Life or Art?

Two local bands put divergent spins on their metal theater

Few bands have the support cushions to fall back on that Opiate does. They are managed by Bob Chiappardi, president and founder of Concrete Marketing, who has worked with artists such as Linkin Park, Staind, and Papa Roach. Nine Inch Nails keyboardist Charles Clouser has co-produced Opiate's recordings, which in turn have made the rounds in the industry underground and attracted admirers like ex-Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine, who called lead guitarist Dusty Lyon out of the blue once -- but got Dusty's mom instead. And there are Opiate's parents, whose unbounded support both fiscally and emotionally dates back to when guitarist Kaufman, singer Ron Underwood and drummer Elias Mallin were students at the New School for the Arts four years ago.

"We were all so young," says Mallin. "Right out of high school, when we decided to join together from several other bands, we talked to our parents and told them this is what we wanted to do and this is what we need to do it. And they've been super." In a short span of time, the group quickly got the knack of generating income for itself by staging large-scale shows that helped "feed the machine," as Mallin puts it.

Kaufman's father owned some real estate at Seventh Street and Van Buren and allowed the fledgling band to rehearse in an unused building near what used to be Union Hall. When a dot-com company had an idea to renovate that old venue into the Web Theater, their day-to-day proximity to the Opiate guys led them to become friends and offer the group a headlining show. Opiate drew 1,500 paying customers and around 200 guest-list patrons. When you consider that Pink, who's seemingly on TRL every millisecond, barely managed to fill the place, that's pretty phenomenal.

Eddie Kelly of BLESSEDBETHYNAME – and a friend in darkness.
Emily Piraino
Eddie Kelly of BLESSEDBETHYNAME – and a friend in darkness.
"So it's apparently not our turn": Opiate holds out for a break.
Mark Weiss
"So it's apparently not our turn": Opiate holds out for a break.

Kaufman gives due credit to their friends from the performing arts world. "All the fire-breathers, dancers, human suspension artists, people on stilts, strippers, those people are all our friends, and combined with the facilities at the Web, it helped make our show seem like a huge lavish production."

In 2000, the guys assembled songs on Pro Tools that became the self-released New Machines and the Wasted Life and enlisted bassist Ryan Head in time for their first live shows. Made without any preconceived notions of what the industry might like to hear from young mad lads, the album featured a zany vocal delivery from Underwood and a set of songs that railed against institutional stupidity ("Half Intelligent," "Cable") and authority figures like teachers, the clergy and people who wear "Neckties" (sample lyric: "Jesus never wore a necktie/Aaah-aaaah!").

Far from being offended, a few well-placed people with neckties loved the sounds Opiate made with its new machines and teamed them up with producer Ed Stasium for three tracks, which made up the balance of the Seven EP the band sold at shows and over the Internet. In time, Epic, Atlantic, DreamWorks, Columbia and WindUp all expressed interest. "Each time the group was flown out, we showcased, drank as much alcohol and ate as much food as we could while they blew smoke up our asses," says Underwood, grinning. No matter, the go-round linked them with Clouser, who wanted Opiate to be his first production credit. File under "dream come true."

It's Monday night rehearsal in Opiate's new rehearsal digs, an industrial park on the Tempe/Mesa border. It's an idyllic setup a former recording studio with a makeshift loft above a control room where Underwood sleeps nightly. It's also loud as hell.

Tonight's run-through of the set mostly consists of the tracks featured on the group's recent Goodbye EP, which includes remixes by Clouser and some killer new tunes, like "The Carried," which opens with backward hi-hats and kicks in with "Sweet Emotion"-style authority. Underwood's baritone has doubly expanded in range since he's received vocal coaching, now slipping from a David Gahan bellow to The Exorcist split-pea spewing. Mallin triggers most of the hard disk sound loops and outré percussion. Kaufman enacts all the necessary fill-ins from backing vocals, to guitar riffs and live piano licks, while Lyons, enlisted solely to play lead, pulls off a scorching solo on "Goodbye." Underwood's so inspired he makes veins pop in his neck.

When it's over, Kaufman complains that "it sounds like shit because our sound guy isn't here." It's hard to know if he's serious. If BLESSEDBETHYNAME seems like a one-man Behind the Music special, then Opiate for the Masses is tortured-artist music without the torture. Each band member has more gear in his corner of the stage than the local Bob Cratchit outfit playing down at the park, and they've got bigger names pushing them than a lot of people who already have deals.

"Bands like us and BLESSEDBETHYNAME, I don't think we sound like industrial bands. We've got a lot of aspects of metal and industrial in our band, which a lot of people feel is a past trend, which might resurface some other time," says Kaufman. "Right now a lot of other types of retro bands are showing up at the top of the charts.

"So it's apparently not our turn."

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