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July 5, 1996 * Vol. 6, No. 27

Pop-Punk Fusion

Local scene veteran Mike Smithers finally finds the right lineup with the latest incarnation of 30 Amp Fuse

by Mike Gibson

Mike Smithers, veteran singer and stringer for 30 Amp Fuse, is in a quandary, unsure whether to play punk-pop naif or wizened rock sage. He can sound as wide-eyed and guileless as any labret-lipped club urchin ten years his junior—witness the smitten reverie of "All Day Afternoon" off 30AF's Wind Up CD on Darla Records.

But just when you think his fragile inner child has taken over, the Grumpy Old Rocker emerges, skewering the excesses of young punkhood on the She Records single "Punk Rock Virtuoso," or waxing moribund on the skull-beneath-the-skin rumination "Over the Hill."

"I don't feel like an old punk," says Smithers, languishing over a mug of beer on the patio of the Longbranch Saloon. "I still feel like I have that restless edge because I never settled down and acted like other people my age. You can't be too settled and do what we do—play in a touring band."

Song titles aside, Smithers seems anything but over the hill. His cherub cheeks may look a little weathered now, and there are a few more of those hard-set lines mapping out the territory beneath his impish green eyes. But between his foppishly tousled blonde mop-top and earnest buck-toothed grin, he looks pretty spry for a rocker pushing 30 (or maybe pulling it—he won't say).

And after more than a decade spent peeling the paint off shabby beer-hovel walls, his career is finally going somewhere other than in circles. In mid-June, 30AF signed a two-album deal with Dedicated Records, a major European independent label that's just beginning to make inroads in the U.S. The contract will afford the band international distribution and touring funds as well as the option to record a third opus should the first two releases meet label expectations.

It's probably more than just a coincidence that the signing took place shortly after Smithers moved back to Knoxville from Boston, Mass. and found a steady lineup in bassist Mike Knott and drummer Rodney Cash. In two years as 30AF's only "permanent" member, Smithers recorded, gigged and even toured with more than a dozen musicians in a revolving door of volatile egos, conflicting lifestyles and creative differences.

It's also no mere coincidence that his chosen mates are old friends and fellow veterans of the hardcore front lines. In rock 'n' roll terms, all three of these guys have earned Purple Hearts, and have even shared the trenches in a host of local outfits (Cash and Knott in the Clintons and Whitey, Cash and Smithers in Screaming Boy Blue.)

"The timing was never quite right for all three of us to play together," says the slender, baby-faced Knott. "But the chemistry has always been there."

Smithers agrees. "I played with two guys in Boston and we didn't like hanging out together when we weren't working on the band. I found out that doesn't work, especially if you're planning to go on the road. These guys play better and they also happen to be my friends."

It's a testament to Smithers's peerless pop smarts and sheer force of will that 30AF floated around the small-indie scene long enough to anchor itself to such a sturdy rhythmic foundation. A master of the three-by-three (three chords, three minutes), Smithers tosses off sparkling little pop gems like Daddy Warbucks pitching pennies to the orphans.

His music sounds a little bit like mid-period Hüsker Dü, a little bit like the Buzzcocks, a little bit like Green Day and Jawbreaker and a dozen other three-chord pogo bands you've heard a dozen-dozen times before. The trick to this particular shell game—and Smithers can pull it off with his sleeves rolled up and both hands in plain view—is that if you shuffle those three chords just right, people don't seem to mind paying and playing time and time again.

On the strength of sterling songcraft, 30AF has recorded two widely distributed singles on tiny but hip indies, as well as the full-length Wind Up disc, which drew gushing reviews from several prominent alterna-journals last summer. All of this came despite the seemingly endless game of bass-and-drums musical chairs, and despite a near-terminal bout of wanderlust that saw Smithers test the frigid waters in San Francisco and Seattle before docking in Boston for the latter half of 1996.

Now he looks forward to recording his first "big-budget" album (to be released in late '96) with what might be Knoxville's most dangerous rhythm section. Knott is a deft, kinetic bassist and suave back-up singer, and Cash, despite his rumpled slouch and little-boy-lost demeanor, brings unparalleled charisma and energy to the skins.

The trio also looks forward to logging some serious road time this fall. They already sport fresh scars from a late-spring tour of the east coast in Smithers's airless jalopy van, new war stories of riding out downpours with duct-taped windshield wipers and digging under torn seats for toll booth change and Dairy Queen funds.

"You've got to go through that stage where you sleep on floors and get paid in beer," Knott says. "We've all been doing it for 10 years. That's how you pay your dues."

"Yeah, you play for beer and you pay your dues," Smithers deadpans with a sardonic grin. The Grumpy Old Rocker, you can tell, has escaped once again. "And when you've done it long enough, you die of cirrhosis."

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