When Inez McLain was 10 years old, her father gave her a set of drums and an ultimatum: “You can either take piano lessons after school with some mean old lady or you can be in a rock band with me.”
Fast-forward a decade later, and Inez and her father, Kenny McLain, form the songwriting core of Bisbee-based pop-punk trio The Exbats. They’ve shared stages with alternative music stalwarts including Dead Milkmen, Mike Watt, El Vez, and Death Valley Girls, and recorded numerous CD and vinyl releases including a slew of singles, four EPs and two LPs — the latest being Kicks, Hits, and Fits, coming out March 13 on Burger Records. They’ll play an album release show at Stinkweeds on Saturday, February 29, with Phoenix garage rockers Sturdy Ladies.
The Exbats’ songs are catchy — filled with harmonies, hooks, and jangly guitar bridges that sometimes sound like bursts of sunshine, but with just enough raw edge to avoid sounding saccharine. Their albums are collections of carefully crafted earworms heavily influenced by ’60s pop pioneers like The Hollies and The Monkees, but with a modern wrinkle.
“We’re really writing for people that quit buying records 50 years ago, and it’s made for AM Top 40 radio from 40 years ago,” Kenny says. He describes their formula as “fusing Inez’s ’60s surf drumming and punk doo-wop vocals” with his “Beach Boys-meets-X guitar licks.” Bobby Carlson rounds out the band on bass.
While The Exbats’ music harks back to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, the lyrical content is very contemporary. “I think we’re very political,” says Inez.
The video for the song “You Don’t Get It (You Don’t Got It)” debuted in early February on the Alternative Press’ website, and showcases the band’s worldview. Inez lassoes a rope around her waist and struggles to pull a giant TV screen on a makeshift wooden sled through the Arizona desert. The images on the screen capture current events including hurricanes in Puerto Rico, fires in Australia, people throwing things at a blow-up doll effigy of Donald Trump, Dakota Access Pipeline Protest footage, and a photo of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (right as Inez sings, “I don’t need a dumb face smiling at me”).
The personal is often the political, especially when you’re a teenager playing in a band in bars with your dad. One song on Kicks, Hits, and Fits, a one-minute ditty called “Doorman,” is about Inez wanting to fight a bouncer because he wouldn’t let her in the bar where the band were playing.
“Even though in Arizona, you’re allowed to go in with your parent or guardian,” Inez, now 20, says. “And I had a show — and you’re also allowed to legally go into a bar if you’re playing a show. But he refused to let me in.”
“That’s been a constant struggle for ten years,” Kenny concurs. “We started playing shows in bars when Inez was 12, and they always say she can’t come in. And it’s like, ‘Well, we’re booked to play here, and I’m her dad, and we’re here to rock. So, if you don’t mind, just get out of our way.’”
Other songs on the new album address everything from admiration for a rock percussion legend (“I Got the Hots for Charlie Watts”) to responding to things as they happen (“Immediate Girl”). “Maven of the Craft” is an homage to Kenny’s girlfriend, who is on the arts commission in Bisbee.
Complex relationships are always muses, too. There’s a song on Kicks, Hits, and Fits called “Put Down Your Fight,” which Kenny says is about his mother and stepfather, who both recently died. “Wet Cheeks” is about the “difficult relationship” he’s had with Inez’s mother. “Growing up, her mom wasn’t around, and it was really just Inez and myself,” Kenny says.
Good thing they get along, for the most part. “We fight over the dumbest things a lot,” Inez says. “So, it makes the band super, super easy. Because we don’t have to really plan band practice. It’s easy to be in a band with your family.”
Kenny says his daughter keeps him on track in his songwriting. “Inez is vital. I’ve found that if I’m left on my own, I come off like Band of Horses, and it’s horrible,” he says. “When Inez is there, she stops me. She’s like, ‘No.’ Sometimes I’ll be like, ‘Inez, I’ve got this great song!’ And she’ll say ‘That is boring. No one cares.’”
Keeping a pulse on their own music is important when a band brings a lot of live energy like The Exbats. The group exude a punk rock vibe on stage. Kenny will wear a dress and goofy glasses on occasion. But it’s also part of the attitude they have toward performing music.
“We were playing so hard one Saturday night at The Owls Club in Tucson that we blew a fuse and all the amps went out. But Inez and I didn’t stop,” Kenny says. “We just kept doing our set a cappella, and we sounded great. People were super into it, and it was kind of a mind-blower. Like, ‘Fuck instruments! We’re gonna keep going!’ And we did.”
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After their album release show in Phoenix, The Exbats are off to Fullerton, California, to play the Burgerama festival on March 14, alongside acts like The Mummies and Flamin’ Groovies. Then they’ll perform an official showcase at SXSW (March 13 to 22) in Austin, Texas. More songs and videos are already in the works. It’s all part of the McLains’ musical vision.
“We try to bring it back to a time when people focused on writing hit songs,” Kenny says. “We want to unite the world around rock ’n’ roll.”
That might be a tall order, but getting a venue full of people to smile, dance, and forget their problems for 45 minutes? The Exbats can do that.
The Exbats are scheduled to perform at Stinkweeds on Saturday, February 29. Tickets are $5 at stinkweeds.com.