In the early '90s, my band practiced in a roomy old wine cellar that belonged to the guitarist's mother, Teacher Teri. It smelled of mildew and stale Hamm's cans. Teacher Teri often praised our sound even though she was a big-time Oak Ridge Boys fan. In 2012, my current band, Total Combined Weight, practices in the basement of the home I own with my wife. The smells are the same and though the praise comes less often, her description of TCW as "man-noise" is likely the most apt description that has and will ever be uttered. Even an old guy band appreciates compliments.
At least "man-noise" sounds like a compliment to me. Perhaps it isn't. (It's better than the typical, "Actually, you guys are pretty decent.") And as important as the Total Combined Wives' opinions are when it comes to our music (reports vary from "totally unimportant" to the "most important thing besides my child's health"), this past St. Patrick's Day we received the highest compliment of all: a beer-soaked linoleum floor at the VFW and a pseudo-circle pit of a dozen friends, co-workers and possible homeless rocking the eff out to one of our songs. One man in the crowd essentially proclaimed us the raddest thing of all time. He stood in the center of the room, a forefinger stuck in each earhole (like Bugs Bunny before he blows up Yosemite Sam), nodding along and smiling to the stentorian ruckus.
Our guitar player and sometimes vocalist, Alex Key, has a particular fondness for noise, one which often causes consternation amongst the bandmates. During breakfast one morning, when I'm essentially interviewing my bandmates, he says, "I just want to make noise and everyone else wants to play songs." Our vocalist, Walker Hunter, pipes in with, "I agree. One of [TCW's] challenges is making Alex play songs."
Actually, Alex is full of it. He's the one who brings in catchy "lady boner" tracks such as "High Notes" and "Empty Vessel," chockfull of whoa-ohs and tried-and-true pop-punk arrangement strategies. The TCW sound is rooted in our past. It began out of a desire to play the kind of music we played in the '90s. Of course, the physical toll of performing at breakneck speeds is now a little different than it was back then. It's particularly acute for Chad Dundas, our drummer. "My shoulders hurt a lot more now," he says. But Chad has become the crafty veteran, using guile and experience to overcome physical obstacles. "Technique-wise, TCW is different from a lot of the straight ahead punk bands I've played for in the past," he says. "We aren't afraid to be slower, heavier and to be a little more off-beat. That allows me to do some things I wasn't doing in those earlier bands. It takes me out of my comfort zone and forces me to be a better drummer."
Being in a loud old guy band means that you've quit caring about anything like fame or selling records or impressing the baristas at Le Petit Outre, but it doesn't mean you've given up on staying rad. It means that you are not going to play "Fire on the Mountain" by the Marshall Tucker Band every Saturday night for the rest of your life. It means that you don't record an album for other people, only for yourselves. It means that at band practice, you talk about moms, wives, installing gas lines, natural gas grills, "tele-parenting," Ace Hardware and whether cooking a steak over charcoal is really important. It means that your musical goals become simpler as the rest of your lives become more complicated. Alex's dream for the band is manageable: "I'd like to see us play a show where the entirety of the crowd doesn't leave halfway through our set."
Total Combined Weight performs each Thursday in May at the VFW, 245 W. Main St., at 9 PM, as part of their month-long residency series, culminating with a performance of Minor Threat's Discography on Thu. May 31. Free.