March 9-15, 2006
cover storyPunk Casual
The rock veterans in Armalite make it look easy.
: John Vettese
"WHY is that our name?" Goren demands, his voice rising in frustration and pitch.
Dan Yemin, the group's bassist, as well as the voice of another Philly rock band, Paint It Black, catches his breath and counters, "Probably because it upsets you so much."
More laughter, and a bit of shivering. It's a cold Sunday afternoon, the heat is turned way down in this West Philly row house and the quartet has just finished up with their sweaty practice in the basement.
Yemin goes on to explain that yes, an Armalite is a British assault weapon, but that's not exactly where the name came from. "We thought we'd cash in on the whole Gang of Four thing. So we stole one of their song titles ["Armalite Rifle'], because we are funk-based."
This leads into an absurd unfurling of equally sarcastic tangents. Guitarist/singer Mike McKee imagines a Dave P./Diplo remix of Armalite's "I Am a Pancreas (I Seek to Understand Me)." Drummer Jeff Ziga jabs McKee for still being in his pajamas when everybody arrived for practice.
When someone mentions that cops showed up at a recent Jersey gig for McKee's other band, Amateur Party, Yemin says, "I'd love to play a show that gets shut down!"
"Why?" Goren asks, a voice of reason amid the fray. "That's so inconvenient."
When they're not playing, this gang of four comes off more like bickering siblings or old friends than a serious rock band.
Down a flight of stairs and we're in a soundproofed backroom of the basement. Posters on the wall celebrate Billy Bragg, Nas and Lord of the Rings. Goren offers up a "used-ish" pair of earplugs. (Thanks, I brought my own.) Then, with all of Armalite present and accounted for, they launch into "Other Entertainers." It's a Ted Leo-style pop-punk anthem McKee wrote to cheer up his friend Basla Andolsun, whose band Del Cielo was fast becoming disillusioned with the music industry. (They've since broken up.) The song, it seems, needs some work.
McKee improvs a bit on the guitar riff coming out of the bridge, throwing off his bandmates. They take it from the top and run into the same problem.
"I think I should keep going there," McKee asserts. "I think the kids would want to hear that guitar part a couple more times before it gets back into the verse."
"I think the kids would rather hear you sing than attempt to play," Yemin returns.
For a split second it seems like things could get ugly, some rockumentary-style feud with slammed doors and bruised egos. But after traded sardonic glares, it's just smiles and pats on the back. They take it from the top twice more, nailing it on the fourth try.
Practices are more their natural habitat, but even those don't happen all that regularly. The goal is to jam every Sunday afternoon they can. When they can't, it's no big deal.
It's a decidedly less intense situation for Goren, who would be on the road as Atom and His Package for several months, home for a few weeks and then back on tour again. He decided to retire in 2003 after he was diagnosed with diabetes and learned that his wife, Jen, was pregnant in quick succession. (Their daughter is now 2 and the couple is expecting a boy in May.)
So while Atom couldn't stay away from music for very long and wanted to play with humans this time after six years with sequencers he has no real desire to be in another hard-touring band. Neither do his bandmates, all longtime friends and vets of Philly punkville who have other projects at the center of their attention.
In addition to vocal duties in Paint It Black, a hard-touring band in its own right, Yemin has a private practice as a child psychologist in the suburbs. McKee plays in Amateur Party, and edits Rockpile magazine. Ziga does sound for R5 Productions and has been on scores of local punk rosters like True If Destroyed and, more recently, Affirmative Action Jackson. ("You can't live in Philly without having seen Jeff play in several bands," Yemin says.)
Their Sunday afternoon rock club is their release from the tensions and stress of their other commitments. But considering the informal, unfussy approach or maybe because of it Armalite's self-titled debut is surprisingly great.
He's not kidding. The discussion had just pulled through several minutes of faux braggadocio as they joked about the record's brilliance and transcendence McKee cracked that it "resets the punk calendar to year 0" which, yeah, ha-ha, funny stuff. But Yemin's description is right on.
The playing is tight and precise. The sound a pop-punk blur melding Goren's aloof and admittedly childish holler with McKee's more classic hardcore growl, gruff palm-muted power chords with tremolo-picked treble notes is energetic and speedy. And the songs have a catchy universality. Goren abstractly discusses his diabetes in the aforementioned "Pancreas," (the hook goes "Ninety-nine point nine with the bar on top is right on!"), and its Clash homage sounds like it would play just as well in a divey punk club as it might on the radio.
Yemin's brooding bass opens the record on "Entitled," a bit of an angrier number McKee wrote mulling over what he calls "the post-adult crash" the disconnect one feels in his early 30s looking back and seeing the changes in his youthful stomping grounds. He takes a punk rocker's perspective ("Are you older and wiser as you appropriate signs/ For someone else's youth culture that you're just synthesizing?"), and the song serves as a bit of an anthem for what Armalite is all about.
"One of the many horrible things in punk rock that's happened in the past decade is everybody is going for a career," Yemin says. "Everybody's concerned with finding good management, a booking agent, more so than writing good songs. That's left us with a dearth of new music to be excited about."
These guys take the opposite approach. They have no ambitions to tour beyond the Northeast corridor and operate on an extremely casual level. They have to, since they have a fair queue of outside commitments.
"With everybody being so pro-career these days, why not just mess around with a group of friends after hockey practice?" McKee mulls.
They're just having fun, and seem both surprised and grateful that their label (No Idea, a small punk imprint based in Florida) took a chance on their record knowing that. At the same time it seems nothing to be surprised about the record is fantastic.
Asked if there was any anxiety from the band, they almost in chorus deem it "very little stress."
"That may be a problem," Goren says. "We could use a bit more stress."
"It's so low-stress we could sleep through it," Yemin jokes. Then he eyes up McKee who did change out of his pajamas before joining practice.
"Sometimes," he says. "We are sleeping through it."
More sardonic glares. More laughter.
Armalite's CD release show, Sun., March 12, 7:30 p.m., $8, with The Loved Ones, None More Black and Pink Razors, First Unitarian Church, 22nd and Chestnut sts., www.r5productions.com.