The Glass Heroes were destined to fail.
Yet in a staggering feat of rock 'n' roll defiance, the band has been pumping its brand of hit-to-the-gut punk out of venue speakers for 21 years. It's a remarkably long time for any band, and even more remarkable considering the group's stubborn refusal to alter its sound or street-rock style.
The foursome, led by songwriter, guitarist, and frontman Keith Jackson, formed in Phoenix back when the Gin Blossoms and grunge were the two hottest commodities going; they were a punk band toiling in a city showing continued apathy for the genre. Gigs were scarce, often ill-attended, and — to make matters more complicated — Glass Heroes didn't even put out a full-length album until the band was already 13 years old, living instead on a few singles strung across on various European labels.
The Glass Heroes are scheduled to perform Thursday, October 18, at 910 Live in Tempe.
The Glass Heroes have managed to hang around for two decades on the strength of those few songs and its self-titled "yellow album."
"We've gotten a lot of mileage out of that album," Jackson says with a laugh. "It is what it is. I said in the beginning, if we can last long enough to evolve, that's a good enough goal."
With a second album expected by the year's end, that evolution has been slow to gestate, but takes on something of a Darwinian aspect in having the strength to beat the odds and survive. The band — which has had more recent music featured on a handful of compilations and soundtracks — still churns out a vintage punk sound that starts with The Clash and includes flashes of the Buzzcocks, Wire, Black Flag, and Television, among other influences.
"We have a whole different aesthetic about what we bleed and what we love," Jackson says.
Arriving in Phoenix from Detroit in 1990, Jackson quickly discovered the old Sun Club and began making connections. Along with Steve Shelton, Steve Davis, and original drummer Mike Trobman (A.D. Adams currently mans the drums), Glass Heroes formed in 1991. The band quickly gelled, wrote a handful of songs, and became ready to make a go of it, but it was the Gin Blossoms' town back then, Jackson says.
"The whole jingle-jangle Gin Blossom thing was going on at the time," he recalls. "I was hanging out at the Sun Club with all the jingle-jangle people. They were really great people and all, but it wasn't my thing. It was more a hippie vibe. But once people starting cutting their hair off and stopped smoking pot, things started getting a little better, as far as the punk rock shit was concerned."
Though the band often played to less-than-full houses, they made it a point to open for every major punk band passing through. Their first live gig was opening for Mudhoney, who in 1990 hovered between the grunge act they'd become and the punk band they began as.
"We wanted to be that band that played whenever the old punk bands came to town," Jackson says. But, despite opening for the likes of the Sex Pistols, Vibrators, The Adicts, Fear, and TSOL, just playing music locally has proved more difficult than expected. The band would travel to Los Angeles and play before 300 people, but in Phoenix, many of those in attendance came because of the free tickets Jackson passed out. The problem was — and still is, according to Jackson — the lack of a punk scene, despite the earlier groundwork laid by Phoenix punk icons like JFA and Meat Puppets.
"There were a couple of bands going in town, but it wasn't like it was back in the Midwest. I don't know that there's ever has been a punk scene here; I don't think Phoenix ever had that," Jackson laments.
When Green Day broke big with its pop-punk repertoire, things began looking up only slightly for Glass Heroes. The rise of Green Day, Rancid, Pennywise, and a host of copycat bands that sprung up to fill the public's new-found fascination with punk generated the potential for more opening gigs, but also presented a problem. Should the band change its sound to ride punk rock's new popularity wave?
"No, it didn't change what we wanted to do at all; not at all," Jackson says. "We'd see it and all these different bands [and] think that was nice. But we didn't do anything different. It wasn't what we wanted to do. If there's something we want to do and it makes sense, we'll do it. But as far as changing our sound, our music's pretty much what it is and will stay that way until we die off.
"We've had this laugh. It was like, 'Why the fuck are we doing this?' But it's what we do. We just have to do it. Put on that Clash album or whatever music you like, and it takes you back. It's like you're a kid again, you know? It's that way for me," he adds. "I never said I'd grow up."
Admit it or not, Jackson and Glass Heroes have grown up. The band's second album, Liars, Cheats and Thieves, takes on stronger sociopolitical stance — like any good punk album should — lambasting a woeful government and policies that rub the group the wrong way.
"There's a lot of control that's been happening with government, and I feel I'm old enough to matter as an American citizen to say something," Jackson, 48, says. "We never really did that before. We always did covers of bands that we loved. But this album has all our own stuff, and it's really political in nature. There's a lot of injustice going on that makes us all pretty angry. What can you do about it? I don't know. You can't get on a soapbox and just scream about it because they'll put you away somewhere. So what better way to say something than with music?"
The album was actually recorded and produced more than a year ago by The Damned's Rat Scabies, who worked on the project for seven months. The final details were left to Jackson, who says various other projects — such as appearing in the film Queens of Country and the upcoming film about Hells Angels founder and Cave Creek resident Sonny Barger — got in the way.
"Rat came over and produced a fucking good album. It was almost finished but . . . we just fucking shelved it. We all had other things going on and just shelved it," Jackson says.
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Jackson adds that several Glass Heroes songs have been picked up for TV or movie soundtracks (including the Barger film), another reason to finally get the new album finished.
"We did get some songs on [soundtracks], so now the fire's under my ass to get this finished since people want it for their shows," he says. "I'm going to stay in the studio until it's done."
Once the album is wrapped up and on the streets, Jackson says the band will continue on its path exactly as envisioned 21 years ago.
"We just wanted to play the music, you know," Jackson says. "We weren't ever in this for fame or fortune."