Seven Storeys Underground

It's January 29, but no one here's calling it "Super Monday."
All last week, Tempe had been under siege as blimps of every shape and sponsor circled overhead like buzzards, and beer-guzzlin' NFL enthusiasts of every shape and temperament took over the streets below. Throngs of out-of-town Dallas Cowboys fans have already ridden into the sunset, but, according to one longtime local resident on the deck at Long Wong's, "There's still more of them than us."

Not to mention enough oversize inflatable beer cans to make you feel like Gulliver in the land where giant hops and barley grow.

Tempe in the aftermath might seem the last place in the Valley you'd expect to find Lance Lammers, Jesse Everhart and Thomas Lanser playing a gig. Collectively, they're known as Seven Storey Mountain--a name inspired by the writings of Thomas Merton, the metaphysical ex-Trappist monk--and their music is hardly the good-time fare that's had frat boys grooving in pitched tents along Mill Avenue this past week. Seven Storey Mountain is serious, man--three dedicated musicians concentrating their aggressive energies like stiffened fingers inside a clenched fist. Hard to believe it, but the trio will soon squeeze its monolithic sound into the tiny confines of Long Wong's--a live room where even the wrong acoustic guitarist can elicit cries of "turn down!" from the barmaids.

Ah, but we needn't worry. The Mountain turned up the juice at that very establishment the previous Monday to tumultuous response. Reported among the Wong's patrons that night were none other than a tableful of Pittsburgh Steelers corporate brass and actor Johnny Depp. Since no invitations to play the Viper Room were forthcoming, it's a safe bet that Edward Scissorhands cut out before the band's blistering set.

At least now he can buy the recording. Seven Storey Mountain's self-titled debut EP was released February 15 on the Richmond, Virginia-based label Art Monk Construction. The CD hype sheet promises that a national U.S. tour and a full-length CD are supposed to follow this spring.

It's a week later at Wong's now, and no celebs are in sight, which is unfortunate. Just as the members of Seven Storey Mountain seat themselves in the dining area and get ready to tear into their pre-gig meal, the band's contribution to the recent Arizona music compilation Exile on Cameron Harper Street blares from the corner speakers.

While Jesse (bass) and Thomas (drums) bop without a hint of self-consciousness to the in-your-face urgency of "Your Lips," Lance (guitar/vocals) prefers to ignore his recorded performance and stares intently at his food. "Hearing myself on tape tends to make me a little nervous," he admits.

It's hard to reconcile that the voice raging "don't look back to find your anger" over Wong's sound system belongs to the same mild-mannered young man who is politely asking the waitress for a side of fries. It's this dichotomy between expectations and execution that makes Seven Storey Mountain so riveting. That and the diversity of the band members. "Lance has got that collegiate, almost yuppie look," Jesse asseses, "whereas I look more like a criminal."

While Jesse doesn't have a record, Lance was a collegian and, several months ago, opted out of the group to pursue his studies in business and graphics full-time, until the lure of rock proved his scholastic undoing. Soon he returned, and the three were Seven once more.

Jesse, on the other hand, has stuck with the band. His faith was reinforced five years ago when he attended a friend's 18th-birthday party and saw Green Day play in his pal's living room. "I knew they would be huge just hearing that guy's voice."

While both Lance and Thomas still have graphic design as Plan B, Jesse has only music and his posterior to fall back on. "And delivering pizza," he volunteers, referring to his day job. "There's a guy working with me in his late 60s," he grins. "Probably been deliverin' pizza since before mozzarella was invented."

Ironically, hearing "Your Lips" between mouthfuls of veggie burgers opens a floodgate of memories for the guys. "This was the first song we wrote with Thomas when he joined up a year ago," Jesse remembers. "When we were recording this very track, Lance had already split, and I became the vocalist. We were halfway done when we decided we wanted Lance back in the band."

Thomas picks up the tale. "So we scrapped everything except for my drum tracks." In the interim, Jesse switched from second guitar to bass, developing a style that involves a lot of chording and interweaving with Lance's six-string lines. The harmonics he creates against the guitarist's barrage of blown speaker distortion is Seven Storey Mountain's chief secret weapon.

"I don't do that thwacka-thwacka, string-slappin' stuff most bass players do," he reveals. "I don't know how to. And I don't want to learn it, either."

Lance and Jesse are no strangers to Arizona's ever-changing underground music scene. The two have played together in various bands on and off for six years, most notably in a hard-core ensemble called Stand to Reason. They also did time as Driver, a more groove-oriented rock band that morphed into the current unit.

"We thrive in an underground environment," says Jesse. "On our upcoming tour, we'll probably be playing a lot of basement shows all across the country. The punk scene here in Tempe is really mainstream and cliquish. That's why it's taken us so long to start playing here. Right now the skapunk thing is really fashionable. A couple of years ago, hard-core, Fugazi-style music was popular, and a few years before that, bands like Social Distortion. It's cyclical. And we still don't really fit in with this punk scene. Anytime we go somewhere else, things are more diverse and all the different scenes embrace each other."

This year, Seven Storey will also have to contend with the growing number of reunited, old-timer punk units hitting the road to cash in on the punk resurgence. Former bashers of such careerist philosophy, the Sex Pistols are now hotly rumored to be hooking up with original bassist Glen Matlock and taking their safety-pin ensembles out of storage.

"It's ridiculous," snarls Thomas, who likens the trend to "U2 breaking up and then reuniting just to do songs from the Boy album. Youth Brigade just got back together out of nowhere. Those guys are really old now."

Despite this distaste for lingering louts in leather jackets, Jesse doesn't care to speculate on the life span of his own band. "We want to be doing this for a long while. There's a certain 'grassroots' route we want to take. Everybody knows it takes three albums to really break a band. Warner Bros. knew they had the foundation with Green Day and put every ounce of promotional muscle behind them [on Dookie]. And it sold, what, ten million copies?"

"We don't want to make any stupid choices early on," adds a determined Lance.

One of Seven Storey Mountain's more notable, if less than inspired, moves so far was playing the Lizard Lounge, a country and blues bar in Prescott. There by invitation of friends in the local outfit the Sport Model, Seven Storey didn't even get to complete its opening set. "The owner never asked us directly to turn down," Lance explains. "He asked other people to convey the message to us, and they never did. So finally he came up to us about six songs into the set and said, 'I can't let you boys play anymore.'"

But Lance waxes philosophical. "Every new place we play, I assume it's going to end in a fistfight. So if it turns out to be anything better than that, I'm happy."

The band has played only one previous gig here, but Long Wong's already seems like a familiar Seven Storey hangout. As the musicians jack in, several patrons yell encouragement. "Turn up 'til the fuckers cut the power off," howls one gent.

For sheer sonic impact, you can't beat the tightness of a three-piece band that knows what it's doing, and Seven Storey blasts through its set. Not even the sight of Thomas' mother taking Instamatic pictures of the band can blunt the anger spewing forth from Lance's monitors.

Lance, who writes lyrics for the band, characterizes his inspiration as "personal politics. I couldn't get into writing fun songs about girls and cars and beer. That would leave me unfulfilled."

Pressing further, I put it to the others. What's the worst possible thing that could've happened to a nice guy like Lance to inspire such rage?

Answers Jesse: "He turned on the TV."
"We're all pretty disillusioned," says Thomas. "There's a certain urgency we try to get across, both musically and lyrically. Kind of a last call to 'wake up and smell the coffee.'"

I've had my glass against Seven Storey's wall of noise for the better part of two months now, and I still haven't been able to extract a specific political or personal agenda from lyrics like "the last time cancels everything" and "strip the skin right off the bone." But like overhearing neighbors throwing furniture at one another, the meanings and reasons behind the ruckus of Seven Storey Mountain are less important than the feeling that all is not right with the world--not even on your own street.

Maybe Lance thinks he prostituted himself for a student loan. Maybe Jesse is pissed off at the jocks who picked on him when he was a punk teen. Maybe Thomas wishes his mom brought the camera with the wide-angle lens. It hardly matters. The rage in Long Wong's tonight is nearly impenetrable, and no one here seems to doubt its authenticity.

The buzz that Seven Storey Mountain is creating around town is also quite real, though not even the guys in the band know where it's coming from. The Art Monk label is committed to "a full-scale pimp to college radio," but locally the band has already racked up considerable alternative-radio play in Phoenix on the strength of its demos.

"We were being played regularly on the Q before it went off the air," states Jesse. "A friend of mine got picked up for possession of marijuana and he said he heard us on an AM radio in the Towers jail."

"And they've played us on Triple Exposure [KEDJ's weekly local-music program] quite a few times," says Thomas. "They've been great to us, but we were interviewed by them once and they asked us what cartoon character we most wanted to sleep with. What kind of question was that?"

Too bad no one said "a cartoon of your mother."
Seven Storey Mountain is scheduled to perform on Monday, February 26, at Long Wong's in Tempe, and on Friday, March 2, at Stinkweeds Record Exchange in Mesa. Call for showtimes.

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