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August 31, 1995 * Vol. 5, No. 24

Idle Thoughts

The Idle Hands draw on the shadows of old-time rock 'n' roll

by Laura Atkinson

The flier in the window of Gryphon's a few Fridays ago said the Idle Hands would be playing with Or this evening. But the joint's unusually low-key, it's getting late, and there's no music. Someone points out the fine print: the band will be happy to play a little something for everybody as soon as Homicide is over. Take a look around the corner and there the guys are, shoulders hunched before a television that's been temporarily installed in front of the drum kit.

Making music is a big deal in the Idle Hands' lives, but it sure isn't the only thing on their minds.

So on a later evening, after some mental meandering through Walker Percy and the New South, Alanis Morrisette, white-boy funk and whether the film The Last Seduction has any redeeming qualities, our Idle conversation takes a turn to boxing.

"There's personality all over it, it's not like a regular sport where there's so many rules. You have to look at it like personality, like listening to a rock concert—they've all gotta perform," offers Eric Lee, one-half of the band's pair of gritty guitar virtuosos. "That's why boxing's a great sport—it's f*** the rules, it's totally individual... That's why boxing's so much more intense than any other sport."

"Yeah, there's that intensity, but without compromise," adds David Wilson, Lee's equally gritty counterpart.

Intensity without compromise is as good a phrase as any to start with when describing the Idle Hands. Guitarists Wilson and Lee and drummer Eric McClean have been lurking in the smoky shadows of Knoxville's music scene (a term they eschew), creating soulful sonic maelstroms that are intricate, inventive, fiercely melodic and definitely a three-part act. They've been writing songs together and playing clubs for over a year, though that doesn't sound very long when Lee says the band's already been through three incarnations, including an extended stint as a virtually all-instrumental trio.

"It was hard in the first place to be able to try to do any kind of vocals with the kind of stuff we were doing," says Wilson. They tried working with several potential frontpersons, but always felt awkward. "I don't know what happened, I eventually got real comfortable with playing and trying to sing at the same time. I eventually got to the point to where I don't even think about it anymore, I know where it needs to go and where it doesn't need to go and it's just a matter of doing it now, it's not a matter of worrying about it or trying to find somebody else to do it."

They do wonder if the folks who dug their sound in the beginning are even getting it these days.

"We started out playing all these songs that were easy to grab onto," Lee says. "Well, people were expecting this rhythmic rock 'n' roll quality and we did that in the very beginning," Wilson interjects, "but that's not at all what I wanted to do."

"It's just like any band's supposed to do," Lee says. "Those first two months we started, we're just getting used to it, and then all of sudden you realize what kind of music you really want to play or the ideas in your head start to come together more, and you don't just put a couple chords together.

"Like now, we're thinking that we're making the best music that we've made, every time we write a song. Well, every other one at least, or every third one or every fourth one. It's like we're getting closer and closer to what we were originally intending to do.

"So now when we play out, we play this shit that we think is the best stuff we've done and people are just standing there scratching their heads."

The head-scratching could very well come from folks wondering why they think they've heard the Idle Hands before. Though Wilson and Lee take turns in front of the mike on many of their songs now, without vocals their dueling guitars still tell the tales of everyday living. The Idle Hands are as inspired by loners begging nickels, barstool debates and stories shared across overflowing ashtrays as any song they've heard. Their music is spawned from images and creates images of its own, and song titles like "The Blackest White Man," "Small of the Back" and "You Must Wait Until Hell" begin pulling the pictures into focus.

Even living in Fort Sanders has made its mark on the Idle Hands' instrumental sensibilities. Sit on one of the neighborhood's porches on a lazy late evening and let the Fort's own soulful soundtrack sink in: the high yowls of cats just before they go for each other's throats—or get it on; engines that pause with a rattling choke, then careen off in a cloud of grit; plodding footsteps, unaffected by the night, going up one side of the street while a nervous clip passes down the other; bottles breaking, folks slurring friendly good-byes. The Idle Hands may say they're not rhythmic, but that rhythm of life isn't lost on them.

Not that they'd say they don't have musical influences—they've got plenty, many from the days when turntables got all the action. The names they drop inspire a query—Are the Idle Hands rock 'n' roll?

"I'd say in word if not in deed," Lee says. "It's spirit. People don't think about that enough. It's the spirit, the brevity, the intensity. I think we're closer to CCR, Jerry Lee Lewis, tonally speaking... If we can capture the spirit of an Otis Redding song, or Screamin' Jay Hawkins, or Chuck Berry, then that's good. Cutting through the bullshit and getting right to the heart, don't belabor the point. The way we play lends itself to this incidental jamming, but we don't bother with that. It's the spirit that matters."

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