A Bronx tale

Together only nine months, LA riff-and-clank quartet the Bronx blew straight out of the gate in a downpour of record-deal offers and foamy accolades. After only the band’s second gig, a heady record-company bidding war ensued — the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Tinseltown since the Knack drew every shaky-handed major-label checkbook to Hollywood almost 25 years ago. And the Bronx could easily have swindled mucho major label lucre and trotted off into the sunset like the James Gang after a payroll raid on the Transcontinental Railroad. The band could have, but they didn’t. Instead, they chose a van and a trailer, some money for rent and gear, and, ultimately, an autonomous relationship with their label, Island Records.

The Bronx couldn’t be accused of overseeing some calculated exercise to filch maximum cash from a corporate giant; rather, the band and their manager figured a way to use a record company for the band’s needs, and not the other way around.

There’s been no mammoth marketing attack to get their faces seen everywhere, and no exasperating label publicist ringing every other day to hawk a band he/she could give a shit about. The Bronx, however naively, still believe that rock ’n’ roll can be a revolutionary force. Hence their knuckle-hoisting, self-titled debut full-length, which is out next month, and their just-released EP (The Bats), each on their own imprint (not associated with Island), White Drugs. They will continue to release 7-inchers even after their first Island record next year.

The unprecedented deal gives the Bronx a chance to build a following without quarterly numbers that need to be hit. It’s a deal befitting a punk-rock band in the traditional sense of the word. Wow.

Last rockers

“Oh, my god, we’re about to crash,” shouts Bronx guitarist-founder Joby J. Ford into his mobile phone. Ford is in a van with his band mates (bassist James Tweedy, singer Matt Caughthran and drummer Jorma Vik) leaving New York City. “Slow down. Oh, Tweedy, who is that girl right there? What’s her name? We know that girl. I know that chick. ...”

Another punk band in another dumb van on another blank tour in another stupid town coming to a fetid club near you. One of a million, right? Hit snooze, roll over and sleep some more. Well, not really. The Bronx, fortified with literate blasts of hooky ire, are simply doing it the old-fashioned way.

See, despite the industry hoopla (including a January 2003 Rolling Stone pick hit) — and unlike recent, industry-buzzed “real deal” ha-ha’s like the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, Jesse Malin, White Light Motorcade, et al. — the Bronx are actually good. Really good.

Ford doesn’t speak a bunch of music industry bullshit either. Despite the six-stringed chaos he generates in the Bronx, the 27-year-old (“I’m the old man of the band”) is a frank and lucid conversationalist, a kind of benevolent Johnny Rotten. He understands that rock ’n’ roll is supposed to be an impassioned sonic vocabulary. He takes it seriously.

As a kid, Ford grew up reading skate-punk magazines in Grand Junction, Colo., and his only link to the exterior world was the DIY mythology bestowed upon him by bands like Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag and Appetite for Destruction-era GN’R.

“When I was growing up, the only records I could get my hands on were records that were advertised in thrasher magazines: Black Flag and skate-rock comps and shit like that,” Ford says. “My parents didn’t have cable.”

Ford — who went to college on a baseball scholarship and emerged with a degree in graphic design — held loyal to the zine ethos where music is considered more for emotional chemistry than commercial imagery.

“But things started changing and bands were getting signed because they looked good — where the focus kind of moved away from what is important to more surface things that don’t really matter.”

Eight years ago, Ford and Tweedy met in LA and played in a mess of punk-rock misfires. Having similar record collections never fails to bring people together. Caughthran and Vik joined last fall.

“The focus that we’ve always — in the short time that we’ve been together, anyway — applied is the music is first,” Ford continues.

The band’s debut, The Bronx, is all bovine riffs and entirely backward-gazing “revivalist” chord changes propped up with literate, often skeptical lyrical views of self and how one plays into an American society in which people feel increasingly powerless. There’s a disconsolateness that is like Los Angeles, that sounds like the decrepit, reverie-gone-sour Hollywood circa the ’70s: sticky porn theaters and sinking lives, heifers and graft. Think X on meth, or a limpid, more melodic Black Flag. And like any great rock singer worth his weight in adenoids, Caughthran’s chop-shop vocals sound as if a 15-minute live set would do him in.

Erstwhile Guns N’ Roses guitarist and Bronx producer Gilby Clarke says the band is one of the best things to come out of LA in years.

“I really like it because they’re honest, they’re doing it for all the right reasons,” he says. “They did the whole record basically live, every song in less than three takes.”

Rock ’n’ roll swindle

Of his move that pitted A&R folk against each other like pawns in a greasy-fingered chess game, Crush Media Management’s Jonathan Daniel says getting the band signed was rather simple. Daniel wooed a cadre of A&R guys from New York to see the band’s second show in LA “because the LA A&R guys will go ‘Why are all these guys from New York here?’”

“The second show we played was jam-packed,” says Ford. “I
didn’t really know that it was gonna be. Jonathan didn’t tell us, I just thought there were a lot of old people in the crowd. Jonathan’s like, ‘Yeah, dude, those are A&R people.’ After that I felt sick.”

Nine labels made offers. Nine. Daniel’s Malcolm McLaren-worthy maneuver illustrates the labels’ herd mentality. As long as other labels are making offers, the band must be great.

Daniel, who in the past has been in bands signed to majors, is not just some loquacious Svengali — he knew the band was great.

“Major labels are good at selling a lot of records,” says Daniel. “What they like is a shiny new penny. There’s a lot of money spent, blown into disappointment on bands that don’t have any sort of following, they’re just signed to major labels and then they disappear.

“We didn’t take a boat load of money but we chose to do some things that will hopefully make the band more money — and be smarter — in the long term. We could’ve just said, ‘OK, we want $600,000 a record.’ We could’ve gone crazy. That’s not what the band wanted.”

The Bronx got a $150,000 advance from Island.

Career opportunities

The Bronx still stand against what Courtney Love recently and accurately described as the “executive culture” — where the execs are more important than the artists, where the ego of a label president is more important than myriad artist’s careers.

And much yak and ink has been exhibited over what is “authentic” and, therefore, what is “manufactured.”

“I have nothing against corporate music, at all,” Ford says emphatically. “There is a lot of impure corporate music. And just because a band is signed to a major label, does that ultimately make them a certain kind of band? No.

“So Island is excited, and they are so helpful. Of all the labels they were definitely a cut above anybody we ever met with. We’re not buying new cars or clothes or anything.”

What about tour sponsorship?

Tour sponsorship “is crap,” continues Ford. “We don’t do it. I mean, Jesus Christ.” His voice climbs with a measure of defensiveness, and he adds hastily, “I mean, none of us have had any money. We don’t even sleep in hotels. We always try to sleep in the van when we can. I got news for you, man, touring is the easiest thing in the world. ... We ride in the van, we set up our gear, we play, we party. None of us in the band need a huge tour bus or a massive hotel room to do that. To me I’d feel pretty cheap and pretty dumb if I did that because that’s not who we are or what I am.”

With the weight of expectations that inevitably befall a band on a major, particularly in the wake of an industry-hyped shitstorm, the Bronx — as loudmouthed keepers of the flame — are in an unenviable position: They could be the desirable, out of control party-girl who three years later is a cautionary tale. Starting out with principled idealistic stipulations, which, depending on how important or unimportant money is to you, can go either way.

“The only thing I can really say about us backing up our thoughts and our beliefs is when I got into music it was completely different than it is today,” says Ford. “I just remember that I used to go see bands, and they were ugly, and they didn’t have good fashion but their music was so amazing. And the music was the only thing that people cared about.”


The Bronx will perform Thursday, July 24, at St. Andrew’s Hall (431 E. Congress, Detroit) with GBH and Circle Jerks. For info, call 313-961-MELT.

Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]