The Men Get Out of the Gutter
Five men walk into a Brooklyn bar. Some have beards. Some wear plaid. Some sport tattered leather jackets adorned with one-inch band buttons. Some have thick rimmed glasses. You know the type.
One of the bearded men wearing plaid asks his bearded companion in leather (or maybe it's the other way around?) if he's seen the lineup for this year's Bonnaroo, the four-day music festival held in June in Manchester, Tennessee.
Smiles. Head nods in the affirmative. Happiness.
"Petty," one of the men says. "Yes. That's right. Tom Petty. Need I say more?"
The answer, for these men, is no. The rest of the lineup doesn't interest them. Because Tom Petty is the Greatest of All Time, they agree.
What's the big deal? This is just another night of men looking like this, talking like this, and dressing like this in a bar in Brooklyn. But that these men in particular have such affection for Petty is a surprise. These men are a band, the Men. And, until now, nothing about the Men's music has suggested they would think Petty is anything other than a sad, aging, Billboard-charting bastion of Sellout Dad Rock.
That's because the Men's first two full-length albums are glorious high-water marks of post-hardcore, new-millennium "pigfuck" (a term coined in our pages by Robert Christgau in a 1987 Pazz & Jop essay), a noise-addict's speedball of exuberant cacophony topped with a healthy helping of spazz. Just two short years ago, they sought to rewrite indie rock's playbook using guitars covered in filth, songs with titles like "Shittin' With the Shah," and phlegmy coughs as lyrics. They were brazen enough to cop an album title from the Ramones, Leave Home, for a second album that managed to capture the aggression of the Stooges, the canned mechanics of Neu!, the bombast of Touch and Go–era Butthole Surfers, and the pure, unbridled gutter-slime splendor of SST's apex, put them all in a blender and set that blender on fire. They hit every entry in the index of Michael Azzerad's book Our Band Could Be Your Life.
Or that's how it played to the music critics, at least. Of course, this stuff is practically programmed to light up the synapses of the kind of pasty white guys who sob quietly to themselves when they remember Amphetamine Reptile closing up shop. Men drummer Rich Samis jokingly remembers those critics "flipping their wigs" and saying that Leave was "the dirtiest record, man. New York City underground dirt!"
And so the glowing reviews from Important Outlets like Pitchfork (which bestowed its vaunted Best New Music stamp of approval on Open Your Heart) and SPIN naturally followed. We at the Voice were fans too, describing Leave Home's "atonal downtown splatter" as "brawny, muscular bludgeon that's one generation removed from metalcore"—and on the forefront of pigfuck's coming revival.
Which is all to say: Tom fucking Petty?
The Men's fourth LP, New Moon (which shares a title with something a little less badass than the Ramones: a book in the Twilight series), comes out March 5 on Sacred Bones. And New Moon contains, for the Men, some very new, classic, Petty-esque sounding tunes. How they got there isn't too hard to see. There is a lineup change involved. And a cabin in the Catskills. And a campfire, too. Of course there is.
"Do you have earplugs?"
Ben Greenberg, 28, is the Men's multi-instrumentalist/producer/engineer/everything-er. And a lot has changed about the band since he joined.
He walks down the stairs of a rundown building on Grand Street in Williamsburg, ducking by the landlord who's replacing the entryway's linoleum floor. Through a door is a tight 20-by-20-foot space full of too many amps to count, cords dangling on the walls, a collection of instruments, and the rest of the Men.
Sitting at a piano is the shaggy Mark Perro, one of the group's founders and principal songwriters. Next to him towers another original member, guitarist/vocalist Nick Chiericozzi, a soft-spoken dude in boots and tight jeans. A grinning Samis sits behind the drum kit. By his side, Kevin Faulkner, the band's bass player and newest member, stands at attention. Greenberg, who wears black-framed glasses and swooping bangs, grabs his guitar. At Samis's drum kick, they launch into "The Brass," the violent, volcanic song full of aggression and frustration that kicks of the b-side of New Moon. The Men wail.
In "The Brass"—although it's a punk song at heart—there are strains of country, Americana, and classic rock. They were there in traces on Open Your Heart, too, but New Moon takes the band further into that realm, off the hard-bitten city streets (of Williamsburg) and onto dusty back roads. In the middle of the audio chaos stands Greenberg, singing "I'm not rich, but you know I coulda been."
It wouldn't be entirely accurate to call the Men Greenberg's band now—they insist they're a pure democracy, and that there is no Leader of Men—but it wouldn't be entirely wrong, either. Greenberg joined the band permanently in November 2011, first as a bass player and now a guitarist. Growing up in New York, he graduated from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and made his name as a musician in Pygmy Shrews, a revered underground post-punk duo. During that time, he'd worked on both Leave Home and Open Your Heart, as well as the Immaculada EP and various Men tapes before them. Based on his work with the Men, other bands came calling, seeking his production help.
He says he's engineered countless punk records that probably won't ever see the light of day, and members of the New York scene speak of him in exalted platitudes. Jamie Morrison, bassist of Pale Angels, says he e-mailed Greenberg after reading the liner notes for Open Your Heart, looking to get some of his magic producer dust dumped on his band's songs. "[The Men's music] is more human," says Morrison. "There's a lot of bullshit in this world." Greenberg, and the Men, says Morrison, believe in what they're doing. No bullshit.
Ric Leichtung, curator of 285 Kent, has been booking shows in New York for almost seven years, and says Greenberg's addition to the Men "brings it from something that's sloppy, raw, and visceral to something with purpose. Before shows, you'll see Ben in the back doing scales and exercises with his fingers to prepare." Doing scales to warm up for a punk show? Sounds like the setup to a joke.
Since his addition, the Men find themselves approaching a whole new level of mainstream popularity. "It's weird. This is all new to us. I've had friends do this," Greenberg says of press interviews, while he digs into a two-and-a-half-pound steak at Aurora, an Italian restaurant in Williamsburg. He recalls getting photographed for an article in SPIN where they shoved the group in a bathroom—trapping them inside the shower stall, trying to get them to laugh. "I hate that shit, man, when people act disingenuous. Just let us be us."
But maybe getting goofily photographed for a major music publication is something they'll just have to get used to. Two days after the release of New Moon, on March 7, the band plays a sold-out Bowery Ballroom. After that, they begin road-dogging it through Europe and then back here on the home soil, an exhaustive tour which will keep them busy into early summer playing far-flung exotic locales like Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, and Cleveland.
Of course, tours of this length at this time in a band's come-up are, best case, break-even propositions. All the love and ink spilled about a band, no matter how euphoric, doesn't necessarily translate to dollars. And that financial conundrum could even be considered one of the reasons for the band's transformation. Chris Hansell, the group's big and bald original bassist—and champion of the pigfuckery—was, in his words, "kicked out" (and over the phone) because he couldn't afford to go on tour.
"They were probably the most successful band I ever did, so I had the reaction that anybody would," says Hansell. "We had just put out a record that was doing amazing, and then, you know, you're not in that band anymore, so there's that sense of, 'Well, fuck, this sucks.' " (Hansell and the Men say they're on good terms now, even if Perro does describe the relationship as "a little awkward.")
New Moon was recorded over "two weeks and change" in a cabin in the Catskills in upstate New York. Yep. One of those band stories.
"We were touring a bunch before that," recalls Samis over a few beers. "So to go and live in this house wasn't that radical of an idea. It wasn't like, 'Oh my God, this is so crazy.' It was natural."
So natural, in fact, that on top of recording the entire album up there, they set up some microphones by the campfire and made a six-song EP titled, aptly, Campfire Songs. They'll give it away for free on their tour. Perro, who proudly learned how to chop wood ("So badass," he says) during their Catskills idyll, cites New Moon's first track—a bouncy, piano-driven song filled with harmonies and acoustic guitar riffs called "Open Your Door"—as an example of how recording there inevitably affected the outcome. "That song wouldn't have happened if we weren't up there," he says.
That's not the only song that wouldn't have happened if the boys didn't lock themselves up in the middle of nowhere. "I Saw Her Face," New Moon's second single, carries a Neil Young & Crazy Horse swagger indicative of the album's push toward pop. It launches with massive crashes and strums from the guitars of Greenberg and Chiericozzi, eventually breaking down into galloping classic rock that sounds like 1972, but somehow retains a youthful vibe. This is not to say the Men have completely changed. "Supermoon," the record's closer, is a sprawling, grimy collection of noise that builds to a nice punch to the mouth. They've still got one foot in the scratchy, dirty punk foundation into which they were born.
"It's so often that bands have to have a 'sound,' " says Chiericozzi. "We're not afraid to write one weird song that might be a lot different than the record before—or even the song before. All of it comes from the same place. That's what the Men are."
The one sound they're perfectly happy to play over and over, though, is Tom Petty, who's become the soundtrack of their tour van. Back at the Williamsburg bar, the members talk further of their Petty influence beyond New Moon. "Wait till you hear the next one," says Greenberg of the album's follow-up, which is already recorded but has yet to be named (hopefully it won't be Eclipse). Perhaps soon, they'll share a stage with their hero.
In fact, they're kinda bummed they're not playing Bonnaroo—and can't, having already committed to a show here in New York. It's with Black Flag, at Greenpoint's storied punk venue, Warsaw. The Men don't regret agreeing to the show with the punk stalwarts, but they can't decide how it reflects on them.
They cut themselves off before they can get too down about it.
"Dude, it's cool," Greenberg assures the rest of the guys. "It's Black Flag."
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