This San Francisco band, consisting of two guitarists and one drummer, uses convoluted metal riffs to make bewildering guitar opuses. The trio labors over its songs and albums for years -- showcasing a dedication to sound that has propelled the combo to more than a dozen tours, five of them across the country, all in a dilapidated camper van that smells like dirty socks. Along the way, the band's undeniable sonic appeal has led to rave reviews from decidedly different camps: the lowbrow writers of 7-Eleven newsstand staple Metal Maniacs and the staff of Drag City, an indie label most often associated with lo-fi songwriter/experimentalists such as Will Oldham, Smog, and Flying Saucer Attack.
"I was told by Drag City that if they put out our record, people would think it was a joke. I said, "They're probably right!'" drummer Tim Soete remembers. "We had a few offers [from other labels], but we went with Drag City because we knew that they were genuinely into our music."
Though the Fucking Champs have received enthusiastic reviews from the music press, many critics and listeners still seem hung up on the fact that the band uses metal as a foundation for its sound.
"There are hundreds of styles of music out there in the world. For some reason, the indie rock world only recognizes like two or three of them," says guitarist Josh Smith. "These are the same folks who do the bulk of the writing for the magazines that write about us. Since this is what they read and write about every day, they've become pretty convinced that anything outside their sissy little hegemonic wet-nap must be a joke. You couldn't possibly mean all those metal riffs and fusion riffs and New Age riffs."
Soete and Smith formed the band as a guitar duo in Santa Cruz in 1992. Originally called the Champs, the group played instrumental songs influenced as much by Queen and classic metal as by Japanese prog-fusion duo Ruins and SoCal punks Black Flag. Soete soon switched to drums, and Adam Cantwell of astral-metallers Spaceboy joined on guitar. Early Champs shows were quite eclectic -- Soete often left the drum stool to help perform harmonized three-guitar epics or sing lead on a version of Mötley Crüe's power ballad "Merry-Go-Round."
From the outset, the band's secret weapon was Smith's 1960s nine-string Silvertone, an oddity that gave the illusion of two guitarists battling it out on the same squealing lead. In order to build the group's unique sound further, the threesome decided that notes and arrangements should be favored over noise and vocals, and that bass was altogether unnecessary. Early cassettes, such as Music for Films About Rock and Triumph of the Air Elementals, were four-track minisymphonies -- one song, "Thor Is Like Immortal," featured 22 tracks of overdubbed guitar. The Champs were creating a complex, metal-based sound at a time when interest in virtuoso guitar music was at an all-time low.
"It used to be that the average jackass thought you were kidding if they heard traces of Iron Maiden in your music. Now, those same fools are paying $100 for a Piece of Mind tour shirt," says Smith. "Sure, in the early '90s independent music was dominated by punk and noise, but that never seemed to stop people from coming to our shows."
Looking for greener musical pastures, Smith and Soete moved to San Francisco in early 1996, back when such a move was still possible for starving artists. Cantwell stayed behind and was replaced by Tim Green, former guitarist of Nation of Ulysses (a Washington, D.C., band that proved influential for its spastic shows and noisy, art-punk sound, if not for its ridiculous, pseudo-political manifestos).
In 1997, after two years of extensive studio work, the Champs released their debut album with the cheeky title III. Credited to "The C4AM95" to avoid legal hassles with a similarly titled 1950s instrumental combo, this excessive double album revealed as much love of analog keyboard interludes as of bludgeoning hard rock. With titles like "Andre Segovia Interests Me" and "On Seas of Sorrow Sail Death's Ships" (part two of "The Golden Pipes Trilogy"), the debut hinted at irony, or at least seemed to satirize the styles the band was cannibalizing.
"I guess it needs to be addressed," admits Soete. "But are you really experiencing irony when you hear us playing live? I don't think I've ever listened to any music for irony's sake. In a title like "Andre Segovia Interests Me' there's no irony, but there's definitely humor. Humor engages people."
Smith agrees. "I think there's a lot of joy in our music. That this could be mistaken for smirking, sarcastic anything saddens me. I think it's possible to create a joyful sound without requiring any sort of filtration process on the part of the audience."
For their Drag City release, the Champs dropped the numerical disguise and asserted themselves as the Fucking Champs. The result of another two years of work, IV is more succinct than its lengthy predecessor. The absurd parade of tricky riffs and detailed liner notes is still intact, but the Champs have fucked with the concept a bit more. On "Lamplighter," Soete pauses for a breather, and tries out some delicate acoustic finger-picking and dreamy prog-rock mellotron washes. Green revisits early '70s analog synthscapes in the minimalist lullaby "Lost" ("I think I subliminally lifted that melody from a Jeff Beck Group cassette that Josh used to play in the van," says Green), while Smith's brief "I Love the Spirit World and I Love Your Father" is a heartfelt stadium-rock elegy.
In short, IV is another Frankenstein of an album. The final epic, "Extra Man," was one of the first songs the group wrote, and it stands as a sort of tribute to one of its heroes, '70s Irish rocker band Thin Lizzy (Smith once claimed to own all 13 Thin Lizzy records), as well as to the longevity of the Fucking Champs. Eight years later and the original obsession with guitar riffs still drives the band.
Soete explains, "There is an unseen force in the true artist -- an impetus. Maybe it's [like] a graffiti artist who's willing to risk getting arrested or even getting shot to finish a piece. We get pretty obsessive during the writing process. There is definitely some sort of force that drives the three of us."
The obsessiveness that drives the Champs manifests itself in other ways. Josh Smith has played in two other bands: Weakling, S.F.'s only Norwegian-style black metal band, and a note-for-note Thin Lizzy cover band. Tim Green records minimalist electronic music with handmade filters and oscillators under the name Concentrick, while Soete dreams of someday realizing his acid rock band, Froth.
Meanwhile, work on the follow-up to IV, tentatively titled V, has already begun, and the road still beckons. The band plans another full U.S. tour in spring 2001; a trip to Japan is also in the works.
"We've generally had a good response even since the early days playing pizza parlors. Some people think what we're doing is funny. The best audiences are those that can shed their inhibitions about what genre we are and just rock out," says Soete.
For all the conceptual baggage of mixing up genres and playing metal for hipsters, the Fucking Champs are simply dedicated to making music that sounds good to them, regardless of how they are perceived.
"Most people don't even listen to music. They listen to the genres in which the music is played. They get that far and stop digging," ventures Smith. "Unfortunately, the nature and scope of the music press is usually concerned with things on the grossest possible level. Ultimately, though, I believe in the axiom that people's reaction to your music is none of your damned business."