By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
By Harley Oliver Brown
A '90s underground It-Band makes peace
The last time I heard Scott McCloud's voice on the other end of the phone it was in 2002. The Girls Against Boys singer-guitarist was in middle America, on tour behind that year's ominously titled Jade Tree LP You Can't Fight What You Can't See, and he was talking about trying to stay musically relevant, about recommitting to keeping the quartet going, and about making sure the NYC-via-D.C. band was "something important to be doing" after a dozen years together.
Otherwise, McCloud laughed, "What are [we] doing playing Cleveland again?"
GVSB haven't played Cleveland since. Or anywhere else, really, except for a tiny handful of European gigs over the years, and that three-day Touch and Go Records 25th anniversary bash in Chicago back in 2006.
They didn't break up. They didn't announce an "indefinite hiatus." They just kind of hit the hold button and never got around to picking back up. Until now.
"After that tour we had a discussion about, 'Are we gonna record any more?' The answer was basically, 'No, let's not do anything more for now'—I think we were all kinda thinking for a while before that, 'Who's gonna actually be the one to say it?'" McCloud recalls. "And it ended up being a year of not doing anything, and then the years just kinda built up."
This time, he is on the phone from his abode in Vienna, Austria, where he's been living the expat life after decamping from New York City—where he'd made his home since moving up from D.C. in 1989—a couple of years ago.
The mood is a bit brighter compared to that long-ago conversation, as the congenial McCloud talks about the return of GVSB—with a brand new five-song EP, The Ghost List, in tow—from a self-imposed exile that lasted nearly as long as their initial run in the '90s and early '00s, even as he recounts some of the dark times that nearly did the band in.
GVSB is scheduled to play a long-awaited homecoming show at Bowery Ballroom on September 11, with their longtime friend and former labelmate, erstwhile Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow, set to join them onstage for a batch of songs.
"So much time has gone by, and the idea of playing again . . . I think a lot of the pressures and issues are just not there; they don't matter anymore," says McCloud. "Either the four of us enjoy making stuff together or we don't, and right now we do."
McCloud readily concedes that tension, creative and otherwise, has always been in the mix, stretching back to the end of the '80s when he, bassist Johnny Temple, and drummer Alexis Fleisig joined forces with bassist-keyboardist Eli Janney, who had just watched Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty depart an early GVSB incarnation to devote his time to Ian MacKaye and company.
The friction made them great. They were noisy, grinding, and utterly seductive. McCloud brought his seedy, raspy sneer and malevolent guitar stabs; Janney and Temple each brought their bass lines, often distorted and menacing, and shoved them together more arrestingly than Ned's Atomic Dustbin ever managed, locking tight with Fleisig's muscular rhythms for relentlessly throbbing grooves. They took frustration and release and sex and death on careening late-night drives around hairpin curves, and to the shadowy dives and back alleys they painted crimson with their sonic punches, parries, and thrusts.
They made the powerhouse Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby in 1993—easily one of the best, most enduring albums of the decade—and followed that with two more stunners, Cruise Yourself and House of GVSB.
They built it all up to underground It Band status. Major labels were all but beating each other with spiked bats over who'd get to sign them. GVSB went for it. They inked a deal with Geffen Records.
"All the labels were after us, and we thought we were being even-headed and smart about which one we were choosing—'This one is the good one,'" McCloud laughs ruefully. "And then, lo and behold . . ."
1998's Geffen-issued Freak*on*ica got a so-so reception, and then the label was folded into Interscope. Reps who'd championed GVSB, promising autonomy and more, vanished. The label wanted the band to keep making demos for songs execs thought worthy of recording. The band kept saying, No, these are the fucking songs. GVSB remained at loggerheads with the label, in limbo for nearly four years before wrestling free.
Plenty of bands from that era can tell virtually the same story.
"At some point we were just repeating ourselves, trying to write 'Super-fire' again," says McCloud. "It took a lot out of the band, it took a lot out of our sense of ourselves."
Their Times Square rehearsal space became a depressing hole where fading dreams went to finally curl up and die. "We weren't really making music there; we were just talking about business all the time."
Eventually, outside interests took over, and the quartet went their separate ways, though they remained friends. Temple continued to build his successful indie publishing house, Akashic Books. Janney became an in-demand producer and engineer who's worked with the likes of Wilco, James Blunt, Nicole Atkins, and Ryan Adams. McCloud played guitar on Courtney Love's 2004 debut solo album, America's Sweetheart, and formed the still-active semi-acoustic outfit Paramount Styles, with Fleisig on drums; Fleisig played with several bands and is currently a member of Obits.
GVSB did that one-off at the 2006 Touch and Go fest, then a few shows in Poland and Russia in 2009 "because we never played there and it was a great opportunity," McCloud says.
And then, around January 2012, Janney contacted him to see if he was interested in singing on some circa 2003 songs that Janney had squirreled away on his hard drive.
"They sounded like something Girls Against Boys would have tried at the time, and I was like, 'I love this,' so that was how we all started talking about getting back together and doing more than we'd done in a long time," says McCloud.
The four got together at a Manhattan studio in January of this year and recorded three of those old songs and two brand-new ones, all of which appear on the new Ghost Line EP, a collection that bears all the elements of classic early/mid-'90s GVSB. Put simply: It kills. Like recent output from Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr., it augurs well for the band's second act.
Yow—who also knows a little something about watching his well-regarded noise-rock band disintegrate and then reform a decade later—says he was thrilled that his old friends invited him to sing with them at the Bowery Ballroom show and the handful of other East Coast dates GVSB lined up. "I love those guys," he says. "I've heard people say that some of the music the Jesus Lizard did was sexy—I don't know if I necessarily concur with that, but I do think a lot of the Girls Against Boys music is sexy, and it's sorta like a slinky, slow groove instead of fast, dumbass punk."
They teamed up for a show in Austria in May, and in New York they're slated to play a couple of Jesus Lizard songs, a couple of GVSB songs, and maybe a cover or two together during the set.
"I don't want to step on their musical toes," says Yow. "I'm not gonna knock Scott over and pour beer on Eli's keyboard. But it's gonna be fun and hopefully entertaining for the morons in the audience."
The creative tension in GVSB is still there, says McCloud, and the fruits of their recent time together have him figuring they'll keep GVSB active as a recording and touring unit going forward "as long as it makes sense to us."
"It's something that we invested so much time and energy in, and it felt like it kind of didn't reach its full potential, and that's always something that you carry around with you," McCloud says of the past decade spent away from GVSB.
But now, having let go of GVSB as the sole vehicle for their livelihood—and with the youthful desperation of a band sweating and bleeding to make it replaced by a sort of middle-aged pragmatism and self-assuredness—"The new music's better because we don't have those worries, and we just do it because we love this music and missed playing it and it's still meaningful to us," says McCloud. "All that other stuff just falls away. It's just to do it for its own sake, and I'm really happy that we did it."
Girls Against Boys perform at Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday, September 11, with David Yow.
Fantastic four:Girls Against Boys