Pick Your Poison

If Jekyll and Hyde were hard-core, they might resemble Poison the Well.

The inherent tension in a band coming out of the hard-core rock scene to court larger audiences is built into the name itself. "Hard-core" implies a scene in which listeners have gone to intense lengths to find their chosen bands, devoted more time to getting at the unfiltered wellspring of authenticity than their more wishy-washy counterparts, a.k.a. the dreaded mainstream. Hard-core kids want the pure dope, which is fitting since the scene has always had a strong undercurrent of straight-edge devotees -- teetotalers who are so fanatical about getting the purest dosage of music that they forsake chemical highs altogether.

The reason a hard-core band has trouble crossing over, of course, is that no one save for the diehard few wants the music that uncut. So a group like Miami's Poison the Well, which has just about the most redeeming pop qualities of any brutally heavy band around -- occasionally memorable choruses, pretty melodies, a singer who can do more than bellow like a stuck wart hog -- should stand a good chance of becoming ambassadors of the music to the rest of the world. And it does.

The problem is that this makes the scene groan. Hard-core kids, like Bush's chief foreign policy advisers, tolerate no compromise and no diplomacy.

The five members of Poison the Well were once 16-year-old hard-core kids themselves, little adolescent purists with eardrums that wanted no quarter. So they can relate. In fact, some of the angst that attracted them to the genre is still there. Case in point: When asked about the band's rabid fan base, Ryan Primack, one of Poison the Well's two guitarists, bristled at the phrasing of the question.

"I usually don't use the fan' word," he protests. "No. I think it's developed a really bad stigma. I think the word means someone who's dumbed-down. We just say kids' or friends.' We're all there to have fun, so we should all respect each other in what we call each other."

Clearly, Poison the Well hasn't completely exempted themselves from scene politics yet. But the grip is loosening now that the players are well into their 20s. Derek Miller, the other guitarist, told Outburn magazine recently, "I know what hard-core kids are like, because I used to be one . . . and I know that their standards for judging a record aren't normal standards . . . if I couldn't go to a hard-core show and sing along and punch people, then it wasn't a good record. So, yes, I would definitely like to escape that, because I don't give a fuck about that . . . that is inconsequential."

Ultimately, the scene wants its favorite sons to keep it real at all costs, even (or especially) if it means staying broke in the process. Poison the Well isn't too keen on getting huge now that it's signed to Atlantic, which released the band's third album in May, called You Come Before You. (The group's first two, Opposite of December and Tear From the Red, were handled by hard-core specialists Trustkill.) Primack spews the requisite once-were-indie-band speak, saying, "We're definitely not super-psyched to go get big," but rather welcomed the deal because the group wanted more people to hear its music.

So far, Primack reports, the sales of You Come Before You are keeping Atlantic happy. Other indicators are favorable, too. Poison the Well is touring at the moment with the Deftones, a slot that has been filled in the past by an unbelievably successful string of bands -- Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Linkin Park, bands that all far eclipsed the act for which they were opening. The mainstream press has also taken the band under its wing to a degree it has with few hard-core groups -- Rolling Stone even gave You Come Before You a positive review.

So Poison the Well finds itself in a position where it must put on the classic balancing act that all rising bands that grew out of a grassroots movement have to endure -- selling more without selling out. To that end, Primack explains, "We try to do lots of small shows along with some of the bigger shows. Like in December. We have a tour booked of rooms that only hold 500 people and all the shows are eight dollars. But we still do the Warped Tour. Because have you ever seen a band and you liked it better in a big place? Sometimes it's right to see a band like that, and sometimes it's right to see them in a sweatbox."

This teeter-tottering carries over to the music as well. On You Come Before You, the band often comes off like the souls of two bands duking it out for supremacy within the same five bodies. There's the underground metal-core band, as in the subset of hard-core that was developed by early '90s groups like Earth Crisis and Overcast; this is driven by Slayer riffs and screamed vocals. Poison the Well will lumber through a minute or two of hernia-inducing heaviness. Then, on a dime, they'll succumb to their other demon, spilling gently into a ditty you'd expect from an indie rock band with a bunch of Smiths singles stashed under its bed. These shifts happen on just about every song, and with little warning, giving this band a Gremlins-like quality -- cute and fuzzy one minute, scaly and Satanic the next.

The Jekyll and Hyde routine hinges on the twin guitars, which can sound as large and metallic as an airplane hangar or sound positively jangly; and on the vocals of Jeffrey Moreira. The singer mines past relationships for the bulk of his lyrics, which affords him a broad emotional range in his singing -- when he's feeling the pain, like that time she forgot their anniversary or something, he shouts 'til he's almost hoarse. Then he gets wistful and misses her, and, well, he sings. His tap-dance on the crux of nostalgia and despair puts Poison the Well firmly in the newly named "screamo" sub-subgenre -- the weepiness of emo overdriven with extreme vocal histrionics.

If Poison the Well sounds like a band divided, that's because it is one. But at least it's agreeably divided, or something like that.

"I think the only two bands we agree on are Fugazi and Black Flag," Primack relates. "Other than that, we're all over the place -- half the stuff I like everyone else thinks sucks, and stuff that half the other people like I think sucks. We all like really, really different stuff."

Some of the members' favorites, unusually diverse for a hard-core act, include the subtle and moody electronica of Boards of Canada, Radiohead, the Smiths, evil-core metalheads Bloodlet, and post-hard-core heroes Refused. The defunct Swedish band Refused is a guiding light for Poison the Well. The Scandinavians hopped willy-nilly through multiple genres while maintaining a coherent aesthetic, much like the Miamians hope to. So what the hell? The group traveled to Umea, Sweden, to record You Come Before You with Refused producers Pelle Henricsson and Eskil Lovstrom. The two Swedes concocted an enormous, bottomless guitar sound for the band that Primack admits can't be replicated at shows.

Clearly, Poison the Well has its work cut out for it. Its members are taking the challenge -- how to tap into better songcraft while stroking the hard-core zealots that done brung them to this spotlight -- with characteristic cool-guy casualness.

"I don't really think all the weight of introducing hard-core to the masses is on us," Primack says. "A lot of bands have brought it through at different times. I think Quicksand did the same thing, for post-hard-core, anyway. And Hatebreed's done the same thing, and AFI.

"I always thought we were just a band that was just there. We're just very mellow people in a lot of senses -- we never thought we were a band that was reinventing the wheel. We just want to keep playing shows and recording records, like any other band."

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