Grunge Puppy

There are an awful lot of last week's Next Nirvanas wandering around out there in the American guitar-pop landscape, dragging their shaggy heads in the sand and bemoaning the vagaries of timing and whim that branded them also-rans. Paw isn't one of them.

Paw is from Lawrence, Kansas, which, being an isolated little college town and all, is largely supportive of the amateur rock-and-roll endeavor. Band members Mark Hennessy, Charles Bryan and brothers Grant and Peter Fitch were one of the first groups snatched up in that post-you-know-who witch hunt that has since revolutionized modern music to the point that it sounds just like it did 20 years ago. A&M Records eventually sent the band on tour, but when Paw first signed -- a year ago last July -- they'd played a total of 40 shows.

I called guitarist Grant Fitch, who writes the music for the Hennessy-penned vocals, at his hotel room in Detroit. His lodging turned out to be right down the street from Detroit's Cobo Hall, which, Fitch pointed out, is where Kiss recorded 1975's Live, their first platinum record. This is a reference point of some sort, but Garth Brooks dug Kiss, too, and Brooks and Paw share nothing but rurally evocative names.

"I'll be the first to tell you," says Fitch, "when we first started, we were about two hairs short of terrible. But the songs were there."

A&M must have noticed, because the first thing the label did was send the band out on the road opening for Social Distortion and the Reverend Horton Heat. "We needed to tour,"says Fitch. "It took us seven or eight months on the road to start to gel as a band."

In September, Paw migrated to another college town -- Madison, Wisconsin -- to record Dragline, produced by a Mr. Colson and Paw. Fitch stayed through Christmas before heading to New York, where the record was mixed by hitmaker Andy Wallace. Listening to the record now, Fitch reports, is satisfying, but a little bit baffling. He thinks some switch must have been knocked from Normal Speed to Fast, because he hears guitar passages so fast that he can't imagine himself playing them. The band began touring again in April, and they've been on the road ever since. "Touring has worn off some of the edges, and we've started to get into more of a groove. But I think a little bit of that punkish tempo makes the record more exciting."

What's been just as exciting for Fitch has been learning the business he's suddenly in. "It's been a crash course in the music business. In the last two years I've lived and breathed it and asked everybody and their brother questions, read all the books, and I still don't feel like I understand it."

He understands at least part of it, though, and that's the legend of the young rebellious artist getting chewed up and spit out by the corporate machinery. It's the same legend dropped like a heavy die stamp on every new band with a deal or a chance at one, and Fitch doesn't worry about it anymore. "[Dragline] is not a low-budget indie record. It cost some money. I'm not embarrassed about it. I won't tell you how much it cost. I can tell you that having never put anything out before, we were under real scrutiny from ourselves and from our peers in Kansas as to whether we were worthy of it, and whether or not we should put out an indie release first, etc., etc. And then after spending literally months laying in bed every night and soul-searching and talking about this thing every goddamn day, I decided I was going to have to make records -- great-sounding records -- just the way I heard it in my head, and I wanted to tour the world. And sorry, but you gotta be on a major label to do it."

Fugazi might disagree, but the way great records sound might well be different in Ian MacKaye's head and Fitch's.

In Fitch's head, great records are nearly run off the road with guitars. All the standard contemporary hard melodic guitar-rock comparisons -- Husker Du, Nirvana -- apply in a general sense, and that's enough these days to earn Paw the grunge stamp (People magazine recently gave Billy Joel the grunge stamp, fer Chrissakes), but once again, Fitch doesn't quite see it that way.

"People hear rock with guitars and they call it grunge. I mean, rock has always had guitars." Yes, rock has always had guitars, and recently they've returned to the forefront as the alternative pop song's prime rhythmic and melodic mover. Fitch's instrument serves that function well enough to have earned Paw the backhanded compliment of being called "Helmet in the barnyard" by one publication, but he's got no fear of slowing things down into a pretty (if still slightly ominous) picking pattern when the song calls for it.

Hennessy's vocals impart most of the barnyard flavor, singing songs with titles like "Gasoline," "Sleeping Bag," "The Bridge," "Dragline" and "Hard Pig" that provide a quick sketch of angst-and-roll, rural Midwest division. Paw has likewise gotten a lot of regional flavor mileage out of a song called "Jessie," a rasping scream of an homage to a boy's dog, which has been hailed as a return to some sort of wholesome value by a theory-weary music press. Hennessy doesn't sing nearly so much as shout, and his voice, flat and menacing, sounds like it originates entirely in the back of his throat. It's much the same way that Bob Mould sings, without the warbling Mould sometimes falls into. It pretty much begs to be read as desperation.

(And desperate is what young bands are supposed to be -- and often are -- these days. They're supposed to come out of nowhere, with nothing, make a great rock-and-roll record without understanding what they've done, and convince everyone who suddenly likes them that they aren't trying to appeal to them.)

I ask Fitch what it's been like for the band to have gone from proverbial nowhere little more than a year ago to where they are now.

You mean a block away from nowhere?" he says.
ell, having made a great-sounding record, toured a not-insignificant chunk of the world -- and a block away from Cobo Hall, actually. But yeah, okay, a block away from nowhere.

That's when he tells me about the educational blitz of learning to play live, learning to record, and learning some of the ins and outs of the record biz. And at the end of it all, without sounding like he's trying to speak out of anyoneÕs experience but his own, he says, "I think we're at a place right now where we're starting to be an exciting and viable band."

One thing you'll notice about Midwestern modesty: When you understate your achievement over the phone, it sounds all the more impressive in the flesh.

Paw plays at 10:30 p.m. Friday, December 10 at Goat's Head Soup, 128 Westheimer. Ticket's cost $3 for adults; $5 for minors. Call 520-7625 for more info.

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Brad Tyer