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August 29, 1996 * Vol. 6, No. 35

My Dinner with Smokebomb

by Randall Brown

This week's scene at Gryphon's is a lot like last week's scene, and probably a lot of scenes before that. It's late on an uptown Saturday night deep in the heart of Fort Sanders, and yet another sweaty triple-bill is under way at the Rock and Roll Palace known as Gryphon's. In the middle slot of the night, after the crowd is primed and ready by the opening band and before it wanders sleepily on home during the last band, Smokebomb is about to go out with—okay, I'll say it—a bang. They wrap up a tight, if tipsy, selection of rock numbers with a frenzied instrumental called "Ugly Good," complete with atonal feedback, the therapeutic yanking of bass strings and not a small amount of mad jumping around. When the noisiness finally dies down, the band members look at each other and laugh. It is, after all, just good, clean fun.

It's a different scene the next day, when I meet up with Smokebomb for dinner amidst the hustle and bustle of a Sunday afternoon in West Knoxville. We opt for the simple pleasures and quietness of Buddy's Barbecue over the razzmatazz of Joe's Crab Shack, avoiding the chance that a waitress might start doing the Macarena on our table in the midst of the interview. After we settle in over BBQ sandwiches, hush puppies and pie, I hit Smokebomb with my most hard-nosed music journalist question: What the hell do y'all think you're doing?

"We're damaging our hearing," says drummer/vocalist Alex McGill. "And the hearing of all those around us."

"And having fun," adds bassist Keith Slayton.

"It kind of depends on what seat you're in," jokes McGill. "The main thing that we've tried to do is create, as corny as it sounds, honest entertainment. We're not trying to be cool, we're just trying to get heard."

To uphold this earnestness, these fellows put up with a lot of inconvenience that would stop most bands dead in their tracks. For one thing, none of them live in Knoxville—where the gigs are—and one lives in another state entirely. The three got together in Niota, Tennessee a few years ago for a loose jam session and, without forethought or intention, they found themselves in a rock band. Slayton and guitarist/vocalist Chris Cook still live in Niota, where Slayton is a student and Cook works as a pest control specialist ("Yeah, I like to kill bugs," he says). McGill, a native of Niota's twin city of Athens, teaches in Roswell, Georgia, where his second grade class has dubbed him "Mr. Big Mac." He commutes back to Niota for weekend band practices and, with increasing frequency, the three of them caravan into K-town for the bright lights of Gryphon's or the Mercury Theatre.

The long-distance relationship doesn't seem to cramp Smokebomb's style, though. Their sound lies on the fresher side of good ol' three-piece rock-n-roll, with aggressive but melodic guitar work a' la the Meat Puppets. McGill and Cook share lead vocal duties Husker Du-style, with some nice overlapping harmonies adding an occasional prettiness to the choppy gee-tar stew. It's an energetic brand of contemporary Southern rock, in the vein of the critically acclaimed Georgia songwriter Jack Logan. While these are the closest comparisons to make, Smokebomb doesn't follow any particular formula.

"You can't follow a rule book," says McGill. "That's a danger to get into, I think, when you like a band and want to emulate their style."

In fact, Smokebomb seems to more enjoy talking about music which doesn't necessarily have an influence on their songs. They get most excited when discussing the finer points of Twisted Sister ("I am, I'm me!"), ELP, Dio and, most notably, the truckers' laments of Red Sovine.

"I used to work a job traveling all the time, and I got a Red Sovine tape, just for the hell of it, just to laugh at it," says Cook. "Man, I got to listening to that tape and I listened to it on every trip. All them trucker songs—it was awesome. You stare on down the road and you can relate with it."

"But then you also can relate to things like Sonic Youth," says McGill.

"Well, I like Sonic Youth," corrects Cook. "I wouldn't say I really relate with them."

"We all have our guilty pleasures and weird tastes," admits McGill.

"I think we all grew up on bad heavy metal," says Cook.

All influences and non-influences aside, the Smokebomb guys know the true futility of trying to describe one's own music. They keep a couple of standard non-sequiturs on hand which may or may not pinpoint their sonic style.

"If the Beatles slept with Nirvana while listening to a Richard Pryor 8-track," offers Cook. "Or I've told some people we sound like a cross between Black Sabbath and Barney the dinosaur."

© Metro Pulse