Metal Mania: Just keep Walken

Pub date April 2, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


How would you feel? Your band has been together since 1999, struggling through lineup changes, two US tours, hundreds of shows, an album and two EPs, without so much as a write-up in the local weekly. Finally, after dropping your most recent CD last year — an untitled, self-released disc of skull-crushing riffs — you get a review in the bible of modern metal, Metal Maniacs, and the photo that runs with it is of another band.

In the case of the San Francisco four-piece Walken, it was a photo of a three-piece party-rock outfit from Sioux City, Iowa, whose MySpace "sounds like" reads: "Rush meets Metallica meets Blink 182 meets Nickelback meets Matchbox 20 meets Live meets Red Hot Chili Peppers." With all due respect to Neil Peart and pre-Load era Metallica — seriously?

"They’re total dicks," Shane Bergman, 25, vocalist and bassist for the Original Walken — otherwise known as Vintage Walken or Walken Classic — says during an interview at the Western Addition Victorian he shares with roommate and guitar player Sean Kohler, 27. It’s the crack of noon and the guys are posted up on the couch, drinking coffee, and eating toast and jam in their finest sweatpants. "I’d written the guy a long time ago," he continues. "’Hey, this isn’t cool. We’ve had this name for seven or eight years. We’ve actually put out stuff and toured the US. It’s not cool.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t really matter — we’re in different states.’ I just let it slide. And then I pick up that" — he points to the magazine — "and I’m, like, ‘Well, now it’s gone too far.’ You look through and see a picture of those tools … "

There have been more Walkens, including a band from Melbourne that played weddings and broke up in 2004. The reason for the popularity, most likely, is Christopher Walken’s 2000 "more cowbell" skit on Saturday Night Live. While this settles the name game with pretenders enamored with the sketch, it raises the question: if not for "more cowbell," then why "Walken"?

Like the actor, dancer, and celebrity beer-can-chicken chef, Walken is hard to pin down. When walking in on Walken’s live set and hearing the crushing, dual-guitar assault "Bitch Wizard," from their untitled, self-released 2007 EP, all pummeling drums and clean backing vocals contrasting with deathly, oven-throat howls, it’s difficult to characterize the group — which includes guitarist Max Doyle, 26, and drummer Zack Farwell, 29 — as anything but metal. Perhaps "fuckin’ metal" might be more apt. But it hasn’t always been so clear-cut. "Our Unstoppable record, it was just a weird record," Kohler says of the self-released 2004 full-length. "We thought we were being all revolutionary having these funny rock songs, with funk songs and blues songs … "

"And math rock," Bergman interjects. Unstoppable was Walken’s version, to steal a phrase from Lou Reed, of ‘growing up in public.’"

"Most people sit in their garage when they’re coming up with their sound, but we were actually out there playing it, trying to figure it out in front of people," Bergman says. The band’s music has coalesced into a pointed metal attack. It couldn’t have happened at a more opportune time. While the bottom has fallen out of the housing market, and spending $3 trillion bucks on blowing up Iraqis has wreaked havoc on the economy, stock in metal is clearly on the rise.

"That’s one thing that’s changed about metal," Kohler says. "All of the sudden it’s getting cool again. You can be big and be in a metal band, with Mastodon and High on Fire and bands like that." I’m sworn to (semi-)secrecy, but there’s something on the horizon for Walken, something that Kohler demanded I euphemistically term a "great opportunity," which will put the days of touring cross-country with Hightower on their own dime, playing a couple dozen shows, and coming home dog-dick broke, behind them.

But are the vanguard of 21st-century metal warriors and their burgeoning audience really anything new? While it’s no doubt refreshing to see metal — true metal, not the Hollywood hair-farmer crap that lined record company coffers in a pre-Nirvana world — crawl out from the underground, it seems that it’s still largely aimed at the dudes in black hoodies. Which leads us to simultaneously discuss two major concerns about the future of heavy music: is anything really new, truly revolutionary, or is it all just a remix of old ideas? And just what will it take to woo a crop of hot new metal women away from the evils of floppy-haired emo boys in so-called chick pants?

Thankfully, Kohler’s got some insight: "Everything that’s new is just a reinvention of something else. The only way that I really believe that there can be a new beginning is after most of the human population is annihilated. And then it starts over, just as creative expression is part of life. It slowly becomes a community thing. It starts organically, that’s the point."

"So basically, you blow up the world, and more chicks will come to metal shows," Bergman quips.

Walken is already well into writing a new full-length, but I’ve got to advise them: scrap those songs and work on the concept album. Imagine this: the year is the year is 3052. Global warming and perpetual war have taken their toll. The ice caps have melted and a tribe of mutant metal warrior women of Amazonian stature have arisen from the rubble, repurposing military technology found in underground bunkers into hybrid instrument-weapons, with which they can both rock out and kill you. They rock you to death. Everything metal is new again.


With Hightower, Three Weeks Clean, and Soulbroker

May 1, 9 p.m., $8

Cafe Du Nord

2170 Market, SF

(415) 861-5016