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Rock Around the Cock

The Datsuns zoom out of New Zealand with Zeppelinesque flair

When Christian Livingston gazes into the mirror, he sure doesn't see the reflection of a guitar-slinging rock savior. The industry does, though; right now it's turning its spotlight on his hip-hugger band, the Datsuns, and others of its ilk -- from the Vines to the Strokes and Hellacopters -- that play basic but meaty guitar rock.

It's just that he finds it comical that there have been so many good bands continually playing this kind of music for the past 40 years, so there's no real justification for his band to be anointed as the trend of the week.

"It's quite odd to see this so-called revival of rock and roll that is under way," says Livingston, on the phone from a flat in London, where the New Zealander is holed up for a week with friends before starting a slew of U.S. dates. "It's never gone away, so it's really just a matter of the press not really writing much about it. Now we get asked all the time about how we're dealing with success, except I had no idea that I wasn't already successful. We've been playing as a band for eight years, so why have people who didn't like us before suddenly changed their minds?"

Even the expanded Katy Freeway won't be as wide as 
the Datsuns' vintage belts.
Nicole Wiengarten
Even the expanded Katy Freeway won't be as wide as the Datsuns' vintage belts.

It was 13 years ago that the industry made the same sort of fuss over similar-sounding bands such as the London Quireboys and the Black Crowes, the anti-hair metal groups that shunned the grandiose pomposities of the Great Whites and Warrants of the world. Almost immediately thereafter, Nirvana ushered in the grunge era and pushed basic rock to the fringes again, though it never really went away.

Still, Livingston does concede how the sounds splashed across his band's self-titled CD -- the wa-wa pedals, sloppy glam-rawk lead breaks and tom-tom beats, plus the Rob Halford Jr. banshee wailings of vocalist Rudolph De Borst -- might seem cool to kids weaned on Britney and the boy bands who never ventured back through their dads' collections of Led Zep, Deep Purple or New York Dolls LPs. Or maybe they're just bored with what MTV has to offer these days.

"I absolutely hate Linkin Park and all these homogenized nü-metal bands," he says, before segueing into sarcasm. "'I know, let's all write songs about what the same 15-year-old is thinking about his girlfriend and we can be stars.' Like these guys [in the bands] can really relate to that."

Livingston's conduit to the old school was a copy of Led Zeppelin II and a fascination for T-Rex and the Sweet, as well as modern-era punk/blues bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

But in the mid-1990s, New Zealand's scene was ruled by acolytes of Crowded House and other more obscure indie rock bands. The hard rock Livingston's band (then known as Trinket) played was met with indifference from the locals, so Trinket tripped off to Oz for a way out. Somewhere along the way they changed their name.

"Australia was always more of the rock and roll nation," Livingston says. "So it was pretty obvious to us that we would have to play there to make any kind of money at all."

After establishing some buzz in Australia by mid-2001, some dates in the UK were arranged at the urging of Datsuns' über-fans the White Stripes. The result was a record company feeding frenzy as the Datsuns were hailed as the biggest thing since, um, the White Stripes. Livingston says the band's first American show, last year at Beerland during South By Southwest, was a complete disaster. They were jet-lagged, and what equipment of theirs didn't go missing literally exploded on stage. Not so this year, when the band pretty much blew up (in a good sense) La Zona Rosa at the same conference.

"I think Austin is some kind of strange exception to what all of America is like. I mean it's such a musical town, with all those bars side by side," Livingston says. "That's what America seems to be, all of these small countries scattered around. American culture is pretty well second nature to us, considering the TV at home, but I can say that the South is much different than any other place we've been to.

"We were at a truck stop in Alabama, and there was racist graffiti outside on the wall. When we went in there with our long hair and tight jeans, the looks were more than a little bit funny. I think it's possible to end up on what you'd say is the wrong side of town in America, and that's a concept that we aren't so familiar with."

But more and more Americans are becoming familiar with the Datsuns. Now Livingston can easily request Maker's Mark bourbon (in a pinch, Jack will do) on the contract rider. Perhaps the ultimate compliment is the fact that the Datsuns' success, coupled with that of the fellow hard-rockin' Kiwi band known as the D4, has forced the Montreal band, the Datson Four, to change its name.

"I feel sorry for them," says Livingston. "It seems like they were getting shafted at every turn. But the confusion was an issue. We played in Vancouver a while back and a paper had an article about us, but ran their photo. We thought it was funny, of course, but it sure isn't funny for them. Changing your name is a hell of a pain in the ass."

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