"It's kind of like God let us come back," muses drummer Marnie Martin, "but only if we played together and really kicked ass!"
Martin is posing a metaphysical theory that explains how the four current members of Portland's Pinehurst Kids survived individual near-death experiences -- Martin was nearly electrocuted; guitarist Devin Morrow accidentally got a face full of chlorine gas; bassist Cal Gates had meningitis; and guitarist/singer Joe Davis lost the use of his limbs for three days after a chicken-pox vaccine injection -- and eventually became bandmates in a group that seems to thrive in the face of challenge -- physical, mental, logistical, you name it. The Kids have endured much hardship, yet they continue to wail.
The Pinehurst Kids derive their name from the town of Pinehurst, Idaho, whence sprang bandleader Joe Davis nearly three decades ago. The nearby operations of the Sunshine Mining Company allegedly poisoned the water table with dangerous levels of lead, and now everyone who ever lived in Pinehurst is on medic alert and subject to a variety of illnesses. Davis blames his asthma and poor circulation on the now-bankrupt company's environmental negligence. This disaster has never been highly publicized and the town residents apparently have no legal recourse in seeking compensation. One might think, with such a profound injustice inflicted on him, that Davis would have a bottomless reservoir of rage to draw from. Indeed, in Kids songs like "Pretty Whistle" or "Johnny Mercer," Davis is howling like his soul has been set ablaze and intermittently stoked with high-octane gas.
"The long and the short of it is that there's a place in me that already feels likes it's dead and I'm just so glad to be alive," he says. "I get angry when I see people who just sort of take life for granted. I mean, I joked about having a midlife crisis at 4." It is with this unlikely combination of grim humor, determination and awed wonder of life's curve balls that Davis and the latest incarnation of the Pinehurst Kids address their songs and their volatile live shows.
Though not exactly deserving one of those tacky "family tree" graphs that chart the comings and goings of various itinerant band members, the Pinehurst Kids have weathered some significant roster changes, even as their fiery emo-pop appears to get louder and better with each new addition.
Back in 1995, the Kids were a paltry two-piece combo, with Davis and drummer Robler Kind squeezing out combustible volleys of punk-pop gumballs to the Pacific Northwest's hard-drinking hipster crowd.
"That's what being a two-piece was all about. It was the ultimate, 'Well, we can't get a band together, so we'll just do it this way,'" Davis says of his band's humble origins. "Then we were a three-piece. Then a four-piece. Then a three-piece again."
The songs concocted by Davis for his minimalist combo were just fine (many of them ended up on the band's first record). But a punky duo commands little attention or respect (unless you're the Spinanes), so bassist Cal Gates (whose sister is in the Spinanes) bulled his way into the mix, and suddenly the goofy little pair became a "for real" band.
On the strength of their impressive 1997 self-released debut, Minnesota Hotel, the Kids were signed to 4-Alarm Records in Chicago. 4-Alarm bought their album and rereleased it. It was around this time the Kids ballooned to a quartet with the addition of second guitarist Gene Pool, but he left the following year, the touring requirements being too extensive.
In early 1999, the Kids recorded Viewmaster, their follow-up to Minnesota Hotel. As luck would have it, their first record was still doing respectable business, so 4-Alarm sat on the new record for nearly a year before giving the thumbs up for a mid-February 2000 release.
After another lengthy tour, original member Robler Kind decided that life on the road didn't suit him, either. "Touring life can be really fucking fun, if you like seeing the country, rocking out and not knowing where the fuck you are," says Davis, regarding the necessity of the road and the loss of two band members. "If you're the type of person who needs to shit in your own bathroom every day, then the road isn't going to treat you very well."
Fortunately, Davis and Gates lucked into über-drummer Marnie Martin, formerly of punk outfits the Delinquents and All Out. "Marnie put a collective kick in our ass," Gates enthuses. "Something good seems to happen to us every six months or so.
"There have been times when we've thought about giving it up, when we're not having enough fun or when people aren't giving a shit," he continues. "But we know we've got great songs and we know we rock."
After a scant number of rehearsals, the new lineup played out in August and the difference was immediately apparent. Martin, with her flailing punk and metal background, added a visceral percussive brutality that boosted the Kids' already raging pop several intensity levels. "Marnie hits the drums terrifyingly," Davis admits. "I'm afraid for a lot of things when Marnie hits the drums. Like the drums themselves, or anyone who gets in the way of a stick that flies out of her hand, or eardrums within 100 feet. It's a good fear to have."
"They've tamed me a tiny, tiny little bit," Martin acknowledges of her new bandmates. "I've been playing the really fast stuff for 10 years."
With Martin quickly up to speed on the material, the latest Kids upgrade has been positively shredding; Martin's full-bore tempo mauling leaves her comrades shaking and racing to stay ahead of her, while most recent addition Devin Morrow -- from Portland punkabilly rebels the Dirty Lowdowns -- anchors the guitar section, leaving Davis more room to emote vocally and extrapolate on his own six-string.
Davis used to joke that he preferred having a second guitarist because it afforded him more opportunities to drink onstage, but now he seems to have "serioused up" in that regard. The Kids can still kick up their heels and party with the best of them, but the prospect of forging an actual career out of music has proved sufficient to getting band priorities in order. "We sound a lot fuller live," Davis says. "It takes the pressure off the three-piece lineup. The three-piece is great, but there's a lot of pressure live. It's so much cooler for me to be able to stretch out and not worry that if I play a guitar solo it'll sound like the bottom dropped out. There's more room for things to sound random so you won't know what's going to happen next.
"It's such a gift to be able to travel and play shows, and I think we all respect that," he continues. "There are no stupid attitudes or laziness to get in the way of doing what we want, which is to play music that we don't understand but we like."
With the personnel firmly in place ("This is it. This is the band we've always wanted to be," notes Davis), the Pinehurst Kids can turn their collective talent to casting their imprint on two albums' worth of songs, with more on the way. "I've always wanted to be in a band with a really good songwriter, and that's what Joe is," Morrow allows. Gates and Martin quickly agree, with each member naming a different song as their personal favorite.
Viewmaster, the long-awaited second album from the Kids, is a lean and vibrant creation. Gates and departed drummer Robler Kind's athletic rhythm section pave the way for Davis, whose guitar playing is a high-voltage collision between Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth, with the ragged glory flag flying high and proud. While his voice carries an immense forlorn quality, one never gets the impression that Davis has given in to despair or hopelessness, even during somber pieces like "Evil Mirror" or "Lumper."
Thus far, the Pinehurst Kids have benefited greatly not only from Davis' superior command of melody and dynamics, but also from the friendly support of producer Larry Crane (Satan's Pilgrims, Lois).
"Larry's completely honest when we're recording," Davis says. "If he doesn't like something or if he thinks it sucks, he'll tell you. That's a really invaluable thing to have. Anyone can turn a knob, but it takes someone special to not turn a knob." Talk of the recording process brings out a particularly telling story of the Kids' vision from Cal Gates.
"We were recording the last record and I had to go out of town for a couple of days," he remembers. "When I got back, I went into the studio and Joe had been working really hard on his guitar and vocal tracks. I felt pretty strong, pretty good at this point, because I had high expectations for the record and I finally felt like I was doing what I wanted to do with my life.
"Anyway, I walked in and I think Joe was hung over -- he didn't look too good. And I kind of announce, 'YOU'RE NOT FUCKING UP THE DREAM, ARE YOU?'"
The dream is, in fact, intact. Having shared tour time with the likes of Superchunk and Built to Spill, with a supportive record label in 4-Alarm and, most important, with four band members enthusiastically all on the same page, the Pinehurst Kids should be able to live the big rock 'n' roll fantasy. If, that is, they can just stay healthy. "We heard one of our songs on local radio the other day and Joe sort of went crazy," Martin says. "He wanted to wrestle everybody."
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"I jumped on Devin and he turned out to be a little stronger than I thought," Davis recalls ruefully. "He cracked one of my ribs."
"I thought I was going to get kicked out," Morrow moans.
"No, it's a good thing to have someone that powerful in the band," Davis reasons.
The Pinehurst Kids are scheduled to perform on Monday, February 28, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with Sea of Cortez, and Yolanda Bejarano and Joel Hatcher. Showtime is 9 p.m.