Today punk is about as tough as a riled-up kitten. Middle-school kids can get all their glossy punk CDs from the Virgin Megastore in the mall. And all their designer punk clothes from Hot Topic in the mall. And that same choppy, bright purple haircut from Great Clips in the mall -- that is, if their moms don't beat them to it.
Maybe that's why all the new bands that have sprung from the backwash of Blink 182 and Good Charlotte are being pegged with the tag "mall punk." It's definitely not a compliment. Hipsters and punk purists especially despise the stuff. After all, most of them remember (or simply never left) an underground scene where punk rock wasn't something found shrink-wrapped at the bottom of a cereal box. It had to be searched out and -- sometimes literally -- fought for. Elitist? Probably. But who wants to see his subculture co-opted by a bunch of suits and gel-dunked rejects from American Juniors?
Zach Davidson of the Seattle quintet Vendetta Red, however, doesn't want to hear about it. "I was an elitist hardcore kid once, too," says the singer, getting a little worked up over the whole line of questioning, "but I can't relate to that mentality anymore. People who can afford to waste their time with that kind of bullshit don't know how to count their blessings. When I was a kid I had to worry about important things: where I was going to sleep and what I was going to eat and how to avoid my fucking stepdad and the cops. If all you have to do with your life is talk shit, then maybe you should be a lawyer."
Davidson has a right to be defensive -- Vendetta Red is gearing up for a nationwide tour with Dashboard Confessional, a package that also includes the mall punk outfits Brand New and MxPx. But unlike their roadmates, Davidson and his crew (bassist Michael Vermillion, drummer Joseph Lee Childres, and guitarists Erik Chapman and Justin Cronk) don't play honey-dipped teeny-bopper fluff. There's sweetness to Vendetta Red's songs, sure, but it's more like an ice cream cone dumped on the sidewalk, with cigarette butts and bugs and bits of gravel stuck all over it.
The group's single "Shatterday," from its new major-label release Between the Never and the Now (Epic), is a prime example: In under three minutes, it wraps the swelling opulence of an arena rock anthem in the ink-scabbed pages of an old diary. "When you bit the bullet, I held the smoking gun," sings Davidson in a lip-quivering croon before screeching headlong into the chorus: "These mescaline memories are morose/ Your kerosene company's comatose."
"We were taking a lot of mescaline and acid when we started the band," he says. "We rented a house with a basement, and everybody would come over and take drugs and flip out and go downstairs and play music. And then we started coming up with really good songs, so we decided to cut down on the drugs and play shows. I think our musical cement is two parts red wine and two parts acid."
Add to that recipe two parts Earl Grey and two parts Drano. The song "Seconds Away" starts out with an elegant, lulling verse lifted straight from the Smiths' "Stretch Out and Wait," while "Caught Like a Cold" is a corrosive assault that melts down raw hunks of Thrice and Radiohead into a crushing alloy.
"We didn't want to be any specific kind of band," Davidson asserts. "We all love so many different kinds of music; I like everything from Tori Amos to the Gipsy Kings to Heroin. So we decided we weren't going to stick to any kind of formulaic beat or groundwork or structure. We just knew we wanted to make good fucking songs.
"I think that's why it's hard for people to define us," he adds. "We're always the sore thumb, and I love it. It's hard for rock radio to play us. It's hard for alternative radio to play us. Top 40 is never going to play us. It's like, 'What do you do with these guys?'"
MTV2 knew what to do with them: Play their video. "Shatterday" has been in moderate rotation on the channel's All Things Rock show since June, and Davidson was even asked to co-host a special called Best of Grunge, a historic look back at that antediluvian era known by archaeologists and really old dudes as "the mid-1990s."
"They only had us on the show because we're from Seattle, because we're so fucking grunge," says Davidson with a laugh. "We just basically made fun of grunge the whole time. But it was a lot of fun. I didn't have to say good things about shit I didn't like. I critiqued music a lot, and I critiqued youth culture, which I like to do. I like to point fingers and laugh at people. Especially scenesters; they make it so fucking easy."
The finger goes both ways. Hipper-than-thou scenesters, of course, would be first in line to shun a band like Vendetta Red simply for being on MTV (or playing the Vans Warped Tour or doing a photo shoot for Spin). And yet, any hipster worth his weight in trucker hats has records by pop heavyweights like the Go-Go's and Duran Duran in his collection and waxes nostalgic about the days of Guns N' Roses.
No one is born cool, and it's certainly natural -- probably even healthy -- for kids to go through a phase of total immersion in popular culture before rebelling against it. After all, there is always the odd underground band like the Cure or Nirvana or Green Day that somehow percolates up to the mainstream and points back down toward something different, something deeper. You know, kind of like a gateway band.
"Yeah, I love it when that happens," Davidson nods. "I think if it hadn't been for bands like the Pixies and U2, we wouldn't be here. It would be great if we could do that for someone else. I hope that every kid who listens to us gets into the bands that influenced us, like Sunny Day Real Estate and Gorilla Biscuits and 7 Seconds.
"But you know, I really don't care," he continues, sounding a bit fed up with the whole topic. "I don't even think about it. We love to fucking play, and people respond to that synergy onstage. A lot of these kids -- and this isn't a mark against them -- listen to music that's very safe and comfortable and familiar. And I actually love a lot of bands like that myself. I love Dashboard Confessional; I love Brand New. It'll be like oil and vinegar out there touring with those guys, but sometimes that tastes really good."
So who knows: Maybe a handful out of the hundreds of kids at each upcoming Dashboard Confessional date will see Vendetta Red and hear something slightly more brutal and poetic and honest than they've ever experienced at a show before. Maybe they'll run right out and toss their All-American Rejects CDs and pick up some Rites of Spring instead. Or maybe not. Either way, at least they're in for a good show.
As for Davidson, when addressing the issue of mall punk and sellouts and elitism, the singer is as unflinching and incisive as his songs.
"The kids understand," he says. "And that's all that matters."