Rock on the sidelines

Pub date December 5, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Did Ian Hunter kill rock for Cleveland? Growing up in that blue-collared grime zone of fiery rivers and industrial blur, I never saw much rock rolling through my old haunt, and I never really understood what drove the former Mott the Hoople frontman to patronize us with "Cleveland Rocks" and provide my hometown with a surefire anthem for our flawed sports teams. While the city does get cited for a lot of proto-punk activity (the Electric Eels, Rocket from the Tombs), its influence on the rock world abruptly screeches to a halt there. If there’s any truth to Hunter’s rallying cry for the Mistake on the Lake, I’m pretty certain he wasn’t getting loud and snotty with the likes of the barflies and crusty punks at a Pagans show, or fostering a soft spot for the quirk-ball nerdiness of Devo, for that matter. "It’s all bollocks," as you might say, Mr. Hunter, so thanks, but no thanks.

If anything, "no one gets out of this town alive" seems like a more applicable rock slogan for this northeastern Ohio hub. While I rapped over the phone with fellow Clevelander Chris Kulcsar, the throaty lead vocalist of This Moment in Black History, that notion recurred as he discussed some of the disadvantages that come with being in a Midwestern band. For one, according to Kulcsar, there’s nothing glamorous about Cleveland, so a lot of music critics tend to ignore its scene.

"I feel like people from outside the city never take bands from Cleveland seriously," he explained from his parents’ house. "It’s so hard for bands from here to get a booking agent to be interested in you, and if you want to get beyond playing at peoples’ DIY spaces and basements — which is fine; it’s great doing that — I find it’s really tough.

"It’s killed a lot of bands from around here," Kulcsar continued, "because they’ll try and tour, and there’s nothing more demoralizing than spending six weeks playing to 10 people every night."

But Kulcsar’s not that bent out of shape: his band’s already sizable following in the underground punk community has swelled in the past year due to the release of its sophomore full-length, It Takes a Nation of Assholes to Hold Us Back (Coldsweat, 2006), and a much-acclaimed performance at this year’s South by Southwest conference.

TMIBH’s roots trace back to a housewarming party that Kulcsar threw in the fall of 2002, but its members are seasoned vets of the garage and punk scenes who have served time in such outfits as the Bassholes, the Lesbian Makers, the Chargers Street Gang, and Neon King Kong. Recorded in two 12-hour sessions at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, It Takes a Nation explodes with a raw, art-punk aggressiveness that’s both innovative and open-ended, offering an honest portrayal of the group’s run-down Middle America surroundings with lyrics that touch on alienation, humor, oppression, and rage. Guitarist Buddy Akita paws out filth-driven noise in minute-long bursts from one tune to the next, while Kulcsar frantically screams like a rabid lunatic and noodles with a detuned keyboard. The rhythm section of bassist Lawrence Daniel Caswell and drummer Lamont "Bim" Thomas thunders noisily in the background, alternating between brutal avidity and blues-driven backbone.

Though It Takes a Nation comes across as full-on garage punk, it should be viewed as more of a celebration of interracial assimilation and interaction within music, no matter what the genre. And while not all of TMIBH’s members are African American, the band explicitly emphasizes the theme throughout the recording’s 35-minute run. According to Kulcsar, TMIBH are focused on stressing the significance of black culture and its advancements in rock music.

"People forget a lot of the time that rock music is actually black music, and I think that’s important to all of us in the band, but especially to Bim and Lawrence — this idea that rock music came out of a blues and R&B tradition and now it’s just viewed in this really homogenized, white culture," he opines. "A lot of it comes from wanting to just get back to the idea that there can be black rock music or black people involved in punk."

And Kulcsar is conscious enough to step away from the role of spokesperson for black rock. "I feel like out of all the people in the band, I’m the least apt to speak about it, because sometimes I get weirded out saying I’m in a band called TMIBH and I’m a white singer," he confesses. "There’s just baggage that goes along with that I’m sometimes weighed down by…. But I guess it’s too late now." *


With the Late Young and Epic Sessions

Dec. 12, 9:30 p.m., $6

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF

(415) 923-0923