There are plenty of reasons for forming a band: to score with girls/guys, delusions of money and fame, free beer...oh, and I suppose writing and playing your own music is occasionally part of the equation. But not to be overlooked is one of the sweetest fringe benefits reserved for those who form a band—the all-important picking of a name. When else can you be at your most pithy, most political, most absurd, most comedic, most shocking, and have the entire world (or at least Uptown) glory in your witty genius? Proudly, the Twin Cities have given birth to some doozies: Happy Mothers Day, I Can't Read. Coach Said Not To. Mel Gibson & the Pants. Jason's Gay Haircut. Put Down the Muffin. Gay Witch Abortion. The list can, and should, go on and on.
A relatively recent addition to the list of local bands with a quirky, mash-up name is the van Gobots (think French Impressionist with ear fetish, '80s kitsch Transformers copycat, and Futurama reference). Based on their oh-so-clever name, you might justifiably assume that their songs would be a bunch of bouncy, bratty pop-punk tunes about farts and boobs and milfs, right? Well, the van Gobots refuse to be quite that obvious.
Their second album since forming in 2007, Guantanamo Beach Party (I know, I know, you're still envisioning another Blink 182 clone, but just wait), is actually a gritty, sometimes political, agitated collection of post-punk that is more Rage Against the Machine than They Might Be Giants.
"It's about trying to defuse and poke fun at this drama and controversy that we ourselves helped create," says keyboardist and guitarist Nick Geier of the album's title. "If making light of terrorism is something that offends somebody, that's a good thing. People need to be up on this type of thing. You can't sit in your own little bubble. You can't take CNN or Fox News as the gospel truth."
Not that these guys don't have a sense of humor. Crowded into a booth at the CC Club in south Minneapolis on a recent Saturday afternoon, the first thing they did was pepper this interviewer with a list of their own questions, scribbled on the back of a ripped-open envelope: "At what point did you realize you wanted to interview mediocre bands?" "How great are we? Please expand." "As a group, do we dress cool enough to be a successful rock band? What percentage of Urban Outfitters wardrobe is needed?"
I won't tell you how I answered those questions. But what I can tell you is despite their goofy exterior, the van Gobots are rather serious about their music. The nine songs on Guantanamo Beach Party are post-punk in the vein of At the Drive-In, with a nervous yet capable energy throughout. The guitars are frenetic and brittle; Geier's smoky, slithering Wurlitzer compensates by smoothing out the jagged edges of this purposefully unpolished record. The whole concoction is raw and driving, anxious to make a point.
Much of the band's angst can be attributed to singer and guitarist Mike Baker's rough childhood growing up in Jamaica, and continuing family tragedies after moving back to the U.S. His strained, urgent vocals teeter on the brink of being pulled too thin, but the emotional weight of his words ensures that that doesn't happen.
"I've seen too many deaths and crazy strife all through my life. Music was the only thing I could always come back to and forget completely that I had so much shit to deal with," Baker confesses, adding that his brother recently died of a drug overdose at age 26. "If I didn't have music, I'm not sure what I'd be doing. I'd have to assume it would be some sort of illegal enterprise."
One song in particular, "If It Moves Then Shoot It," is the most pointedly political song on the album. Baker penned the song about a family member serving in Iraq who has a daughter he hasn't seen yet, and who was promised he would come home years ago. In essence, it is about the all too common metamorphosis for today's soldier from being gung-ho to deeply disillusioned.
Another highlight of the album is "Colorado," which is a coming-of-age song about moving away from home expecting adventure and opportunity, only to discover the grass is sometimes greener in your own backyard.
"The record is about being twentysomething and figuring stuff out," drummer Keith Lacock explains.
What the van Gobots seem to have figured out is what the music business realistically has to offer them, and what they can expect to take away from it. They are not naive; they are passionate. And they are determined to make the most of that passion.
"If it takes us somewhere that's a dream come true, and if it doesn't, we're playing the best music we can and having fun," Geier says. "We're not looking to become famous or be the next DJ Macintosh, dance-punk-hipster trend."
In true van Gobots style, bassist Matthew Kojetin is quick to get in the last word.
"Really, our ultimate dream is that they play us at Gander Mountain."
THE VAN GOBOTS play a CD-release show with the Guystorm, Pictures of Then, and Camel of the Sea on FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, at the UPTOWN BAR & CAFE; 612.823.4719