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Snake Charmers 

These Arms Are Snakes transforms smart, pummeling rock into a near-death experience.

Wednesday, Nov 10 2004
"I guess your head bleeds way more than any other part of your body," deadpans Ryan Frederiksen, "so it wasn't nearly as bad as it looked."

The lanky, longhaired guitarist for These Arms Are Snakes is having a bit of a laugh at the expense of singer Steve Snere as he thinks back to a show in Washington, D.C., during the quartet's late-summer tour. Seems that Frederiksen -- while caught up in the closed-eyed bliss of the punk-rock moment -- got the urge to swing his guitar around wildly on the club's cramped stage. Feeling a sharp knock, he assumed he'd bashed his Les Paul against the low ceiling. But after glancing upward to find the ceiling far out of reach, he looked to his right and saw Snere stumbling around in a daze, blood pouring from the side of his skull, before hitting the floor.

"There was blood everywhere, and I had this big dent in my head," Snere recalls, a strangely cheerful tone in his voice. "I finished the song and then someone came up onstage and checked me out real quick. We only played like two or three more songs and it was all right; I felt pretty lightheaded and had to sit down for the rest of it. It was just that I've heard all those stories about bands that finish their set no matter what, and I didn't wanna be that one dude, y'know? But it was OK. I didn't need surgery or anything."

Normally, Snere doesn't need any help from Frederiksen or his other two bandmates -- bassist/keyboardist Brian Cook and drummer Ben Verellen -- in jeopardizing his well-being during their gigs. In fact, it's his own complete disregard for personal safety that's played at least some part in establishing TAAS as a phenomenal, must-see live act in the two years since it formed in Seattle. Though the friendly, baby-faced singer isn't exactly the epitome of intimidation during casual conversation, showtime is a whole different story.

When Snere saunters onto a stage, he wears the countenance of a boxer who's already a few rounds into a title fight: antsy, assured, and angrily awoken by a couple jabs to the nose. Then, almost immediately after the Snakes plow into their aggressively jagged, post-hardcore roar, Snere launches himself into the crowd; soon, he'll be prowling the back of the room, climbing up poles and exploring the rafters, dangling precariously from pipes and cables, or sticking his face into wires that could potentially electrocute him. He's survived to this point, although at 23 he's already got two bum shoulders that'd say "fuck you very much" if they could talk. But, says Snere, it's been his performance m.o. since he began singing in bands in his native Minneapolis at the age of 14.

"We'd play shows with these wild hardcore bands and you'd always try to top your friends with the crazy things you'd do, like diving into drum sets and jumping off speakers and stuff like that. So that's just kinda followed me, it's what I've always done. When I'm doing it now I don't really think about it, and it's kinda like being a blackout drunk in that the next day you're like, 'Oh shit, what did I do?' It's fun, though, so why not?"

Of course, that kind of over-the-top recklessness can get old real quick if the music's no good -- you can always stay home and watch Fear Factor if you want to see people put themselves in harm's way for shits and giggles. But These Arms Are Snakes' live sound is as riveting and kinetic as its frontman, a maelstrom of tension, noise, and menace that rarely neglects the power of a great melody, a body-jerking rhythm, or a killer riff.

And just as Snere uses the stage only occasionally as a base of operations, the Snakes don't feel tethered to one strict musical form, as evidenced by the band's recent full-length debut, Oxeneers or The Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home (more on that unwieldy title in a bit). There is a general framework: Songs like "Greetings From the Great North Woods" and the standout "Big News" possess punky, clutching guitar lines that twang while spraying bits of gravel and broken glass; clenched-mouth bass and drums that push forward like a stalker seriously contemplating violating a restraining order; and Snere's vocals, yelped and howled in unhinged fashion, not entirely unlike Guy Picciotto of Fugazi's voicebox freakouts.

But "Angela's Secret" and "La Stanza Bianca" attack from a slightly different direction, bringing in distorted synth growls à la mid-period Girls Against Boys, jungle-ish polyrhythms, and mathy ax-handling as Snere pops his top with full-bore screams. The eight-minute-plus, space-prog epic "Gadget Arms" -- with its drone-and-feedback-laden ebbs and flows -- is a shoegazer's dream, exactly the kind of tune for which Boss makes boards to hold 15 guitar pedals. And the brief instrumental interlude "Tracing," formed entirely from mournful organs and synths, has the kind of grim melody you'd hear at an old Soviet state funeral.

Having already explored essentially straight-ahead punk and hardcore as collective veterans of Botch, Kill Sadie, nineironspitfire, and Roy, the members of These Arms Are Snakes are intent on busting out of those genres' usual straitjackets; before Oxeneers, they did it on last year's introductory EP, This Is Meant to Hurt You.

"I think we just kind of roll with whatever the hell we wanna do," says Frederiksen. "We definitely know when to draw the line and be like, 'OK, we're getting a little too crazy here.' Like 'Gadget Arms,' OK, that was our one foray into being extremely self-indulgent. But when we're writing songs we definitely try to keep it interesting for us as a group because that's the bottom line. It comes down to us making ourselves happy first, and if other people like it then all the better."

Now, about that album title ...

"Yeah, a lot of people don't understand it," says Frederiksen. "We were trying to come up with a title that encompassed all of the lyrics, which has this whole story about the struggle and trials of the working life going through it, all these kind of character sketches, and we were originally thinking Auctioneers, but since there's so many animal references in the lyrics we decided to change it to Oxeneers, because an ox is an animal of labor, right? And therefore ..."

Frederiksen pauses for just a second, then begins to laugh. "It sounds fuckin' ridiculous, I know, but an ox is an animal of labor so it lends itself to auctioneers to make Oxeneers and 'the lion sleeps when its antelope go home' is a line from the last song, 'Idaho,' that basically means the same thing ...'

At this point, he cracks up entirely for a few seconds before regaining his composure.

"We always catch flak for it, people saying, 'These guys are pretentious art fags,' but we just roll with the punches ... When we told [our label] Jade Tree what the title was they were like, 'Uhhh ... what? Really? You really sure you wanna call it that?'"

While the critics have been more than kind to These Arms Are Snakes' music -- if not the album title or even the band's name -- many have insisted on forcing the band into the screamo box, which causes Snere and Frederiksen to roll their eyes. Both say it might have something to do with the fact that they've toured extensively with fellow Seattleites the Blood Brothers, who've been considered screamo's shiningest stars for a while now. But the Snakes understand how the classification/point-of-reference game works. There's even a frequently occurring analogy they fully embrace: Between Snere's live-show insanity, the band's more abrasive grooves, and their inherent musical menace, one can't help but be reminded of the mighty, legendarily insane Chicago noise-punk foursome, The Jesus Lizard.

"They're my favorite band of all time," Frederiksen gushes. "I totally welcome that comparison. I mean, I know where I'm coming from and I know there's times when I'm like, 'Damn, I wish I could write like [guitarist] Duane Denison. That guy rules, man.' So what I'm doing is kind of paying homage to them in a way. It would be silly to be like, 'Whaaaaa? We sound nothing like them!' But I'm not trying to rip off their songs. I think we present things in a way that's unique to us."

Frederiksen says he doesn't mind if the Snakes are perceived as some sort of "dangerous" band; if word of their Lizard-like mayhem and unpredictability precedes their tour stops.

"Why not? We have a good time when we play, and as long as the only people we hurt are each other, we'll be OK."

Just try to keep your singer from dying onstage, guys.

"Believe me, that's certainly not my intention," says Snere.

"Well, it's probably gonna happen real soon," Frederiksen laughs, "and hopefully lots of people will be there to witness it."

About The Author

Michael Alan Goldberg


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