In a music industry laden with cynicism and false claims, it is refreshing to bump into Nate Fowler, Kinley Wolfe, and Clint Phillips. The three members of the American Fuse will not tell you how good they are, or how they are punkier than thou, or how original they are, or how their new album will sell a squillion copies if given half a chance. In fact, they are hard-pressed to describe their music or put a finger on the kind of cosmic forces that brought them together. Instead, they will tell you how much they love rock and roll, how they live and breathe it daily. They will talk with reverence about the Rolling Stones, the New York Dolls, Tom Waits, and Lou Reed, as if referring to the supreme beings of some religion.
Sitting at a table at the Barley House, they are happy; Erv Karwelis--the very hospitable owner of Idol Records, the band's label--keeps the drinks coming. Spirits are high: The American Fuse's debut One Fell Swoop lays on the table fresh from the factory, and they're even happier that they can talk about how much they enjoy being in a band together--not just any band, but the American Fuse.
They pass around pictures from a party, and in some of them they hug each other like the closest of friends. Even when it's time to leave, about three hours later, they hug each other goodnight. It is a rare pleasure to witness such camaraderie.
"The chemistry between us started right away," recalls guitarist Fowler, formerly a member of 66. "We clicked instantly. In less than five minutes, we were a band. With the stuff we do, you need chemistry. It's not about three guys being in a band."
Bass player and vocalist Wolfe remembers his first encounter with Fowler a year and a half ago: "When I moved back to Dallas from L.A., I wasn't doing anything with music, floundering around. One night I was at the Hard Rock Cafe, and I saw 66 opening for Ronnie Dawson. I didn't know Nate then, but I thought, If I had a guitar player like that guy, I could start a band. Jim Heath from Reverend Horton Heat was there, and I asked him if he knew that guitar player. Jim talked to Nate, and we met late one night."
Fowler was watching his band 66 deteriorate in front of his eyes, unable to fulfill its initial promises. "It wasn't a band anymore when I left," he says. "People were leaving left and right, new people coming in. It didn't feel like a band; it was no good."
When Fowler met with the bass player, he had some material; so did Wolfe. "We had a lot of mellow stuff, some Stones kinda songs," Fowler says. "Then Kinley asked me if I knew of any drummers. 'Yeah, Clint!' I said right away." Phillips was at the top of Fowler's admiration list. His ferocious skin work with the Agitators, Yeah!Yeah!Yeah!, and the Grand Pricks had made him a sought-after local drummer, and he and Fowler had talked for years about being in a band together. Phillips was bandless, and so everyone's wish came true.
"We started practicing," Phillips says, "and in about two weeks we had everything together."
"Clint tied our sound together and gave it that extra punch that we needed," Fowler adds.
After a number of local gigs, the American Fuse found that Dallas audiences are hungry for basic rock and roll. In the past few years, locals have been exposed to all kinds of rock offered in nice and neat pigeonholes: rockabilly, country rock, punk, metal, industrial, roots rock, space rock, ska, blues rock, grunge, postmodern, and whatever rock. What was forgotten or pushed aside was the elemental rock and roll--like that of the Rolling Stones, the Stooges, or the New York Dolls. The primordial riffs and gut-beats that fall by the wayside when music is made for the charts and the trends. The members of the American Fuse are not surprised that they have lured a sizable audience so quickly.
"No-bullshit rock and roll in its purest form, like the Stones or AC/DC, will be here, whatever comes around," Wolfe says. "The basic elements will always be appealing. What we play is raw, honest, stripped-down rock and roll. Just meat and potatoes."
"Our music appeals to real people who are tired of tricks," Fowler adds. "Too many people are playing tricks on people, and they don't wanna be fooled by some bands or the radio. The stations say that they play rock and roll, but what they play is not that. We present rock and roll in its purest form."
Billy Corgan may say that "rock is dead," and U2 may bring electronica to their new album, but neither one will put down their guitars: Trends come and go, but it's still only rock and roll. And the American Fuse likes it.
"Rock and roll goes through these different phases, but it always goes back to the real thing," Phillips says. "I don't think rock and roll needs to evolve. When we pick up our instruments, this is what comes out."
Don't get him started on the latest trends. "Who would have thought that a band like Cake would make it?" he says, both incredulously and with disgust. "Or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones? Man, I hate all this ska shit. I got so tired of it that I got rid of all my Specials and Selecter records. You'll never see the American Fuse going ska!"
Wolfe has likewise seen trends come and go. In the late '80s he was part of Dallas-by-way-of-Memphis metal band Lord Tracy. They recorded for MCA, but big-hair metal was on its last leg. He downplays the fact, but he was also the bass player for the Cult for almost three years. He says that playing with friends is far more satisfying than playing in a professional band: "A band is about camaraderie and chemistry. I did like the life.Kinda miss it." He laughs sheepishly, looking at Fowler and Phillips.
"[But] those guys couldn't get along very well," he continues. "It was kind of a sinking ship. Ian Astbury is a really good guy, a little strange and eccentric. But he really didn't get along with [guitarist] Billy Duffy. There were two tour buses: the Billy bus and the Ian bus. I was in the Billy bus, because Ian was trying to quit drinking. I remember one time I went to soundcheck and they didn't like the way I was dressed. It was the fucking soundcheck! They said, 'You're in the Cult, you can't dress like this.' So they sent the wardrobe girl to get me new clothes for soundcheck," he laughs. "I remember when Pearl Jam first came out--they didn't like it. When Pearl Jam got big six months later, they liked it. I didn't really try to kiss their ass or anything.
"Maybe I'll do the reunion," he chuckles. "Just for the tour."
Wolfe jokingly compares his experience touring with the Cult and the American Fuse's first westward trek last April. It was the usual case of the old, unheated, cramped van that most struggling bands go through: "We almost died from the cold," Phillips recalls. "We got caught in a blizzard. I seriously almost started crying. We started in Kansas City, played Lawrence, Denver, Utah, Seattle, San Francisco, and Southern California. People liked us everywhere we went. Southern California really loved our stuff. It was our first tour, our test, and people felt the energy."
That energy is preserved in the powerful One Fell Swoop. The opener, "Texas Speedball," recalls Motsrhead at its basic 12-bar best. The two car songs that follow--"Drive My Motor" and "Don't Chingale My Chevrolet"--are live favorites, and deservedly so. "Beelzabubba" is like the Cramps basking under the Texas sun loaded on cheap tequila. "Silver City Sheriff" gallops above the speed limit, raising clouds of dust. After the final notes of "Redline" close the album with old-fashioned rock glory, you realize that there is not an ounce of pretension or artifice throughout One Fell Swoop (with the possible exception of an unnecessary cover of the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer"). It's one of those albums that arrives viscerally, without giving the brain a chance to filter out anything.
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"I can see us appealing to somebody who's looking for something honest, for a change," Fowler says. "We just do what we do. We never think in commercial terms, and we don't sound like anyone else. I think that's honorable, at least."
Wolfe agrees: "When people come to our shows, nothing is preconceived. But they like us. We're not gonna try to sound like somebody else, and we're not gonna decorate it or polish it. It's good that we don't have a box to put us in right now."
So far Q102 (102.1 KTXQ) has picked up on the band and plays the CD often on the local radio show. That's still a long way from national recognition. But, then again, most great music remains stubbornly underground, the privilege of the few who keep their ears open. These are the people the American Fuse play for. Phillips is confident: "I think we can find our own niche. I don't think it can be huge, but it means something--to us at least."
The American Fuse plays Saturday, October 4, at Club Dada.