Ol' Dirty Bastards

Unreformed punks the Dirty Robbers sing delicate songs about love, death, and kicking people in the head

So I'm sipping a beer at the Terminal Bar, waiting for the Dirty Robbers to show, when someone taps my shoulder. I turn around, smiling, expecting to see the longhaired, balding dome of singer-bassist Sir Chadwick. Instead an elderly man in a crew cut stands close behind me, red from the drink. He rips open his jacket, and points to the logo on his shirt. "B...F...I," he says slowly. "I worked for B.F.I. for almost 20 years. I was," he stumbles against the bar, "a front-loader."

"I've been a rear-loader my whole life," quips the bartender. The front-loader--probably a retired garbage man--looks puzzled and walks away.

Perfectly on cue, another finger taps my shoulder, this time belonging to Chadwick (a.k.a. Chad Johnson). "Sorry I'm late," he says, out of breath. "The other guys'll be here soon." Within minutes, the similarly code-named singer-guitarist Slo Mo (Morgan Kinnaman) and drummer Bigsby (Kurt Johnson) arrive. We grab a table and sit. The three of them eye me warily, like a trio of deadbeat dads about to be grilled by Geraldo.

"Is everything all right here?" burps a voice by my ear. I look up, and it's another very drunk drunk. "You know, I fought in three wars," says the man, and rips his jacket open to point at the tiny navy emblem on the corner of his soiled T-shirt. "Three."

"We're fine," says Sir Chad. "That's the fourth member of the band," he says as soon as the man is gone, the ice now broken. "He's the reason we lost so much money on the tour."

The tour the bassist is referring to was a recent West Coast jaunt, during which the still cultish local band played throughout California, Oregon, and Montana, opening for such trash-punk greats as Backyard Babies, the Dukes of Hamburg, and the Lazy Cowgirls. The trip celebrated the release of the Dirty Robbers' wonderful debut album, Play Dirty (Stolen Goods Recordings). Now they're back home, and have picked this trash-punkiest of Nordeast watering-hole-in-the-walls for an interview--and not just for the chance to mingle with its chest-baring patrons. By an informal poll, the Dirty Robbers were named the best Terminal Bar band of the summer by patrons and employees. In concert, the trio is as crisp as dry corn flakes, crashing through memorable originals and scattered Mummies covers with zinging guitar riffs and a backbeat that makes you wanna jump up and down and put your head in a front-loader.

"They're all love songs," explains Slo Mo, grinning. "Although love is not always cheery, so some of the songs are about death."

"I don't know what any of the songs are about," Bigsby interjects. "I mean, I hear the lyrics while I'm playing, but half the time I don't understand what these guys are singing about. I think all the songs are about kicking people's heads in."

The band's informal and unassuming approach is the product of years of practice. Their previous incarnation, the similarly Sixties-styled garage quartet Thee Viceroys, gigged around town through the mid-Nineties, releasing one self-titled album and numerous seven-inch singles. When singer-guitarist "Howlin'" Andy Hound left the ranks a year ago (going on to record a keen 1999 solo album, The Big Bad Sound of Howlin' Andy Hound), Thee remaining 'Roys began jamming as a threesome in Sir Chadwick's basement. Soon they were being joined in the boiler room by such locals as Katastrophy Wife and Video Nasty, and it wasn't long before the house parties became a favorite spot for Minneapolis scenesters to be puked on by real punk rockers.

Carrying on in the indelicate garage-rock tradition of the Stooges and the MC5, Play Dirty perfectly captures the heady funk of those basement happenings. It's loaded with pre-grunge, nasty ol' rock 'n' roll that not only growls and snarls and spits at you, but drags its knuckles in the dirt behind it and whacks you in the head with one pissed-off, metaphorical club after another. But the band's onstage aggression feels entirely feigned--they don't even seem to mind having a couple of beer cans thrown at them every once in a while, as evidenced in some recent footage of the band by Ausstossen! Films (famous for their footage of Babes in Toyland gigs back in the day).

Despite their name, the Robbers hold no illusions about some imminent shower of big-label lovin'. "If you're going into the music business to make money, you'd better be a damned good dishwasher," remarks Slo Mo. But with their nicknames and showy stage presence, the band still unabashedly flirts with notions of small-time rock stardom. When I ask members if they've seen that new Dick Clark TV show, Your Big Break, Bigsby laughs. "Yeah! Where they bring you on national TV to dress up like your favorite star and cover one of their songs?"

"What the hell is that?" asks Sir Chad.

"They bring you down to their studio, and make you up like your favorite music personality, like Elvis or Whitney Houston, and then you get to sing one of that person's songs in front of millions of people," explains Bigsby. "It's a contest--the winner gets a recording contract and you Get Discovered."

"We should go on there and pretend to be Chris Gaines so we can get signed," says Slo Mo excitedly. "Chris Gaines is the greatest! Clint Black's [sic] dark side--that's us."

 
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