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While discussing their brief but eventful history in the back room of Long Wong's, the group members never broach subjects like major-label conglomeration, marketing strategies, songwriting royalties or any of the other insufferable "music biz" prattle that will inevitably creep into a conversation with most of today's aspiring rock 'n' rollers. But just because they don't engage in any of the usual industry chatter is no reason to take them less seriously. Based solely on their tattooed, menacing appearance, they're a hard bunch to overlook, but appearances aside, the Mob 40's are musical up-and-comers in the truest sense. With a top-selling local release, a dedicated and growing following, a series of high-profile local shows, and an upcoming slot performing at Los Angeles' famed Troubadour Club, the group is quietly earning itself a national reputation.
Originally formed as a three-piece in 1996 by bassist Myke Augustat, a former member of Valley punk combo Since I Was Six, the band has been through a number of personnel shifts. The core lineup which has been together for the last two years features Augustat, Chokebore founder Luke Langham on guitar, and Kris Bindulski on bass--a move that has allowed Augustat to focus on vocals and his role as the group's front man. Recently, the group added former Impossibles member Rob Impossible to replace the departed Brett Sandy behind the drum kit. They also replaced former lead guitarist Pat Gruchala with Mike Crim, who continues to play with local punk outfit Sam the Butcher.
Most observers seeking to explain the group's appeal have compared their sound to that of New York hard-core pioneers Agnostic Front. While there are some superficial similarities to Agnostic Front's punk/metal hybrid and the throaty vocals of Front singer Roger Miret, the Mob 40's tend to shy away from the comparison. "I'm a fan of Agnostic Front, and I've liked them for a long time," Bindulski says. "But honestly, I really don't think we sound that much alike. That's just some people's perception."
If the group is tired of the Agnostic Front connection, its general reluctance to be lumped in with other bands has more to do with the cookie-cutter mentality that accompanies the classifying of "hard-core" acts. "We get a lot of people who aren't into hard-core who like us. But we also have people who listen to hard-core but don't like what we do--so it doesn't really make sense to try and compare it to anything else," Langham says.
While the Valley music scene is best known for producing jangle-pop bands, Phoenix has an equally long history of giving birth to a number of accomplished hard-core groups. Going as far back as the late '70s with a skate-punk collective like Jodie Foster's Army, the Valley, despite occasional droughts, has had an active and healthy musical underground. In recent years, the local punk/hard-core scene has been fraught with seemingly endless difficulties, including the demise of clubs like The Heat and increasingly tough laws aimed at regulating all-ages shows. The Mob 40's have been one of the few groups that haven't suffered from the lack of a permanent venue to showcase their style of music.
As if to underscore their independence from the frequently narrow conventions of the punk scene, the band is scheduled to open a pair of shows at the Mason Jar at the end of the month. While it would seem that the Jar's decidedly un-punk reputation would rule it out as a possible venue, the group feels otherwise.
"The Mason Jar gets a bad rap. When we get up there to play, we don't focus on any of that," Augustat says. "We just get up and play--and it's cool because the bar is in the back and the people just stand there and let the kids that want to get into it come down front."
Their fearless approach to performing has landed them spots opening for established national acts like D.O.A., the Anti-Heroes and the New Bomb Turks, among others. And while the band members are glad that they seem to be part of a bigger movement hailing the return of old-school punk, they note that their fan base is different from that of most of their contemporaries.
"I think bands like Zeke and the Murder City Devils play to an older crowd than we do," Bindulski says. "At our shows, it's a lot of kids just going off. We do that on purpose. We try and make every show all-ages."
If it seems unlikely that a Valley punk band with teen appeal could establish a national reputation, then the success of the group's first full-length release, Three Chords and the Truth (a title appropriated from an old Rattle and Hum-era Bono ad lib), is an even bigger surprise.
The album (on Scorched Earth records) has been a resounding success, staying at or near the top of Zia Records' sales charts since its December release.
"There aren't any left in there," says Augustat, pointing to a case inside Long Wong's that sells CDs of local bands. "I've seen people come in and buy a handful of them. You know, they just come in and buy like five copies. They said they were gonna send them out to friends."
"Yeah, it's weird," Bindulski adds. "The CD is selling really well down in Tucson, and we've never even played there before."
The disc's sales are tangible proof of the phenomenon that the band has witnessed since its inception. "It's a huge word-of-mouth thing," Bindulski says. "Our whole thing is people come to our shows and tell their friends. Plus we purposely schedule shows with bands that aren't doing the same thing--mixing the crowd up. And we always notice that the next time we play, we've got a ton of new faces in the crowd."
While there are moments where the record seems to get buried amidst the breakneck pace and overwhelming energy, for the most part it's a surprisingly polished effort that still contains a strong enough hard-core aesthetic that it should be required listening for all those who equate punk rock with the Offspring.
From the all-out attack of "Apocalypse" to the call-and-response chants of "Riot," Three Chords is full of enough infectious "Go Go Go's" and "Oi Oi Oi's" to convince the most jaded punk listener that the group is for real. Beyond that, the reason the band has been able to reach beyond its punk constituency is that it refuses to sacrifice any of its inherent musicality in an effort to toe the raw "hard-core" line. Songs like "Someday" and "Johnny Ray" possess the kind of inspired tunefulness that most bands carrying the hard-core tag are unable or unwilling to muster. (Those two songs in particular have broken a difficult commercial barrier for punk bands, receiving local airplay on KUPD.)
For all the power of the band's twin-guitar attack and Bindulski's melodic bass lines, it's the vocals that give the tracks their unique slant. Augustat (who handles lead vocals on a majority of the tracks) doesn't sing so much as he forcefully uses his voice to emote. His bass-heavy howl burns with an authority that expresses the longing, anger and day-to-day frustrations of a disenfranchised punk minority. When he kicks off the album's opening track ("B.Y.O.W.") with the line, "Blank generation just don't understand/Bring your own, yeah, bring your own weapon," it shatters any of the artsy pretension behind the mid-'70s New York underground rock of the Voidoids and Television and instead puts the emphasis on the violence and street-level grittiness of the genre.
It's a theme that the band expresses frequently on the album. On a song like "The Street," the band takes a look at the seamy and destructive nature of teen culture along Mill Avenue. Although the album has its share of reflective moments, the group isn't looking to become social critics or liberal advocates, as the politically incorrect lyrics of "The Happy Song" clearly indicate. If the Mob 40's represent anything, its a working-class street ethic--one that looks to celebrate life's possibilities as well as damn its grinding boredoms.
Thematic content and philosophy aside, the emphasis on most of the songs is fast grooves, over-the-top vocals and feral energy--the element that the band feels is the key to its ever-growing appeal.
"When people come and see us, they know we go all out," Augustat says. "After every show, we know we've turned on a lot more people to what we do."
Along with the Troubadour gig (opening for Epitaph Records artist Zeke), and a number of prospective regional shows in the works, the Mob 40's are looking to capitalize on the creative and commercial momentum they've been able to stir up in recent months. In addition to having completed a forthcoming seven-inch EP, the band will appear on a Scorched Earth compilation, as well as make a rare in-store appearance at the Tempe Zia Records. After that, the group says it will go back into the studio to begin work on a full-length follow-up to Three Chords.
"I want to take it as far as it can go," Bindulski says. "I mean, I have a job--we all have jobs, but we'd like to be doing this full-time." For his part, Augustat has a more definite vision of the future. "I want to make like 20 records," he says with a smile, which quickly fades. "I'm serious. I don't know why, but that number just sticks out in my head: 20. I just want to keep making records, and I want to start doing it now."
The Mob 40's are scheduled to perform at the Mason Jar on Sunday, April 25, with Total Chaos; and on Wednesday, April 28, with Fear. They will also be making an in-store appearance at Zia Record Exchange in Tempe on Saturday, May 8.