There's something about the name Hayflick Limit that describes the eponymous band fairly well. On the literal level, Hayflick Limit describes the nitty-gritty of the aging process at the cellular level, so dubbed to honor the doctor who made its discovery. Truly defining Hayflick Limit, the cellular process, is as difficult and time-consuming as describing the band's music. Yet at least part of the biological term -- the "Hay" part -- is vaguely suggestive of the quasi-rural overtones in the Houston trio's sound.
Guitarist/front man/lyricist Jeff Herman seems to have most of the country mud between his toes, while the rhythm section of brothers Robin and Devon Moore favors sound from further afield, including SST punk (especially the Minutemen), the Cure, New Order and the Violent Femmes. But the Moore brothers spent their childhoods in small-town Georgia and Palestine, Texas, two locales bound to instill a little twang in your tone, as would Herman's hometown of Corpus Christi.
One cool, predeluge night under the live oaks outside of Rice's Valhalla pub, Hayflick Limit shared a few cheap beers and tall tales with the Houston Press. Talk turned to Huck Finn-ish remembrances of adventure and childhood travails with tobacco.
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"We got paid to take dead armadillos out of our neighbor's yard," said 31-year-old Robin, the elder brother by five years. "That's about as rural as I ever experienced. I was in second grade, and I'm smoking cigarettes that somebody threw out of the window and chewing on a Cannonball plug and carrying dead armadillos so I could get paid to buy more cigarettes. I remember my mom used to send me to go buy her cigs, and I'd get one of those Cannonball plugs. It looked like a brownie."
The talked turned to various other derelict or all-but-forgotten nicotine delivery systems, including the for-kids-only Hawken dip (sweet as bubble gum, addictive as heroin), and Skoal Bandits (for the secret and/or sanitary dipper). Then Robin Moore trumped all with a confession.
"The first cigarette I ever smoked was lead pencil shavings rolled up in college-rule notebook paper."
"I did too," said Devon. "I used to Scotch-tape them together."
"Yeah! Now I remember," screamed Robin. "That was you that did that to me!"
Robin was not brooking this brotherly criticism of his hand-rolled smokes. "You had the plastic, you had the wood, you had the paper, you had the lead. I don't know what you're complaining about," said Devon, who went on to recall once smoking an unadulterated plastic straw. Herman remembered slathering cigarettes in Crest toothpaste, based on an urban legend that it promised a good fluoride high.
Clearly, the will to experiment has never been a problem for the individuals of Hayflick Limit, but what about as a band? It's hard to slot the trio in any one of the several million genres invented since the dawn of rock criticism. The band's rare covers are far-ranging -- Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues" to Scratch Acid's signature "Greatest Gift." Elements of grunge, straight punk, cowpunk, metal, noise rock, country and prog-rock swirl behind Herman's talented fingerpicking and generally morbid expressionistic lyrics.
"We've never had him come to us with a bad set of lyrics," says Devon Moore. "Lyrics come in different categories -- you got your mushy lyrics, your guy-who's-trying-to-be-way-too-deep lyrics, your lyrics that are too dry, and then you've got your bubble gum stuff."
"Jimmie Dale Gilmore once said that the most important thing to him lyrically was not to be too direct. I guess I kind of took that to heart," says Herman. Herman concocts series of memorable lines that are somewhat impenetrable as narratives, at least in form. Their intent is felt only under the sheer attack of a line-by-line barrage of little bombs like "my tar-paved lungs," "all hopped up on mosquito dope" and "a spark, a scream and so begins the whiskey dream," taken from a cross-section of songs from the group's recently released debut CD, Monkeyshine.
What leaps from Monkeyshine's grooves first is the musicianship. In all but the most lead guitar-oriented trios, the bass is expected to do much more than merely hold down the bottom end. To do so in Hayflick Limit, Robin Moore has mastered the six-string bass. This was a move fraught with danger. As basses sprout more and more strings, many of their players have plummeted into abysses of wank. Not so with Robin, who is content to fingerpick his six-string for the greater good of the trio, sometimes strongly calling to mind the Violent Femmes' Brian Ritchie's acoustic bass playing. With brother Devon's musical (as opposed to merely time-keeping) approach to drumming, the sound is as tight as Shania Twain's pants and twice as talented as their owner.
Herman's faintly twangy fingerpicking is a rarity, too, in that it is exceedingly difficult to think of another punk or punk-based band locally or regionally that demands such aplomb from its lead guitarist. While the dual fingerpicking approach is exciting, the band's short attention span can and does at times shepherd the trio into some dead ends. The threesome admits to discarding crunchy, tasty grooves too fast. At times they seem like a roller coaster -- just as you're savoring that last moment before cresting the big hump, it's gone, and you're careening upside down in a loop-de-loop on down the line. Their antithesis is the jam band with its long drawn-out grooves; Hayflick Limit could definitely do with a little synthesis in that direction.
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Yet in the end the Texas punk band's sound is as addictive as nicotine. Being a punk (as opposed to a cowpunk) band that one can chew a Cannonball plug to is no mean feat, but Herman sees it as an organic outgrowth of their upbringing. "The Texas thing is a natural," he states. "I mean, we were all born and bred in Corpus and Palestine -- the Texas thing is just gonna be there regardless of whether we grew up listening to punk or rock or country."
On stage, Robin Moore and Herman wear Italian suits, which further confuses their image. Robin Moore recalls a clubgoer giving them the once-over and saying, "Oh, my God, these guys are gonna sound like Depeche Mode," while others take them for a neo-swing outfit of some sort.
"Heat is my archnemesis," Robin adds. But Devon thinks there is much more to it than that. Texas heat is what makes Hayflick Limit itself. It illumines its morbidity, both lyrically and musically. "I think the Southern heat has a lot to do with who we are," says Devon. "It makes people talk different. You go to New Orleans, and they don't wanna move their mouths too much. They let it roll out of their mouth 'cause they don't wanna sweat that jawbone. If you look at a lot of the stuff that's come out of the South, it's got that morbidosity to it. It bakes your brain."
Just as Hayflick Limit's sound does to those who attempt to describe it.