Revenge of the Nerds

Brand the guys in Nerf Herder misfits, and they won't argue with you about it -- they know as much. It's no coincidence, after all, that both halves of the California band's name share more than a few letters with "nerd." Head Herder Parry Gripp relishes unhip implications; geeks are the heroes in his songs.

"I'm not the one you dream about, and I'm not the one you can't live without," proclaims guitarist Gripp on "Golfshirt," from Nerf Herder's juvenile self-titled debut CD. Just as he's about to dissolve in his own self-pity, along comes a ringing power-pop chorus drenched in three-part harmonies: "When you're tired of all the jerks, and you're tired of all the work, and you're tired of being hurt / You will long for the comfort of my golf shirt." Then there's the shrill but catchy single "Van Halen," which couples a verbal dismembering of former VH singer Sammy Hagar ("Dave lost his hairline, but you lost your cool, buddy / 'Can't Drive 55,' I'll never buy your lousy records again") with a well-chosen progression of punk-anthem power chords to ram home its dorky accusation of rock-god betrayal.

When they're not whining about being behind the hip curve, or proudly stating their case for eradicating all forms of body art (no tattoos, no piercings), the guys in Nerf Herder try, in vain, to rub salve on some embarrassing memories. With "Sorry," Gripp renders repeated apologies to an ex-girlfriend ("Sorry I showed at your party / Sorry I drank up all the Bacardi / Sorry I puked up on your bedspread / Sorry I jacked off outside of your window while you were sleeping / I thought you'd never know"), capping off a litany of self-pity by confessing simply, "What can I do? It's over ... I am the loser."

Apparently, a true Nerf Herder has no shame.
"[We're] not trying to cover up anything," says drummer Steve Sherlock, whose own misadventures with women color many of Gripp's lyrics. "I started wearing my glasses, for instance, because my contact lenses were seriously bugging my eyes. I was actually in a glam band for a while in the late 1980s, but I was a nerd trying to be glam. [Now] I feel like I'm being myself."

Identity issues solved, the members of Nerf Herder have proven to be quite business-savvy in their own plaid-polyester way. The band and its friends at San Francisco's My Records finagled "Van Halen" into just the right hands, which resulted in it getting onto the airwaves in a major market and, from there, into heavy rotation on modern-rock stations all across the country. Next up: the release of Nerf Herder on Arista Records, which late last year emerged the victor in a major-label bidding war over the band.

Nerf Herder is novelty cool today the way the Presidents of the United States of America were novelty cool back in '95, and there are distinct similarities between the two bands. Both happen to be good-natured power trios, and both like to downplay the implications of their fast and efficient craft and its off-kilter, occasionally off-color, execution. But where the boys of Nerf Herder seem to have the Presidents beat is in their sense of what makes a pop tune more than a chant-along diversion (i.e., the use of melody instead of simple repetition) and in their knowledge of when to can the shtick and just be themselves. Because really, there's more than a subtle difference between nerds who act like cutups and cutups who act like nerds, and I've always sensed that the Presidents fall into the latter group.

By contrast, very little about Nerf Herder seems forced; the band's members live what they preach. Gripp is an amateur horticulturist who grows orchids on his parents' flower farm in his spare time; Dennis collects action figures and is partial to Marvel Comics superheroes; and Sherlock's passion is PEZ dispensers.

"I have about 400 [of them]," Sherlock says proudly. "I have a full-body Santa Claus from the '50s that I love. It's just one of those flashbacks. I don't really like the candy, though."

In 1987, Camper Van Beethoven warned anyone who'd listen, "Baby don't you go, don't you go to Goleta." My old college buddy Jay would have done well to heed those words. The year Camper issued that musical advisory, Jay flew west from New York to visit a friend at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The school happens to be in Goleta, a rather uptight ocean-side hamlet just north of the small city for which the institution is named. His first evening there, Jay idled a bit too long at a stop sign to retrieve a pizza that had slid from the passenger seat of his rental car; it earned him a night in the local police station's drunk tank. Thanks to a blood-alcohol level a hair over the legal limit, he spent the remainder of his senior year flying back and forth between New York and Santa Barbara to clear his name.

The point of this tale -- other than, of course, don't drink and drive -- is that Goleta is hardly a hands-off-the-students -type college town. Then again, it isn't quite the magnet for "fascist rich kids" Camper Van Beethoven describes in "(Don't You Go to) Goleta," either. After all, it's home to Nerf Herder. And Steve Sherlock -- who, by the way, has never heard the Camper song -- is halfway proud of his hometown. Sure, he says, it's clean-cut and conservative, but so is everyone in Nerf Herder. And besides, locals know enough to hoof it when they imbibe, thus avoiding the stiff arm of local law enforcement.

"We played what we call 'Hey, mister.' We'd get a transient to buy us a 12-pack of Schaeffer, and we'd run over to the cliffs and drink it -- have like two beers and act super drunk," Sherlock remembers of his boozing in high school. "Then we'd raid a few of the fraternity keg parties."

Fun times with friends aside, Sherlock says the folks in Goleta -- or in Santa Barbara proper, for that matter -- had little to do with Nerf Herder's rise to prominence. A little over a year ago, Sherlock was working as a screen printer and nursing only modest expectations for his new band, which had congealed in late 1994 out of the remains of another power trio and taken its name from an insult uttered during a spat between Princess Leia and Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back (hence the group's Star Wars-style logo). Six months later, they recorded an eight-song demo, mostly for the purpose of handing out to friends. "We did it for like $100. We loved it; we thought it was the greatest thing," recalls Sherlock.

From the start, Nerf Herder confidant Marko (one name preferred) loved the group's grinningly aggressive Descendents-cum-Beach Boys approach to music. At the time, Marko was in the process of founding My Records in San Francisco, and he easily convinced his partner, Joey Cape, to include a Nerf Herder tune on My Records's

Happy Meals compilation. After that, says Sherlock, Cape "really didn't think much about us for a while" -- that is, until Marko played him an old demo version of "Van Halen" over the phone.

Cape loved the song, and funds were hastily accumulated for a full-length Nerf Herder debut. The band went into the studio with Cape and musician/producer Ryan Green, of NOFX fame, behind the boards. "Van Halen" was chosen as the disc's first single, and a week after a personalized push from a My Records rep, the song was winning over radio listeners in San Francisco. With the speed of a brush fire, "Van Halen" spread to other cities, and Nerf Herder had a hit on their hands. The deal with Arista was icing on the cake.

Nerf Herder hasn't been the only act on My Records to grab the attention of bigger suitors. The label has turned into major-label feeding ground, as DGC, Maverick and Virgin swooped in to snatch up other bands -- Snot, Summer Camp and Silver Jet, respectively -- that appeared on Happy Meals.

"It's really weird," says Sherlock, whose late-'80s glam days were spent with Luke Tierney, now the lead singer of Silver Jet, which has a Virgin debut due this month. "During junior high school, there were like two bands around here. It's not that people started noticing Santa Barbara, it's more like the bands just started getting better."

Somewhat the exception, Nerf Herder had never been a favorite around its own town. Truth be told, says Sherlock, the band left its rehearsal garage only occasionally to perform live in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. "I remember we played a couple parties for the history department at UCSB," says Sherlock. "But they were duds."

A hit, however, can do wonders for a band's reputation -- or lack thereof.
"There's even some frat people that come to our shows now and jump up and down," muses Sherlock. "Any song where you're talking about jacking off, taking LSD, drinking or the 'f' word, the kids are gonna love it. It doesn't actually matter what the lyrics mean."

Waxing a bit self-conscious for a Nerf Herder, aren't we Steve?

Nerf Herder opens for the Bloodhound Gang Monday, March 24, at the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $7, 21 and up; $9, minors. For info, call 225-0500.

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.
Hobart Rowland