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Chimerical Men 

The Cost's Chimera brings button-down geekiness and metallic crunch to hardcore punk

Wednesday, Dec 11 2002
The Cost's Stephen Loewinsohn lives in an East Bay apartment straight out of Punk 101: The walls are bare, the bathroom is full of CDs, and the living room offers only a minimal amount of furniture. The guitarist looks every bit the punk part -- with nails painted silver from a party the night before -- and so do his bandmates. Drummer Michael Hoffman, his pants rolled up and his hair matted from a long bicycle-and-BART ride, chats from a dingy couch, as bassist Shaun Osburn -- who has blue hair and a pierced lip -- leans out the window to puff on a Parliament. (Guitarist Sean McArdle isn't present.)

But while the Cost may look like protagonists from a punk comic book, the band members spend much of their days staring into machines rather than raging against them. Loewinsohn is a systems administrator at a software company, Osburn is a content manager at PlanetOut Partners, McArdle is an aspiring ethnomusicologist, and Hoffman studies physics -- the physics of whale calls -- at San Francisco State University.

"So, we're all nerds, basically," Loewinsohn says.

But even if they spend their days buttoned down, the musicians proffer a sound in keeping with the Bay Area's unhinged punk legacy. The foursome makes music informed by the bands its members grew up with -- from D.C. hardcore idols Fugazi to art-noise legends Sonic Youth to ska-punk locals Operation Ivy -- duly paying homage to their forebears without stooping to outright mimicry. And while the group occasionally gets lumped in with watered-down emo bands like Hey Mercedes and the Get-Up Kids, the Cost is both more poetic and less mopey than its contemporaries. The Cost's new album, Chimera, may just be the next step in the East Bay hardcore evolutionary ladder, proving its spirit is alive and well.

The Cost's roots can be traced back to the early '80s, when Oakland natives Osburn and Loewinsohn played on the same soccer team around age 7. Hoffman was introduced to the pair later, while they were in middle school. "I've been taking BART to band practice ever since," he jokes.

Around the same time, Osburn got to know McArdle through a friend. "The first time I met him, he invited me into his room to play me the new Sonic Youth record, and taught me how to take hits off a gravity bong," says Osburn. "I looked at Sean as this older guy who was, like, totally into all the same music I was into, but he obviously had a much better grasp on it, so I was nervous talking to him."

Loewinsohn, Osburn, and Hoffman began playing together in various groups in the early '90s, but they -- along with original vocalist Laird Rickard -- didn't perform as the "Cost" until New Year's Eve 1999. "At the time, it sounded like an awesome name for a hardcore band," Osburn says of the moniker.

Later that year, the Cost's original lineup dashed off its first recording, an eight-song EP on New Disorder Records titled The Sleep of Reason. Recorded live in just two days, the effort has a far more straightforward and aggressive sound than Chimera.

"It's really interesting listening to it, because we're 18 and 19 and very angry and trying to play through the songs as fast as humanly possible," Osburn says. "When we finished the record and got the reference discs, it was like, 'This is under 17 minutes?' We had no idea."

Last year, after swapping Rickard for McArdle, the Cost went into the studio to work on its first full-length album with sound engineer Ryan Massey, guitarist for Lookout! band Communiqué. The recording process, filtered through a soundboard supposedly used on Pink Floyd's The Wall, was decidedly more professional than the band's first outing.

The resulting album, Chimera, released this August on Berkeley's Lookout! Records, shows a level of musical sophistication far beyond The Sleep of Reason, closer to the metal edge of early Jane's Addiction or Drive By Jehu than pure, angry hardcore. The songs feature eerie, angsty rock with wonderfully chaotic drums and the deep, distorted guitars of vintage metal. Schizophrenic numbers like "No One's Looking" jump nimbly between tempos -- a feat that separates Chimera from the often steady and impossibly fast canon of punk. Likewise, instead of offering lyrics seething with punk's anarchy or emo's whininess, the Cost pens esoteric, poetic verses. "Hated Man," like many Cost songs, presents a more thoughtful message, with such opaque lyrics as "I can't stand the waiting/ The gestures you make/ Closer to wakefulness/ Closer to hate."

In the context of other Lookout! albums, Chimera has a throwback charm that sits nicely between the label's old-school punk bands such as Rancid, Green Day, and Neurosis, and recent pop-oriented releases by Ted Leo and the Oranges Band.

"I was totally giddy when I found out we were going to do a record on Lookout!, thinking about all the bands I grew up on," Osburn says. "I was really into Fifteen and Filth and Blatz and Crimpshrine. That was kind of the soundtrack to my junior high and high school years."

Though the Cost's sound hearkens back to those early obsessions, the band has plenty of its own punk credentials rooted in teenage rebellion. Osburn dropped out of high school his junior year and worked for a while as a janitor while pursuing and eventually abandoning an American Sign Language degree. Similarly, Loewinsohn dropped out during his fourth year of high school and later ditched his college career too, though he plans someday to pursue an education in sound engineering.

"I tried the community college thing for a while, and it was just like high school with old people," he says. "It was so boring, I had some horrible teachers, so I got really discouraged. Plus, I lived in a three-bedroom house with, like, 12 people."

But even as the members of the Cost settle into careers and academic stability, they still maintain a certain disdain for typical adult pathways. For instance, Loewinsohn, Hoffman, and Osburn all got their driver's licenses mere days before embarking on various Cost tours, including this fall's 25-city national jaunt.

"I don't think any of us would have driver's licenses if it weren't for the fact that we have to drive big heavy things around," Osburn says. "It's always someone in the band going, 'I am not going to be the only one driving. Someone else has to get a license.'"

Though it seems unlikely that the card-carrying techies of the Cost will be taking up corporate golf games anytime soon, the band recognizes it doesn't quite echo the anti-establishment ideals of punk's pioneers. In fact, the musicians have used their high-tech savvy to set up a thorough, if somewhat chaotic, studio in their rehearsal space. Using assorted recording equipment and an in-house computer, Loewinsohn records every practice so that each jam, wank, or gaffe might someday make its way into a song.

"We have the luxury of just turning on the computer and flipping through stuff and thinking, 'Oh, that would go great here,'" Osburn says. "Everything is cataloged."

While this modern aesthetic is far removed from the old-school punk attitude, the Cost's self-educated tech wizzes see it as just another form of DIY. As Osburn puts it with a self-aware smirk, "Yeah, we're basically punk rock and into smashing the state."

About The Author

Nancy Einhart


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