"We had a trash can laying around and didn't have money for a drum kit and it sounded pretty good," guitarist Nick Campbell, 27, says in explanation.
The Blast Rocks!!! -- Anderson, Campbell, and 22-year-old keyboardist Sandra Yang -- are sitting patiently in the Presidio Bowling Alley lounge, waiting for their lane number to be called. The trio doesn't quite fit in here, among the J. Crew-clothed yuppies and the vacated military quarters. Actually, the band has the most in common with the aging counter jockey who calls out, "I forgot your name but you tipped me real good," when someone's chicken wings are ready. Two of the three bandmates are sporting helter-skelter haircuts that would give mope-rocker and bad-hair practitioner Elliott Smith pause.
But that's what rock 'n' roll is all about, right? Looking like you haven't had to time to fix your hair since you had sex in the bathroom five minutes ago. But the Blast Rocks!!! are different. The band members don't want to sell a million records, play the Fillmore, or hang out with strippers; they just want to have fun. And sing about zombies and bash on trash cans. Oh, and if something subversive comes out of the goofy racket they make, that's fine, too.
The Blast Rocks!!! wouldn't exist if it weren't for Ms. Pac-Man. Nick Campbell was addicted to the video game, and in late 1998 he began playing a tabletop version at Gaylord's Cafe Espresso on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. Heather Anderson worked at the cafe, and one day she challenged Campbell to a duel. They hit it off -- and began trying to write a Ms. Pac-Man song.
Campbell had moved to the Bay Area from Albuquerque in the summer of 1997 and was already in a band with his friend Will Eskridge. "We were fed up with take-yourself-serious types of bands and wanted to do something fun -- fun to watch, fun to be in," Campbell says.
One day in March 1999, Campbell took Anderson to Eskridge's house in the Tenderloin to try to write some songs. Up to this point, Anderson's musical training consisted of playing in a guitar group when she was 5, taking piano lessons during grade school, and tootling on the trumpet for her junior high band. But Campbell knew she had what it took to be a drummer. "I could tell she had a good sense of rhythm. She was always knocking on Tupperware," he laughs.
For inspiration, the trio went to a nearby corner store. "It had the strongest coffee in the world. We all got wired and went crazy!" Campbell says. Using a broken keyboard they pulled from a dumpster, the trio wrote and recorded one song, "Blast Off."
"It's about all these things we liked, these all-American things -- fast, jacked-up cars, flags blowin' in the wind, and UFOs," Campbell says enthusiastically. "It kind of didn't make any sense, but we liked it."
Excited by the raucous tune, the trio decided to write enough numbers to play a set for Anderson's upcoming birthday party at the 40th Street Warehouse in Oakland. By the time of the show, the threesome had seven completed songs, and Eskridge made tapes to sell. Each one came with trading cards featuring vital statistics and photos of the band members, including one of Eskridge mooning the camera.
"We made 20 to 30 tapes and we got rid of them all," Campbell says in amazement. "I didn't think anyone would want one but they were fighting over them."
A second gig at a house party in San Francisco proved surprisingly successful, with the crowd responding to the band's kinetic energy and geeky tunes. Unfortunately, Eskridge moved back to North Carolina soon thereafter. After a couple of practices as a duo, Campbell and Anderson decided they needed another member.
Sandra Yang had been at the first Blast Rocks!!! show; afterward, a drunk Campbell had even asked her to join the band. So when the duo ran into her at the Ruby Room months later and asked her again, she agreed to give it a try.
"The only reservations we had were that we wouldn't have the same wacky chemistry with Sandra," Campbell says. "She was pretty subdued in practice, and then when we got to the gig, on our first song, she grabbed the mike and was going crazy! We still had that kooky energy but now we were more raw."
Around this time recording engineer Ricardo Esway took a listen to the band's tape. "It was so much fun -- just stripped down and childlike," he recalls. "So many people take music so seriously and so pretentiously. But [the Blast Rocks!!!] make really good pop songs in a spastic, destructive way."
Esway persuaded the trio to record at his home studio, which was initially in his kitchen. (What better place for a band whose drummer cut her teeth on plastic goods?) The result was You're Fired, an album that fuses the soul and structure of oldies with silly lyrics and a whole lot of aggression. The band even came up with a name for its trashy sound: junkyard rock.
The description is appropriate. From Anderson's (literally) canned beats to Yang's seesawing Casio bleats to Campbell's fuzzed-out tones, the band has one foot in the garage and the other on the scrap heap. Theirs is not a sound you'll hear on MTV anytime soon. But something about the band's cheerful joie de vivre, its exuberant brattiness, its spit-on-the-hands-and-pick-up-an-instrument gestalt, makes its tunes work.
One reason for the success is the band's songwriting. Campbell strives to write "all-American kind of anthems." He explains, "You know how you can go around yelling, "U.S.A.!,' at any hour and no one can get mad at you? Or, you can go, "U.S.A.!,' and if someone gets mad at you, you can say, "What, you don't like the U.S.A.?' It's just so culturally funny."
Of course, if, like Campbell, your idea of a good dinner is yogurt, spinach, peanuts, and Cheerios ("It's everything you need"), then your anthem might also turn out kind of odd. Take, for instance, "Rock 'n' Roll Weekend." Over a snaky synth part and a funky, glass jar drumbeat, Campbell sings about dreamers who are too busy drinking root beer and playing pinball to look for a job. It's the kind of carefree, fun-in-the-summertime song that Jonathan Richman used to write, before he had his heart broken.
The band also indulges a love of horror movies, taking samples of the genre and giving them a topsy-turvy spin. On "My Boyfriend Is a Zombie," Anderson worries that her guy is cheating on her, only to find that he's one of the living dead: "It's not another girl thank god/ You're detached and a little cold/ Your hair falls out/ Your skin is flawed/ It's too late I'm sold." Elsewhere, Campbell asks the heartbreaking question, "Have You Ever Seen a Robot Cry?," and the whole band chimes in about the terrors of Piedmont Avenue's one dive bar on "Scaryhouse."
There's some stealthy social critique going on in the songs as well. "Sick" begins like another rant about a shitty boss and ends up a statement on the oppressiveness of labor. On "Joyce," Anderson taps into a deep well of consumer rage, screaming, "PacBell made me pay $175 to have my phone line reconnected/ Which I'd supposedly get back a year later plus interest but I didn't." And "Neighbors," which starts out with Campbell suggesting that the neighbors are such nice people they shouldn't be wakened, ends in cacophony.
While the tunes are certainly fun, the Blast Rocks!!! are, first and foremost, a live band. As one watches the trio set up -- Campbell and Yang plugging in tiny amps, Anderson dumping broken records and assorted tchotchkes out of her trash can, all three looking a bit nervous -- it doesn't seem very promising. But once Anderson starts thumping on her cans and wiggling like Little Richard has her by the leg, audiences perk up. And when she unleashes her voice, in all its so-fierce-its-shocking clamor, all ears turn Anderson's way. Like Bob Stinson, one-time guitarist for post-punk stars the Replacements, Anderson juices the words with a little something extra and probably wrong, and it makes the songs.
Jeremy Atkins, promo person at K Records in Olympia, witnessed the Blast Rocks!!! phenomenon during the band's recent Pacific Northwest tour: "I would say that the Blast Rocks!!! show was like opening a window into a stale room. Olympia's biggest problem has always been the way we treat out-of-town bands. Even if the kids are into it, they usually stare blankly back with arms crossed, unless they already know who you are. When the Blast Rocks!!! played here, they instantly engaged everyone, and the room was filled with smiles. By the end of the set, they were receiving the same kind of support usually reserved for hometown heroes."
So just what is it that audiences respond to? "You know, we'll be onstage, and we'll fuck something up. At those times, I think, "I'm playing a garbage can,'" Anderson says. "I can't take it that seriously. And other people can't either -- and on another level they can."
"I feel it's kind of subversive, you know?" Campbell says. "It's not trying to change music, but it's kind of neat and different."
"It represents ... not having a lot of money to invest in musical equipment," Anderson explains. "You can't buy soul, you can't buy fun. That's what it's all about."