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January 4, 1996 * Vol. 6, No. 1

Punker than Thou?

Thumbnail sticks to its own code of punk rock ethics

by Mike Gibson

Punk rockers have always been roguish blokes, given to mannerless antics and outrageous modes of speech and dress. From nattering churls like Johnny Rotten to Lee Ving, Rollins and other thuggish hardcore he-men, the progenitors and standard-bearers planted punk's tattered banner firmly in jack-booted nihilism and safety-pinned ill will.

Nowadays, you've got raucous revivalists Rancid, all strident purple mohawks and oppressive costume jewelry, setting the truculent tone for pugnacious puritans and nouveau traditionalists alike. And even for the mall set, those puckish punkoids Green Day sport obligatory schnoz rings and rubber-lipped, faux-Brit sneers.

So what are we to make of Thumbnail, the polite, well-shaven Knoxville foursome that just inked a deal with Cargo-Headhunter Records, a Triple-Crown stable for indie punk thoroughbreds? From co-guitarist and singer Justin Sinkovich's brown corduroy coordinates to the gently arching part of drummer David Burns's foppish blond coif, there's nothing about these genteel young men to suggest that they purvey some of the gnarliest post-hardcore white noise this side of Greg Ginn.

"Punk isn't just about three chords and cut yourself with a broken beer bottle anymore," says Sinkovich.

"The dumb scene is definitely still around--'Let's shave our heads and go beat someone up,'" adds Burns. "But in the true D.I.Y. scene, people like us aren't all that uncommon."

By Burns's reckoning, Thumbnail is simultaneously part of, and not a part of, the roiling, chameleonic hodgepodge that is punk rock circa 1995. It's a lumpy, fractal milieu, he says, defined by its diversity and its free-thinkers, but more commonly associated with its trendy primitives, those pierced and painted preservationists who grace magazine covers and rant on MTV.

"Right now, the corporations have decided this is cool to be into, and they've picked up on the obvious things," says new bass player Steve Schmidt. "They're exploiting it to the hilt, and presenting it in a way it really isn't. There are really a million different styles and ideas that fit under the heading 'punk.'"

Thumbnail coalesced when Sinkovich, Burns and singer-guitarist Jason Morris met in a UT astronomy lab in 1992. But while the band began as an outlet, an opportunity for three back-slidden punks to shed bar-band shackles, it soon evolved a life of its own.

Over the next three and a half years, Thumbnail toured sporadically, cutting clangorous swaths across both coasts and portions of the midwest, and released two seven-inches and a long player on File 13 Records, the small but thriving indie label Burns founded as a Little Rock, Ark., high school student.

Offstage, the band's efforts have always been marked by planning, perseverance, and entrepreneurial endeavor. Burns still keeps a watchful eye on File 13, and he and Morris will finish architectural degrees in 1996. Sinkovich is co-owner of Landspeed Records on Gay Street, and will start work on an MBA this spring.

"Punk really starts with kids in high school," Burns explains. "It's easy to be D.I.Y. when you have an allowance, and that's why part of the scene is always changing so much--kids go for four years, then quit. But most of the bands on labels are like us. They hung around a while, got an education and started businesses that support their music."

But even if these guys are plunging headlong into adulthood, they still play with all the delicious abandon and unbridled anomie of 15-year-old malcontents cranking second-hand Marshalls in some dank suburban garage. Just check out their self-titled File 13 vinyl opus; it's brutal, heady stuff, full of steel-toed riffs, fitful changes and lots of venomous vocal yowl.

It's also complex, occasionally pensive, and often eloquent--in its own squawking, abrasive way. It's a sound that scribbles outside the lines that delineate punk rock proper, even in an era when those lines are sometimes hard to see.

"The sound we have doesn't really fit in with lots of the punk and indie rock scene," says Schmidt. "The values are very punk rock, but we're a lot heavier than most of the bands we play with. We're sort of stuck in limbo between scenes."

So what will it mean for Thumbnail to work with Headhunter, one of the hottest labels in indie-dom? An awful lot, says Sinkovich, an awful lot, and not very much. On one hand, the band will tour more extensively than ever before, and release their Headhunter debut in September with Drive Like Jehu drummer Mark Trombino sitting in the producer's chair. Trombino will also remix the File 13 record for re-release in the spring.

But Sinkovich says the band's lifestyle and M.O. will remain more or less unchanged.

"Things will pretty much stay the same for us, except that now we'll have money and support for tours," Sinkovich says. "We're in a good situation right now, but there isn't any six-figure deal. You don't quit your day job."

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