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Case hardened

One of the loudest pop bands to come out of Dallas is back; Hagfish, Dallas' beloved band of dorks-in-suits, is returning to Deep Ellum after a year that has seen the band do everything from working with its musical idols on its first major-label album to rubbing elbows on the road with bands who define "punk credibility."

"It's been a damn good year for us," says bassist Doni Blair. "A lot of cool shit has happened."

It has been a damn good year for the cocky quartet, which includes Blair's brother Zach on guitar, singer George Reagan, and drummer Tony Barsotti. It has not, however, been without its troubles. With the release of ...Rocks Your Lame Ass (produced by Bill Stevenson and Stephen Eggerton of the Descendents, the Blairs' heroes and biggest influence) last June, Hagfish suddenly started running into criticism that it was a trend surfer, riding the crest of the suit-wearing wave of corporate punk.

"What people don't understand is that we were wearing suits two years before some of those bands [CIV, Goldfinger] were even formed," says Barsotti, exasperated. "I just want to go, 'Where were you?'"

Traveling throughout the country with punk icons like Bad Brains and NOFX, the band gained many new fans; one in particular stands out: Milo Aukerman, yet another former Descendent. Once the Descendents' lead singer, currently a biochemist at the University of Wisconsin, Aukerman caught Hagfish's Madison show.

"Milo came out and did a song with us, one of ours," says Blair. "We were like, 'Oh shit.' We heard that he was going to be there...and he was right in front; Zach was like, 'Come on up and sing.' So halfway through the set he came up and did 'Flat'...It gave me chills."

Hagfish has also taken its live show to Europe; the band is there now for the huge Rosskilder Festival in Denmark, featuring the Sex Pistols, Rage Against The Machine, and a crowd of 100,000--more than three times the size of Sherman, Texas, where the Blairs grew up.

Live performance and nonstop touring is what Hagfish has built its reputation on, subscribing to the old SST Records philosophy: Make a record to promote a tour, not vice versa.

"Making a gold record is one thing, but having a lot of fans is something else," Barsotti explains. "I mean, I don't have anything against Deep Blue Something, but they had so many returns on their record. The live sound is different."

Hagfish's live show is still recognizable but noticeably different from the early days at The Stone Pony and Club Clearview. Gone are the spitting and unidentified flying objects; the matching suits may be on the way out as well. "We've been talking about getting away from the suits. On our next record, there's not going to be a picture of us on it," Barsotti says. "We're going to start using our fighting-hagfish logo as our trademark."

Don't freak, though--the show isn't that different. Zach no longer relies on the sololess three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach so familiar to the Hagfish faithful. After a studio apprenticeship with Eggerton during the recording of...Rocks Your Lame Ass, Zach has become a little less animated and perhaps more grounded, but he still jumps around like a bear with his leg in a trap. Tony throws, twirls, and whips his sticks around his head, never missing a beat. Doni plays bass at the back of the stage, looking like he just stepped out of Reservoir Dogs. George is front and center; the crowd bounces around below him, a swirling pit of humanity that can be frightening at times.

There's another addition to the band that's unique to Dallas: Doni and Zach's mom, Patricia. You may think your mom is cool, but until you see your mom in the balcony at Trees, mouthing the lyrics to "Stamp," you--or your mom--don't know squat about being cool.

In the next few months, the band plans to release four 7-inch singles, including a long-rumored project for Fat Wreck Chords, the label run by Fat Mike of NOFX. "We'd like to get a few things out there, just so no one will forget about us," Blair says.

Hagfish is also preparing to start work on its second album for London Records, set for a late fall release. The band has already written about 20 songs, but is going to continue writing until it's time to record.

"A lot of the time, you plan on doing a song and it just doesn't work out the way you'd planned, so I think we'll probably go into the studio with around 40," Doni says. While the members of Hagfish are considering several producers, they may have already made up their minds.

"We're also thinking about going with Bill [Stevenson] and Stephen [Eggerton] again," Barsotti admits. "Bill and Stephen are people we feel comfortable with, who we can make a badass record with."

...Rocks Your Lame Ass is a testament to the effect of working with two punk veterans in the studio. Stevenson and Eggerton have worked together on more than 30 albums and are two of the most hands-on producers in the business. They don't hesitate to make players practice until they are adept enough to take their direction, or push them through take after take. The two worked with the band on almost every aspect of the music, from arrangements to performance.

"Bill and Stephen have written so many great songs...and they know how to arrange things," Blair says. "Bill took a lot of the songs home with him, and he, Stephen, and George went through and arranged them. He didn't try to push them on us. He just said, 'As a songwriter, I think this is the way these should be arranged. If you don't like them, tell me to fuck off.' What are we going to say to him? He was in Black Flag for chrissakes."

Stevenson and Eggerton's refusal to record anything until it sounded right was frustrating at the time. "Bill and Stephen wouldn't let us finish until it sounded like they wanted," Blair says, admitting that the approach paid off. "They showed us how to really nail a part, how to lay back and then just explode. They were hard, which we needed," he concedes. "They've been doing it for so long, they came in and kicked our ass. 'Come on, do it again.'"

The lessons learned from Stevenson and Eggerton carried over into Hagfish's live show as well as songs for the next album. One, "Grin Doggie," included on Volume 2 of the Observer's Scene, Heard compilation, features an honest-to-God guitar solo, something never heard before on a Hagfish record.

It's a feature that is fast becoming a staple of the band's shows; Barsotti and Blair both say to expect a more mature Hagfish, but without too much deviation from the sound that the band's Deep Ellum audiences know and love. What this new maturity will bring, however, is by no means clear: "George wants the next record to be more like Radiohead," Barsotti jokes. "I really don't think that's going to happen."

For Blair, a diehard Descendents fan, going back to the studio with Stevenson and Eggerton will be like summer camp. "It was hard, but I enjoyed it. It was like one of the best things in my life. It didn't even seem bad," he says. "They are so tight, and they drilled that into us. We've just been playing around all year, so when we get back there, they're going to go, 'You guys need to get tighter,' and it will all start over again. But it will be cool."

Hagfish plays at Trees July 6.


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