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As soon as Derek Watson's thunderous, crunchy, two-chord guitar chug starts, Isabel Almeida's arms go slack; she hunches over at the waist, stares at the floor, and begins a kind of fevered hop. The drums and bass kick in, and she becomes fully possessed, tossing her body on the floor, flopping over amps, and crawling on all fours atop the monitors downstage. At times, half her body seems to have failed her, and she looks like the world's most rhythmic stroke victim.
Watson bends backward while furiously strumming, his torso nearly parallel to the floor. Eventually, he's on the ground, too, joining Almeida in a writhing, sweaty, tangled pile of skinny limbs, broken instruments, and wires. There will be feedback. Occasionally, there will be blood.
Watson and Almeida head up the Brooklyn band Hunters (filled out on bass and drums by Thomas Martin and Gregg Giuffre, respectively), a fuzzed-out, Melvins-by-way-of-the-Vaselines rock outfit with a kiss of Sonic Youth and a punch from the Stooges. Live, they have no regard for their personal safety, which they put at risk for your entertainment. You can't help but be touched by the gesture.
"They just lit something inside of me from the very first time I saw them," says the band's producer, James Iha, on a couch in the lobby of the Stratosphere Sound Recording Studio in Manhattan (he co-owns it with Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger and IVY's Andy Chase). Iha is recording Hunters' as-yet-unnamed new full-length, out early next year on a label they're in talks with, but won't discuss until the ink on the deal has dried.
Iha is, of course, the former guitarist of '90s alt-rock stalwarts Smashing Pumpkins and current member in not one but a pair of supergroups: A Perfect Circle and Tinted Windows. He says Hunters first "lit something inside" him at a New Year's Eve party two years back, when they played a "too tiny, too crowded, vaguely depressing" Chinatown art gallery. "They went off like an explosion in the corner of the room," he remembers.
During the show, Watson took a champagne bottle to the face, which left him bloody and swollen. "That's how I knew it was a good show," he jokes now. But, in fact, the opposite was true. The sound was shit. The band was wasted. There was no PA. But amid the chaos, aural and otherwise, says Iha, "I could hear they had songs. Real, fully realized, very good songs. He approached the battered and boozy band after the dust settled and expressed his interest in working with them.
"We told him we didn't have any money," deadpans Watson.
In an upstairs game room/kitchen area at Stratosphere, Watson, 29, and Almeida, 27, are unfailingly polite, quick with compliments for every band they've ever toured with or opened for, and often finish each other's sentences. They are a couple and live together in a tiny Williamsburg apartment where they spend a lot of time soaking up horror movies, writing songs, and watching professional wrestling.
"I'm obsessed," Watson says of wrestling.
"He's obsessed," Almeida says.
Then, together: "obsessed."
Watson is from just outside Philadelphia and moved to New York in '04 full time to build sets, sculpt, and find other types of work that are scarce just outside Philadelphia. He has suffered from the wrestling fixation since childhood, and it really bit hard when his father began taking his young son to South Philly to see live ECW matches, the realest, most hardcore of the fake sport in which grown men get their faces scraped across barbed wire or take a metal chair to the forehead—the matches where you might see some Mickey Rourke type actually die.
That bloody element makes its way into the band's visual aesthetic. The front page of their website (huntershunters.com) features a crude drawing of a bald monster with beating hearts for eyes who's cutting off his own hand. You'll find the occasional ghoulish clip from a schlock horror film posted to their Tumblr account. And their latest song is "Street Trash," named in honor of the 1987 J. Michael Muro cult-classic horror comedy.
"Love that movie," Watson says.
"It's a great movie," Almeida says.
Then, together: "Love it."
Almeida was born in Brazil. Her psychologist mother and scientist stepfather traveled often on the lecture circuit, and she spent a good deal of her formative years growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she learned English and absorbed a lot of punk rock, which was almost impossible to find when she and the family eventually moved back to Rio. There, in her early teens, Almeida says, "all the other girls were very pretty, already wearing makeup and very into boys." A punk-loving tomboy by then, Almeida was "totally not there yet," and so she recoiled, watching MTV alone for any glimpse of the music she'd left behind and hoarding cash for imported Sonic Youth CDs.
The two met in New York City three years ago while working for a Chinatown arcade where they made change and were tasked with shooing away truants during weekdays. That was the idea anyway. They weren't exactly the enforcer type.
"It was the perfect job," Almeida says.
"We didn't do much," Watson says.
"We didn't do anything," Almeida says.
Doing not much of anything left the couple plenty of time to talk, and soon they discovered a mutual love—for each other and for all things dirty, dingy, and punk. They were both huge into bands like the Melvins, Sonic Youth, the Stooges, and the Cramps. But they adored the Beatles, too, and Almeida vividly remembers watching every movie the Fab Four made when she lived in Albuquerque. Her stepfather bought her a mic, and "I'd sing along through the stereo while jumping in front of the TV on a tiny trampoline," she says. "I did this every day." You can still see that bunny hop working itself out today when she's onstage.
She'd always wanted to be in a band. Watson was already in one, an improvised noise outfit called Realms. Eventually, that fizzled, and Hunters were born.
"It came pretty naturally," Watson says.
"It felt natural," Almeida says.
Then, together: "It was natural."
They had songs. Real, fully realized, good songs. And despite their financial shortcomings, Iha went on to produce three out of five of them—"Deadbeat," "Noisy Bitch," and "Acid Head"—on the blistering and aptly titled Hunters EP Hands on Fire, a slab of grimy, bygone New York City rock born of the loins: raw, sexy, scary, fuzzy, fun, fucked up.
In song, Watson and Almeida are true to their real life together, pinging off each other, finishing phrases, and singing in unison. On "Acid Head," as they do often, they riff back and forth, building tension. "I'm tearing it down," Watson sings. "I'm pushing it up," Almeida replies. "I'm pushing away," sings Watson. Then, together: "I want you to stay." In the second verse, they reverse the lines but come back together again on "I want you to stay."
You can hear the Sonic Youth that Almeida held so dearly poking through on "Acid Head," and the other tracks on Hands all beam weird, distorted vibes. The band has toured with A Place to Bury Strangers and the Kills, and opened for Metz—all hard, loud bands with a twinge of similar sonic appeal. But aside from maybe Allentown, Pennsylvania's Pissed Jeans (whom Watson and Almeida love), there aren't many bands who sound like this. Not in New York, at least.
"They bring a sexy and heavy band dynamic and sound that hasn't been present in New York City over the past few years," says Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, who mixed Hands. "I really like the raw and aggressive aspects of their band, as well as their catchy melodies. I really like a band that makes you afraid and happy at the same time."
In the early going, way back in '09, being a sonic outlier among New York's more cerebral and shoegazey made it hard to find bills to hop onto with locals. They found an early fan in Death by Audio booker Edan Wilber, who gave them a lot of their early gigs, with touring bands who had similar appeal.
"They work very hard at what they do," Iha says. "They have a great sense of melody; all their songs have a great rhythm and song structure. But they also rip. They're not afraid to add those noisy elements. It's a feeling. A comparison I make, which isn't obvious and sounds not right at first, is the Pixies. Frank Black screams a lot on Pixies songs, which can also get raucous. But they're fucking incredible songs, obviously. That's Hunters, too."
"James is just the nicest guy," Watson says.
"So, so nice," Almeida says.
Then, together: "really nice."