"If you like your roots rock as gnarly as it gets, you won't miss with Fireworks' new album, Lit Up." You would expect this quote is culled from an underground fanzine, not from the music biz authority that is Billboard. Yet the two-column mini-feature in the magazine's "Declaration of Independents" section goes on to describe Fireworks' third album as a "rough-hewn but exciting example of roots punk at its most abrasive."
Darin Lin Wood--the band's founder, singer, and guitarist--is used to this kind of praise. And, quite frankly, he doesn't give a damn. For a decade now, he has been involved with bands that didn't quite make it big-time, no matter how much ink they received and regardless of the fact that the combos he played with preceded trends and earned indie notoriety and a small cult following. "I picked the most wretched business to be in," Wood grumbles, barely hiding his disgust.
Wood started in New York, first with the Black Snakes and then with Dig Dat Hole. The latter changed its name to Cop Shoot Cop and signed with a major after Wood left to move to Denton in 1989. There he joined the Red Devils, not to be confused with California's blues-rocking Red Devils, a fact that gave the local band legal grief. Wood wanted to move on to more adventurous projects, so he formed Fireworks as a duo with Chris Merlick of Lithium X-mas. Later James Arthur joined on guitar, and Wood's girlfriend, Janet Walker, picked up the drumsticks. When Merlick left, Fireworks solidified as a trio.
In 1994, the full-length CD Set The World On Fire was released on Crypt Records, followed by another album, Off The Air, on Australia's Au-go-go Records in 1996. In the interim, the band released a slew of 45s on what seems to be every national or international indie label, and Wood's restless spirit had him playing guitar for Memphis' 68 Comeback and New York's Blacktop.
By design, Fireworks remained well-hidden in the Dallas underground. "We never wanted to play the weekly gig to make a living," Wood says. "I didn't wanna turn into a band that plays at a place all the time, and people sit at the bar drinking. We want to do it like an assault thing, keep the impact of it."
Sitting in the rehearsal room of Last Beat Records studios, Wood and second guitar player Keith Underwood--who has replaced Arthur--have the faces of hardened rock musicians who have faced all the hardships and disappointments that the business hands out so freely. But behind these jaded expressions lies an uncompromising love for the raw sound of rock 'n' roll, the allure of picking up a guitar and hitting the strings until your fingers bleed and your demons are exorcised.
For Wood, the demons have not been easily displaced. Playing rock 'n' roll has given him barely 15 minutes of fame, along with an 11-year drug addiction from which he's just now recovered. With the help of Last Beat, Wood kicked his habit, and he's ready to kickstart Fireworks after a two-year hiatus that was caused mainly by his addiction's taking full control. Sober now, he recalls the black hole in his life caused by drugs:
"I was a wretched, crumbling character, and my options were institutions, jail, or death. I came to Last Beat with a cry for help. I said, 'I'm crumbling, help me out.' They totally helped me out. Tami, Ron, and Shaun are responsible for saving me. Other companies would screw me over, throwing little crumbs of money here and there, and perpetuate it.
"I wanna demystify the whole thing," he continues. "Most musicians think like they have this fucking license to be taken care of. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. I've been a dishwasher and a lawn mower. I'm humble enough to know how real life works. Junk is a double-edged sword. What I loved about it was that I was kept in a dream world, outside the stream of reality. But as you float down, it makes it impossible to function. It was difficult for me to do simple things like fill out a job application. It was never a mystery what it was gonna do to me. I knew I was heading for disaster. I could be dead now, or in prison, but something happened, and I was spared that.
"Of course," he adds, "I wouldn't be who I am today if I hadn't gone through the whole thing. It gives you some insight."
Getting ready to practice for an upcoming show, the first in almost two years, Wood is obviously proud of Lit Up. The 13 tracks on the album were recorded between 1994 and 1995 and capture the fiery spirit of the band. They are raw, primitive explosions of 1960s dirty-ass garage punk--bearing no resemblance to corporate punk, trendy rockabilly, and pseudo-alternative. Listening to it, you get a thrill similar to hearing the Cramps or Pussy Galore for the first time, or a virginal encounter with the Pebbles collections of '60s garage rock. Just when you think you know what lo-fi is all about, Lit Up takes fidelity to new, unheard-of subterranean depths.
It is hard to pick out a track from this collection of minimalistic maximum rock 'n' roll. "One More Day-One More Night" has a mid-tempo riff as infectious as an out-of-control jungle disease. "Gotta Go" makes you want to do just that. "Stalk" doubles the Stooges' frenetic insanity. The reworking of Suicide's "Bebop Kid" keeps the droning, otherworldly impact of the New York duo intact. "Raw Deal" is an instrumental designed to be played ad nauseam in a lounge in one of the lower rings of hell. As a whole, Lit Up is a stimulant for those glands in the body that have atrophied since rock 'n' roll grew infatuated with the notion of progress. It's the kind of album that would make Lester Bangs shake his bones, wherever he is now.
Wood says he would like to send a copy to madcap director John Waters, who he imagines would "get a laugh out of it and play it at a party to horrify his guests." He admits that his stripped-down, bass-less garage rock has very limited appeal and that Fireworks has committed "commercial suicide" since its inception, but that's how he likes to play it. "Through thick and thin, I will try to maintain my individuality. If you can translate that into music, you can create something powerful," he says. He laughs at the trendy people, young and old, who follow genres of music because they are fashionable and not because they like or understand them.
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"I see more and more hipster-type people that are so unhip," he says. "You see little kids holding their mom and dad's hand and they wear a Marilyn Manson T-shirt. If people did what Marilyn Manson talks about, all mayhem would break loose. But fashion has such control over people that everything is acceptable," Wood says.
For the time being, Fireworks will continue playing and writing new songs. Wood, though, is looking for other avenues to channel his songwriting. A new side project with girlfriend Walker called Cat Fur is in the works. Wood says that the new band will be a radical departure from Fireworks. He talks about adding keyboards, percussion, and samples to construct the Cat Fur sound--a departure from the "juvenile delinquent" sound of his other band. Wood says there's plenty of room for something new and creative. "Music has gotten worse in the past two years," he says. "Mediocrity seems to be the key word. The underground is still there, it's just a matter of digging it out. I'm glad not everyone likes what I like. That leaves me more room to do what I want."
Two nights later at the Orbit Room, Wood, Underwood, and Walker unleash a sonic monster. Two years' worth of bottled-up adrenaline spurts out in the form of the guitarists' switchblade riffs and Walker's drumskin bludgeoning. Fireworks sound as together--and just plain cool--as if they'd played this place a week ago. The crowd is forced to pay attention, especially those who've never seen the band before. With the exception of the Mood Swings, no other band in Dallas taps that primitive rock vein as well as Fireworks does.
"We're back! Expect to see us around more," Wood announces.
Fireworks plays the Orbit Room Sunday, September 21.