It's all been tried and retried and tried all over again. The guitar-bass-drums format has been explored so often, Mapsco sells directions. If it doesn't have Sonic Youth's fingerprints on it, it probably has someone else's. So the worst mistake that Girls Against Boys could make was letting people believe they were doing something different, that maybe, just maybe, rock and roll wasn't the exhumed corpse it appeared to be.
It seems like a foolish notion now, but back in 1993, when the band released Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby, it wasn't that hard to be convinced. Hell, anything would have sounded new next to Pearl Jam's unholy resurrection of Kansas and Bad Company and the Stone Temple Pilots' unsavory revival of Pearl Jam. The double-bass, oversexed vibe of Venus Luxure was a pimp-slap in the face of Big Dumb Rock, a sharp, sexy, striptease of an album that sounded like nothing else at the time. It was dance music for the post-punk set, made mostly with guitars and basses and drums--all the things that people had just about given up on.
At the time, it felt as though the band could have been the future of rock and roll, or at least a return to its lustier past. Rock and roll used to be all about sex: It was Elvis the pelvis and Jim Morrison playing cocks-and-robbers on a Florida stage. It was the Velvet Underground's lurid nights and Van Halen's steamy days at the beach. Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby was a continuation of that, a record full of sidelong glances and back-alley encounters. It felt as though Girls Against Boys could shake up a marketplace that was blander than Mexican food in Minnesota, and so homogenized it could be found in the dairy case at your local supermarket, next to tubs of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.
Unfortunately, it's five years later, and the mainstream has caught up to Girls Against Boys. From the sound of it, the band let it happen, meeting mediocrity in the middle of the road. They've given up on the guitar-bass-drums format too, trying to keep up with themselves by adding more samples and keyboards and turntable scratching--15-year-old innovations. The band's new album--Freak*On*Ica, its first for Geffen Records--sounds almost like a parody of themselves, with all the style and none of the substance of their previous records. The group is a major-label entity now, a step away from becoming as much of a product as matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind. Who would have thought that the band, brought up in the annoyingly ethical D.C. hardcore scene, would become the new face of corporate rock?
"I don't think we're really corporate rock, even though, in a way, we are," says singer-guitarist Scott McCloud, on the phone from a tour stop in Athens, Georgia. "We were never bothered too much by all the label stuff. We don't care that much about being on the radio or anything like that. It's not important to us. We just want to make music the way we have been, and let people hear it however they hear it. We don't really consider this selling out, because that's pretty much the goal of any band, isn't it? To have people hear their music."
Still, it's hard not to think that the band compromised itself a bit on Freak*On*Ica. It's as clean and safe as the band's last three records were dirty and dangerous, a trip through Disneyland compared to a trip through the back room of a strip club. For a band that used to be all about sex, the album has all the sensuality of a $3 hooker. The familiar elements are still there--McCloud's gruff whisper, the rumbling grooves--but all the rough edges have been sanded completely off; it's rock and roll as produced by Bob Vila. The band made the same mistake that many bands do when they go in to record their first major-label album: They spent too much time in the studio and overanalyzed the hell out of their album.
"I think we were definitely in the spirit to try things," McCloud says. "It took forever. I think House of GVSB [the band's 1996 album] took five weeks, and this took several months. Going into recording it, we purposely went to a studio that we could afford for a long period of time. We didn't go to a super-chic place, something that was $5,000 a day. We went into it saying to ourselves, 'We're gonna try not to worry too much about how long this takes. We're just gonna try to do it right, the way we want to have it.'
"I think it's an interesting way to record, having never done it before, to record for so long. Being in a studio, definitely your focus wavers. I always describe it like, 'Well, this time, with every song, we could examine every avenue of where the song could go, and then go back to our original idea.'"
The original idea of Girls Against Boys is a long way away from the sound of Freak*On*Ica. The group began as a studio project started by bassist Eli Janney, but was never intended to be a real band. The project was a reaction to the D.C. hardcore environment in which Janney and the future band members had grown up--a male-dominated, politicized scene that relied on guitars and not much else. Janney's project widened its scope to include the heavy bass sound of D.C.'s go-go band past, along with angular guitars and samples. He released a few albums under the Girls Against Boys moniker--including Nineties vs. Eighties in 1990 and Tropic of Scorpio in 1992.
By Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby, the project had grown into a real band, filled out by McCloud, bassist Johnny Temple, and drummer Alexis Fleisig--all former members of Soulside, a band that had employed Janney as a soundman. Their new sound was gritty and funky, two basslines weaving back and forth over pulsating drums and skronky guitar leads. McCloud growled come-ons as if he were trying to steal your girlfriend; Janney and Temple played music as if they already had.
"We were just writing songs like we always had, even back to the Soulside days," McCloud recalls. "Just a bunch of guys in a room making noise, figuring out what we were going to do with these grooves. It all just kind of came out of that. On the new record, there's a lot of keyboard stuff, and that kind of came about in the same way. Just making noise until we hit upon something we liked."
The sound carried over to the quartet's next two albums, 1995's Cruise Yourself and the brilliant House of GVSB. By the time House of GVSB was released, the band had already signed with Geffen. The album was released on Touch and Go, however, to fulfill a verbal agreement the band had made with that label. House of GVSB could have just been a contract-killer, terminating the band's relationship with Touch and Go, but it was better than any album the band had released; it was probably better than any album they will release. It was full of undulating bass lines and metal-on-metal guitars and sounded like Fugazi jamming with Bootsy Collins' Rubber Band--funk and punk and everything else. House of GVSB was sultry rock at its finest, though it may have set the bar too high for the band's major-label debut. No one should have expected the band to top it, but everyone did.
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"We wanted to kind of mess with our scene a little bit, you know?" says McCloud. "There was a little pressure there. We wanted to get a different producer, a different studio, do things differently. We just wanted a different-sounding record. We didn't want to make another House of GVSB.
In the end, it's hard to tell if the band "messed with its scene" too much, or not enough. Freak*On*Ica is the sound of chances not being taken, of missed opportunities. Girls Against Boys didn't sell out as much as they played out their hand and found out that everyone else at the table had better cards. McCloud doesn't agree. He thinks that Freak*On*Ica is some of the band's best work yet, a gem that will be discovered when people can listen to the album without judging it by the band's past.
"It's hard to get people to listen to something with an open mind sometimes, but I think if they do, they'll see that this album is not that different from anything else we've done. But we've never worried about that anyway. All we are is four guys who like making music together, and if no one else wants to hear it, then that's fine. We want people to listen to us, and we want people to enjoy us, but if they don't, we have to respect that, you know. We make records for ourselves, as stupid as that sounds. We make records because we like doing it. When the fun stops, so will we."
Girls Against Boys performs at Trees on July 23. Buffalo Daughter and Stanford Prison Experiment open.