With a stiff wind blowing in their faces, the members of the Cut*Off, Fort Worth's sole grunge/psychedelic combo, played Lee Harvey's with a valiant determination. Guitarist Jason Hamilton battled endlessly with a broken guitar strap as the yard fires sent carcinogens billowing across the makeshift stage. Singer Kyle Barnhill smiled at his bandmate's discomfort as the sound fell in and out, grinning as if his songs were so good, even shitty sound and smoke inhalation couldn't derail them.
And he was right. A year after the release of the heady and hearty Rorschach EP, the band has begun to tinker with their sound, incorporating more melody and texture into their gnarly roar. While remaining true to their flannel and hygiene-challenged roots, the Cut*Off are growing up fast, getting better and finding that there are more ways of expressing rage than simply mimicking it.
"With the new songs, each part is more focused on how it will work with the rest," says Hamilton, "to see what could make it more interesting and better."
Songs such as "Black Market Value" and "Enjoy the Weather" bear out Hamilton's claim as the Cut*Off expand beyond the boundaries commonly associated with grunge, infusing an almost religious admiration for Frank Black and the Pixies with a newfound self-control, creating vehicles of sound instead of noise.
"The influences are still there," says burly and bearded Barnhill. "But now we are more confident, enough to break away to a new and different sound."
Currently recording at Pleasantly Lane Studio with über-producer Salim Nourallah, the Cut*Off find themselves at an important juncture, that point where things progress from a hobby to a full-time job.
"I think the goal of any band is to make a career out of playing music," says bassist Chad Sones. "If you can make a career out of something you enjoy, then you'd be pretty set." Along with drummer Jake Webster, Sones is responsible for focusing the band's intensity. The rhythm section's interplay is vital to the band's success, balancing the sloppy cacophony of classic psychedelia with an intense groove that serves Barnhill's songs well.
On the Rorschach EP, the ominous "Adults We Know" ventured away from the typical strum-and-drum and showed Barnhill to be a keen, if slightly creepy, observer of human nature. On new songs, such as "My Dear (A Thousand Ways)" and "Unarius," Barnhill's intense sneer is accompanied by a texture that was lacking on the band's previous recorded work. As much as Barnhill has improved as a songwriter, so has Hamilton made strides as a guitarist as well.
"I've always liked the way Modest Mouse albums have layered, slightly bent and angular guitar sounds," says Hamilton, whose acumen on the instrument grows exponentially with each performance. On the new material, Hamilton provides the chipper yin to Barnhill's seductively sinister yang.
Even when venturing into some innovative and inventive areas, almost every article about the band has compared them to Nirvana and the aforementioned Pixies. The members of the Cut*Off don't understand the former but don't mind the latter.
"I think the only reason we get Nirvana comparisons is because of Kyle's voice," says Sones. "None of us are particularly inspired by Nirvana."
But with Frank Black and crew, it's a different matter entirely. "The Pixies have been a big influence on all of us as well as a thousand other bands," says Hamilton. "Now, if we were compared to Creed or Chumbawamba, then I'd be sick." However, the reverence in which the guys in the Cut*Off speak of Frank Black borders on some form of mind control.
"I think we all like the Pixies," says Sones, "but we are not trying to be a Pixies cover band." Well, sort of. The band does appear on a Pixies tribute album, but a (much) more apt comparison would be to a less heralded purveyor of grunge, Mudhoney, a band that mined (over and again) the Nuggets anthologies for ideas and inspiration.
There is a definite retro garage vibe that infuses much of the Cut*Off's work. Barnhill may share Cobain's distaste for soap and water, but his sneer is more akin to Sky Saxon of the Seeds than any suicidal roustabout from the Pacific Northwest. And while the band can embrace the jagged pop of "Monkey Gone to Heaven," the over-caffeinated theatrics of Frank Black are, thankfully, not part of Barnhill's constitution. He is a likable guy, but it's his brooding intensity that proves to be the eye of the storm for this collection of Cowtown 20-somethings.
Barnhill works for a lighting company in Bedford while Sones works as a recruiter for a company in Dallas. Hamilton is a behavior therapist in the psych unit at Cook's Children's hospital (probably good experience for being in this band) while drummer Jake Webster is a substitute teacher.
"The school year is almost over," says Webster, "so by the time this goes to print I could be unemployed."
Somehow, the quartet manages to work out a rehearsal and performance schedule.
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"I don't sleep that much when we have shows," admits Hamilton.
"I have a set number of vacation days, and I have to plan them out throughout the year," adds Sones. "Not very rock star."
Yet Sones' deadpan confession is exactly what makes the Cut*Off so intriguing. Here are four regular guys (well, three and Barnhill), a group of working class stiffs from Fort Worth who revel in music they grew up with and with noise that happened decades before they were born. Four guys who succeed in creating an interesting and affecting hybrid of garage, grunge and gangly pop. Named, in part, because the band's high school grades were always just good enough to pass, the slacker mentality that inspired them has been replaced by a mature drive toward respectability.
"We are constantly listening to music and learning," says Hamilton, "thinking of different ways to approach what we do."