On the cover of Love, Not Reason, the Paybacks' third album, vocalist-guitarist Wendy Case grips the fancy red top of a heart-shaped box, the kind with chocolates inside. And it's on fire.
"I had this big box of frilly hearts from when I was a kid," Case says. "My boyfriends would get me them for Valentine's Day. But I realized something when we were making the new record I had to start letting some of this stuff go. I was trying to get a grip, put some old shit away, start living in the present, and this was the past. So I said, 'Let's burn these up.'"
Since their inception five years ago, the Paybacks have always been about the bash and swagger, and the aim to out-Nugent Ted Nugent. Their new album delivers those moments "Call When You're Ready" is full of Cat Scratch Fever blister, and "Shotgunn" (two N's, please) stomps into its chorus like it's holding a grudge against the verse. But Case's voice has never sounded rawer than on the latter, either. "I'm still alive!" she screams, and it sounds like she's trying to expunge a rusty pipe cleaner from her esophagus. Love, Not Reason gives you the thrills. But after a few listens it's clear that there's something else going on here too. (Full disclosure: Case is an infrequent contributor to Metro Times.)
Case's ego and demons have always been the twin motors behind the Paybacks' music her songs explore pleasure, pain, temptation and self-fulfillment in the length of a chorus, two or three verses, and a guitar solo. And maybe they started winning a long time ago, but by the middle of 2005, Case's demons were closing in on a victory.
"Anyone who's been binge drinking for 25 years and suddenly stops can tell you that it's like riding a fucking bronco," Case says, sitting at the dining-room table in her somewhat startlingly domestic Ferndale bungalow. The only nod to rock 'n' roll in the room is a cream-colored electric guitar, propped in a corner like an off-duty exclamation point. "But when you've done everything in your adult life in a constant state of inebriation which I did to make this record sober, and have it actually come out is special."
"Love, Not Reason still sounds like a Paybacks album," she continues. "It just doesn't go down as easy as the other two."
It was summer 2005, and the Paybacks Case, lead guitarist Danny Methric, bassist-organist John Szymanski (who has since departed, replaced by Dave "Malarsh" Malosh) and drummer Bill Hafer had wrapped up a European tour in support of Harder and Harder, their sophomore album and last for Pittsburgh indie Get Hip. And Case was in bad shape.
"By the time I got back from Spain I realized I was death-drinking," she says. "I knew I was out of control; it was one of those things where you're drinking more but enjoying it less. It wasn't a party anymore."
She'd always been the ringleader of the Paybacks' raucous live shows. With Methric's manic knee bends and note-exploding guitar solos as her foil, Case would stalk the center of the stage, usually wearing a glittered cocktail dress to further prime the combustible dynamic between her sexuality and hard rock 'n' roll. But the performance had been at the price of self-destruction.
"This creature that I had created is the genuine me," she says. "I really am a fuckup. But if I had continued like that, I was going to become the biggest cliché in the world. I was going to do what happens to everybody that does this. You wind up fucked-up and stupid, and then you die."
Case was hiding out in Mexico when she finally realized that she had to change. "I'd been drinking for like a week," she says. "I was in this beautiful hut, in a beautiful place, but I was alone. I was all by myself, and I realized that I couldn't stand to be there. I'd lost touch with who I was."
She'd also been writing songs during her struggle to get clean, but not surprisingly they weren't the group's usual super-'70s anthems. "I didn't know if anything I was writing was useful for us in the big fat, party-rock arena," she says. "But when Johnny Szymanski listened to some of it with me, he pretty much held my hand and said, 'The Paybacks are whatever you say they are.' He really was the one who pushed me."
The Paybacks recorded their third record over a weekend in Chicago, unsure of what they'd get but willing to make a go at Case's new songs. They had been painful, emotional things for her to write, and her newfound sobriety was still on eggshells. But as Love, Not Reason proves, the experience was cathartic.
It takes awhile to warm up to the album, and Case acknowledges that. "At the very top of it is all this vulnerable stuff. But as it gets to what would be the second side, it gets a lot more boisterous. There's the swagger of the Paybacks, and that's in there. But it's grounded by all of this confusing stuff because that's what was really happening at the time."
Case's demons surface throughout Love, Not Reason "Every time that I fall/It's the first time," goes "Bring it Back" and there's also the very real sense that hearts were not only burned during this album's writing, but broken too. "There's a stranger in the house/Is it you or is it me?" Case asks in "Stranger in the House," and it's not made clear whether she means a lover or the monkey on her back.
The album alternates between quiet and loud, until it gets to the point where it's just loud, and then you stop wondering about Case and the Paybacks' motivation, and start remembering why this band is so good. "Painkiller" begins as a halting, almost tender blues song before devolving into a stoned jam session, one where Methric figures out how to sustain his high for what seems like forever, milking a bent note for every ounce of sonic juice. ("It's a one-chord solo that goes on for three and a half minutes," Case says. "I didn't know how to end it, anyway. I told the guys I wanted to hear sort of a Moby Grape kinda thing happen, where the song reaches its own logical conclusion.") "Divided by Two" hurtles on the edge of its careening treble, and "Like a Man" ensures the album's tail end will be as stinging and satisfying as the ragged combo of voice and guitar that opened the whole thing. The Paybacks are back, and even if they've lived and hurt a little since we last heard from them (and who hasn't?), flaws and conflict have a way of leading to satisfying rock 'n' roll.
The Paybacks just got back from a tour, and plan on playing a few shows locally before heading back out again in January, likely to Europe. They released Love, Not Reason on their own, but with the benefit of a distribution deal through Redeye, meaning the record will be available wherever they need it to be.
As for Case, she's a realist. "I don't make any big decrees about whether I'm now sober for the rest of my life," she says. "But I haven't had alcohol since a year ago in July, so it was kind of shaky for me to go out and tour. I've never done it sober, ever, in my adult life. So I thought, 'Am I going to be able to sleep in a freezing-cold van in a gas station parking lot at 4 a.m. soaked with sweat, and not be drunk? And still be happy doing it at 43 years old?'"
She smiles. "I felt better about it than I ever felt in my life."
Johnny Loftus is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]