Double Duty

Meet Middlefinger: model citizens (sort of) by day, ska/punk instigators by night

Many bands like to talk about how much time they spend rehearsing, spinning tales of all-night garage sessions that stretch into daylight, the hours eaten up mulling over just the right lick or lyric. But for members of the ska/punk outfit Middlefinger, a sort of perverse pride comes from the fact that all five members hardly ever interact musically except on-stage.

"Just for the record, our last rehearsal was almost a year ago," says drummer Brian Davis with pride.

"Listen to him -- for the record," needles younger brother Jason Davis, the band's guitarist. "He's not afraid to tell anyone."

It's an understandable predicament, though, since the Davis brothers and bassist Jay Brooks live here, while vocalist Matt Kelly and guitarist Dave Cummings reside in Austin. Amazingly, they've managed to make things run smoothly -- or as smoothly as their geographical separation allows. "We [are] playing so frequently that the shows [are] our rehearsals," Brian says.

Indeed, Middlefinger have built themselves a sturdy following in Houston, feeding off a national resurgence of interest in ska -- and its various punked-up/popped-out bastardizations -- sparked by the phenomenal commercial run of No Doubt and the chart success of bands such as Goldfinger and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Around town, Middlefinger have enjoyed a prominent, if not outright dominant, live profile.

All that recognition might lead one to believe the band would be inspired to get in a bit more practice here and there. But vocalist Matt Kelly, who used to be the frontman for Sprawl, says he gets off on the seat-of-the-pants spontaneity that lack of rehearsal often begets. And besides, he adds laughing, "only my wife or my friends know if we're rusty."

Judging from a recent packed show at the Blue Iguana, the Middlefinger engine is showing no signs of corrosion, as its various human parts rip through a torrid set that focuses on material from the group's debut CD, Three Martini Lunch, and an upcoming, as-yet-untitled, six-song EP due this month. And since this is a band whose song titles include "Alive with Hormones," "Nine Inch Norge," "Fornicatin' Phil" and "Celibate Brine" (yes, the shrimp), there's a surplus of lunacy as well.

Kelly, whose on-stage Stretch Armstrong gyrations and spastic stalking of other members make him appear truly possessed, didn't seem to mind when an overzealous onlooker from the mosh pit knocked off his glasses -- which he didn't even bother to pick up off the floor until three numbers later. "That was bad, because I'm really blind," Kelly says now. "But it happens."

Kelly, an English teacher in Austin by day, remembers the time an awed student who'd seen a Middlefinger show related to the entire class how the man at the chalkboard sang maniacally while blood spurted down his head (after Jason had dinged him with the end of his guitar during the performance). "I don't have so much a split personality as a dual personality," Kelly says. "It's so much damn fun."

Middlefinger formed from the ashes of the cover band Rugrash, which counted Kelly and Brian and Jason as members. By most accounts, the Davis siblings are inseparable, living together and working jobs at the same shoe store in the Woodlands Mall. They've been playing together since Brian was in eighth grade, when he recruited his then third-grade brother to play in a fledgling skate-punk band.

"He dragged me along," says Jason. "I told all my friends that we played Bon Jovi songs. I didn't know how to play punk -- I just hit the strings."

Various personnel changes eventually resulted in the addition of Brooks and Cummings to the Middlefinger roster, and the final lineup was solidified in September 1995. The band hit on the name Middlefinger as a tribute to Kelly's dog, Birdie, a mild-mannered pooch who tragically jumped to his death from the seventh story of a parking garage immediately after a long car trip.

"We started off as a straight funk band -- just writing these terrible songs," Jason Davis recalls. "And then, one day, I played just a generic ska riff, which I'd always wanted to experiment with. Jay's eyes just got really big, and I knew we'd hit on something."

But rather than pounding out straight ska, the band decided to bring other influences -- punk, heavy metal -- into the mix.

"It wasn't really a conscious decision, we just like a lot of different things," Brooks says. "We'd get bored playing plain ska or plain punk. Personally, I enjoy bands who try to mix it up and fool me."

The band cites influences as diverse as Korn, Tori Amos and James Brown, and that anything-goes quality winds up being Middlefinger's greatest strength, as it keeps both the group and its audience alert and on their feet. But such strict adherence to diversity also means that initial reactions to Middlefinger have a tendency to vary drastically from listener to listener. So it helps to sample the band live before tackling its music on CD.

"I'm not a huge ska person myself, but it works for us to play in that style," says Kelly.

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