Playing With Power
There very well may be something terribly wrong with the members of Speedealer.
"Everybody in this band is pretty pissed off," says bassist Rich Mullins. "I think our attitude is that, in order for something to rock, you have to really mean it. Jeff [Hirshberg, guitar/vocals] calls it a tremendous amount of negative energy.'"
After a pause, Mullins offers a possible explanation: "Maybe when we were little, someone touched our buttholes or something."
The result of this possible childhood trauma is a hard-rocking, hair-swinging outfit made up of four scruffy Texans who look like they'd be just as comfortable working on cars or beating your ass behind a 7-Eleven as they are playing a thrashy amalgam of psychobilly-tinged, howling rock. Now touring behind Second Sight, the band's third album, Speedealer has picked up and run from the spot where it left off with 1999's Here Comes Death. Throat-raking vocals and greasy guitars rip through the disc with the fury of a Lubbock dust storm.
This time, though, Speedealer's affinity for the 60-second, hit-and-run thrasher has largely been sublimated or at least stretched out. Some of Second Sight's songs actually reach beyond the four-minute mark. Compared to the tracks found on the band's two previous albums, songs of this length almost seem like noodling, jam-band fare. Speedealer's songwriting and playing have never been sharper, though, and there's not a shred of tie-dye to be found in its sack-of-broken-glass approach.
"Personally, I just think [the songs on Second Sight] are better-written," Hirshberg says. "Structurally and lyrically they're better, and sonically as well, as far as the recording goes."
What Speedealer plays is often referred to as "stoner rock," an epithet that speaks to the band's nihilistic, dropout worldview as expressed on songs like "Leave Me Alone." But the overused and overly handy description implies chugging guitars and a guttural grind, rather than the hard-edged, punk-influenced sound made by Hirshberg, guitarist Eric Schmidt, drummer/vocalist Harden Harrison and Mullins, who recently replaced original bassist Rodney Skelton. Elements of the music made by fellow Texan psychotics the Butthole Surfers as well as of Nashville Pussy crop up in the mix. But no single influence overwhelms the band's sound, which is just becoming fully realized on Second Sight.
Mullins, who joined Speedealer in March after leaving Karma to Burn, his band of seven years, was impressed by early versions of the new album.
"[Second Sight] was probably the deciding factor for me in joining," he says. "I liked it that much. Everything's a lot more complicated. Their songs used to be a lot simpler. There are more time signature changes; they're going in more of a compositional direction."
The more complex nature of the new album may have to do with the involvement of Jason Newsted, formerly of Metallica, who produced it. Metallica fans have been reacting hyperactively to this news starved as they are for new news of their hirsute heroes but Hirshberg downplays Newsted's influence on the album's overall sound: He stresses that the songs were 70 percent finished before the band went into the studio. The experience with Newsted, he says, was valuable, if not exactly fun.
"We learned a lot, both good and bad," he says. "Certain things you can't talk about you keep it among the group that it happened with. You learn things about yourself, about your playing, that you can improve."
Typically performing more than 300 shows a year mostly without label support Speedealer's reputation is of a band that works harder than most. "We didn't [play 300-plus shows] last year because we recorded," Hirshberg says, "but this year we're well on our way. I think the day we get burned out on it is the day we'll quit playing. It's what we do, and we enjoy doing it."
The ball-busting work ethic is part of what got the attention of Palm Records, which broke Speedealer's chain of bad luck with labels. (Royalty Records went under just after the release of Here Comes Death in 1999; Palm soon signed the band and rereleased the album under its own imprint a year later. The band also had a famous run-in with the legal system when it was forced to drop three problematic letters R, E and O from its name: REO Speedwagon's attorneys filed a cease-and-desist order against Speedealer in 1999.)
Mullins, whose former band first toured with Speedealer almost four years ago, says the band's hard-driving rep is deserved.
"They're always there; they always show up," he says. "And even when we're not touring, if we get two days off, we're going to be practicing. Since I joined the band March 22, we've had two weeks off, and we don't have any time off between now and December. It doesn't give you much time for other things, like girlfriends or socializing, that kind of stuff.
"We're tight, though," he adds.
As for Speedealer's plans for the future, Mullins sounds reasonable, revved up and not all that pissed off about the band's prospects.
"When we toured with Motörhead, I was like, you know, the hell with it,'" he says. "No one helped them, and they just kept on playing and playing, and they're just going to keep on playing. That's what I want to do. That's what Jeff wants to do. That's what we're going to do."
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