The SSM rock 'n' roll fable begins like so many: Two music-loving dudes putting back beers at a house party following a rock show in a desperate Midwestern town. In this instance, the dudes were John Szymanski of the Hentchmen and the Paybacks, and Marty "Mother" Morris of the Cyril Lords. And they were plotting a rock opera.
"We had talked about it for a while," says Morris with a lost-in-thought stare.
The rock opera went nowhere. But in the summer of 2005, when the Hentchmen were in the midst of downtime, Szymanski knew just who to call to help flesh out some songs he'd written. They didn't strut the chugging, chicks and cars ethos of the Hentchmen; they were strange and diverse sketches that mined broader, darker influences. In other words, this was Szymanski and then Morris too trying to reach beyond the rock 'n' roll landscape they'd long pored over.
Enter drummer Dave Shettler, whose recent CV includes stints with the Sights and R&B singer Nathaniel Mayer. But he's also manned rhythm for the Toledo-spawned experimental pop-meets-Joe Jackson band Koufax.
Szymanski and Morris gave him a tryout. The fit was right, and Shettler validated Szymanski and Morris' experimental path. Plus, he had electronics, music machines and other sound toys.
So the band settled in and started playing. The music brought out new wrinkles in each man.
Some were so basic, like effects pedals, which Morris had never used before. "This band has brought out my most psychedelic playing," he says.
Others changes were more subtle, such as the shift from the almost-ironic distance in Hentch and Cyril Lords songs to intimate expressions of pain, agitation and isolation. That Szymanski's voice sounds like it's about to fall apart only adds to the sense of desperation, as does Morris when he sings about being "sick as a shit-fed mule" or a "snot-nosed kid in a public pool" on the stomping and swinging "Sick."
"Exit Strategy," on the other hand, is just a ragged-nerve freakout. Behind the bash-'n'-beer-hall bonhomie of Hentch recordings, Szymanski's a hardcore Devo-tee who harbored a fascination for Gary Numan, and was a follower of such krautrock giants as Can. And "Ain't Love" is one of the catchiest grooves for a song about obsessive love: The main character hires detectives at the advice of his mother to "watch you watch your flowers grow."
"It really does seem like trying to express something that dark or dangerous or whatever," Szymanski says.
"But we still play a 12-bar blues," says Morris. "But we do something a little different with it."
When you've spent 14 years on the DIY circuit, as Szymanski has (and as Shettler and Morris have, for that matter), you're going to end up with a gang of creative enablers who've got your back.
"We've made a lot of friends and kind of called in favors from a lot of those friends," says Szymanski.
He'd just wrapped up a tour with Akron blues-rock duo the Black Keys and casually mentioned to Keys' guitarist Dan Auerbach that he wanted to make a record with him.
And, with 11 shows (including a party in Szymanski's basement) played over a month, the trio headed for the city that BF Goodrich built and Devo made famous. They quickly recorded 12 tunes. The result is LP1 a demo of good 'n' rockin' strangeness.
"After we got done recording, we opened for the Black Keys at Beachland Tavern," recalls Morris, "and by the time we finished the second song of our sound check, it had already been decided that we were going to go on tour with them."
The purists who gravitated to the Hentch party vibe have found their tastes tested, though. One longtime Hentch fan gave the record an open ear until he heard the drum machine kick in on "Ain't Love."
But that kind of exploration is a huge part of SSM's charm.
"I've never really written a dance song before, a real dance song," says Szymanski. "But the other day, Dave was playing 'White Horse,' and that's just one of the greatest keyboard lines."
The result of said old-school synthspiration? A new jam called "Juice Box" about trying to keep the party going by keeping the jukebox well fed.
But the overt dance song may be more exception than rule.
"These aren't good times," says Shettler flatly. "It doesn't make sense to make music that's about having fun when there's so much horrible stuff happening every day."
Something's clicking, though. SSM's demo has been reviewed favorably in The New York Times and The Village Voice. Auerbach's patronage helped bring SSM to the attention of L.A.'s Alive! Records, and last month SSM signed a deal for their debut album.
So the trio recently holed up at producer Chris Koltay's High Bias studio in Corktown to try to nail the magic of Akron one more time.
"It was tense, and sometimes not in a productive way," says Shettler.
But having heard the rough mixes, the band members are happy with the rerecordings of LP1's tunes (as well as four new cuts).
SSM (at the moment, the acronym stands for Send Some Money) will be traveling to Austin for South by Southwest, taking their last-stand mentality straight into the belly of the music industry beast. After that? With a band whose drummer claims he's already trying to invent his way out of a job, who knows?
"I want to just play a table full of machines rhythm and noise machines," he says diagramming the table in the air.
"You know, like Simeon from Silver Apples," finishes Szymanski.
"Yeah, we're looking for a drummer," grins Shettler.Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]