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The Waterboys 

Neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of night can stop indie-rock hopefuls Birdmonster

Wednesday, Dec 7 2005
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The doors of Café Du Nord were supposed to open at 8:30, but you couldn't get into the club at 8:30 because "Due to acts of mother nature, we will be opening late," as the sign read. Those who wanted to stay dry went down the street for a beer, because it was raining pretty hard at that point -- some of the hardest rain since the first wet stretch of the season kicked off. The rain had crept down below the ground and into the basement venue. Three inches of it covered the stage and the floors and the wires. Du Nord's house manager, Rob Giovanetti, figured he'd have to cancel the show. What else could he do?

Then someone had an idea: Fuck the stage. Let's move the pool table from its home in the back and then move the PA and the amps and the guitars and the drums and the soundboard and everything else to the raised area in the back corner of the venue. And let's do it in about an hour. And while we're at it, let's mop the water up so that we can at least open part of the dance floor and not electrocute ourselves while unplugging everything.

So the staff of Du Nord and the members of the two bands scheduled to play that night -- locals Birdmonster and Scissors for Lefty -- armed themselves with mops and towels and got down on their hands and knees and starting swabbing. Then they transferred the contents of an entire stage to the opposite side of the place. Then they sound-checked. And the show went on.

"I've never been so proud to work in this business as tonight," Giovanetti proclaimed later.

It was perhaps as fitting an introduction to the music of Birdmonster as one might hope for. The four-piece crew -- Peter Arcuni (guitar/vocals), David Klein (guitar), Zach Winter (drums), and Justin Tenuto (bass) -- has a ramshackle sound perfect for impromptu setups and restless crowds, for shows that take place on floors as opposed to stages, where audience members are mashed together, swaying awkwardly and spilling beer on themselves and the band.

Take the set's opening number, "Resurrection Song." It bursts out at you like something unleashed: A staccato bass line churns pistonlike beneath shrieking guitar chords and glittery solos, until the noise subsides and Arcuni's right there in the emptiness, screaming, "It's night/ You open your eyes/ Some switch in your head/ The houses look scared out of breath/ And the leaves are all wrinkled and dead." The song's abrasive flourishes, its interlocked bass and guitar lines, and Arcuni's jagged vocals put it squarely in the world of vintage indie assault teams like Fugazi, Slint, and Mission of Burma.

Yet "Resurrection Song," one of three tracks on Birdmonster's sole release, a self-titled EP, is only one piece of the puzzle. Listening to the tune, you could almost mistake the group for just another Thursday or Sparta, bands whose lone appeal is a preference for making their treacle go to 11. Though a demonstration of the act's raw power, "Resurrection Song" merely hints at the songwriting finesse these guys are capable of. Exhibit B: "All the Holes in the Walls," which begins like something out of the Ryan Adams songbook, a lone acoustic guitar underpinning Arcuni's plaintive verse: "It's time you put those heavy things to bed/ It's best now, you better rest your pretty head." Soon enough, Winter's pounding out a hee-haw country beat -- one-two, one-two -- and Klein's strumming scratchy guitar chords. But before you know it the band drives this hoot into a forest of distorted squall and reverberated guitar lines; when it's all over there's the sneaking suspicion you've just been led through a half-dozen rock subgenres.

This talent for crafting fiery bricolage has not gone unnoticed. It's why, with only that three-song EP, Birdmonster has met with A&R reps from various major labels (which the group's members would prefer not to disclose); why influential music blogs around the country have gushed over these three songs; why the quartet is recording its much-anticipated debut with producer Brad Cook, of Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age fame; why these four guys have, in the words of Klein, "Driven down to L.A., in our shitty $800 van with the heat on, over the Grapevine where it is 108 degrees outside, having gone through an entire Costco flat of water in the first four hours of the 13.5-hour journey into the traffic/music capital of America, just to play a 30-minute set for these people."


Seated in a booth at Emmy's Spaghetti Shack the night following their Du Nord show, the musicians are a) incredibly modest about all this attention they've been getting; and b) hung over, having stayed up till 4 a.m. drinking "the good tequila," compliments of a beaming Giovanetti. In spite of the aftereffects of alcohol, it's impossible not to notice that this is a band of lookers. Each member is 24, and together they offer a Beatles-esque assortment of charming features: Arcuni's playful eyes, Klein's toothy smile, Tenuto's curly black hair, Winter's stubbly head and broad shoulders.

Tenuto and Klein grew up together in San Diego, and together moved to Santa Barbara to attend UCSB, where they met Winter. In 2003 the three moved to San Francisco, where they continued to hone a mainly instrumental garage-band sound. Arcuni had moved to the city from the East Coast around the same time, and met Tenuto in a cafe where the bassist worked. Shortly thereafter the singer found himself in the fledgling group's practice space, introducing his folk and country leanings to the other musicians.

"We were [unknowingly] being prepared for Birdmonster," remembers Winter of the initial fusion of these styles.

"I play some twangy guitar stuff that I would have shot myself had I played it before," adds Klein.

The group had its first show in the winter of 2003 and recorded its EP in October 2004 at Potrero Hill's Tiny Telephone studio, although the resulting disc didn't start circulating until earlier this year. Things really seemed to get going when the quartet was tapped to open a show here for two of indie rock's leading lights, the National and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Impressed by what it saw, the latter band mentioned Birdmonster to its friend, Angeleno Mark Willet of the blog "Music for Robots," who subsequently invited the foursome down to L.A. for one of his showcases. "Their whole set was spectacular," wrote Willet in a recent e-mail. "It was easily one of the top live shows I've seen this year."

Willet posted "Resurrection Song" on his blog, and pretty soon others followed suit. In addition, adds the blogger, "They impressed a few label folks in the audience [at the L.A. show]. That directly led to their big show on Monday at Café Du Nord," for which a handful of A&R reps, as well as producer Cook, had driven up from Southern California to turn out on the rainy night.

Over their four plates of spaghetti and meatballs, the band members insist that none of this hype is going to their head. Whether it leads to a six-figure deal or simply adds up to a lot of bluster, they're focused on one thing and one thing only: recording their debut in January. "We know what we want," says Arcuni. "We want to make sure things are special to us. ... If you're gonna put the effort in, it better be something you like."

"All we really care about is doing our own thing," Klein emphasizes. "Even if we had resources, we'd still be doing DIY shows in basements."

Klein's assertion is almost certain to be put to the test. A quick survey of the altrock landscape yields a depressing sight: Nearly every band on mainstream radio right now is aping one shallow '80s trend after another, with nary an original idea. Birdmonster, on the other hand, is as emphatic as it is ingenious. "Ice Age," an unreleased tune the band has planned for its LP, is a cascading wallop of a song that goes from 0 to 60 in just over 2 1/2 minutes; "Balcony," also unreleased, might be called a ballad if it weren't so loud and scraggly, with Arcuni yelping languorously over searching chords. Listening to these and other songs, one is quickly reminded that there's a reason, after all, for all this buzz surrounding Birdmonster, a reason the act's days of mopping flooded floors in small local venues -- no matter how humble a gesture that may be -- are numbered.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps

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