Dig This Big Crux

Wives' punk rock noise explodes like a bomb in reverse

Wives are three skinny kids from L.A. They look like a lot of other kids you see in L.A., but more polite, and there's something to them that nobody else has and that nobody else can name. "Not purity," I say, describing them to a friend, "but..."

"Exactly," my friend says.

They love the smell of punk rock in the morning: Wives
Elisha Witt
They love the smell of punk rock in the morning: Wives

Wives have been around for about three years; supposedly, they dump their set every three months or so and reinvent everything all over again. They have a reputation for heart, or something--"Wives?" says Cundo Si Murad from Wives buddy band Wrangler Brutes, grinning a sharky grin, "Wives got spirit!"--but they're shy about doing interviews. So I go to see them instead. They walk slowly up the ramp to the stage, wearing gray shorts with DIY patches over the ass while the audience gets all foxed up with white highlights and smeary eye shadow. Then they set up in a skirmish line, shoulder to shoulder--lowercase-m minutemen.

"This song is called 'Wives Hate Police,'" says Dean Spunt, the singer and bass player, his eyes clicking from Randy Randall (guitar, to his right) to Jeremy Villalobos (drums, to his left) as he counts off: "One..."

And there it goes, not even on "two," the sound and concussion so total it's like suddenly waking up from passing out. Wives are the reverse of a bomb; they pull heat and breath and the waxy stage light into the band in one heartbeat instant, and build it into something huge and heavy the next. The walls flex. Lights roar red all over the soundboard. Kids jump, a little, in their complicated shoes. One stout little girl flips out, clawing at the air in time with Jeremy's cymbals. Every time you look, she's further into the crowd, closer to the stage, teeth bared and locked. When she's too far away to see, more girls move up to take her place.

Randy falls backward off the back of the stage, his little Greg Ginn guitar lines glancing off the walls, and Dean drops his bass to just sing a righteous, declamatory teenage staccato--with Lenny Bruce delivery and Ian MacKaye vocabulary, or maybe the other way around, too. They have a jazzy sense of space that turns their songs into topological maps. They tease some tiny knuckle of rhythm and melody from furious hardcore into slim barbed strips, into radar-jamming noise, into disciplined silence and a playful tattoo on the toms, into each member of the band, unfocusing their eyes and stage-screaming, "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!"

"You know what this reminds me of?" asks one girl when Wives rest for a second. Each of her sentences sounds like a question; that's how they speak in California. "Pit's old band? Ripping Shit?"

"...a noise band?" her friend asks, grossed out.

"Well, I like that," she says back, more quietly.

And then Wives are done and backstage and panting, heads down, walking in long circles. Dean is in his underwear in the hall, changing back into jeans, and Randy has reverse stage fright, getting nervous now that he's done playing. "I couldn't maintain!" he keeps saying. Unlike a lot of bands, Wives look tiny and fragile onstage; here, the detail and the fluorescent light make them into line drawings.

It makes me think of their songs: All those times they reinvented their set, with Dean explaining that he'd never written a riff in his life, they were in a complex process of abandoning--or unlearning--heavy metal and bad TV and sugary '80s FM radio. All that space in their songs took forever to find: "The songs, they're written with the intent to sound loose," says Randy. "Does that make sense?"

Yeah, because then all that's left--with nothing between the band and anybody who listens to them--is Wives. Three skinny guys, usually polite; not pure, exactly, but...they're shy about doing interviews. So we just take a walk, slide outside, between the kids who are too young to smoke. We look at the Dodge minivan they tour in, where they have a CD-R of their Erect the Youth Problem album (on the band's Cold Sweat label, so you can find it), and we're still talking. It takes a long time.

"Randy was saying the other night, 'Yeah, I wanna play,'" Dean says finally, next to his Dodge minivan. "'But the thing I really want is to be honest.'"

An embarrassingly earnest thing to say, maybe, or to hear and then write down when the guy who just said it can't quite see you, because maybe he said it because he thought you weren't going to write it down, because it could be embarrassing (sorry, Dean). But maybe you write it down because it's the kind of thing you wish a band would say, especially if it takes them hours to come out and say it, because there's something to that, too.

And maybe it makes you think back to the beginning, maybe two songs into the set: Randy's balancing on the edge of the monitor, his face smooth and slick, gliding his guitar toward all the kids who want to play it, but looking up and past them. And as the song skids and slides to a stop, he pulls the guitar back in one unconsidered, fluid motion and pivots to face Dean, tensed, ready, fingers easy on the strings.

"Hey! Hey!" someone right up front yells--a reedy baby chipmunk squeak. "Where's a song for me?"

"This song!" says Dean. And there the song goes, and everyone lets their breath out.

 
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