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Back in the mid-'90s, if you'd approached any number of random scenesters and opined that in the next millennium the Hangmen would be among the most active and popular bands on the Los Angeles rock circuit, most likely your prediction would have been rejoined with laughter. And really, who could fault the doubters? Led by singer, songwriter and guitarist Bryan Small, the band had by that point already been signed and dumped by two major labels, and had proved utterly incapable of getting their act on the road. Of course, they weren't completely without focus: Their ability to remain completely fucked up for indefinite stretches, after all, was the stuff of L.A. legend. As the Hangmen's song claimed, the band was hopelessly "Broke, Drunk and Stoned."
But whether because of stubbornness, resilience, ego, growing up or a vision that allowed no viable alternatives (or some combination thereof), Small stuck with the Hangmen, and lead guitarist Jimmy James stuck with Small. In 2000, the band emerged with Metallic I.O.U., the first release on the tiny independent Acetate, and the first official Hangmen release in 11 years. The excellent disc made an impact with critics and fans, propelled by the focus afforded them by such a small label, and the band actually saddled up and hit the road in earnest. Now, Acetate has released We've Got Blood on the Toes of Our Boots, a superb live set that includes every Small original from the band's long-out-of-print, self-titled 1989 Capitol debut.
"It's just taken what it's taken," shrugs Small at his Hollywood home, evaluating a career that has stalled more times than most punk-rock touring vans. "I needed a lot of fuckin' time to get a lot of shit out of my system, drug-wise, and find out what the fuck I wanted to do. I always knew that this was what I wanted to do, but to kind of get that to be more of the priority than being such a secondary thing, whether it was [a] girl or getting high. I'm totally happy with it now."
Across town, Jimmy James relaxes on a couch in a guesthouse he and two roommates rent from an opera singer. "When we first started playing, Bryan had pitched the band as really going places, which was believable because I always liked the Hangmen stuff anyway. [I had] a lot of faith in Bryan, and that made me stick it out. There was a point where we started off I think everyone was on something, and nobody really was aware to what extent everybody else was -- me included." Small's simple and honest songwriting style and James's slowhand guitar articulations were made for each other, and even through the less lucid times, they knew their band could amount to something. "Bryan had gotten busted, and went to rehab or something for a while, and there was no band. I said, 'You know, when you get out, we'll put together a new band.' So we did."
The band that finished out the '90s and recorded Metallic I.O.U. included bassist Laura Bennett, who had joined before James, and drummer Dino Guerrero. Just as things seemed to come together, the rhythm section exited, leaving Small and James with yet another obstacle. Eventually Dallas native Angelique Congelton nabbed the bass gig and Todd Haney became the new drummer.
Congelton moved to L.A. at about the same time Bennett left the Hangmen. Back in Dallas, she'd played bass for the Darlingtons, and she left Texas somewhat reluctantly, accompanying her then-boyfriend. James asked her to try out for the band. "It's such a pure rock band, that's why I joined," says Congelton between sips of merlot at a local club.
After settling on the current lineup, the band immediately went on a West Coast run with Betty Blowtorch, and Congelton blended in almost too well. "After only playing two shows with them, they left me at the rest stop," she says. "We'd been driving all night, Bryan's sleeping in the front seat [at a rest stop], I was sleeping in the back. It got to be daylight, and Bryan got out to go to the bathroom. I noticed his urgency, so I got out to go to the bathroom after him. He didn't know I'd gotten out. Funny, 'cause I was sitting in the bathroom thinking it'd be funny if they left me. I came out, and there goes the van." Congelton sent the highway patrol after her bandmates. "They got, like, over 45 minutes out."
The band's newfound commitment to touring naturally has led to both good and bad shows. Small recalls "playing terrible little venues with rap metal bands in Spokane to ten people." But Supersuckers leader Eddie Spaghetti turned out to be a longtime fan and invited them to support a recent Suckers tour. "They have the first Hangman demo," laughs James, referring to a tape long since lost by the band members themselves.
The release of We've Got Blood, on which Hangmen songs from '89 through '02 blend together as a seamless whole, has newly energized the band. "I'm glad the songs I wrote a long time ago stand next to the ones I've written recently and are valid," says Small. "In my opinion they're every bit as relevant now as they were."
With a clear head and in control, Small has finally redeemed (at least sonically) his early batch of songs. "This is the way the [Capitol] record should have sounded, and the way [producer] Vic Maile mixed it," he says. Maile produced The Hangmen, but Capitol had the album remixed. Maile, who also had produced such paint-peeling concert albums as the Who's Live at Leeds and Motörhead's No Sleep 'til Hammersmith, was well versed in live, raw, hard rock. Maile's original mix "sounded way more like this live record than what they did to it on Capitol," says Small.
"I love playing new songs, too, but I love playing the old songs," he adds. "I love playing those songs as much as I ever did, especially with this band, with Jimmy playing, and Angelique and Todd. They understand.
"It's just simple rock 'n' roll, but not a lot of people get it, not a lot of people know how to play it."
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