It's somehow fitting that the disgruntled Smith is calling from a post office in St. Louis--he appears to be just as angry as the dark, choleric music his band plays. Of course, having consumed a few malt beverages before picking up the phone didn't hurt either. In this world of poseurs, publicity machines, and flavors of the month, Smith comes across with all the sweetness of a pierced scrotum.
Give a listen to Keelhaul's recently released eponymous album, and you'll question whether the sun will come out tomorrow. The mostly instrumental, highly melodic metal on Keelhaul is not for the weak of heart. It's always aggressive, sometimes mesmerizing, and occasionally annoying--strangely similar to the method of nautical torture for which Keelhaul is named (it involves throwing someone under the ship and not caring much whether he comes up for air).
"I don't know if it's torture necessarily, but it's definitely a brutal thing to go through," Smith says of the band's music. "We don't plan on pleasing everybody. You kind of have to go through your initiation, I guess, in order to actually figure out if you'll appreciate it or not. We just tried to think of a name that was apt to what we were doing. We're musically 'keelhauling' people, I guess. We can play in front of fifty people and halfway through the set there are ten of them left. Those are the survivors."
Commercial success seems as unlikely for Keelhaul as a slot on the next H.O.R.D.E. tour. But if there's a constant sentiment among the band's members, it's that they're content in their individuality.
"The way to do it is if you're not creating the next big thing, [then] try to catch it before it burns out," Smith says. "Obviously, there's bands you could say are 'Seattle sounding' that have nothing to do with what the Seattle scene was about when it became an existing, viable musical thing. Then of course, you're left with plenty of bands who caught on a little too late to the fad. You have a swamp of crap to fuckin' listen to and bands that play who fuckin' suck.
"We've played with so many of these Korn bands, it's absolutely obscene. By the time these guys can play well enough and rip off this fad well enough, it's going to be over. So just try to pick up something else, because you're wasting your time."
Therein lies the key to whatever success Keelhaul has found. "We're just fuckin' mucking around in the bog," Smith chimes, grasping for a metaphor. "We hang out on the beach but don't really look for the wave."
Smith, who started the band a year ago with three other longtime musicians on the Northeast Ohio scene, has spent time with hard-edged bands Asphalt, False Hope, and Integrity. Guitarist Dana Embrose, bassist Aaron Dallison, and drummer Will Scharf also boast punk and hardcore roots. Scharf still plays with the area outfit Craw, which shares the local grassroots label Cambodia Records with Keelhaul and a handful of other tightly knit bands.
Keelhaul doesn't yet have a lead singer, and Smith isn't in a hurry to find one. "If we found him, yeah, but we're not looking for him," he says. "If he's playing guitar and can sing, then that's another thing. We don't really care for a singer: a guy who holds a microphone, a guy who doesn't have to load any gear, a guy who doesn't have to do anything besides look pretty and sing pretty. Fuck all that."
Sometimes the source of Smith's ire isn't clear. Perhaps it's the result of toiling in the rarely glorified heavy-metal scene. Perhaps it's because Keelhaul hit a pothole somewhere on its six-week tour of the Midwest. Or maybe it's just the natural persona of an anti-establishment musician who couldn't care less about commercial viability.
"We aren't really trying to do anything," Smith claims. "But we actually are doing something. We're trying to write some music that comes out of our heads, that we care about and are into. If we're doing something else, please tell us. It's not hard to figure out what we're doing.
"Critics, we don't expect them to pick up on it," Smith adds. "There's no message here. We're not thinking we're pioneering anything. We don't have any kind of thought that we're doing something completely intense and new and groundbreaking. Not in the least. Cutting edge, I don't know what's cutting edge."
Keelhaul CD Release Party. Saturday, November 14, Euclid Tavern, 11629 Euclid Ave., $5, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.