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Stylish, Smart & Underground
By Tim Roberts
Main Street - early evening in late August. Loud guitar and drums hammered through a club's outer wall. I jaywalked diagonally from First Street to Main and headed toward the sound. Downtown Louisville traffic was less than sparse and the sun hadn't completely set. The edges of buildings behind me were outlined in a Dreamsicle orange.
The 100 block of West Main Street is a short canyon of old buildings with boarded windows, walls covered with layers of pale, flaking posters promoting acts playing in town, padlocked wrought-iron gates fronting empty and dark foyers that smell of damp garbage and mildew. The one-time strip of nightspots and businesses looks battered, scuffed, tired, like the face of an aging boxer who strains to climb into the ring every night.
Anchored by a pizzeria, this block of Main Street glowed with the flourescents, beer lights and signs from three places: the steakhouse and blues bar called Zena's, a heating and air-conditioning repair service, and Sparks, a concrete cavern with black walls, high ceilings and the smell of a wet basement. It is a sometime-techno-dance, sometime-Goth, sometime-thrash-metal club that doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up.
It's the perfect spot for the raw-nerve intensity of Metroschifter.
Based in Louisville but known well throughout the U.S. and Europe in the hardcore/underground/indie scene, Metroschifter is now in its fifth year as a functioning band. Their recently completed tour supported the release of the six-song Strawberries on Doghouse Records, their home label. The band's sound is a metallic wall of power chords supported by heavy bass lines and polyrhythmic drumming. The lyrics are short and follow no common scheme but fit snugly into the music.
They also drop a few interesting surprises into their songs. Drum machines and steady electro handclap loops are in two tracks on Strawberries, and some selections on Metroschifter 4 feature the viola of Christian Frederickson from The Rachaels. One bold experiment called Generation Rx was drumless, all-acoustic, and leaned toward a country sound. Released in 1996, it is the one recording their fans either love or hate.
Along with the new CD, Metroschifter has released a three-song, seven-inch picture disk on the Redwood label. Plus front man Scott Ritcher himself has a solo acoustic recording with a blend of new songs, covers and acoustic versions of his band's material. Released on Metroschifter's own label, I Can't Believe It's a Record Company, the cover photo features a down-angle shot of Scott's guitar, lovingly handcrafted by his sister, Greta. A prominent fluer de lis is inlaid into its fretboard.
Metroschifter will try something even more different on their next release, Encapsulated: they won't appear. Instead, seventeen other groups, including June of 44, The Rachaels, Cooler, Elliott, Shipping News and others will each perform either a new or unreleased Metroschifter song. Scheduled for release later this year, Encapsulated puts a stylish skew on the concept of the tribute album.
Metroschifter's sound is largely dark, angry, explosive, like an acetylene torch to a steel beam. Yet they are not a set of brooding anger-mongers. This is a band with brains and a daredevil entrepreneurship. Besides, how many other bands can have a mayoral candidate as a member and do a punkish cover of "My Old Kentucky Home?"
* * *
Two days before the show at Sparks I had spoken with Scott Ritcher. He is, in random order of importance, Metroschifter's guitarist, lead vocalist, songwriter, former proprietor of Slamdek Records, Reform Party candidate in the 1998 election for Mayor of Louisville, and brother of Mark Ritcher of the band Cooler. Metroschifter was back in town from a performance in Cincinnati, the next-to-last show on a three-week tour of the Midwest, with two gigs on the East Coast and one in Canada. They had been joined by Coach, a band from Germany. Metroschifter's previous performance in Louisville had been as the middle act of the July 17 City Stage concert, bookended by the assee lake and The Enkindels.
"I'll put you on our guest list," Scott had said in a voice as crisp as shaved ice. "We should start playing around nine-ish."
Admission to show was six dollars. Along with Coach, Metroschifter appeared with Music Group, a Louisville-based band containing ex-members of The Loved. I gave my name to the guy behind the admission booth at Sparks. He glanced at a list and nodded. "They're playing right now," he said, lifting the rubber stamp off the back of my hand. I looked at my watch: 8:40. The only time a headlining band would play that early would be during its sound check.
I walked into the club past a poster promoting safe sex. Mounted to the wall below it was a plastic bin filled to the brim with fresh condoms. A pair of sawhorses blocked the front bar. I walked through an open garage door into a room that began at the front of the building and ended at a bar about twenty feet back. About 30 people were standing clustered close to the narrow stage along the room's left side. Some bobbed their heads, most only stood. Automated micro spots from three lighting grids on the ceiling swept tight beams of pale blue, mauve, and yellow back and forth across the stage and crowd. A thin white haze floated above the audience. I breathed in a cool lungful of it. I recognized the scent and imagined a new gum flavor: Cool-Blast Smoke Machine.
On stage, the voice that two days earlier had sounded like a tax auditor inviting me to his office to discuss some questionable deductions wailed into a microphone and ripped a sequence of chords from his guitar that hit like an avalanche. Along with Pat McClimans on bass and Chris Reinstatler on drums, the band blasted out enough decibels to rumble the sidewalk of Main Street. The song finished. The audience applauded warmly.
Scott thanked the audience. At 30, he has short brown hair and the slender build of a marathon runner. He leaned into the microphone and asked a question: "How can we make this any different than feeling like we're playing in someone's basement?"
There were a few nervous barks of laughter. "Dance around," some guy called out from the audience.
"Oh, you want us to go off?" Scott asked.
"Yeah," the guy said. "I paid six bucks for this."
"Sorry," Scott replied, "that's for the seven-dollar show."
The crowed had been sparse all night with no hint of it getting any larger. So the bands started their sets early and cut them short. After Metroschifter finished, the audience scurried out the door or to other parts of the club as if a last-period school assembly had been dismissed.
* * *
"It wasn't promoted enough," Chris Reinstatler said about the show one week later. He and Scott had just returned from a round-trip driving jaunt to Cincinnati to take the members of Coach to the airport. Their German guests had spent a week in the land of, as Scott put it, "free refills and all-you-can-eat." Both men were tired. Bassist Pat McClimans was at his home in South Bend, Indiana.
"It was just a downer for everybody," Scott said. "There weren't very many people there. We sounded pretty bad." He paused and looked away. "I don't know what's happening."
"Lot of people have been saying that Louisville shows have been just downhill lately," Chris added.
Scott said, "It think it's gonna be a long time before we play in Louisville again."
Their disappointment could not be any less obvious if it were scrolled across the Goodyear blimp. Metroschifter is a band with international recognition, accustomed to wildly appreciative crowds who know their music and request their songs during shows. The performance in Cincinnati had been like that. In addition to a strong fan base, Metroschifter collects regular raves from the College Music Journal and Heartattack. When they offered a two-song, personalized, seven-inch record in 1997, on a pre-order only basis, more than 1100 fans responded.
Metroschifter is a mainstay act in the hardcore/underground/indie realm, which is actually more of a community than a music scene. It is where vinyl and mylar go toe-to-toe with digital. Word of mouth is the preferred marketing tool. Distribution involves a card table and a chair. Cassette dubs of a band's work - either legitimate or bootleg - float from fan to fan (a sentence in the liner notes to Metroschifter 4 even invites listeners to "Make copies of this recording for your friends"). The performers brilliantly turn small or nonexistent production and marketing budgets to a distinct advantage: cheap, free, or near-free wares spread a band's presence beyond the music store and into the playback units of potential paying customers who may later pony up five or six dollars to see the band play live. Slick production of anything - from the recording itself to its artwork - reeks of corporate sell-out. It becomes a barrier between the artist and listener.
Yet their current label, Doghouse, is one that keeps those barriers from going up and markets Metroschifter in more places than on card tables in dark clubs. Based in Toledo and with six bands in its roster, Doghouse has released five of Metroschifter's recordings. One recent exception is a split Metroschifter/Shipping News CD, released by Louisville-based Initial Records.
While they may or may not release anything else on Initial, Metroschifter feels more loyalty to Doghouse. "They've put out records that nobody else would have," Chris said, "like Generation Rx. They've taken some chances on us. [They] put ads in bigger magazines, so our name gets out, even if [the music] is never heard. If people see the ad then see our name on a flyer, they might come out."
Scott summarized the label's marketing technique with the precision of a laser pointer: "Nobody wants something they've never heard of."
In the indie community, the way a CD is packaged isn't necessarily integral to marketing. Louisville's Flaw (featured in the July LMN) sells its recording in a plain white disc envelope covered with a photocopy of the contents. But the packaging that encases each Metroschifter CD is eyeball-kick beautiful with stylish layouts, iconography and arty photography (Scott himself took the photographs used on Strawberries; his girlfriend, Julie, is the pigtailed figure in the bathtub). The artwork makes each Metroschifter release unit of balance: attractive imagery and jackhammer sound.
But even with a set of slick and highly marketable products behind them, the band feels that most of their work does not quite reach their own standards. Scott illustrated that by comparing their work to a current smash-hit independent film.
During the show at Sparks, he had said, "If the kids in this country would spend more time doing something constructive instead of running around thinking The Blair Witch Project is a scary movie, we might go somewhere. Maybe."
"I used that an example," Scott said during the interview a week later, "of poor execution of a good concept."
"Great concept, actually," Chris interjected.
Scott nodded. "Nobody tries, everything's half-assed. Even Metroschifter. We've half-assed our way through everything we've ever done. Every band does. Nobody tries hard enough. It's too easy to just do something and get it to point where you think it sounds cool, then leave it there."
"I think lately we have more ideas and are trying a little harder than in the past," Chris said. "This past year we've actually done something."
The result? Strawberries. "It's the closest record to what we should be doing," Scott said.
Now with Strawberries in the bins and Encapsulated approaching its finished form, Metroschifter is planning its fourth tour of Europe, which will run from November 4 to December 12. They will be joined by Trans Megetti and, for some shows, Joshua, in a tour that will include Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, the UK, France and Italy. Dates and venues aren't firm.
Many American bands, including Metroschifter, have seen first-hand how differently live music is appreciated overseas. "Europe is filled with promoters, kids, fans, all of whom know about what's going on and are excited about it," Scott said. "They're appreciative of what they have. In America [live music] is just another option. It's just something to do. It's a place to meet people."
Chris said, "Most people who consider themselves `into music' here in the states would rather sit at home and watch a TV show than come out to hear a live show."
"There's just a lot going on here." Scott said, "There's just so much music that it's not a priority for people. They're surrounded by it all the time."
One exception to their feelings about the way that live music is treated in the U.S. is the City Stage concert series in Louisville. Held on the Belvedere in Downtown Louisville, each concert featured three local or regional bands performing their original music. Metroschifter was selected to be one of this past summer's participants.
"It's a super idea," Scott said. "It's something this city can take a lot of pride in, musically. No city would put original music in a public format like that. It gets people downtown. It gets them listening to original, local acts. Even if they're not there for the music, it still puts it in their faces. It's an ambitious project and I'm glad the new mayor has decided to continue it."
* * *
I walked out onto Main Street, the freezer-burn scent of residue from the smoke machine not yet flushed from my lungs. Except for a pair of cars crossing the light at First Street, I was alone. Nearly 40 years ago clubs with names like The Cavern and The Rathskeller were packed with ecstatic music fans pressed shoulder to shoulder, feeling in their bones the razor-edgy sound (for its time) of a band from somewhere in England. About 20 years later, the edginess turned angry and primal at underground clubs in London and New York. A different set of bodies felt the vibe, but they still crowded the places where they wanted to hear the music.
Metroschifter and others who dwell in the hardcore/indie/underground community are similar to the bands from two and four decades ago: checking out how far to the edge you can take music, lyrics and a set of instruments; pleasing the crowds (if not at home, then in other towns and countries) who are there to feel your vibe; maintaining a presence through word-of-mouth publicity, and sometimes a bootleg recording. In distinct contrast to the dense sugar wool of what is common in the industry, Metroschifter is part of the dark undercurrent that has always flowed through all the brighter segments of the history of rock-and-roll.
* * *
You can keep up with Metroschifter through their website at www.initialrecords.com/schif. Use it to track their upcoming European tour, buy merchandise, find song lyrics, post to a message board, even look at materials from Scott's campaign for mayor. The band's email is Schif@mailcity.com.
Scott Ritcher also edits and publishes a stylish interview magazine called K Composite. Described as a magazine featuring "interviews with people you've never heard of" and geared toward a younger audience, it has nationwide and worldwide distribution. The current issue is out in stores and on the web at www.Kcomposite.com.