishonorable about that. Why shouldn't the thing that you love the most help you? Why should it hinder you? That's definitely changed. At first I wasn't that concerned with making more money. I don't know about anybody else, but for me that didn't make a difference. Now I'd like to see some cash - I'd like to be paid in full!
What are some of the things that may have influenced your musical style as well as your songwriting?
You can't really be too objective about such a personal thing. I'll answer for myself on that... as far as lyrics go, I'm influenced mainly by what I see around me. I like to think I have a lot of imagination, but I'm still not to the point where I can just write about shit I'm making up off the top of my head. I think - Jason too - we both write about things that have either happened to us, or we've seen happen to others. Some people are really gifted, they can just make up great stories and step into a character's shoes. Nick Cave can do that - he makes up these fantastic stories for his songs, he's a storyteller. I think that right now, at the stage we're at - as far as our maturity in writing goes - we're still at the point where we're still telling stories on a personal level, 'cause that's just where we're at. That's what we know how to do. I'd like to try and get beyond it - I'd love to be able to be a great storyteller. Right now, I just observe a lot, I listen to people. I'm a great eavesdropper - I love it - I'm gonna admit it right now. I love to watch the way people behave with each other. I take little notes, and try to write about it and integrate it, and hopefully that'll lead to bigger and better things, but... maybe not - that's fine too.
Do you see a certain tension within the stories you choose to tell? Is that a quality you place within your songs or do they come with the original stories?
We are pretty tense people, and very much nervous. I'm a nervous wreck most of the time - I do my best to stop it. I don't wanna be a nervous wreck for the rest of my life, I don't find it very enjoyable. I can laugh at it, otherwise I'd be in an institution along with the rest of us. There is tension, and I think all of us have observed what happens to other people or families or whatever, and there are unresolved situations in our own lives - we're all really young. I think that's just normal. I like to talk about what's happening now. That's pretty much what we write about, and it's gonna come through in the lyrics. We are concerned with them, we think about them a lot, we try to write good ones. I don't think it's too premeditated. I don't want to give you a nervous edge or make you think about a particular situation, it's just what's happening.
Are you trying to make any particular point through your references to existence and the situations you comment on in your songs?
With some things I've written, there is a point. You could take any song, like "Neighborhood Voyeur", and laugh at it - whatever. It's not that funny... it's not funny at all. There's some black humor to it. It's sad, man - there's this woman selling her body for drugs - that's what she did. It just happened to be the neighborhood I lived in, and what was happening at the time. It just happened to be something I saw, something I thought about. I thought, "why am I seeing this? Why is this woman doing this?"
Songs like "From Heaven", which is in itself a very tender observation, make it plain that the scope of the band goes beyond the limitations of harshness. I really like soft songs, but I like to juxtapose a lot of emotion and intensity and something really soft. It's kind of like the way sexual peaks go - you know, you build up to a frenzy, and bang!... you chill out. You can calm down and look at that peak, and go, "that was really great! Let's do it again!" That's kind of the way I structured "From Heaven", since that is a sexually charged song. It's about sex, it's about love, it's about being totally into it - because you're in love. Not because the sex is so great, it's because you're in love with that person. That's the way it should happen - you build it up to this great peak and then you kick back, and you let it end on something like a crescendo... and then you gotta go to sleep, and that's why the song ends.
Do you feel the people you write about are resigned to their circumstances, or would you say they're running with a very short fuse?
With us, I don't think it's so much being resigned to a situation or anything like that, I think it's wanting at heart to change it. I don't feel particularly resigned to anything. I guess in that respect, frustration comes into our lyrics a lot.
Do you ever project yourselves into the situations you write about?
If it has to do with you, if you're writing about something that has to do with you in your past, then there's no way around it. Sometimes with some songs of my own, I do project myself getting beyond it. I like happy endings. I don't run with this hateful clique that's always looking for the bad-ass ending; I don't really dig that. I like to see people better themselves in the end and come out ahead.
What do you feel is the current state of the independent label "scene"? Do you see it as a limited market, or are you pretty hopeful about future possibilities?
Very conformist. I am very hopeful about the new decade, and I see a lot of things reaching their potential. At the same time, I see a lot of conformity - especially among fanzines and things like that, everybody's kind of sniffing the ass of the dog in heat, following it into the highway to be hit. I see a lot of that. I think that when something's different there's a tendency to snuff it out pretty quick. It all has to do just as much with fashion magazines or what's currently in vogue, so to speak. Anything else that's a little bit different, there's always a quick and handy hole to peg it into. I thought the alternative scene was supposed to be alternative, where you had lots of choices.
Maybe it's stupidly optimistic of me to think that it's the quality of songwriting and performance that should be the big deal, not what it makes you hearken back to. I think sometimes that does become the main point - which is kind of sad, because I think a lot of good acts get overlooked in a way because of it - just because of what happens to be in vogue. There's really almost no way around it. It's just something that's always happened, and probably always will. There's still a lot of choice - you gotta go through and pick it out - but at the same time, as far as what's the popular choice or what's being pushed down your throat, that's still not as varied as I'd like to see. It's still miles ahead of the major scene and the top-40 radio scene, but being the silly optimist that I am, I'd still like to see it even better. Everybody likes to talk about how the early mid-'80s or late-'70s were so great... has that pinnacle ever been hit? I hope we still look back at those years when we're older and say they were great, but I hope we can still look at the present moment we're in, you know?
What do you still hope to accomplish in this band?
Kevin: Basic shit - being able to pay rent, make money... and just to become better musicians and songwriters. We just want to be more creative. We don't want to get stuck following a formula or thinking, "oh, this is safe - everybody suddenly likes it! Why don't we just keep doin' this?" If we're gonna say we'd like to make more money, it 's almost the same thing as saying we'd like to be on a better label - a major - 'cause that's where you're gonna make more money.
Mike: We want to be respected for it, though.
Kevin: I think it's a basic human thing to want to be respected. We would like to be respected, and make more money, and it would be nice to be on a label that would not only show us that they like us, but show that they're willing to help us.
It would seem that Homestead has shown some faith, or is that a misconception?
Kevin: No, it's just that they don't have the facilities. Whether their ambition is bigger or not, or they're locked into a certain mentality, I don't know. I'd just like to see some basic legwork get done, without us having to do it. Up until now, we haven't even had a booking agent who would do that. Steve's been pretty good to us.
Mike: I think that our records a lot of times don't really express what we're capable of showing, or our full emotions. Our live shows - whether there's twenty or five-hundred people there, pretty much of 'em are gonna be turned onto what's happening, regardless of if they've heard the records or not. A lot of times, they even hear the records, and it's not the same picture... I don't know how or why that is the fact at times, but that is the scene.
Kevin: We try to make our live show flow. We're pretty careful about the way the set's set up. We do repeat basic versions of the same set every night - not because we can't think of anything more creative, it's because you start learning that flow so well that you can turn that completely to your advantage. It becomes like not even thinking - you don't have to think about what the next song is. I'm not saying we've premeditated our stage moves, or anything like that - everything we do on stage is pretty natural, that shit's been happening since the first practice we ever had. You can learn it so well, that you can take your nervous energy and your agitation and make it into positive energy...or you can sit there and be dumbfounded on the stage and let things fall apart - let it really bother you when you go out of tune, and watch the next four songs fuck up just because you let yourself get bothered by the fact that you forgot one little thing. Now I think we're all comfortable enough on stage, when something goes wrong at all, we manage to get over it really quick - keep the flow going, you know?
© J. Free / New Puritan ReView; 1991; 2014