By Jeremy Hallock
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By Observer Staff
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Here are the facts: The singer-guitarist was once a bassist enrolled in the University of North Texas' highly regarded music program, though he dropped out before getting his degree. His musical heroes made their mark in the late '70s and early '80s, and even if you weren't aware of that fact, you could probably guess it after listening to his band, which breathes two decades' worth of new life into the sound. That band, by the way, takes its name from a serious political figure that most people have heard of, but few people know much about. The name is more serious than the group sporting it, though the band members are known to take the stage in matching shirt-and-tie get-ups, or, on rare occasions, casual-Friday ensembles. They've made a name for themselves in their hometown, where pop music--the kind that relies on tight melodies rather than tight abs--is making a comeback.
Dallas, Fort Worth, and Denton call the band that fits this description Chomsky. People in Austin, however, know it as Kissinger. And now that both groups are trying to expand their reach beyond their respective city limits, Chomsky and Kissinger have formed something of a partnership, setting up gigs for each other (including January 26 at Trees, and the following night at The Wreck Room in Fort Worth) and that kind of thing. Just one more thing, it seems, that they have in common.
Of course, that makes everything sound so simple. And it is. And it isn't. Telling the story that way hits most of the highlights, sure, but it leaves out way too many of the details. Like: Kissinger recently released its debut album, Charm, a disc that is equal parts power (the anthemic "Bike vs. Truck," and the self-explanatory "Rock n Roll Asshole") and pop (the scenes-from-a-mall "Urbia"). To put it in simpler terms, Charm is the kind of guitar-pop record usually made by bands with a "the" in their name--The Pixies, The Cars, The Figgs, The Records, etc. It's good, and what's more, it's good for you.
And if things had gone differently, Kissinger singer-guitarist Chopqper (known to his ma as Ryan Fisher) would probably be competing with Chomsky bassist James Driscoll for every fill-in jazz bassist gig in town. Chopqper (pronounced without the "q," naturally) moved to Denton in 1990 to study bass at UNT, but gave up that idea quickly. So quickly, it turns out, that it might as well be expunged from his record.
"After one semester, I realized that music was cool and school was cool, but I didn't really want to go to school for music," Chopqper says. "It really was kind of a weird situation. The competitive environment didn't really suit me that much, and I also realized that I didn't want to be a player. I didn't want to be the guy who could play the scales 90 miles an hour. I was interested in doing other stuff." He left the music program, but he didn't give up on music, playing bass in a Dallas metal band and drumming for white-thrash pioneers Cornhole. Chopqper lived in Denton on and off until 1994, when he headed to the East Coast.
Now, here's the funny-strange-not-funny-haha part: After leaving Denton, Chopqper did a three-year tour of duty playing bass for Vertical Horizon, the band currently giving you--if you happen to be a sorority girl at SMU, that is--"Everything You Want" a dozen times a day on The Merge. You know, the band that makes Jackopierce sound like Pantera. Vertical freaking Horizon. That's the group Chopqper was in from 1994 to 1997, when he moved to Austin to start a band that, thankfully, sounds nothing like Vertical Horizon. So, uh, what was he doing with those guys in the first place?
"I get all different kinds of advice from people--both solicited and, well, mostly unsolicited--on how to deal with it," Chopqper says, almost before the question ends. He's heard this before, and he'll undoubtedly hear it again, at least until Kissinger overshadows Vertical Horizon on his résumé. "Certainly, stylistically, there isn't a whole lot in common between what we're doing and what they're doing. So, yeah, it's sort of easy to separate that. At the same time, it's hard for me to totally knock it, because even when I was in it, even when I was unhappy in it, the musicality of the people in the band and the performances every night was really high. It's even more so now that I'm not in it." He laughs. "The guy who they got is a fantastic bass player. At least they've got that going for them. There's a lot of things that I'd much rather knock than Vertical Horizon."