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Revenge of the losers
American Hi-Fi and the Dubnicks
BY SEAN RICHARDSON
Talk to the guys from American Hi-Fi about their rock roots and they’ll tell you all about their undying love for the heavy metal and college rock of early MTV. So it’s no surprise that the Boston-bred pop band have shown a knack for making colorful music videos of their own. Two years ago, they scored an MTV hit with ÒFlavor of the Weak,Ó a hilarious tribute to the infamous short film ÒHeavy Metal Parking Lot.Ó Now they’re back with another youth-gone-wild masterpiece, ÒThe Art of Losing,Ó in which they perform for 500 screaming kids at a house party in the American heartland.
According to American Hi-Fi frontman Stacy Jones, the band got the idea for the video from an actual party they went to during a college tour that landed them at Fort Hays State University. ÒWe played a show in Hays, Kansas, which is like a four-hour drive from Kansas City. It’s just this little college town in the middle of nowhere. During the show, I said from the stage, ‘All right, who’s having a party tonight? Because we want to go out, we want to do something.’ These guys made their way to the front of the stage, and they’re like, ‘We’re having a party, Sixth and Walnut, come on down.’ After the show, we got some kids to drive us over there, and it was like the most raging keg party I had ever been to. It was just like this really small house, all these kids packed in there, and people were like crowd-surfing to Green Day records and just going off.Ó
When the band decided they wanted to keep the budget down on their new video, Jones immediately thought of the kids in Hays. ÒI said, ‘I think we should call these guys up and see if they can throw another party. We’ll bring our gear in there, we’ll set up, we’ll play their party. And we’ll film it for the video.’ You know, most bands that shoot videos like this, they would rent a house in Malibu, they would hire all these models to show up for the video shoot. This is a real party. It’s all real kids, there was no casting. We just told people, ‘Hey, we’re having a party, come on down.’ And we just set up in the living room and rocked.Ó
Jones is definitely not in Kansas anymore when I meet up with him on a weekday afternoon: he’s relaxing on the couch in his publicist’s office, on the 27th floor of the Worldwide Plaza building in midtown Manhattan. Finishing up a long day of photo shoots, the wiry blond frontman is rocking the teen-punk-idol look from head to toe: Red Sox cap tilted sideways, vintage green Gibson-guitars T-shirt, studded belt, work pants, Chuck Taylors. The next day, American Hi-Fi are scheduled to fly to Europe to play a quick string of shows with Sum 41 in anticipation of the release of their new The Art of Losing (Island). The disc comes out this Tuesday, and the band are celebrating its release with a North American headlining tour that stops at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence this Saturday and then at Axis on Tuesday.
American Hi-Fi may be all over the map these days, but their story starts in Boston. After teaching himself how to play guitar on the road, former Letters to Cleo and Veruca Salt drummer Jones rounded up long-time friends Jamie Arentzen (guitar), Drew Parsons (bass), and Brian Nolan (drums) to drink beer and play cover songs. Eventually, the band started making demos of new material that Jones had written; before long, they had turned their industry connections into a major-label deal. They hooked up with star producer Bob Rock (Metallica, Mštley CrŸe) for their first album, American Hi-Fi (Island), which vaulted them onto TRL and Top 40 radio with ÒFlavor of the Weak.Ó
Suddenly faced with the uninviting prospect of becoming a one-hit wonder, they set about the task of building themselves a core audience, racking up 300 shows in support of their debut disc. They drew crowds as far away as Tokyo; they courted the pop-punk youth of America with a stint on last summer’s Warped Tour. Jones wrote 40 new songs while the group were on tour, and last fall they got together in LA to record a new album with veteran producer Nick Launay (Silverchair, the Living End).
All that time on the road resulted in a disc that retains the big melodies of its predecessor but sounds palpably rougher around the edges. According to Jones, the band’s progression has a lot to do with the change in producers. ÒWhen we made the first record with Bob, if we did anything that sounded kind of angular, he would steer us away from it. When we did the new one with Nick, we would play something Clash-like or Pixies-like and he would say, ‘Yeah, more of that.’ I’m not saying one is better than the other, but Nick’s style happened to fit with where we are right now.Ó
Jones mentions the Clash more than once during our conversation, and that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s heard ÒThe Art of Losing.Ó Putting on his best faux cockney sneer, the frontman stitches a bunch of his favorite punk battle cries into a pogo-worthy anthem for the Good Charlotte generation: ÒHey ho let’s go/I’m gonna start a riot/You don’t wanna fight it/One two fuck you/Don’t tell me what to do/I don’t wanna be like you.Ó If ever a song was meant to have its video filmed at a college house party in Kansas, it’s this one.
The Art of Losing is full of the kind of playful pop references that have become American Hi-Fi’s trademark: Jones quotes ÒCrimson and CloverÓ on ÒThe Breakup Song,Ó and he gladly fesses up to ripping off the verses of Cheap Trick’s ÒHe’s a WhoreÓ on ÒBuilt for Speed.Ó The album earns its Parental Advisory sticker with an impressive amount of profanity, and its aggressive vibe can be attributed to the nasty break-up Jones went through when he was writing it. On ÒThe Breakup Song,Ó he makes one particularly time-honored request: ÒOne more thing before you go/Would you please give me my records back/My Bloody Valentine, the Pixies, Cheap Trick, and Back in Black.Ó
Given the age of his peers these days — he wears a Thursday T-shirt in the video, and pop-punk upstarts Count the Stars and Allister are taking turns opening for American Hi-Fi on their current tour — he knows he’s dating himself with those references. ÒI think there are a lot of great bands coming from the emo scene. I don’t know if the guys in Taking Back Sunday listen to the Pixies, but you’d be surprised. That’s one of the reasons that we try to turn people on.Ó
Like plenty of other Boston rock veterans, Jones lives in Los Angeles these days — and anyone who has seen the ÒFlavor of the WeakÓ video will understand why after hearing his Nikki Sixx story. ÒOne day our manager called me up and said, ‘How would you like to write a song with someone today?’ And he pages me Nikki Sixx’s phone number. I’m like, ‘Holy shit!’ So I called our manager back, and he’s like, ‘Nikki likes your band.’ So we hooked up a few days later and wrote a song together. I mean, he’s like an idol of mine, I grew up on Mštley CrŸe. There’s plenty of bullshit to put up with in LA, but that’s not going to happen in Boston.Ó
LIKE AMERICAN HI-FI, North Shore DIY rockers the Dubnicks know plenty about the art of losing — just look at their album titles. Two years ago, the band released their first full-length, How To Be Cool; last fall they followed it up with the EP Rejection Builds Character (both self-released, with distribution through the Boston punk label Fork in Hand). On ÒNote to Self,Ó the melodic thrasher that opens the new disc, frontman Phil Dubnick comes up with a chorus that rivals Weezer for self-depreciating humor: ÒNote to self: Don’t sell me short, I’m all you’ve got.Ó And he’s got the black-rimmed glasses to match.
Suburban punks that they are, the Dubnicks spend much of their time playing all-ages shows in makeshift venues on the outskirts of the city: their next gig is March 8 at the Reading VFW Hall. But they’ve also paid their dues on the urban club circuit, where they’re steadily making a name for themselves. They made it to the Rumble semifinals three years ago, and last year they were nominated for Best Punk Band at the Boston Music Awards. Most recently, they made it through the first round of national competition for the second annual Coca-Cola New Music Award.
All of which makes sense when you listen to Rejection Builds Character, a fun collection of songs about girls that could just about work on commercial radio as is. ÒWorn OutÓ is a teen-friendly anthem about beating off to pictures of your ex-girlfriend; ÒFalls ApartÓ is a wistful break-up song that could hold its own against the Sugar Ray hit of the same name. The band slow things down and add a pretty acoustic-guitar track on ÒKing of Mediocrity,Ó a savage indictment of rock sellouts. The Dubnicks may not be lucky in love — but with songs this catchy, they probably won’t remain losers for long.
American Hi-Fi appear at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, RI on Saturday, February 22; call (401) 272-LUPO. They appear at Boston’s Axis on Tuesday, February 25; call (617) 262-2437. The Dubnicks perform at the Reading, Massachusetts VFW Hall on Saturday March 8; call (781) 944-9720.