Nerd Bands, Unite!
The power-pop quartet Weezer has inspired a new generation of unassuming, garage-dwelling would-be rock stars. In fact, members of young Valley rock bands -- we're talking the 16- to 23-year-olds here -- regularly cite the band and its giddy, sincere songwriting as primary influences.
"They're just cult icons. They came around during a music revolution rather than a music trend," says Mark Williamson, guitarist for local power-pop band Stomp on Melvin and the organizer of this week's Weezerfest 2003 at the Bash on Ash in Tempe. He's referring to the end of the grunge explosion. "It's just nostalgic for most people. Listening to [1994's] The Blue Album brings me back to my freshman year in high school."
Williamson adds, "They caught a lot of people and caught them early."
It's pretty amazing to hear kids barely into their 20s wax on about "nostalgia pop" from the mid-'90s. It's especially striking in this instance since Weezer is still a fairly young band itself, its members having barely crept into their mid-30s. The Grateful Dead they're not. And yet there's enough of a connection between the band and its impressionable disciples to inspire an entire night of reverence from multiple bands.
The band achieved mainstream success in the mid-'90s on the strength of intense power-pop ditties about botched long-distance love affairs, self-flagellating depression, surfboards and other suburban inanities. After a disastrous commercial and critical response to their 1996 album Pinkerton, the band, whose style was christened "nerd rock," then disappeared. It reemerged from hibernation five years later with quirkiness intact. The band's songs, in some instances, are remarkably catchy and charming. And while they lack the heft of those by their "artier," more musically challenging peers, those songs clearly struck a nerve with young listeners on Weezer's first go-around.
The sloppily made but intermittently fascinating Pinkerton -- nearly a career killer, it's the album that used to suck -- has become required listening for aspiring post-adolescent emo musicians. If eccentric bandleader Rivers Cuomo could whine so convincingly about his brutal romantic screw-ups, why can't these hopeful kiddies?
The Weezer touch, though, extends beyond wise-ass rockers and frustrated music geeks.
"When I was in high school, I played in the crappiest little nerd rock band," Williamson says. He remembers early gigs at normally unresponsive, popular-guy house parties where a sly Weezer cover -- chosen solely to entertain he and his bandmates -- would become a highlight of the party. "Everybody would be screaming the words. We couldn't even hear ourselves playing. And I was like, Wow!'"
Yes, bands that love Weezer have fans that love Weezer. For the opportunistic Williamson, that revelation gave him a chance to ignite a champion cause. Namely, he wanted to find ways to help his young musical peers land better and bigger shows at Valley clubs -- without charging a lot at the door.
"The whole idea is to give [the bands] an opportunity to play and make some money," Williamson says. "We just didn't have enough say as far as what we we're doing."
Often, Williamson says, young bands will book shows, only to be bounced from the bill by older, better established acts. Other times, a club owner will look to pack as many as six bands on one night, so that the styles range from death metal to rap to lighthearted power-pop.
Seeing that his band and others in the same boat needed leverage, Williamson formed Social Canteen -- part band collective, part Internet community, part promotional company -- this past fall. Social Canteen, according to Williamson, allows him to pool resources with other bands and approach promoters and club owners with a little gravitas in his hip pocket.
Under the guise of his new creation, he approached five other power-pop bands and sold them on a night of interwoven Weezer covers. He then sold the idea to the owners of the Bash.
"I'm trying to make the shows more enjoyable for the bands, for the clubs and for the audience," Williamson says.
Each participating band has promised to play at least two Weezer songs, according to the Social Canteen Web site. Besides Stomp on Melvin, five other Lower East Valley bands will play (Mesa and Gilbert are teeming with fresh-faced rock bands): Treehouse Cadillacs, Don't Miss the Big, the So-So's, Golden Brown Couches, and 15 Minutes to Harlem.
Members of several of the Weezerfest 2003 bands embrace the concept, admitting people would probably rather hear the Weezer songs than an unbroken chain of their copycat originals. Rob Davidson, guitarist for Don't Miss the Big, says while his band is influenced by a variety of hard-rock sources, he can't deny it lifts what he terms "that Weezer type of happy rock."
"I know so many people who play guitar who in their stash have the guitar [tablature] book for The Blue Album," says Davidson, who at 23 is an old man in this crowd.
The Blue Album is the affectionate nickname for Weezer's self-titled debut album. The band was dopey enough to release another self-titled record upon its return from obscurity in 2001.
Pinkerton may get more press these days, but The Blue Album is the effort that momentarily launched Weezer into pop-star status behind the Happy Days-evoking video for the single "Buddy Holly." As dumb rock records go, it was also among the most perfect dumb rock records of its era, a polished, hook-plastered 10-song set. That the smirking sentiments and twisted thoughts of Rivers Cuomo were once certified platinum only adds to the band's intrigue, Williamson says.
Mark's little brother -- and Stomp on Melvin bassist -- Jeff Williamson apparently caught the childhood Weezer bug more severely than his sibling, and he was in grade school learning to just scratch his head, walk and hum a coherent tune simultaneously at the time.
"The way I see it, they have done more for the music scene than any other artist," says the younger Williamson via e-mail, perhaps overreaching a bit. "I mean, from Dashboard Confessional to the Ataris, it seems like every band has some sort of respect for Weezer. It's just crazy how their songs latch on to certain people, no matter what style of music they enjoy."
At minimum, Mark Williamson hopes that fondness will help translate into the audience he and the other bands have been seeking. Through Social Canteen, he plans to promote similar monthly showcases, though he may go lighter on the cover-band shtick. In January, for example, he'll be staging a smaller-scale acoustic night at the Mesa Women's Center.
Less ambitious than his buddy, Davidson says he's just excited to have something to look forward to for a change.
"It's kind of a good way to give exposure to some of us and our fledgling local bands, so we can get out of our houses every now and again and do something," Davidson deadpans.
Sounds a little like one of Weezer's palpable odes to boredom, actually.
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