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Revenge of the Nerds

A Nerf Herder lesson in how to sell yourself as who you are

Brand the guys in Nerf Herder misfits, and they won't argue with you about it -- they know as much. It's no coincidence, after all, that both halves of the California band's name share more than a few letters with "nerd." Head Herder Parry Gripp relishes unhip implications; geeks are the heroes in his songs.

"I'm not the one you dream about, and I'm not the one you can't live without," proclaims guitarist Gripp on "Golfshirt," from Nerf Herder's juvenile self-titled debut CD. Just as he's about to dissolve in his own self-pity, along comes a ringing power-pop chorus drenched in three-part harmonies: "When you're tired of all the jerks, and you're tired of all the work, and you're tired of being hurt / You will long for the comfort of my golf shirt." Then there's the shrill but catchy single "Van Halen," which couples a verbal dismembering of former VH singer Sammy Hagar ("Dave lost his hairline, but you lost your cool, buddy / 'Can't Drive 55,' I'll never buy your lousy records again") with a well-chosen progression of punk-anthem power chords to ram home its dorky accusation of rock-god betrayal.

When they're not whining about being behind the hip curve, or proudly stating their case for eradicating all forms of body art (no tattoos, no piercings), the guys in Nerf Herder try, in vain, to rub salve on some embarrassing memories. With "Sorry," Gripp renders repeated apologies to an ex-girlfriend ("Sorry I showed at your party / Sorry I drank up all the Bacardi / Sorry I puked up on your bedspread / Sorry I jacked off outside of your window while you were sleeping / I thought you'd never know"), capping off a litany of self-pity by confessing simply, "What can I do? It's over ... I am the loser."

Apparently, a true Nerf Herder has no shame.
"[We're] not trying to cover up anything," says drummer Steve Sherlock, whose own misadventures with women color many of Gripp's lyrics. "I started wearing my glasses, for instance, because my contact lenses were seriously bugging my eyes. I was actually in a glam band for a while in the late 1980s, but I was a nerd trying to be glam. [Now] I feel like I'm being myself."

Identity issues solved, the members of Nerf Herder have proven to be quite business-savvy in their own plaid-polyester way. The band and its friends at San Francisco's My Records finagled "Van Halen" into just the right hands, which resulted in it getting onto the airwaves in a major market and, from there, into heavy rotation on modern-rock stations all across the country. Next up: the release of Nerf Herder on Arista Records, which late last year emerged the victor in a major-label bidding war over the band.

Nerf Herder is novelty cool today the way the Presidents of the United States of America were novelty cool back in '95, and there are distinct similarities between the two bands. Both happen to be good-natured power trios, and both like to downplay the implications of their fast and efficient craft and its off-kilter, occasionally off-color, execution. But where the boys of Nerf Herder seem to have the Presidents beat is in their sense of what makes a pop tune more than a chant-along diversion (i.e., the use of melody instead of simple repetition) and in their knowledge of when to can the shtick and just be themselves. Because really, there's more than a subtle difference between nerds who act like cutups and cutups who act like nerds, and I've always sensed that the Presidents fall into the latter group.

By contrast, very little about Nerf Herder seems forced; the band's members live what they preach. Gripp is an amateur horticulturist who grows orchids on his parents' flower farm in his spare time; Dennis collects action figures and is partial to Marvel Comics superheroes; and Sherlock's passion is PEZ dispensers.

"I have about 400 [of them]," Sherlock says proudly. "I have a full-body Santa Claus from the '50s that I love. It's just one of those flashbacks. I don't really like the candy, though."

In 1987, Camper Van Beethoven warned anyone who'd listen, "Baby don't you go, don't you go to Goleta." My old college buddy Jay would have done well to heed those words. The year Camper issued that musical advisory, Jay flew west from New York to visit a friend at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The school happens to be in Goleta, a rather uptight ocean-side hamlet just north of the small city for which the institution is named. His first evening there, Jay idled a bit too long at a stop sign to retrieve a pizza that had slid from the passenger seat of his rental car; it earned him a night in the local police station's drunk tank. Thanks to a blood-alcohol level a hair over the legal limit, he spent the remainder of his senior year flying back and forth between New York and Santa Barbara to clear his name.

The point of this tale -- other than, of course, don't drink and drive -- is that Goleta is hardly a hands-off-the-students -type college town. Then again, it isn't quite the magnet for "fascist rich kids" Camper Van Beethoven describes in "(Don't You Go to) Goleta," either. After all, it's home to Nerf Herder. And Steve Sherlock -- who, by the way, has never heard the Camper song -- is halfway proud of his hometown. Sure, he says, it's clean-cut and conservative, but so is everyone in Nerf Herder. And besides, locals know enough to hoof it when they imbibe, thus avoiding the stiff arm of local law enforcement.

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