No frills, no joke

A few years ago, a perplexed music writer asked Joey Ramone the $64,000 question: how can the Ramones write all these songs when they only seem to use three chords? The reply was typical Joey: "Because we only know three chords; it just happens they're the right ones."

Ramones songs are like M&Ms--you can't have just one. For the past 20 years, every new release by the New York band is a delightful occasion, even though you know what you're going to hear before you unwrap the disc and pop it in your stereo. It is very much like going to your friendly local bar and ordering your favorite brew, time and again.

But this is not a story about The Ramones. It's about the Mullens, a local band fronted by Tim Stile, who recently masterminded a cover band called Not The Ramones, though they might as well have been. It started as a one-off affair at a Ramones cover night at the Galaxy Club that was greeted with so much enthusiasm the group played shows around Dallas for a solid three months. And though it has since disbanded, Not the Ramones served as the jumping-off point for the band that would follow--if not as a direct influence, then certainly as an inspiration.

Tim Stile is one of the most enduring local musicians, having been part of the so-called scene for a good decade. He was drumming for Joe Christ's Healing Faith back in the days of the Theatre Gallery, and for several years he handled the skins for defunct local rockers Hash Palace, best known in Europe (which only makes sense). You'll recognize him as the tall, lanky guy with the Ramones hairdo who could hardly hide behind drum kits. A genuine lover of rock and roll who has seen local trends come and go, he has also endured them all.

He gave up his place behind the drum kit a year ago so he could start writing songs and sing. Not The Ramones wound up as a transitional project that would bring him to the front of the stage and offer him valuable practice as a performer. For Stile, it was a new lease on life.

"Vocalists are such icons," he says. "Ever since I was a kid, Mick Jagger was the ultimate rock god to me. To me it is a privilege to be able to get out there and sing."

The first Mullens lineup fell through earlier this year right before a show at the Galaxy, leaving Stile alone with drummer Rod Baird. But the temporary shakeup turned out to be a blessing in disguise since one of the three new members who stepped in, lead guitarist Matt Mayo, was more than glad to be Keith Richards to Stile's Jagger.

"I wanted to sound like the Stones in the '60s, when Keith was drugged out," Mayo says. "At that point in time he was particularly groovy. Keith is the coolest rock and roll guitar player."

As a writer and guitar player, Mayo complements Stile's melodic approach by providing the rough, punky element to the Mullens' sound. He also brought with him to the band Lee Lazarine (guitar) and Anthony "Hot Rod" Rodriguez (bass) from his former punk band Spoiler.

"Matt writes the more raunchier stuff, and I write the ballads, the wimpier songs," Stile says. "The original chemistry for the [Mullens] was the fact that we have the same musical taste--Stones, early obscure punk rock, '60s garage, Buzzcocks, Pistols, MC5, Iggy, Live at Leeds-era Who, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and so on."

In a way, the music of the Mullens is a flattering homage to all those rock and roll greats mentioned above--bands that were influential because they always said more with less. Their music is straightforward, heartfelt, and recklessly passionate, and the Mullens seem to believe that if you can't say it in three minutes flat or less, you might as well look for other avenues of expression.

"The Mullens' songs are direct and the point," Stile says. "You play for an hour and that's it. I can't imagine somebody spending two hours to see a band like Smashing Pumpkins. Even 30 minutes is enough to expose yourself. You don't need to 'Spend an evening with...'," he says in mock rock announcer voice.

In a recent show at the Orbit Room they played for half an hour and delivered a set that was fun and electrifying. Theirs is a no-frills, guitar-laden rock and roll that ranges from nasty to giddy, their only cover--the Stones' "I'm Free"--fitting in perfectly with the rest of the songs. And, just as impressively, the band played as if they didn't need to prove anything to anybody. Stile recalls an incident after the show that justifies his enthusiasm for the Mullens.

"This 30-year-old cowboy-looking guy came to me and said that he used to be a punk rocker and he liked our show," Stile says. "He mentioned that I look like Joey Ramone and said, 'You're a dying breed, man. Keep it up.'"

For every hundred clone bands that get signed every week and for every dozen that get their video clips on MTV, there's always one band somewhere in this vast land that still loves rock and roll for all the right reasons. The Mullens happen to be one of those bands that reminds you that you can still go out and catch a local band and have fun without regretting the money and time spent when you could have stayed home listening to Stooges albums. Where a lot of bands try to find a gimmick or lick the flavor of the month in order to sound contemporary and fresh, the Mullens stick to the basics with stubborn determination.

"I don't want anything that sounds '90s," Stile says without apology. "I wanna record something that sounds 1940s or 2050s, but I don't want to write anything that sounds like the things you hear on the radio now."

Mayo adds: "We go for that double-track guitar sound that's 100-feet tall. We wanna get out there and deliver a good show without any gimmicks or shock tactics, like showing your butt to the audience or dressed in drag. If [Cramps singer] Lux Interior shows up in pumps and a bikini it's cool; if I did it, I would look ridiculous."

The band uses the same basic approach in recording. Their new demo tape packs 10 songs in 24 minutes, and even though it gives away their influences, it showcases Stile's songwriting and vocal abilities as a pure punk revisionist. The songs were recorded in a home studio, each laid to tape as it was created--with little or no rehearsal, a barely formed idea suddenly preserved to digital for all eternity.

"If we get an idea as we practice, we go in and throw it down right away," Stile says. "This formula of recording goes many, many years back."

Despite his own enthusiasm about the band, Stile has his reservations regarding the appeal of the Mullens in his hometown--where "that AOR-peace-jam type of thing" is so popular, as Stile likes to call the brand of music made by the likes of Jackopierce and pop poppins. He points instead to bands like Sugar Shack in Houston ("one of the raunchiest bands," he says by way of compliment) and the Sons of Hercules in San Antonio was contemporaries, and as rare allies.

But Stile is perhaps stuck in the past, two or 20 years behind his time: in the last couple of years, the local music environment has shifted to a more rock- and roots-oriented type and is more diverse than it probably ever was, with Brutal Juice and Baboon and the Toadies on one end of the spectrum and Lone Star Trio and Ronnie Dawson on the other. And Not The Ramones receiving such a warm response suggests that not only is there room for bands like The Mullens, there is also a demand for them.

"You know, I'm really enthusiastic about what we're doing, and enthusiasm is contagious," Stile says. "I get so excited before a show and then I get the blues after the show is over," he says.

"We're trying to do our part and keep a good scene going on here," Mayo promises. "We're gonna keep playing straight rock and roll with no bullshit about it."

The Mullens open for The Cows May 6 at the Orbit Room.

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Philip Chrissopoulos