It takes a minute for This Moment in Black History bassist Lawrence Daniel Caswell to remember exactly how the locally based post-punk band decided to call its new album Higher Deffer. But once he does, the dreadlocked bassist has to laugh.
"I think we came up with that just sitting around joking," he says one recent afternoon while relaxing at the Pot Belly sandwich shop near the WCPN offices where he works as a technical producer. "I think at some point we had played a show at the Happy Dog. [Singer] Chris [Kulcsar] went behind the bar and grabbed an empty bottle of wine and gave it to somebody else. They banned us. We were joking that we were 'banned in HD.' 'HD' became 'higher and deffer.' We were joking about it and it just stuck. The funny thing is that I now DJ at Happy Dog once a month and I don't know if they realize I'm in the band."
It's appropriate the album title would have come from a stream of consciousness moment. After all, This Moment in Black History was formed ten years ago during an impromptu jam. Guitarist Buddy Akita, bassist Mike Damico and singer-keyboardist Chris Kulcsar were playing as a Germs cover band when drummer Bim Thomas grabbed his kit and got into the mix; as a result, the multi-ethnic band was born. They made their debut in 2003 with the noisy The Cleveland Finger EP. Damico eventually left and Caswell, who at the time was heading up the avant-jazz outfit Vernacular, took his place. It was a perfect fit, and the band's continued unabated ever since, consistently releasing new material and embarking on short tours.
And that stream-of-consciousness spirit continues to shape the band's approach to making new music.
"We've never struggled with writing songs," says Caswell. "That's never been difficult. When the four of us get together and have a practice, we write some songs. It's like that, with no effort. Most of the time, we're plugging in our instruments and getting tuned. Buddy plays a riff and I hear that riff and do something off that. He forgets what he played and then Bim plays something and Chris comes up with lyrics and the song is done. I can't tell you how many times that has happened. At this point, we've been doing it for so long and it works so well, why stop? Chris is in New York right now but we just keep doing what we've been doing."
The fact that Akita has joined the veteran Cleveland punk act Rocket from the Tombs hasn't made a difference, either.
"I think Rocket has benefited from playing with Buddy," says Caswell when asked if he thinks This Moment has benefited from Akita's experience with Rocket. "I'm not going to say anything bad about [Rocket guitarist] Cheetah [Chrome] but you see those guys play and then you see Buddy play and he's amazing. One of my favorite reviews from our last record simply said that [Buddy] is 'just fantastic.' I totally agree with that. He's amazing. We haven't played that much together since he joined Rocket so it hasn't had an effect on us, but I'm pretty sure we had an effect on them."
Caswell says Higher Deffer was written in much the same way as the band's other albums. And yet the album is somehow more accessible. The hiccupping opening tune, "Offbrand" is plenty noisy but still retains a good melody. And the same goes for the snarling "Family Day at Euclid Beach." "Braxton Teeth" has a '60s garage rock vibe and the funky intro to "PhD's Not DT's" comes off like old school Red Hot Chili Peppers.
"In terms of planning, I'd say [Higher Deffer] is not much different than any of our previous albums," says Caswell, who adds that the band benefited from using the vintage gear at Painesville's Suma Recording. "It's not that the record is poppy but it feels a bit more poppy. I don't want to say the [accessible] word. It's shocking. I think some people might actually like it. The four of us having been playing together for a long time and I think that's a factor, but it's not a conscious decision that we've gotten better or poppier or anything."
In the past, the band has toured regionally and that's helped establish its reputation outside of town. Caswell imagines the group might play some out of town dates in early 2013 but doesn't feel as compelled to go on the road.
"Logistics are the funny part," he says when asked about touring. "Chris is in New York. Everybody in the band but Chris has a daughter. We're not trying to put out a record and not play shows. I like [indie rock act] Oneida's model. I've been talking about those guys for years as a good example. They don't live in the same city. They put out a record and tour for maybe two weeks. They've been doing that for 15 years. I feel like that's our future, if not our present. You do need to tour right now but it's not like the only way to get heard."
One thing that is certain: It's just as hard to pin down the group's sound as it ever was. Some songs have a distinctly garage rock feel to them, while others could be considered punk or even hardcore. Whatever the case, Caswell doesn't think the inability to pigeonhole the group into a specific genre is a real problem.
"We're essentially playing punk rock music but we listen to different things," he says. "I also feel like [genre] matters less now than ever before. To find a band, you don't have to know a genre. It's just a title and Google. That's good for us because you can describe what the band sounds like and it doesn't tell you what the band is going to sound like when you come to the show. It's hard to describe us —not because are really unique — but just because not a lot of bands sound like us."