Nü-School Drool

Chris D'abaldo can't help but laugh when he contemplates his predicament. The rhythm guitarist with rock shredders Saliva is only 45 days out of rehab, where he kicked a habit involving what he calls a "conglomeration" of booze and other substances. But when his band takes the stage in Houston, Saliva will be two weeks into a national headlining tour sponsored by the college-dorm joy juice Jägermeister.

"I took care of my business. I'm 33 now, and I'd been using this and that since I was 12. If people want to read something into the sponsorship, I guess they're entitled to," says D'abaldo, fresh from a video shoot in Los Angeles for "Rest in Pieces," the next single from the group's latest album, Back into Your System. "The Jäger sponsorship is kind of an ironic thing, but I'm cool with it. They're really good people," he says, not unexpectedly. "Besides, touring is a hard, expensive business, especially now in the off-season, so with the economy and all the other stuff figured in, you do what you have to."

Though he says he won't be sampling the sponsor's wares, D'abaldo doesn't mind doling out some props, after a fashion, as he recalls the days when he was imbibing heavily. "I was never a big fan of Jägermeister by itself. I liked it cut with vodka, what you call an Iron Curtain." And six years after breaking out of Memphis, the band is as full of projects as East Berlin after the wall came down. They have a No. 1 modern rock single in "Always" from System, they're writing music for video game soundtracks, including EA Sports Tiger Woods 2003, and vocalist Josey Scott scored three Grammy nominations for "Hero," a collaboration with Nickelback's Chad Kroeger from the Spider-Man soundtrack.

And if Nickelback is the de facto big dawg of the nü-metal scene, Saliva is eagerly drooling at its heels. Each has more compelling arrangements and more proficient chops than the cacophonous coven of Creed clones. On System, most of Saliva's arrangements are especially tightly woven, yet they leave enough space to blend in various genres while remaining radio-friendly and treacle-free. On "Famous Monsters," a lush mid-1980s Britpop feel prevails, and in "Pride" the band hits all cylinders with burning ascending riffs coupled with Scott's descending melody line. There's even an old-school, no-frets-barred guitar solo on "Superstar II," courtesy of lead guitarist Wayne Swinney. Considering the aversion that modern-era rock guitar players have to cutting loose, it's more than refreshing -- it's startling.

"We already had more solos than most bands were doing even with our first album," says D'abaldo. "When you have a badass like Wayne, you let him out."

For his part, D'abaldo first picked up a guitar and started playing by ear around the same age that he began getting "conglomerated" near Elvis Presley's old stomping grounds. "My family had moved to Tennessee from Pensacola, Florida, and man, that was something to be in that serious hardcore backwoods music scene," he recalls. "But it's a misconception that Memphis is just another Nashville, because it's more steeped in blues and rock."

As a kid, D'abaldo's bedroom walls were festooned with posters of Ozzy Osbourne and Mötley Crüe. Despite Memphis being the home of B.B. King and Al Green, it was musicians from afar like these who captivated him. "It was seeing Randy Rhoads that convinced me I had to get my first guitar and amp, and seeing Nikki Sixx and Ozzy that made me want to be a rock star," he says.

And now D'abaldo has the rare privilege of performing on a song written for his band by one of his heroes, albeit with lukewarm results; "Rest in Pieces" came from the pen of none other than Mr. Sixx. The Crüe bassist noticed that Scott can handle the banshee wails, harmonies, breathless raps and falsettos it calls for, and figured he would be the best guy to sing it. Famous author or no, it came out as one of the least memorable tracks on the disc.

Of course, one reason Scott can reach those highs and plumb those depths is that D'abaldo, Swinney and bassist Dave Novotny lowered the tuning of their top strings a half-step to D-flat from nü-metal's ubiquitous drop-D, then tuned out the rest of the strings from there. That'll fix those 13-year-olds hunkered down in their bedrooms trying to cop those Saliva licks.

While the songs for System were being written, Scott was still thinking about what happened to his band in the late summer of 2001. Saliva's single at the time, "Click Click Boom" from Every Six Seconds, was nuked by radio because its title was deemed too insensitive to America's healing process. But only a few months later, rival band P.O.D.'s similarly named "Boom" hit the airwaves like a smart bomb. "Obviously our song had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks, but we took it on the chin, then they came out with 'Boom,' and our friends are all saying, 'Man, they ripped you off.' "

In "Superstar II," Scott wreaks a little revenge as he needles P.O.D. with a vitriolic swagger. "No crying-ass bitching about my wife or girlfriend, 'cause in my life I can't have either one," Scott wails, in obvious reference to the sensitive guys in their genre. For good measure, he adds, "Boom, here come the real motherfuckers from the South," in reference to the well-known tag line from P.O.D.'s "Boom."

Notes D'abaldo: "Yeah, unlike some people, we've moved way past the pain stage of rock music." And D'abaldo hopes as he embarks on this tour of temptation, the pain stage of life.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr