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.
"I'm still trying to learn what this ska business is all about," Brian adds. "They claim I'm a metal drummer."
"He is a metal drummer," brother Jason interjects. "He takes off his shirt during the show."
Whatever the nature of the scattered ingredients that compose Middlefinger's sound, the binding element is unquestionably ska -- more specifically, the jacked-up, white-bread version of the pre-reggae island import popularized by the 1980s Two-Tone movement in England. And while the U.K.'s best known exports remain older acts such as the Specials (recently reunited) and the English Beat, the '90s ska revival is going strong here in the States.
"The ska scene is a lot bigger than anybody thinks," says Brooks, "especially in the West Coast." Among the more recent crop of young and hungry ska loyalists, Brooks adds, Middlefinger favors Voodoo Glowskulls and Houston's own Suspects.
With all that ska-boosting rhetoric, it is a bit of a surprise that the songs on Middlefinger's upcoming EP (which the band began recording in April at Texas Music Studio) are less indebted to the form than those on Three Martini Lunch. Nevertheless, the group sees that as a positive sign.
"[The songs are] definitely faster and more aggressive, and the better sound is the result of us playing a lot more live shows -- a feeling we took into the studio," Brian says. "It's all about growing."
For sure, Middlefinger's latest material shows an obvious maturation in sound and structure. Apparently, that marked improvement was a collaborative effort. The band sent music-only tracks (Cummings still lived in Houston at the time) to Kelly, who added the lyrics. Kelly sees his prose as little more than an "entertaining word salad," which is a fitting way to describe turns of phrase often so bizarre that even seeing them in print doesn't help much in their interpretation. Still, Kelly says, "this record definitely has more variety, and it's also more cohesive and accessible."
To get the new music out, Middlefinger is planning the usual glut of live shows. They will also be adding audio clips to their web site(http://members.aol.com/skapunk001/), which features Middlefinger news and concert dates, links to other ska home pages, even photos of Brooks's new baby girl. Evidently, Middlefinger's burgeoning presence on the Internet has been a boon for the band.
"You can update things quickly when there's not time to get a mailing out," Brooks says, noting that a lot of Net surfers will drift in and out quite by accident, and several have shown up at concerts.
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With a new CD in the can waiting for release, and tracks on two upcoming compilations from California ska/punk labels Dill and Asian Man, there's sure to be plenty of tax-deductible Houston-to-Austin miles logged by Middlefinger in the near future, and more than a few early-morning visits to Jack in the Box.
When he's asked why the ubiquitous 24-hour food chain was thanked in the liner notes to Three Martini Lunch, a smile creeps across Brian Davis's face.
"Simple," he says. "Two tacos for 99 cents."
Middlefinger performs Saturday, September 13, at the Abyss, 5913 Washington Avenue, as part of the Broken Note Records Showcase. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $6. For info, call 863-7173. Middlefinger is also opening for Goldfinger, 22 Jacks and Weston Tuesday, September 16, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. For info, call 629-3700.