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Music

Clamorous Ones

Thunderbirds Are Now! Focuses Its Ruckus Into A Groove

By Tony Ware | Posted 8/17/2005

Thunderbirds Are Now! plays the Ottobar Aug. 24.

Puppetry isn’t a bad metaphor for the music industry and the invisible forces that jerk musicians around as if they were tethered to constrictive wire. So anyone aware of the mid-’60s television show Thunderbirds—whose characters are puppets controlled through “Supermarionation,” most recently seen in the movie Team America: World Police—may wonder if Thunderbirds Are Now! is making a sly jab at industry domination with its name.

Unlike the International Rescue emergency-response service run by Thunderbirds’ Jeff Tracy and his marionette sons, the manic Detroit rockers, and their albums through art-damaged labels Action Driver and Frenchkiss, refute the plasticine and regimented. If you ask vocalist/guitarist Ryan Allen, it becomes clear Thunderbirds Are Now! isn’t out to shoulder the mantle of industry savior. The quartet’s frantic banshees are far too sarcastic and humble, and enjoy being self-deprecating almost as much as they love finding new sonic real estate for layers of brainiac blurts.

But the band is getting more focused. “When our first album came out, some of the first reviews seemed to be harsh and sometimes trying really hard to use us more as an example of new ways to coin phrases than describe us, because basically we recorded 10 fast rock songs that were pretty surface level,” Allen says of 2002’s Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief. “But we could agree with some of what was being said, because at the time we didn’t know what kind of band we’d be. We were just attempting to not have any barriers. There was a lot of goofing around and putting parts in that didn’t have to be there, but we didn’t know what else to do. So for our most recent album [2005’s Justamustache] the first thing we wanted to do was trim the fat from what was unnecessary on the first record.”

Allen and his band mates—bassist Howard Chang, drummer Mike Durgan, and keyboardist/percussionist/vocalist Scott Allen (Ryan’s brother)—operate Thunderbirds Are Now! with an appreciation of Sparks’ cheeky and buoyant melodic pulse, Frank Zappa’s absurd vamps, Elvis Costello’s neurotic jitters, and the Zombies’ soulful rave-ups, all filtered and fractured through wiry postpunk and yelping post-hardcore. The group would also be far from ashamed to admit it admires hip-hop’s swagger. All influences aren’t found in the group’s practice space and speakers, however. One peripheral but actually significant input on Thunderbirds’ sinewy compositions is Allen’s journalism-school background.

“Even when you’re writing an editorial it’s based on the idea that you are trying to communicate either an event taking place or give an opinion on something that’s already done,” Allen says. “I always felt constricted in a way, not being able to say everything I wanted. So in terms of songwriting I take that influence of feeling and attempt to make music with words that can at least be open for interpretation.

“And on the other side of that there is a way to learn how to write within confines that at the center really articulate how you feel emotionally, or gives an opinion in a form that makes sense to others,” he continues. “A lot of our songs deal with communicating the idea of being within a band—maybe not that outright, but there is the use of ‘me’ instead of ‘I,’ and ‘us’ instead of ‘we.’ Because we’re a united front, a band that comes from a place where it’s important to feel centered.”

Allen is talking about the personified place of emotion, but Thunderbirds Are Now! also comes from an actual place where the center—or lack thereof—plays a key part in creativity. No doubt Detroit has its musical legacy, (re)defining rhythm from Motown to the motorik of techno triumvirate Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson. The influence of protopunks the Stooges and MC5 is undeniable. And more recently Kid Rock, Insane Clown Posse, Eminem, the White Stripes, the Von Bondies, and Brendan Benson have blazed out from the city.

The stylistic variety originating from Detroit over the past 40 years is staggering, but in terms of breakout contemporary no-wave/“dance-punk” bands, Detroit doesn’t match up to Chicago or Brooklyn. Still, the members of Thunderbirds Are Now! are content but not complacent about their home base.

“I think that if you look at L.A., New York, Chicago, Toronto, and all those major cities, they are very progressive and have a specific approach to lifestyles,” Allen says. “Detroit, though, is a city where the downtown doesn’t compare but the actual land it covers is huge. Things move slower here because there isn’t a hyperpaced hub, you’re left more to develop out on your own, and so there’s diverse creativity surrounding this vortex. It’s cheap to live and you don’t have to worry about following what’s cutting edge. The beginnings of garage rock came from not giving a shit about how you looked or sounded, just wanting to make an impact, and Detroit inspires you to approach things that way.”

Allen sees Thunderbirds’ upbringing and surroundings as comparable to a music scene such as Baltimore’s, where there’s “room for development and improvement inspired by so much character, real life, and real people trying to survive.” Thunderbirds emerged out of this working-class, stepping-stone mentality where you “have to dig in and pound shit out,” and where “you haven’t done your job if you don’t have to change your sweaty shirt once you get offstage,” Allen says.

Allen looks to a band like Modest Mouse as inspiration, because the band “began as teenagers making jagged music in the beginning, then matured as songwriters and expanded their tastes till they found a poppy edge and progressed naturally over 10 years till they blew up.” Basically, Modest Mouse’s members weren’t puppets. Allen says Thunderbirds Are Now! aspires to the same arc, and already sees the forward progression of the group’s slashing darts taking place from Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief to Justamustache, as well as to newer material still to be recorded.

“This ‘new’ album is already a year old from writing, and we’re still proud of it, and people have said it might as well be our first album,” Allen says. “I feel good about that, because people think it is our first real statement. Now we’re more comfortable than when we were banging on pots and pans in a basement, and plan to continue working with and performing for people who are in to the same type of music we’re making, which is really almost all types.”

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