Lush Life

With a new CD, Phoenix's Beat Angels prove there's no success like failure

Brooks and Smith snagged Jackson from what Smith terms "a fuck-awful punk band." Jackson, a transplanted Detroit rocker who once played with the Angry Samoans, boasts an immaculately groomed buzz cut and an encyclopedic knowledge of Britpunk.

"I saw the Boomtown Rats on The Mike Douglas Show and decided there and then I wanted to be like that," says Jackson, in a group conversation before their L.A. departure. "I was born to be in this band because I know the three chords necessary to play these songs, and I know how to apply them to both kinds of music. Pop and punk."

Jackson provides the essential comic foil for Smith onstage and off. "On the whole way back from Austin, Keith dreamed up this character called Outback Jack," says Smith, laughing. "He's a psycho bushman who rapes you and eats your testicles. And he's always happily describing how they're to be served to you."

After only three years together, the Angels are already on their second rhythm section in as many albums. Jackson is the most vocal about how new additions drummer Frank Hanyak and bassist Tommy CaraDonna galvanized the group.

"Frankie plays for the song," Jackson nods approvingly, simulating a one-two punch. "Our old drummer John was great, but his playing was so precise, so into the meter, I felt like I was always playing out of time."

"So what Keith's saying is that I can't play in time," slurs Hanyak after his fifth Coors Lite. Hanyak's a contrary drunk, prone to arguing with people who actually agree with him. But you've got to love his shy, world-weary demeanor, telling you in all sincerity that he has a hard time talking to strippers who frequent Beat Angels shows because they've got all their clothes on.

Rounding out the group is CaraDonna, who's not a very good drinker, but an exceptional bass player who's toured with the likes of Alice Cooper and Joan Jett.

"Tommy's a real rock star," Smith points out proudly, "and we're lucky to have him. He's been around the world six times and played in front of 60,000 people at Wembley Stadium eight times."

"Why is he here? I don't get it," scoffs Jackson.
Once upon a time, CaraDonna could put his bank card in an ATM machine and find a sizable checking-account balance. Now he doesn't even have a bank card.

"The amount of suffering and starving we do to be Beat Angels, this is phenomenal," marvels Smith, showing bravado and screaming uncle in the same breath. "I mean, Frankie has lived without a phone for four months. We practically have to consult a Ouija board to let him know we've got a rehearsal. Our lives are so disrupted, so not what you'd consider normal. When we say we have no money, it means we have no food and no medical insurance and we're scraping pennies to go buy beer."

Currently, the band seeks tour sponsorship because its members can't afford to do it and its label, Epiphany!, won't pay for everything when the Beat Angels tour, a not-uncommon indie scenario. The major labels don't seem to be much of an option at this point, because they're so busy falling apart.

"EMI just closed up its American shop, labels under the EMI umbrella went belly up and those bands are like homeless now," reckons Smith. "Labels are disappearing, bands are disappearing. Too much mediocrity has created this big glut of nothing.

"It's funny because before when we were going to them, we had major-label interest, but weren't ready as a band. Now we're more than ready as a band and we don't care. Because we made a record that we stand behind either way. Our goal is just to work a fan base as many places as we can. Tonight, someone from Elektra is coming to our show because they heard about us, not because we called them. If they want us, they can come and get us."

Despite the downbeat title, Red Badge of Discourage finds the Angels more confident in the studio, and producer Gilby Clarke (ex-Guns N' Roses guitarist) managed to capture the band's live sound, minus the occasional shouts for drink specials.

"The kids that come to our shows, people who work in grocery stores, different walks of life and musical tastes, everybody finds something on this record that appeals to them, and that didn't happen with the first one," Jackson says. "Unhappy Hour didn't capture us like this one does. We performed the songs well, but something didn't come across on the record."

Smith adds, "We got reviews thinking Unhappy Hour was going to be cocktail music. Popsmear magazine was actually quite indignant about it."

Even at the end of a glum sugarplum day like today, the boys have a lot to be thankful for. Red Badge's release in Britain will be accompanied by ads in Melody Maker, and the band is getting quite popular in remote ports of call like Japan, Italy, Sweden and Canada. It's getting airplay across this country as well, with local radio slowly coming around. In the meantime, you can hear selections being aired nightly in strip bars like Bourbon Street, Band Aids and Amazons.

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