THE BLOOD BROTHERS helped galvanize Seattle’s
hardcore scene with their patented shrieking vocals, six-stringed angularity
and rhythmic fury. The band’s new album finds them moving further away
from the pit and the punk-rock rulebook, but if you don’t want to come
along for the ride, it’s okay with them. Really.

Story: Jason Pettigrew

Former Catheters drummer Davey Brozowski recalls a moment a
few years ago when his band shared a practice facility with Seattle screamo
progenitors the Blood Brothers. “We were goofing off in the space, and
as a joke, we were tryin’ to figure out Yes’ ‘Owner Of A Lonely
Heart,’” he remembers. “We kept trying, and then, through
the wall, we hear them playing it-perfectly!”

For the past seven years, the Blood Brothers-vocalists
Johnny Whitney and Jordan Blilie, guitarist Cody Votolato, bassist/synth op
Morgan Henderson and drummer Mark Gajadhar-have made great strides in
expanding hardcore’s rigid parameters. Whipping out a few bars of a piece
of ’80s prog-pop off the top of their heads ain’t nothin’,
when you consider how they’ve created albums that make heads swivel and
mosh pits bleed while seeping into the consciousness of music fans who like
their noise as unhinged as possible-at the ripe ol’ median age of
24.

There’s a flurry of excitement, musical and otherwise,
surrounding the release of the Blood Brothers’ fourth album, Crimes. It’s
the follow-up to their devastating 2003 ArtistDIRECT release, Burn Piano Island,
Burn, a punishing collection of tracks produced by Ross Robinson and seemingly
held together by centrifugal force alone. Crimes is also the band’s first
release for V2, the label that stepped in after the collapse of ArtistDIRECT
to extricate the band from their contract. And by the time you read this, the
Blood Brothers will be wrapping up their U.S. tour with political-punk heroes
Against Me!, who’d seem to have as much in common with the Bloods as they
do with the Swift Boat Veterans.


“There are bands we really like who don’t think of us the way we
think of them,” reveals Henderson. “It seems like we’ll never
get a chance to tour with them. I think it’s sometimes difficult for us
to get some kind of acceptance. I love the idea of challenging people who come
to our shows for the ride factor-jumping around, slamming against other
people-to not have that opportunity, and have them stand there and listen
to a song.”

The Bloods’ multidirectional tendencies have a lot to
do with the amount of growing up they’ve done both as people and as musicians.
They’ve paid dues: playing to minimal and sometimes unresponsive audiences,
recording on threadbare budgets (2002’s March On, Electric Children was
recorded for around $3,000; in comparison, Burn Piano Island, Burn cost nearly
10 times that amount), and sleeping on floors during their grueling tour schedule.
Then, not long after the release of Burn, ArtistDIRECT folded, leaving the band
bound to a contract that was so binding, if they’d broken up, the label
still would’ve had the rights to each member’s new project. This
was more than hardcore: This was real life.

“We toured nine months last year, and I don’t think we have any
interest in that [level]; nor do we have to,” says Blilie. “I can
say the same thing about making another record like Burn-it’s done.
It’s part of an evolutionary chain in the lifespan of the band. We’re
proud of it, and it’s time to move on, and do things that reflect what
we currently enjoy about music, and draw off of different things to inspire
us.”

While the Bloods established themselves in America’s
hardcore scene, their aesthetic take on the genre has always been too far left
of center to appeal to hardcore purists; so, naturally, they became the hardcore
band it was safe for hipsters and indie-rock nerds to like. (Of course, we’re
talking about a bunch of guys who’ll rock everything from the Beatles
to boxed sets from the legendary reggae label Trojan in their tour van.) Even
in an era when the mainstream music press has woken up to hardcore, the indie-rock
clubhouse still dismisses it as a thugged-out sausage party; and while, sure,
a lot of hardcore is like that, a lot of the more interesting stuff is shattering
the old stereotype. Exhibits A, B and C: the Blood Brothers’ Crimes.

Produced by John Goodmanson (Vaux, Sleater-Kinney, Unwound),
Crimes confirms the old adage that a whisper can be just as hair-raising as
a scream, even if that sort of concept doesn’t seem to fit the Bloods’
oeuvre. After all, this is a band whose legend is built around Whitney and Blilie’s
shrieking tag-team vocals, which are only slightly easier on the ears than a
pair of jet-engine turbines. Beyond the new vocal dynamics, Crimes sports everything
from deranged rave-ups to gentle respites, sometimes even in the same song.
Votolato is viable as a next-gen guitar hero, able to channel the power of angular-rock
icon Captain Beefheart (“Celebrator”) as well as R.E.M.’s
college-rock grandpa Peter Buck. Whitney’s use of vintage organs and pianos
(“Live At The Apocalypse Cabaret”) adds a distinct flavor to the
proceedings; drummer Gajadhar’s sense of the appropriate is keen; and
Blilie seems comfortable taking things down a few notches vocally, while still
commanding attention (see the title track). All of these stylistic inversions
beg the question: Are the Bloods making hardcore safe for indie rockers, so
no one loses their Interpol and Yo La Tengo buttons in the pit?

“We tried to pack as much as we could into each song
on Burn as we possibly could,” says Blilie. “I think the result
was a relentless record, [where] there was no space for you take anything in.
It was at this constant level all the time. This time around, we wanted a record
with a certain amount of space, so we could return to some basics. Once we made
that decision, we wrote the double the number of songs in half the time [it
took to write the previous album].”

“We knew we didn’t want to write another hardcore
record,” says Whitney. “In a way, this record reflects what our
personal interests are. When Burn was being made, we knew that it would be the
first album a lot of people would pay attention to. So instead of going out
on a limb then, we just wrote the best Blood Brothers songs we could. When we
went in to do Crimes, we felt we were already established as a band, to where
we could do things that were true to ourselves musically. And that was all we
were thinking. It was never a case of ‘I feel weird and old-gosh,
I really want more 23-year-olds at our shows!’”

“I’ve been hearing that some people are saying
that this is a ‘more adult record,’” says Votolato. “And
I’m like, ‘What?’ I guess it has the capacity to appeal to
an older crowd, but there are things on there that are far more brattier and
noisier than the last record.”

“It’s weird,” Henderson says. “Why
is it that older people aren’t supposed to like abrasive, screechy, Blood
Brothers music, and young people aren’t supposed to like Bach? It’s
all music; it all carries emotion. It’s our ability to listen to music
that makes the difference.”

“Given our personal tastes, and how we’ve evolved
as a band,” Votolato begins, “we’ve always been concerned
with what’s next, as opposed to bridging gaps. I think there’s enough
diversity [on Crimes] that an indie rocker who’s scared of the word ‘hardcore’
can take away the weirder aspects.”

Point blank: Is hardcore dead?

“I think that some of the criticisms of hardcore are
warranted,” opines Blilie. “It’s very safe to stay in the
hardcore scene. It’s self-perpetuating-there’s always room
for a hardcore band. But it’s a different world that can’t touch
you if you don’t want it to.”

“I don’t listen to hardcore,” reveals Whitney.
“The last hardcore record I bought was Converge’s Jane Doe. I haven’t
been into hardcore for about four years. When I turn on MTV2 and I see some
crappy band, I think [hardcore] is dead. But that’s okay: When I’m
at shows and I’m talking to the kids, and they say they’re getting
something substantial out of it, that’s fine.”

How would the Bloods react if fans approached them on tour
saying they didn’t like the new music, and the band are no longer relevant
to them?

“That’s somebody’s opinion, and that’s
totally fine,” says Whitney. “I read our message boards, and there
have been some people who were upset because we weren’t ‘kicking
enough ass,’ or whatever. It’s not up to me to shape their thoughts,
or write music that will make people happy. That’s for a band like Story
Of The Year, or someone else that’s trying to make a nice product.”

You don’t need a rock band to tell you that that any kind
of change can be a hard thing. With Crimes, the Blood Brothers are expanding
on the creative freedom that is the very cornerstone of punk rock: Make your
own choices, and don’t take shit from anyone about them. Inevitably, some
listeners will be so hopelessly confused by the new album’s moments of
temperance that animated question marks may jump out of their heads. Detractors
will piss and moan on message boards-these are the ones who completely
missed the irony of the band’s sardonic web postings last year, when they
jokingly claimed to be playing both Warped Tour and halftime at this year’s
Super Bowl. Historically, the Blood Brothers have never fit into anyone’s
predisposed notion of punk. They aren’t going to start now, and music
collections everywhere will continue to be enriched for it.

“This doesn’t mean we’ll never make another
record that’s all aggressive,” warns Henderson. He breaks into an
imitation of a disgruntled fan. “‘Oh, that’s it; they’ve
moved on. They’re gonna sit down and wear tuxedos at their shows now!’”
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