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On the Dark Side

For the record, the members of Death Takes a Holiday don't worship the devil, though you might be confused if you've only caught one of the group's frenetic live performances. Onstage, the band rocks with a ferocity that would make Lucifer beam and bang his head. The band pumps out a surprisingly catchy blend of arty punk/pop songs, one of which finds singer/bassist Pete Hinz belting out a single word -- "Satan" -- over and over again.

By the light of day -- or at least offstage -- it's a different story. Sitting down with the band on a weeknight at its Tempe rehearsal space, Death Takes a Holiday's members come off as four very likable young men. They're clean-cut, polite and good-natured. Congenial, even. They're the kind of guys who probably love their moms -- but not in any weird sort of way.

Hinz, who resembles a black-clad Beat poet rather than a bat-munching Ozzy Osbourne clone, speaks in a quiet tone that barely hints at the guttural vocals of which he's capable. After offering a chair and a beer, he begins the conversation by calling attention to a copy of a Phoenix entertainment supplement littering the floor. On the cover is another local band, one you've never heard of, but one which the vapid weekly is pimping as the Valley's latest hope for mainstream national success.

"The whole article is about how they're going to market themselves," Hinz says, gesturing to the crumpled pages. "They're claiming that they're going to be the next big thing. It's all about who they know, how they're going to get record contracts -- 'I was at a party with a guy from Limp Bizkit, and I was hanging out with Carmen Electra, and we know this guy from the record company, and we're gonna get played on the radio.'"

The subject of "artists" whoring themselves to the music industry strikes a serious chord with Hinz, and some of the intensity he displays while performing begins to overtake his otherwise mellow demeanor. "They don't even talk about the fuckin' music," he says, shaking his head in disgust.

This, for Hinz and his bandmates, is what's fundamentally wrong with pop music and the people making it these days. And it could very well explain why many of the band's songs, while undeniably pop-influenced, also have a healthy dose of righteous anger. The kind that made post-punk pioneers like Hüsker Dü and Black Flag so, well, pioneering. Aside from Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard -- an admitted idol -- Hinz has trouble naming an artist that's emerged in the past decade who's more dedicated to writing good songs than creating a marketable commodity.

"Everybody's dumbed down," he says. "Nobody takes a chance anymore with their vision, with what they're trying to accomplish musically and lyrically. It's just garbage."

Hinz and his cohorts think this blatant need for public acceptance isn't just a plague that's affected Phoenix -- although lackluster support for Valley bands is the most visible symptom of the larger epidemic. Rich VanSyckel, the other half of the band's double-whammy bass section -- he plays the low end to augment Hinz's more effects-laden, rhythm-guitarish riffs -- says it's the fundamental problem with the attitude of so-called artists jockeying for position in the "music biz."

"It's all about marketing and how to get a record deal," says an exasperated VanSyckel. "Nobody wants to write good music. There's no soul in fucking music anymore -- it's pathetic."

If you think the members of Death Takes a Holiday are bitter, you're right. But before casting them off as whiners who should just shut up and play rather than slag a scene they're a part of, it should be noted that the group has always toed its own highly dogmatic line, displaying the kind of artistic commitment and consciousness that allow them to make such harsh judgments.

The first incarnation of Death Takes a Holiday emerged in '93 (the band disbanded in '95 and re-formed again in '98) and all of its members have been performing in the Valley for the better part of a decade. They all work day jobs, practice several times a week, play out as much as they can and have given local bands they like -- among them Mad at 'Em, Vinn Fizz, Slugworth, Camera Obscura and the Vox Poppers -- their first shots at supporting slots. And beginning in March, they'll begin a weekly Wednesday night "indie showcase" gig at Hollywood Alley in Mesa (much like the previous Sunday night affairs the band hosted in the late summer and fall of last year) to give new, deserving bands a chance to play out.

In other words, if anyone has the right to rant about musical integrity or lack thereof, it's them.

"For us it is about the music . . . we're certainly not doing this for the money," VanSyckel says. "There's only a handful of good bands [locally] we like, and usually we try to have them play with us at shows -- we like to keep all of our friends doing shows with us."

This grassroots "music for music's sake" approach isn't just evident by the conviction Hinz, VanSyckel, guitarist Andy Held and drummer Ray Weaver display in conversation. It's in their songs, too, which, rather than sticking to a particular style -- as all too many bands do today -- pinball among a variety of genres.

That becomes evident after a cursory listen of Death Takes a Holiday's latest demo, which will be released on CD next month as Academy 45. The disc is being put out by Mollusk Records, a local label founded by members of Camera Obscura.

A song like the aforementioned "Satan" is played at a breakneck pace that displays the considerable talents of drummer Weaver. The aggressive melodicism recalls early Pixies, with Andy Held peeling off riffs that would turn Joey Santiago green with envy. Then there's "64 Cleveland," which starts off with a crunchy, Dagnasty-like riff before veering into snotty-punk territory halfway through the song.

"It's all about a song in general, not just a style," Held says of the band's music. "We've got no boundaries as far as style goes."

Which is a good thing, since Death Takes a Holiday's songwriter, Hinz, is more a fan of the eclectic, old-school punk rock bands that played Phoenix's legendary Sun Club in the late '80s and early '90s than what he calls the "funk, hip-hop, metal aspect of our culture" that gives too much radio airplay to cookie-cutter bands like Limp Bizkit or Rage Against the Machine.

"Back in the day, you could have bands like Hüsker Dü, you could have bands like Big Black, and they all appealed to the same type of person, though they were all different sounds and styles," Hinz says. "That was the whole underground. But there is no underground anymore."

Hinz also thinks the alternative punk scene of the '80s was a golden period that gave artists an unparalleled freedom of self-expression, something he, as a lyricist, thinks is integral to the craft of writing good songs. Instead of letting a record company decide what personality a band or its music should have, he says, today's musicians should take greater risks and put more of their own personalities on the line.

"You knew who fucking Henry Rollins was, you knew who Michael Stipe was," Hinz says. "These people just had personality in their vocals and their lyrics, and they were all completely different."

Different in temperament, perhaps, But what Rollins, Stipe and another Hinz hero, Bob Mould, all had in common was a familiarity with the dark side of the human condition, an understanding that was both the motivation and inspiration for their muse. "People are too happy nowadays," Hinz says, grinning. "Except for like Robert Pollard -- he's happy in a weird way."

What Hinz is getting at is the reason artists like Stipe and Mould were capable of writing upbeat songs about depressing topics. Naiveté is why "artists" today write angry songs about things they're not really pissed off about. In fact, Hinz agrees that while alternative artists of the past would usually laugh in the face of their demons, the majority of bands finding success on today's "alternative" radio today don't even know such demons exist.

This, he adds, is where a song like "Satan" comes from. Rather than a jubilant tribute to the Prince of Darkness, it's more a study of the darker side of human nature, and the reason laughing and crying are only a hairsbreadth apart on the emotional spectrum.

"I was thinking that in this day and age of science and technology, we're not into witchcraft or anything, so what can be considered Satanic?" Hinz says. "[I came up with] despair. I like writing a lot about despair and loneliness, and you can write some pretty funny things dealing with some pretty brutal topics."

Death Takes a Holiday is scheduled to perform on Friday, February 11, at Modified, with Six Saturday. Showtime is 9 p.m. The group is also scheduled to perform on Saturday, February 12, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with Camera Obscura, Vinn Fizz, and Mad at 'Em. Showtime is 9 p.m.


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