It's not a new phenomenon, but lately the perceptions of what punk rock is and is not have irritated the hell out of me. Do three chords, a faux-hawk, and a 14-year-old's snotty voice make a band punk rock? Is there a formula? Does it have to be loud and rebellious? Does the record label that a band's on make it punk by association? Is a band not punk rock by default if it's on a major label?
The answer to all of those questions is no, in my opinion. Punk rock is a philosophy, an attitude, a sociological sphere where individuality is valued over conformity, where what's beneath exterior surfaces is exhibited via creativity, art, and music in particular, and an appreciation for such expression.
That could all be arguable, I suppose, by bands like Good Charlotte, Sum 41, and many of the Warped Tour cadre, but I subscribe to D. Boon of The Minutemen's famous declaration, "Punk is whatever we made it to be." Hence, I consider Elliott Smith, whom I had the privilege of knowing briefly, to be fucking punk rock, whereas a band like Blink-182 is not. Just because music is acoustic, melodic, or more complex than Pennywise or Green Day doesn't exclude it from the punk rock catalogue.
A recent case in point: I just came across the new solo album by Authority Zero front man Jason DeVore.
I've never been an Authority Zero fan. I'm not saying that I'm one to judge whether the band is punk rock or not; I just think its mix of SoCal punk rock (fast and poppy, with simple vocal harmonies) with occasional ska/reggae flavors is trite. But DeVore's record, called Conviction, immediately grabbed me, in ways that Authority Zero's two major-label releases, A Passage in Time and Andiamo (both on Lava Records), never did. It's an acoustic, personal album recorded with minimal production and DeVore playing every instrument (in Authority Zero, he's the vocalist), which has an intimacy and immediacy that slickly produced, overly thought-out records never do. This is the sort of record that I think embodies what punk rock should be.
The album's also dubbed The Smoke House Sessions, because of the environment in which it was recorded AZPunk.com founder Bryan Sandell's garage studio (just guessing, but I doubt it's cigarette smoke they're referring to). DeVore recorded the 13 songs when he had breaks between touring with Authority Zero, with no particular intention of releasing them.
Reached by phone prior to a show in Tucson, DeVore tells me, "We were writing a lot for the new Authority Zero album, and I write on acoustic guitar. I'd be writing a song and go, 'Oh, I kind of like that' but a lot of stuff wouldn't work for the Authority Zero album. It was a little bit too different, I guess you'd say. So I'd go over to Bryan's when I had free time, in between tours and so forth. Eventually, Bryan said, 'Since you have 12 or 13 songs, why don't you go ahead and put an album out?'"
Using Apple's GarageBand recording software an application meant for amateurs Sandell recorded DeVore over the course of a year. "It gets really stagnant when you keep on coming out with the same shit, you know?" DeVore tells me. "Conviction's about a bunch of shit that happened on the road, in my personal life, and everything in between."
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There are still elements of the ska/reggae flavor that I find slightly irritating (on "Call Out" and "Covert Operation"), but in the context of acoustic, almost new American folk music, those seem more organic as opposed to the ska/punk formula Authority Zero uses. The album begins with an ultra-lo-fi verse on "Stranded," a declarative plea over quickly strummed guitar. Things slow down on "Courage," a near-ballad where DeVore is picking pensively over his strings, his voice gravelly as he sings, "It's your courage/Take 'em on, take 'em out/Take a stand, take a bow." He also tackles "Dirty Old Town," the Celtic folk tune by Ewan MacColl that local band Liar's Handshake uses in its repertoire as well.
During the earlier months of 2006, Authority Zero was playing acoustic shows at the Real Bar in Tempe every Wednesday night, and the band released an acoustic record, Rhythm & Booze, this year as well. But I don't think it holds a candle to DeVore's Conviction record. Though DeVore has only played a few coffee shop and bar shows by himself thus far, the kids seem to be catching on.
"I was really surprised how many kids actually knew the songs and were singing along. It kind of fucked me up I didn't know if I was actually hearing something," DeVore says with a laugh. "It's really surprising to me. When I did the whole thing, I didn't know what to expect. I knew there were songs I really wanted to get out, and I was really proud of the way they came out. I figured, 'Get out the music that's inside of you, take a chance and see what happens.'"
While Authority Zero is preparing for the late-2006 release of its next album, Authority Zero, DeVore plans on hitting small stages a bit more while the band rests between major tours. "I don't think many people even know about it that much yet," he tells me. They may not, but they ought to. Conviction may be acoustic, melodic music, done with minimal production and not polished at all, but that's fucking punk rock to me.