They did it
Chaotic, crazy, and making a great noise could the Cuts be the Bay Area's last rock band?
By Kimberly Chun
The signs are wafting through the air like thick clouds of Humboldt Gold chased by swigs of Old Granddad and flying eight-tracks of Kiss and Alice Cooper. It's a hefty burden to shoulder, to be sure, but after spending time with the Cuts in person and on record, it's clear: They may be the Bay's last rock band. Sounds a bit hyperbolic, but read the tea leaves and count your chickens because the OaklandSF band looks like the end of a line. (After spending some quality time with the group, it's easy to make out the end of your tether.)
I can hear the wails of disbelief now: Bull dookie, you blinkered cock rocker. Look to Comets on Fire's space jams, Green Day's punk pop, and just look, will you? Train's well-mannered AOR.
But who else has the sheer will to embrace chaos? Who else cultivates a jumpy, jittery jukebox skittishness that stumbles over its nervously shaking shoe to get the rock out? Who else reaches for the fast, hard, and kick-ass with utterly straight-faced chutzpah as well as a soulfulness that is too bone deep to scoff at? Just don't bother knocking when the dressing room is rocking with the Cuts.
Instead, come right in, like the kids who are decked out in vintage garb with dyed black hair and smudged eyeliner, who are slouching around the room, holding up the walls, and mutely studying the Cuts as they are being interviewed or holding raucous conversations of their own. Don't tell the band the bar is closed (because that's the way to end an interview abruptly).
The Cuts step over each other's lines it's like talking to a rambunctious class of bright, Ritalin-deprived, antsy 13-year-olds who leapfrog from subject to subject and then fan out and yell over their neighbors' sentences. It's band repartee taken to a maddening degree with the riffing, jabbing, joking, belly-rubbing, pipe-passing, and hooting tumbling like dice. If they aren't "nut jobs," as vocalist-guitarist Andy Jordan puts it, then they'll certainly turn a listener into one.
SOUL AND SHIT STIRRERS
Heartfelt and hard-rocking in their ambition on record and onstage, and unfocused and anarchic in their partying offstage those contradictions are a big part of why the band's new, third album, From Here on Out (Birdman), is so brilliant. Making the album is one act the band can point to and proudly giggle, "The Cuts did it," the same phrase bandied about all too often in clubland back in the day, as former Parkside booker and ex-Guardian contributor John O'Neill once wrote. Perhaps a Lennon and McCartney allusion isn't quite accurate, but nonetheless the album's song credits come down almost evenly between Jordan and vocalist-keyboardist Dan Aaberg. The former's rockier songs are informed by his love of late-'70s punk rock, when it still included both words and served as the piss-scented meeting ground between Television's nervy, anxious guitar orchestrations (see the Cuts' "Demons"), Iggy Pop and MC5's power exchanges ("I'm Not Down"), and New York Dolls train-wreck theatricality and gender-jamming ("Out Here in Space"), while the latter's balladry revisits the cool, spacious expanses of Fleetwood Mac's Bare Trees ("Next to Nothing"), soul-stirring Muscle Shoals sounds ("One Last Hurrah"), and the refined filigrees of the Left Banke and '60s AM pop ("Lemonade").
In toto, you get the impression that the Cuts are revealing the depths and dimensions of their collective, cacophonous soul with From Here on Out. They lay down the signposts of deep record collections with careful attention despite all that ADD to musical detail.
But why listen to me when the real Cut-ups are all around, vaulting into your lap and pretending to punch each other in the chops? At times they're more a gang than a band. Their music "sounds like the softest pillow and the sharpest knife all at once," Jordan guffaws. To Aaberg, 24, "It sounds like the colony of life-forms that live on Mount Shasta called the Lumerians, the sound of pure light in different forms."
It's hard to take it all seriously, yet the Cuts are sincere, on one lightly buried level, judging from the album and the band's half-life, which has seen them go from teenaged punks to a unit that has managed to stay together through moves, fights, and abrupt departures. They've opened for Black Keys on tour and, says Jordan, "played thousands of shows. Dude, we played sooo many fuckin' shows." That may not have resulted in world renown, but it has tested their commitment: From Here on Out is the result of three albums rolled into one. "We made a pastoral folk album, an XTC-like new wave album, and a rock album," drummer-vocalist Garrett Goddard, 26, says. "And we decided to put out a mixture of all three."
Utilizing strings, horns, and organ (by Aaberg's brother Michael, who has worked with the Coup and Goapele), the Cuts recorded most of the album at Cotati's Prairie Sun with producer Matt Smith of Outrageous Cherry. "He was kind of a record-collector geek like us," Goddard says, "and he would just pace around the room and throw all these references and eat hella chocolate chip cookies and say, 'It sounds like Nilsson and the Nice and the Nazz!' " They also recorded a little at Oakland's Wallysound and remixed the tracks over the past few years since their praised second full-length, 2 Over Ten (Birdman).
"We were frustrated that our release date was pushed back," Goddard explains, "so we were just like, 'Fuck this. Let's just record these two new songs ["Demons" and "I'm Not Down"], and we'll put out a single on another label.' But as soon as Dave [Katznelson, who owns Birdman] heard those recordings, he was like, 'No, those songs are going on that album.' ... Initially I was really mad about it. But I think it was definitely a good idea."
Grand plans kept From Here on Out from coming out sooner, but why haven't the Cuts blown up like their peers the Strokes? Bad behavior?
"We're not hippies," Jordan throws out.
"Oh, I stood next to you when you were banned for life from Bottom of the Hill!" Guardian freelance photographer Neil Motteram protests, as all assembled in the dressing room shriek, "No, no, no, no, no!"
"We're back!" Jordan answers.
"We begged," Goddard says. "We begged everybody. Just give us another chance!"
But bassist Carlos Palacios looks stoic. "I didn't beg anyone."
So maybe the Cuts were just born under a bad star the one that rose over that black cloud in '98 when Palacios, 27, started a band with his friend Eric Von Ravenson, now of the Time Flys much like the one that rose over their friends the Go, who seem doomed to be remembered as the band that Jack White quit. Members like Carson Bell (of Mooney Suzuki and the Pattern) came and went, and, in 2001, the Cuts moved to Palacios's hometown of El Paso to live cheaply and work on their writing. But instead, according to Goddard, "We just ended up being more self-destructive we couldn't find things to occupy our time other than playing."
In 2002 the band recorded its last album in Memphis with the Reigning Sounds' Greg Cartwright, then returned to the Bay Area, where most of them, including ace lead guitarist Ben Brown, 28, live, in Oakland. Still, that roundabout trajectory hasn't allowed them to, say, travel to Europe. "At one time it seemed like we were a little too punk for that SF garage scene and a little too rock 'n' roll for the Oakland punk scene. We didn't fit in well anywhere," Goddard says.
For the Go, perhaps luck walked out right along with White, though Bobby Harlow surfaces in the liner notes of From Here on Out, describing it as an "intuitive masterpiece." "They're a good band that seems to have been dealt a bad lot," Goddard says later over the phone. "It's just weird; everywhere we go no one seems that into the Go." Likewise, the Cuts have a perhaps undeserved rep as "party starters and party spoilers," as one East Bay music regular put it. Translation: With the high spirits come rowdiness and breakage. The Cuts seem to have a direct line to the gods of chaos, and perhaps that's why never mind the guitars, long hair, and squirrelly behavior they seem so rock 'n' roll.
"The Cuts never 'did it,' " Jordan says. "The friends of the Cuts did it. It's always peripheral."
"We have so many friends too bad they don't buy records!" Palacios cracks. *
With Col. Knowledge and the Lickity-Splits and A Fir-Ju Well
March 29, 8 p.m.
1600 17th St., SF