Are you afraid for rock n' roll?
Do you wince at summer tour offerings that seem to consist of the same, tired dinosaur acts that punk rock was supposed to have killed off a decade ago? Are you flabbergasted that people actually wait in line to see simpering trash like Reality Bites and Singles? Does your gag reflex kick in when you see MTV passing off a bunch of cloying morons as actual humans in The Real World? Have you canceled your subscription to Rolling Stone now that it's turned into a vast, worthless catalogue of scented perfume ads and dreary political essays? If you're not afraid, then you're probably bored, and that's worse. Whatever happened to the go-to-hell spirit that had nothing to do with artistic angst, poetic sensitivity or advanced chops and everything to do with sweat, power and plain old stoopid passion?
Nothing at all, if you're talking about Surgery.
Guitarist Scott Kleber, drummer John Leamy, bassist John "Lapper" Lachapelle and singer Sean McDonnell know there is more to rock n' roll--on- and offstage--than saving rain forests and hyping "lite" beer.
Take, for example, one evening on a recent tour of Germany, in a town McDonnell can only remember as "like, Villigin-Schwinigin?" "We had to go to the hospital four times in one night," he says by phone from a motel in Denver. "First, me and Scott had this horrible flu, so we went there. The second time, our bass player wanted to get in a fight with me, and he was going to whip a bottle at me and he reared back to wind up and hit our road manager's girlfriend in the face. That cut her chin open. Later on, a girl came up and smashed a bottle on our bass player's finger, so that cut him open, and then, because we were causing so much trouble at the hotel, our road manager got into a fight with the owner of the hotel and put his foot through a plate-glass window and got 72 stitches."
Granted, multiple visits to the emergency room do not necessarily a bitchin' band make, but Surgery takes its music--a balls-out slam of drooling vocals, overdriven guitar and crotch chowder rhythms--as seriously as its, uh, partying.
"Oh, we take it very seriously," McDonnell cautions between cigarette hacks. "That's the thing that we all love; that's the reason that we wanted to be in a band."
He's not kidding; the quartet has given in to professionalism to the point of eschewing pregig boozing, at one time a de rigueur act.
"For the last year and a half, we pretty much drink only after the shows," admits McDonnell. "We don't get, like, totally blown out before a show anymore to the point where we can't play. The last time that happened was, like, two years ago in Austin, and it was just horrid. Our bass player and our guitarist had a martini-drinking contest with some girls, and we got into a big fight onstage. It was a nightmare, and that was the end of that."
Surgery began in a Syracuse University frat house seven years ago, explains McDonnell, "but it wasn't a paddle-boy frat, you know what I mean? It was a lot of guys who played in bands, and it was a way to get mom and dad to buy beer for five years." With beer and a common musical background, the boys were on their way. "We wanted to make music that we wanted to hear," emphasizes the singer, "music that combined all the elements of the bands that we liked." Such as: "A lot of Seventies rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, the Rolling Stones, some Black Sabbath, and I liked a lot of punk rock: Black Flag, Minor Threat and stuff like Pussy Galore and Sonic Youth." Though only guitarist Kleber was actually graduated, McDonnell--who came within three credits of an English degree--admits he got something out of higher education. "Actually, it does help songwriting a little," he says. "I mean, not as far as actual chords and stuff, but with the lyrics." With a name plucked from an inspirational night spent "smoking too much pot in the dorm room" and an all-or-nothing commitment to rock, the band left the world of academia in its rearview mirror and headed downstate to New York City.
"It was pretty much a big carnival," says McDonnell. "We'd been going down to see shows for a while, and we always liked the city. Actually, I thought it would be a lot wilder than it was; like, I thought all those people in the bands that we liked were going to be, like, 'Let's party!', but they were all pretty reserved. So when we got to New York, we got the reputation as being fairly wild, you know, but I didn't think we were excessively wild."
Despite relentless local gigging--Surgery soon developed a buzz based on fearlessly manic performances--the band made rent with day jobs. "We were all working construction and demolition cleanup," recalls McDonnell. "If a fire hit a law office or something, we'd clean it out, tear down the walls. And we were also acid-washing walls with hydrochloric acid, which is the strongest kind of acid. One guy we were working with lost a finger. It was good money, and it was kinda fun. It was better than doing Xerox jobs, which is just hell."
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In 1990, the indie label Amphetamine Reptile signed the band, released a couple of singles and an album that drew critical praise and a widening audience--a lot of strippers, for some reason, maybe because the music's so sleazy"--and Surgery hit the road. Quite literally.
"We've had three van crashes," says McDonnell, hacking again briefly. "We went across the country in a huge, old, ex-UPS truck painted black with 'Surgery' in bright green written across it. And we had a trailer with two motorcycles. We lost a rear axle, which is a double-wheel axle, and the whole van almost flipped. It was skidding out, and shot oil and smoke and fire everywhere. If we didn't have the trailer with the motorcycles, we figured we would have flipped."
But they didn't. Instead, Surgery drove itself all the way into a contract with Atlantic Records; for all the seemingly careless tales of debauchery and excess, this is a band that knows what it wants.
"We want to be as big a band as possible," states McDonnell. "We want to be huge, tour with ZZ Top and the Stones, live that lifestyle. We never had any apprehensions about wanting to be a big band. And Atlantic has been really good. They haven't given us a phone card, but they do give you a lot of money."
Don't worry, Surgery is not about to let money and major-label status induce star trips and dullness. "We've been best friends for five years, and we pretty much watch each other's backs. It's cool, but there's still fistfights and stuff like that," says McDonnell. "We definitely have a sense of humor about ourselves. We're definitely pretty outrageous and fun. We don't want to be this serious, tough-guy, Rollins-type thing; we just go up there and rock out."
And McDonnell has but one regret:
"I really wish we hadn't named Surgery as a name. It was just stupid . . . I wish it was 'Sugary' or something.