Hammer of the Gazas
It ought to be one of those "Where were you when?" questions. You know, like "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" "Where were you when the Bronco chase was under way?"
So, "Where were you when you heard the Gaza Strippers for the first time?" Well, where were ya, punk?
For me, it was a cold, rainy Thursday night this past March in Austin, Texas, site of the annual South by Southwest music conference. In an effort to escape the torrential downpour, I found refuge three doors down at Emo's, the site of the Man's Ruin label showcase. The walls of the dark club were teeming with character and X-rated murals of the Flintstones. Now I'll never be able to separate the unforgettable sound of the Gaza Strippers with images of Wilma and Betty dolled up as whip-wielding dominatrixes. Minutes after I made the unholy realization that Fred's gargantuan head could service several Bedrock orifices at the same time, the Gazas took the stage like a schoolyard bully with a new set of freshmen to torment.
Within seconds, I was thunderstruck. After two nights of seeing DJs more interested in their headphones than a head count, once-great superstars on the way down and indie bands trying to make high-concept music without any concept of stage presence, the Gaza Strippers were a godsend to these jaded ears. They punctuated their savage dual-guitar arena rock with shouts, stage gestures and hyperkinetic energy, capping every song with a genial "Thank you, motherfuckers."
The Gazas worked up the as-yet-unconverted crowd like a band that had no use for college radio reps, music dot-com companies, journalists or major labels. By the time they bashed out the final chords to "As Long As It Feels Good," they had the lemmings up front mouthing the words to its repetitive choruses along with them. The band left the stage to the sound of cheers and two minutes of fuck-you feedback. In the foggy mist of memory, I can swear it was group leader Rick Sims overturning two full bottles of beer over some hippie dude at the foot of the stage. But eight months later, chilling in his Champaign, Illinois, home and about to tour behind a second Gaza Strippers album, 1000 Watt Confessions, Dr. Jekyll isn't about to fess up to any Mr. Hyde antics.
"That might've been our guitar player. I don't think I did that. But I wouldn't be surprised if that happened," says Sims.
"We've had our problems, our confrontations," he continues, several octaves lower than his high-register singing. "Especially in Baltimore. We've had two separate altercations. I jumped off the stage and went after [some guy]."
Pressed for details, he demurs because "I don't want to give the people that read this any ideas. I just don't like people that interfere with us putting on a good show. People come up and fuck with my shit and make it impossible for me to continue playing. And I just wasn't in a good mood. My fuse was short and someone lit it. That was a crazy night. We got our tires slashed and everything."
Usually, that sort of tar-and-feather reception happens to an opening band mismatched with the headliner. But it was a Gazas show, and a near sellout, too. "It was a mismatched bill in that the bands that opened up for us were horrible and we're good," Sims adds, laughing.
It's hard to see how any lover of boisterous power-chord rock could not get the Gaza Strippers' latest effort, and first for Berkeley, California-based pop 'n' punk label Lookout! Records. The Gazas left Man's Ruin not long after the SXSW showcase, finding more in common with a roster that includes the Donnas and the Groovie Ghoulies than one with acts like High on Fire and Alabama Thunderpussy. "Man's Ruin -- it's not as big as Lookout!," Sims says. "It's kind of a stoner-rock label, for lack of a worse term."
The best way to characterize the Gaza Strippers is a band that adheres to the '70s hard-rock theater of KISS and the New York Dolls, while filtering its sound through the amphetamine rush of hard-core punk.
"The first concert I ever went to was KISS, '75 or '76, for the Hotter Than Hell tour," confirms Sims of his arena-rock roots.
"With the [Gaza Strippers] it's all about the kitsch, all about the shtick. I guess I'm an ironic guy, and doing arena-rock moves in a nightclub is pretty ironic," he says. "Our music's certainly none of that math rock shit. We're not trying to be geniuses here and reinvent the wheel. We're just trying to play the same good rock 'n' roll that I grew up listening to.
"You can compare us to KISS and the Dolls for our attack, but we're way more fucked up. Our music is way weirder. As straightforward as it is, there's a fucked-up evil twist in there. Like a family that keeps up really good appearances on the outside; they're all born-again Christians, but the honor-school son is shooting up dope or there's some incest or sexual abuse going on."
"Dirty linen washed up nice," is how Sims describes the dark side of domesticity on "Newburgh Housewives," one of the standout tracks on a breakneck album. "That was a true story about our bass player (Darren Hooper) who was getting propositioned by his best friend's mom. He was frightened. I think it scarred him, and he's brought his scars to the band. The whole band is scarred. Our drummer (Mark Allen) has lived in Mattoon, Illinois, all of his fucking life, a lot of family gunplay going on in his younger days. People threatening other people with shotguns when you're young. If that doesn't scar you, I don't know what else it's gonna take.
One hopes for Allen's sake that his childhood isn't the one depicted in the song "Mommy Shot Daddy" ("Mommy shot daddy/For treating her badly . . . I saw it from my bed and it's still in my head").
As for second guitarist Mike Hodgkiss, the very fact that he sounds as though Ace Frehley and Johnny Thunders are his role models is scarring enough. "Just being in a rock 'n' roll band is gonna scar ya. He's a person who's bought into the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, and once you do, you've sorta sold your soul to the devil," says Sims.
Sims' own path down the road to perdition was set in place early on, when, as a teen, he'd attend Pentecostal tent revivals and get saved every other day in his hometown. "They had a rock band playing 'Jesus Is Just All Right With Me,' and they said, 'Come on down to the altar,' and I'd say, 'Hell, why not?' It was a hippie sort of gathering, kind of bizarre when I look back on it," he says. "That was where my cousins went to religion and became Pentecostal and started the long road to their hypocritical existence."
For those of you not familiar with the Pentecostal rulebook, women seem to have it the worst. They aren't allowed to dance or put on makeup, are required to wear long dresses and serve their men dutifully. And none of that Adam and Steve stuff, either. "It's a very strict interpretation of the Bible," says Sims. "'Man shall not lie with another man' -- very right-wing approach. They also speak in tongues, too."
Although that little trick might come in handy for a Gaza Strippers show, Sims has stayed clear from the dogmatic religious doctrine and from his relatives. "I barely see them. When I did see them last, I gave 'em some records and stuff and I never heard from them again. They're probably praying for me."
Though he might be an unholy sort, Sims has been blessed with an enviable career. His first outfit, the Didjits, were a world-traveled punk trio that released six albums with bratty titles like Full Nelson Reilly, Little Miss Carriage! and Qué Sirhan Sirhan before closing up shop in 1993. A song off the band's 1990 album Hornet Pi-ata called "Killboy Powerhead" was covered by the Offspring for its Smash album, which took indie punk Epitaph into the Top 5.
Were the Offspring longtime Didjits fans?
"No, they'd never heard of us," says Sims, "although we did play a show with them here in Chicago. Someone played them a tape and the guy liked my voice, liked the song and said it reminded him of some other California punk band. They put it on the record and sold 11 million." A nice chunk of change. "Yes," he agrees, "we'll be showing up in the van that the Offspring built."
As for his stint replacing Ron Heathman in the Supersuckers, Sims maintains "that was really a blip in time, it wasn't even a millisecond. I did one record with them (The Sacrilicious Sound of the Supersuckers in 1994). I got to meet John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, and Willie Nelson, which was cool. Then I did a little touring with them, which sealed my fate as far as being in their band because I just wasn't into it. I gotta play my own music."
While he's listed as co-writer of two songs off Sacrilicious ("Bad Dog" and "Money Into Sin"), the rest carry a monolithic "Supersuckers" writing credit, which didn't sit well with Sims. "If we had all been in the band and had written the songs, maybe. Once we went out to play, it was kind of like stepchild joining the family. It wasn't any fun."
Neither was a gig playing with Fred Schneider of the B-52's in support of the singer's 1996 solo album Just Fred.
"Steve Albini produced that record and he got a band together for it and he asked me. Then I made another mistake of touring with somebody that I didn't like," he says. "Touring's just a fucker anyway. It's easier to ram a hot poker up your ass than it is to tour.
"It was hard touring with [Schneider] because I just hated the bass player, he was self-righteous and very judgmental. So that didn't go down very well, and I'm glad that I got the hell out of there after a week and a half or so. We were sleeping on the floor with goddamn Fred Schneider! He was all right, pretty much straightforward. But he's not an all-night party sort of guy. He was more 'I wanna get home early and sleep in my own bed, run an antique store' sort of guy. It's all show."
Thankfully, Sims tired of just cashing royalty checks and went back to fronting a band in 1998. "The Didjits were a much more simplified version of the Gaza Strippers. We tried to play everything as fast as we fucking could, tried to rock as hard and mean as we fucking could. It was just pandemonium. The Didjits were more 'punk hard-core,' while the Gaza Strippers are more '70s rock. Plus, we're a four-piece with two guitarists instead of a trio so we can play the Thin Lizzy and Queen style double leads I grew up listening to." For proof, witness the sinister, medieval dual-guitar runs on 1000 Watt's "Newburgh Housewives" and "Sex and the Drifter."
"Also, there's a groove to our music. It's a little more about shaking it, which seems to invite the women in a bit more, whereas the Didjits were more of a dude band."
On the heels of 1000 Watt Confessions, the Gaza Strippers are planning to release Electric Bible: The New Testament (on Triple X Records), an extended version of their European-only EP Electric Bible with bonus tracks, including live crowd-pleasers like "White Hotel."
As for the band's upcoming Valley show, Sims is hoping the third time playing Phoenix will be a charm. "The first time we played some heavy-metal bar, where the promoter treated us nice but some bizarre heavy-metal band opened for us. Then we played some coffee-shop place that was supposedly all-ages. I don't know what the hell it was, but after that we vowed never to return. It was a little room where they sold little sodas. It was pretty dismal. Bad sound, no crowd and the feeling like 'You can play here if you want, we really don't want you, but go ahead and set up anyway.'"
This time around, the band is booked into Tempe's Green Room, a place big enough to house the Gazas' arena-size antics and enough wattage for them to say "Good night, motherfuckers" and really mean it.
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