Stage pageantry and band lore are key components for a good dirty rock bandand Johnny Reno & the Vicemachine are no exception. Behold their bandcamp description:
"From the bowels of Butte, Montana arose a beast-man to bang the skins alongside a giant-man from the rundown Reno slums slaying the strings of a red machine. They've put a million in the ground and a million in the sac [sic]. It's ten o'clock, do you know where your children are? They're drinking cheap whiskey with Johnny Reno and Trickshot Johnson! Welcome the shovel, and welcome the Vicemachine..."
At this point, you can just imagine the smoke machine coming alive on stage in some dive bar near a railroad track. Aaron Johnson, aka Trickshot Johnson, mounts the seat of his drum set in a button up shirt, buttoned down. Johnny Brooke, aka Johnny Reno, with his long dark mane already covering his face, strums the first chord on his red Flying V. Or something like that. This is the kind of sweaty, debauched rock and roll that actually feels less like a moment and more like a lifestyle, which is why the band's live show shouldn't be one to miss.
The Vicemachine isn't an easy musical endeavor. Johnson, the "beast-man" from Butte, lives in Missoula, and Brooke, the "giant-man" from Reno, lives in Portland, so there are no convenient band practices to be had.
"We get together and play in short bursts," says Johnson.
The band has played a couple of shows in Missoula, and last summer they went on tour with the Missoula band The Skurfs, for whom Johnson also plays drums. Their upcoming show in Missoula is for a Skurfs CD release party, but Vicemachine also just released an album, American Barricadea scuzzy, blues-punk garage collection that has whispers of everything from Johnny Thunders to The Stones to 1990s Northwest underground darlings The Makers, with creeping guitar riffs exploding into hazy reverb.
This album includes a few tracks from their previous album, Trouble in Old Town, like the song "Bobbing for Bullshit." Brooke, a 22-year-old who delivers his vocals like he's been on the rock circuit for decades, starts out singing sweetly, "You can have my pants/but you'll never get in my heart, woman/ Your key don't make this cigarette engine turn over and start." By now you know there's nothing sweet happening here, just as the song erupts into a bouncing rock ballad with scathing one-liners sung with romantic intonation: "Goddamit that beer was cheap. So are you, to me."
On "Welcome the Shovel," he imagines his girlfriend asleep in the stove and he says, "wake you up when it gets cold."
Here you have, as you might be able to tell, the timeless themes of relationships gone bad.
"He's like the ultimate frontman," Johnson says of Brooke. "He looks like a rock star anyways, but he goes absolutely nuts on stage and he's a good singer, too."
Johnson, 24, says he found his musical calling when his Butte middle school friends started getting into punk rock. "I was still at that age where I was figuring out my personality," he says. "I still wanted to be popular and my friends were like, 'Why?' And I realized, 'Yeah! Why do I want to be like them? These kids make fun of us.' And so that was my outlet in Butte. It's not a nice town. It's not a place of beauty and understanding and open mindedness. If you're an open kind of person or different, and if you're trying to be creative, you're constantly stifled by the general population. "
He got into the classicsOperation Ivy, Minor Threat, early Green Dayand also started listening to The White Stripes, who were just making young rockers swoon with their two-piece guitar sound. Johnson and his friends started a band called The Low Rollers and the first song they learned was "Fell in Love with a Girl" off The White Stripes's 2002 album White Blood Cells.
Johnson and Brooke met in Portland when both of them were living there and they ended up playing a show together.
"I thought his stuff was pretty cool," says Johnson. "It was just him on a Flying V electric kind of just screaming over it, but there was something there."
The two musicians are both influenced by Jack White and early blues, as well as the ambience of their hometowns. One song on American Barricade, for instance, is called "Berkeley Pit Stain."
"He's from Reno and I'm from Butte," says Johnson, "so we're both from these dirty-ass cities and we connected because of that, too."
Johnson recorded their album in his Portland studio little chunks at a time.
"The whole first album is about Johnny's trials and tribulations, women and living in Portland, living in the city," he says.
Now that he's moved back to Missoula to go to school, Johnson says it's a little challenging to have the Vicemachine be more of a fling than a full-on musical relationship. There have been some little victories: their song "Be Gorgeous and Be Gone" was picked for the most recent Portland band compilation PDX Pop Now, along with bands such as Viva Voce, Red Fang and the Ascetic Junkies. Despite the obstacles, the caliber of the Vicemachine sound seems promising, especially with Brooke at the guitar helm.
"Johnny is an amazing songwriter," says Johnson. "The lyrics he writes are poetic and thoughtful and he flips things around and makes slant rhymes in cool ways." He laughs. "'Welcome the Shovel' is all about cooking your girlfriend, but the lyrics are so good. I don't want to paint him to be a maniac. He's more just a tortured genius."
Johnny Reno and the Vicemachine play The Top Hat Wed., April 25, at 10 PM for The Skurfs album release party. $3.