The original plan was so sweet and indulgent it was cavity inducing, no surprise coming from Seattle's most self-aware, media-savvy, indie-pop sextet. Our not- exactly-beloved Lashes, freshly inked to a two-album/one-EP deal with Lookout!, were to embark on a two-week West Coast tour that would climax with their baby-I'm-a-star debut at Austin's annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival last Saturday. Avid fans of Almost Famous, and fans enough of this silly column to immortalize it as the B-side to their only 45, the boys invited yours truly to add even more man-stink to their seven-passenger van while they "chased their dream." Suggested headline—and bear in mind, these dudes once paid Belltown's homeless to picket a Sub Pop anniversary party with signs reading "Sub Pop: Sign the Lashes!"—"Almost Shameless."
Raddin'. But in true best-laid-plans fashion, I got hella sick, lost hella weight, shaved hella hair (unrelated to illness, but still important), canceled my original flight, and missed the band hobnobbing with, of all people, AF's Patrick "the Enemy" Fugit, before (deep breath) miraculously regaining my health, flying out to Austin kamikaze-style last Tuesday, and arriving in a makeshift tent outside of Emo's, emaciated, hairless, and breathless, to receive a bear hug and the following greeting from Lashes front man Ben Clark:
"What's up, Philadelphia?"
Didn't crack a smile? Abandon all hope, ye who read on. Like their leader, the Lashes are gleefully facetious, bawdy, sardonic, politically incorrect fashion whores. Like Stillwater, they crave the rock-star cocktail (free schwag, free beer, and free pot, preferably delivered by free girls), but secretly want nothing more than to meet—and rock—"real Topeka people" along the way. They dress, strut, talk shit, and start shit like a gang. They play hopeless-romantic, press-on-nails power pop, not the introspective, (ahem) angular indie brainfood the Pacific Northwest cherishes. For that, deservedly or not, they're hunted and despised like Bela Lugosi in their hometown, and they still don't have a friggin' album out. The solution: extending their reachbeyond the Capitol Hill hipster hierarchy that fosters their boorish, bad-boy, barfly personas. Until then, when it's time to party, the Lashes will party hard. And me? I wanna SXSW you up.
WEDNESDAY, 1:30 A.M. Hanging at the Emo's tent, post quasi-AIDS joke. The official SXSW gigs kick off in the afternoon, so no events of any consequence tonight. Jason Von Bondie (the Lashes, like the Ramones and the English press before them, encourage the notion that musicians should adopt their band's moniker as surname) is drinking a few feet away, looking like Gwen Stefani post-electroshock. One simple shoving match would make the Lashes the talk of Austin, but Ben and equally extroverted keyboardist Jacob Hoffman are preoccupied securing a private party with two locals, Paige and Helen. Upside: limitless Lone Star beer, palatial apartment complex, hot tub. Downside: While generous, the girls are more or less nutters (kinder band consensus: "intense"). Luckily, so are Jacob and guitarist/co-founder Eric Howk (like myself, a mortifying encyclopedia of one-hit '90s alternacrap); by the time they're successfully encouraging Paige and Helen to clock them as hard as they can, Fight Club–style, I'm shivering to sleep in soaked boxers.
Dawn and dusk (of the dead) arrive too quickly. About 90 percent of SXSW occurs on and around East Sixth Street, aka what would happen if Pioneer Square kidnapped Capitol Hill, threw it in the trunk, and drove it to Vegas for a shotgun wedding. The artists, many already fast deteriorating on a gas-food-lodging diet of beef jerky and American Lights, have precious little in the way of nourishment options, including possibly the worst street pizza in the country. (Exception: Hoek's, which not only actually employs an oven correctly, but blasts Mastodon, Today Is the Day, and other art-metal non-fucking-stop). The Lashes are already ass-broke, with a paltry guarantee for Saturday's show and a paucity of merch to flog. They wonder aloud how they're going to afford gas for the drive back to Seattle, but money has a way of magically materializing at just the right moment on tour. I'm often compelled to feed them, but it would be a better story if they starved to death. Luckily, there's no shortage of free beer.
After the daily Fader magazine schmoozefest, in which Seattle scenesters get bombed under a tent in the middle of the afternoon and pretend not to know one another, I abandon the Lashes for the Hydra Head showcase at Emo's, featuring My Favorite Band Making Music Right Now, skyscraper-toppling Chicago instrumental sludgecore quartet Pelican. I celebrate by hooking myself up to the rum and Coke IV and breaking my neck via the always challenging "abrupt time signature change headbang." The Lot Six, Bronx, and Cave In (who dutifully rock out their killer old thrashy stuff) might as well be covering the Teletubbies theme. Pelican destroys. I'm still merrily air palm-muting in drop C when Ben pisses out of the van's shotgun window at 70 mph three hours later.
THURSDAY, 3:30 P.M. Today's Fader party surreality: The good folks at Levi's outfit and photograph the Lashes in saucy new jeans, vests, jackets, and sneaks, which I'd call absolute bullshit on if I weren't a jealous bastard, and if these guys didn't already vainly pass the pomade before every public appearance. Looks aren't everything in the Lashes, but they're definitely a sizable chunk of the pie chart. Diminutive spark plug bassist Nate Mooter and his fluffy Johnny Thunders 'do are the breakout stars of the shoot, although he'd rather be off skating with guitarist/best friend Scotty Rickard, who has his own "problems" as the quiet, intense, smoldering-but-spoken-for Lash. The cell phone eschewing duo are deceptively salt of the earth, often disappearing to bro down with street kids, but displaying the most thoughtfulness and originality of the lot. I'd love to watch them all get their bulging inseams measured, but am due to get my mind reblown by Pelican at Jackalope's and froth to Local H's spot-on CCR and Foreigner covers back at the Emo's tent.
Going it alone weighs heavily as the Texas sun sets. I leave the Lashes to network at Blender Bar's Lookout! showcase to watch usually reliable emo-tations Ester Drang, Onelinedrawing, and Denali n'yeh through the Jade Tree bedwetter-fest at Parish. Around the time I'm crosswording myself into a coma beneath the dripping bar, Nate is impressing guest judge Ted Leo enough to win the Smugglers' nightly onstage dance contest. If this isn't the best day in the dude's life, I don't know what is.
FRIDAY, 5 P.M. It's vision quest day. Everyone's sick of Sixth and all of its hype men. Drummer Mike Loggins, the newest and most personable Lash, spends the entire day and night exploring downtown, pounding $1 vodka tonics, and almost getting abducted in the band's endless, collective quest for snootchie bootchies. I accompany Brian, the band's increasingly weary tour manager, approximately a zillion blocks west to catch three passable Sparta songs at La Zona Rosa, then trek back to the Daiquiri Factory to learn that Sixth's first "titty bar" will open next week across the street. Great timing as usual, God.
With David Cross far beyond sold out at Emo's, most of the band winds up on the patio of Casino, aka Cha Cha Austin. Ben uncharacteristically has the quiets for most of Lashes Eve. Not even the auspicious arrival of my plastered birthday-boy best buddy Simon—who self-administers an enema atop a water fountain troll that looks like Stripe melting at the end of Gremlins—loosens up the hulking vocalist. Only when we retire to ogle an outdoor, chocolate-smearing Suicide Girls burlesque extravaganza does Ben Clark, nervous, stargazing pop-nerd dreamer, transform into Ben Lashes, paternally asking each Lash "Did you get a boner?" Nate, subsequently interviewed by some public-access dorks in the middle of the cordoned-off intersection, concedes to a "spiritual boner."
Good times, but nothing would obliterate the band's preshowcase jitters like the ensuing, hush-hush after-hours dance party, which goes down—can't italicize this one enough—at a cineplex in a mall's food court. The DJ spins MJ and Cam'ron, half the band shoots Jäger in the ladies room with Har Mar Superstar in tow, and the rest huff grits in the theaters while The Triplets of Belleville and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind roll. Ben takes a break from dry-humping Jacob in the aisles to perform a 10-minute "interpretive dance" in front of theBelleville screen. I break the heavily leaky journalist-subject dam and, almost shamelessly, join him.
Even if all of this makes you detest the Lashes even more, you're jealous. Admit it. Good. Now get me in touch with an usher at Meridian 16.
SATURDAY, 6 P.M. Overheard conversation from second story of Quality Inn yesterday afternoon:
ERIC: How hard are you going to hit the snare tomorrow?
MIKE: As hard as I hit . . . my mom?
This is it. After a pit stop for Jacob's third keyboard stand of the fortnight (!), load-in commences at Emo's. Unless Ben is planning to hurl a used tampon into the crowd, L7-style, the stars are not aligning for a Lashes breakout. Touring on just the aforementioned two-song single, the band has received zero press in the Austin rags, they aren't even playing their own label's showcase (tonight is rockabilly bedrock Gearhead's), and Emo's is just hosted an exhausting, all-day 17-band Take Action bonanza headlined by Dillinger Escape Plan.
Onstage, Scotty and Mike browse the eight-song set list and debate what the real song titles are. The Lashes v.2004.0 are still kind of a work in progress, but Ben is undaunted, smiling contentedly and calling the forthcoming half-hour "the culmination of the last seven years of my life." He's not waxing pathetic. Since he met Eric at Seattle's downtown Levi's store, there have been 18 Lashes ("more drummers than people I've slept with," Nate quips). He's been rejected for SXSW four times. To borrow from Weird Al Yankovic, this means something; this is important.
Maybe 150 checkered-flag curious are on hand for set opener "Death by Mixtape," and after the second song, some dude from labelmate the Washdown grabs the mike (Ben fired the stand into the audience on the first note) to encourage the crowd to get closer. "Thanks, guy who's not the front man," Ben hisses amiably, and the band charges on, more at ease. Scotty and Eric synchronize tight, Albert Hammond Jr. windmills, Mike drills that snare like it's his mommy, Nate gives an incoherent acceptance speech upon delivery of his Smugglers dance-off trophy, and Ben and Jacob sweat out the lovelorn harmonies.
As soon as it's over, Ben runs outside, pulls his jacket over his head, and cries. His band, his dream, was spawned by watching The Muppet Movie ad infinitum on TV as a kid. The Seattle haters have absolutely nothing to do with this moment—these are tears of joy. I forget if Kermit the Frog ended up making out with Miss Piggy by the railroad tracks after crashing a Stills house party, stealing two 12-packs, and spying Johnny Knoxville for the second time in as many days, but that's how this Muppet adventure ends. Sequel(s) in theaters soon.
The Lashes play Graceland at 10 p.m. Sat., March 27. $7.
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