- Apparently, the Blood Brothers have acquired cloning technology.
"We have a serious hex on our band," confides an exasperated Johnny Whitney, singer and keyboardist for the Blood Brothers. Whitney's been hard to contact since the band's record label, V2, ceased operation in January, just months after the release of Young Machetes, the Brothers' best collection of art-damaged hardcore to date. Interestingly enough, ArtistDirect Records, the band's previous label, pulled a similar disappearing act four years ago, following Burn Piano Island, Burn.
"Now we need to negotiate with both of those labels to get out of our contract," Whitney explains. "We've been talking to some bigger indie labels, and hopefully, we'll get our whole catalog off the cursed major labels."
One of the more unusual acts to find itself on a major label (twice!) since the Melvins, the Seattle quintet got swept up in the majors' initial enthusiasm for emocore, even though the Blood Brothers' sound shares more in common with the squeaking dissonance of Sonic Youth, while their penchant for neck-snapping turnarounds and sudden tempo changes feels like a cacophonous strain of Dillinger Escape Plan's spastic math-metal.
In 2002, ArtistDirect inked the Blood Brothers and assigned them producer Ross Robinson (Korn, Slipknot), who delivered the busy, overloaded ADD-fest Burn Piano Island, Burn.
"I think there are certain members of the band who would regret the whole ArtistDirect/Ross Robinson thing, but I don't regret it at all," admits Whitney. "We got to hang out on Venice Beach every day for two months and record in this environment that we would have never -- that was so dazzling and huge and decadent. Even if eventually we ran into a lot of problems because of it.
"But I am certain in my mind that had we not signed to a major label when we did, I wouldn't be talking to you right now about Blood Brothers," Whitney continues. "At the time that we did the ArtistDirect record, we had a van that was completely shot, no money, and all of our equipment was broken. We were actually stranded in New York City with a broken van on September 11, 2001, staying at a friend's house in Brooklyn."
When ArtistDirect went belly-up, the Blood Brothers fled to V2 Records for 2004's Crime, which marked the group's first appearance on the Billboard charts. The disc demonstrated a measured approach, not as quick to bludgeon the listener into submission, even welcoming sustained stretches of melody -- as on the slow-combustion single "Love Rhymes With Hideous Car Wreck."
"When we were writing Burn Piano Island, Burn we were all listening to Yes and crazy math-rock. That was interesting and cutting-edge to us at the time, whereas upon reflection, it just kind of seems masturbatory -- or at least some of it," Whitney shrugs.
Young Machetes continues the progression of Crimes, forging song structures that, while at times odd and challenging, aren't completely arbitrary and off-putting. Where on early albums the shrieked vocals behaved as intermittent punctuation in an acid-guided run-on sentence, they've become more essential to the writing process. "I basically write my singing parts while they're writing the songs, so it's not like there's this finished piece of music that I write vocals over. It's completely integrated," Whitney says.
Young Machetes does up the tempo, however -- exchanging Crimes' haunting, nervous noir air for a slashing, steely tone that more clearly echoes the band's roots in Seattle's thriving DIY hardcore scene. In fact, there's a good chance that producer Guy Picciotto (of Fugazi) influenced the new album's sleeker profile and aggressive tone.
"He's kind of like a god," the 25-year-old Whitney confesses. "It's amazing having somebody who wrote so many records that were important to you, all during your growing up, come and critique what you're doing. Plus, he's just really a friendly, fun guy. We wasted a lot of our record company's money playing dice and watching basketball."
As the Blood Brothers continue to stretch the boundaries of their sound and incorporate more melodicism, they've fought an ongoing battle with frustrated hardcore kids that's even more pitched than it is for most underground acts. It seems as if the passion of their music translates to their fans, for whom any change is a betrayal. It's something that Whitney said used to get under his collar, but he's grown accustomed to it by now.
"When people first hear about our band, they get really attached to whatever record it is, and so almost inevitably, whenever we do anything new, I feel there's a lot of people that are just kind of 'hrumph' about it and don't embrace any of the changes," Whitney says with resignation.
Still, he doesn't believe it's appropriate to completely blow off your fans, any more than you should honor their every whim. It's the tightrope a musician walks between self-indulgence and creative bankruptcy. "You can't just do one or the other. Bands that only cater to their audience end up sounding like Fall Out Boy," says Whitney.
The irony is that the Blood Brothers are that rare underground beast -- like Hüsker Dü or Sonic Youth -- that's smart and adventurous enough to cross over to larger audiences despite their noisy, unpredictable aesthetic. Hell, Young Machetes debuted in the Billboard Top 100. But the perfect storm always seems to blow over for the Blood Brothers just short of landfall.
"I think certainly things could have worked out better for our band, and we could have been given some of the opportunities less talented bands -- not to sound like an egomaniac or anything -- had gotten. But you can't control everything, and I feel thrilled and excited to have what we have," says Whitney. "It's just weird, because I wonder what would have happened if our band had been around 10 years earlier. It's like the whole industry is in a catastrafuck right now."