Ragin' Up the Road

Hot Rod Circuit traveled from barren place to less-barren place to get signed. They say the journey was worth it.

Hot Rod Circuit moved from Auburn, Alabama, to New Haven, Connecticut, in a day.

They may not have arrived dressed like the Blues Brothers – looking more like a union of displaced roadies in tee shirts, jeans and tats – but back in 1998, Hot Rod Circuit was certainly a band on a mission.

Singer Andy Jackson's wife had been visiting her mother up in Yankee territory, and called him to urge a move there, noting its proximity to New York City and Boston. "At practice that night, I told everybody, You know what? It's time to do something with this band,'" says Jackson, who retains a serious twang in his speaking voice, if not in his punk singing style. "Everybody was like, All right, let's do it.' There was no sitting there thinking about it, or a week, it was just, Tomorrow I'm gonna get a truck and we're goin'.' And we did it."

Emo, schmemo: Not too shockingly, Hot Rod Circuit rejects the trendy label.
Emo, schmemo: Not too shockingly, Hot Rod Circuit rejects the trendy label.
"It's just music, it's been done before": Hot Rod Circuit.
"It's just music, it's been done before": Hot Rod Circuit.

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Continues Jackson: "We got up there, slept on my mother-in-law's floor; we're talking my three kids, my wife, and all my band members. We had a Ryder truck full of all of our equipment, furniture and everything. We got jobs, worked for a couple of weeks and got enough money to put a down payment on a duplex that we could all move into. We did everything we could for the band. We didn't have anywhere to practice and we didn't know anybody in Connecticut. We'd sit down in the living room and play acoustic, air drums and shit like that."

Hot Rod Circuit, of course, isn't the first band to bet the farm and then some, but that kind of passion rarely comes through in the songs so starkly. Hot Rod Circuit makes music about actual life, instead of the tortured subconscious or any other kind of fantasia, the grist of all too much rock in the past decade. Even now that irony has been planted into every cell of the rock entity, you don't need a microscope to pick out old-fashioned values like spirit and purpose when they're present.

For one thing, few recent bands have articulated adolescence so well. "This Is Not the Time or Place," from 2000's If It's Cool With You, It's Cool With Me, says less but feels more than Green Day's "Time of Your Life (Good Riddance)." It's a blunt sketch about being busted for pot, "sittin' on the steps one night in St. Marks, in the presence of an officer, which probably wasn't very smart." With a chilly bed of strings and the whispered refrain "20 going on 21," the misadventure becomes a metaphor for youth's uncertainty, reminiscent of a Paul Westerberg ballad.

Last year's Sorry About Tomorrow, the band's debut for Vagrant Records, graduates to adulthood with just as much resonance. "At Nature's Mercy" and "Safely" are plainspoken songs about mature devotion, something almost no one in the underground rock nebula is doing successfully these days. Straightforward, catchy as hell, with Casey Prestwood's big guitars and Jay Russell's bass braiding into one another, Hot Rod Circuit specializes in major-key anthems undercut by slanted bridges and embellishments, all driven home at the point of a nail by Jackson's gimmick-free lyrics. "Never gonna leave your side," he sings to his wife in "At Nature's Mercy," "'cause I can't resist the crazy things you do/It's gonna take a lot of your time/And I hope someday, I'll give it back to you."

Now, granted, this was 2002, not a cynical 1996 ruled by Beck-ish cheekiness. In fact, irony's supposed to be dead, supplanted by the earnestness of a mysterious phenomenon known as "emo." Rock trends whittled into subgenres by the press might always be a crock of promotional B.S., but emo might just win the prize. A quick glance at the purported movement's cultural lexicon should be proof enough of that: Weezer, Fugazi, the teen drama Felicity, Father Guido Sarducci . . . the list goes on. Just where Hot Rod Circuit fits into it – aside from its sincerity and flashes of hard-core influence – is anyone's guess.

"As much as we all hate it, we always get lumped into the whole emo thing," says Mike Poorman, who replaced Wes Cross, the band's original drummer, after the 1999 debut, If I Knew Now What I Knew Then. "I think we're kinda like a rock band. We have different elements to us that allow us to get away with going in and out of a lot of subgenres. We can get away with touring with New Found Glory even though we're not a pop-punk band, just as we can play with bands like the Get Up Kids, even though they're more of an indie rock band."

"People still don't know what the hell emo is," adds Jackson. "Older people, they think of everything as alternative. It's just another new word in the industry and they just tag all the bands with it."

"It's kinda weird," he continues. "I'm 28 years old. I didn't start playing in this band to be an emo band. The first time I ever heard the word emo' was bands like Drive Like Jehu and stuff like that, which was also what people would call math rock.' Emotional hard-core music was emo music at the time."

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