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August 10, 1995 * Vol. 5, No. 21

In Punk We Trust

by Randall Brown

It is stiflingly hot in the dark hole that is Mercury Theatre on this Saturday afternoon and, although MTV would have you believing the punk rock "revival" is the thing all the kids are doing these days, the floor is dead except for a few loyal fans pogoing in place. The near-unbearable temperatures inside the club have driven most everyone outside in search of fresh, free-of-sweat-stench air. In other words, nobody's slamming. And, as if that's not enough, the sound man stepped out in the middle of the set to get a sandwich, leaving a blaring screech of feedback to ring mercilessly through the p.a. and threaten to drive out the remaining audience.

Onstage, American Trust guitarist Tony Johnson steps forward between verses, staring down the room in a way both confrontational and inviting. Forrest McCorkle takes the classic defiant bass player's stance, reinforced when he steps forward to rattle off his own machine-gun vocals. Undaunted, they put on an in-your-face performance, hoping for a in-their-face audience.

"We hate playing for a wax museum," is Johnson's battle cry as they roar, feedback be damned, into the next frustrated anthem.

Frustration haunts a band like American Trust. In many ways they are, to borrow a phrase from The Pirate Movie, "younger than the Beatles, but older than the Rolling Stones." In a decade where the main pop trend involves '70s nostalgia wrestling with '80s nostalgia, their raw sound gets pegged into a narrow hole that doesn't exactly match their ambitions.

"Everybody tries to label us as 'Old School,'"says Johnson. "But I don't know if that's correct, it's just an easy way to put it."

Eschewing the melodic Green Day style, these young, fresh fellows keep the punk spewing raw, fast and jerky. Rugged, simple chord changes, wrapped tight around hammer-and-anvil drum pounding, support the angry, quasi-political chants of dissatisfied youth. It's sonic discontent with a capital "D" and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for Punk— right here in River City.

Johnson and McCorkle trade off lead angry-voice-of-youth duties, while drummer Justin Pearson drives the whole thing home like a hyperactive nailgun. And don't mistake them for "old" twentysomething guys cashing in on the new punk mania; the eldest member of this three-year-old band just turned twenty.

American Trust songs address the perils of unquestioned authority, mindless conformity, and ignorance of history. Songs like "All American Boy" exhibit a mature self-consciousness about growing up in the post-Vietnam, post-yuppie world where the "Family Values" movement creates an empty facade of traditional roles. In a wail roughly reminiscent of Jello Biafra himself, Johnson sings, "I got to serve my country too/ I got to stare at the TV too/ I got to love my parents unconditionally/ I got to be all that I can be/ But most importantly/ What I've been taught to be/ Is an all-American boy."

Johnson sees the struggle against conformity as a historical one. "There are a few key phrases, like 'manifest destiny,' that I try to incorporate into modern-day (situations). Instead of driving the Indians away and converting them to Christianity, now they're telling us we're wrong for spiking our hair, and telling us we need to go to church."

As Johnson calls it, easily tossed off labels like the aforementioned "Old School" catch American Trust between a classic rock and a post-punk hard place. "Some of the older guys [in local bands], like Atom Bomb Pocket Knife and Chug-a-Lug Donna, tried to help us out at first. But then it seemed like they ostracized us out because we were playing an older material they got sick of. Some of the newer kids, we don't remind them of anything, so they don't know what to do with us."

This public-perception limbo has inspired an unfortunate antagonism, which they hope to overcome, between the band and the usually diverse local scene. "Since we didn't really fit in anywhere," says Johnson, "we kind of went 'anti-' with a lot of things at first, including Metro Pulse and other local bands. It seemed like everything was really elitist against young kids playing something old."

One scene the American Trust fellows do feel a part of is anchored by the all-ages shows organized by young local promoters like Chad Negendank and Tim Sheehan. These shows allow the band to play for their primary audience, people under 21, outside of the usual basement and garage party venues.

"When we first started," explains Johnson, "we were all underage, anyway. So it was pretty pointless to play if our friends couldn't get in."

Still, the band would like to receive recognition on a broader level. Their goals involve a true long-term effort, including putting out a record, with or without the help of a record label. They have some very post-'77 tools to progress their "Old School" sound. The initial meeting for this very profile was arranged via America Online. Also, merging the do-it-yourself spirit with telecommunications, McCorkle runs Green Hell, Knoxville's only punk rock online Bulletin Board Service (BBS).

And, for all their angry young men posturing, American Trust really just craves the same thing as any other band. Simply said by Johnson, "We just want to be happy in what we do." And if they can change the world along the way, more power to 'em.

© Metro Pulse