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Oakland's Rory Henderson used to front a loud punk band called American Steel. He used to yowl in a raspy voice once described as a "40-pack-a-day earache," as the rest of the group kicked and screamed and took shit from no one. He used to be so cool he called himself "Ruiari."
Some people wish he still did those things.
"Oh man, I'm almost in tears. American Steel meant so much to me and my group of friends ... the punk community has lost yet another one of the last great punk bands of the '90s."
The above quote is from a review of A Crescent Honeymoon, last year's EP from Communiqué, posted on Lookout! Records' Web site. The disgruntled chap isn't the only person who feels betrayed by Communiqué, which features all four members of American Steel -- guitarist Henderson, guitarist Ryan Massey, bassist John Peck, and drummer Jamie Kissinger -- plus keyboardist Cory Gowan. Another poster suggests that the disc is "ridden with cheesy synthesizers and songs that don't really go anywhere." Henderson's response? Get a clue, dorks.
"Punk's cool, but there's a lot of music out there," he says during an interview while seated across from Gowan at the latter's Oakland home. "You're hurting yourself by not getting into more of it."
The members of Communiqué have certainly gotten into a lot of music since their rough and rancorous beginnings. The new group's debut full-length, Poison Arrows, feels like a crazy amalgam of the last 40 years of music -- as if Phil Spector were hired to orchestrate synth-goth hits for Motown, with Marc Bolan as debauched songwriter. The tunes are pop juggernauts -- tightly crafted, darkly humored, and slyly seductive -- and the disc is one of the best local rock records this year.
Aaron Axelson, music director at Live 105-FM, believes that Communiqué is on the shortlist of Bay Area bands that could succeed nationally. "Sonically, they write catchy, infectious songs, and Rory is very charismatic," he says. "With the whole new wave, '80s revival -- the Killers, Hot Hot Heat, and those groups -- one might be quick to lump them in there, but they have more of an edge. It comes from their punk background."
This isn't the first time Henderson and company have attempted a sonic detour. In 2001, American Steel released Jagged Thoughts, a record steeped in acoustic guitars and keyboards, causing many fans to scream "Judas!"
"It was like R&B and organs, and they were like, 'What the fuck? That's not punk!'" Henderson recalls. "At the same time we made a lot of new fans, people who didn't like us before. We tried to do what we thought good punk bands -- like the Clash or the Replacements -- did, where you didn't write the same record every time."
But by the following year, the players were concocting material so far removed from their original concept that they figured a name change was in order. After seven years and three albums, American Steel called it quits.
Since drummer Kissinger was tired of life on punk planet, the remaining members continued on as a trio. (Kissinger would eventually return to the fold in mid-2003.) The resulting Honeymoon EP, released in February 2003, was a moody mid-tempo affair, featuring soulful organ and -- woah! -- steel guitar. "I got sick of being in a guitar band," Henderson explains. "I thought, 'Why can't we use other instruments? It opens up the whole range of the sonic palette.'"
Henderson also traded his abrasive growl for a fluid croon. "It was hard at first, because I'd always screamed," he says. "I had to quit smoking for six months, and exercise a lot to get in shape."
The final piece of the puzzle was the addition of keyboardist Gowan, who'd been playing with S.F. indie-rockers Amscray. Gowan and Henderson immediately connected over a shared love for mid-'90s synth-punks Satisfact, '60s proggers Procol Harum, and, oddly enough, Bruce Springsteen.
"I love all of Springsteen's organ stuff," Gowan admits. "He plays with so many people, but no one takes a lead unless they have to."
While it may seem bizarre that an altrock musician would be influenced by the Boss, Gowan's approach was just what Communiqué was looking for. "'Orchestral' sounds like we're putting on airs," says Henderson. "But everyone's contribution is even. Everyone's playing pretty boring parts [separately], but all together it works."
On Poison Arrows, Communiqué achieves something akin to Springsteen's and Phil Spector's carefully arranged pop assaults, only on a grittier level. While there's no string section, there are plenty of three-part harmonies, as well as tons of interlocking melodies and countermelodies. Sure, you can play Spot the Influences -- Duran Duran's new wave disco thump, Bono's epic bellow, the dark jangle of the Smiths -- but the thing that distinguishes Communiqué from the current crop of '80s-mining bands is the group's attention to songcraft. Like its peers Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, and the Strokes, the Oakland group steals hooks and riffs from the past, but it sticks them together with such care and concision you'd swear the record was co-sponsored by Krazy Glue. Not to mention that unlike its rivals, Communiqué seems to have heard records made before 1981, filtering bits of Motown soul, '60s psychedelia, and '70s power-pop into its epic rock.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the band is led by a punk Baudelaire. "I'm easy, I like to have a good time," Henderson laughs. "I'll go wherever the wind blows." Earlier, he'd mentioned how Gowan had to pick him up for the interview, because he'd spent the night on a trampoline with a couple of girls he'd just met. "I've been instant gratification my whole life -- that means I get myself in a lot of trouble and I get to write about it."
It's not that Arrowsreads like Penthouse Forum. But there is the, um, extended sexual metaphor of "Perfect Weapon," as well as a striking number of drug references, most blatantly in the heroin-chic number, "My Bay" (which also includes Henderson's disquieting boast that he's "abused most everything"). "I made a conscious effort to sing about exactly my lifestyle, about my friends' lifestyles, and to reference real things," Henderson says. "Rather than be this kind of stern, asexual soapbox singer."
Whether it's a reaction to the heavy vibes of Sept. 11, or merely an attempt to recapture the decadence of the '80s, over the past few years rock music has grown increasingly re-enamored with hedonism. What sets Communiqué apart from its peers is that its party-hearty lyrics contain an edge. Songs like "Ouija Me" -- in which the lead singer stages his own death, then tells his former love to contact him in the afterlife -- are rife with gallows humor, as if Henderson knows we're all doomed, but he's not going to stop partying because of it.
So far, there seems to be no sign that anyone's going to harsh Communiqué's buzz. Aaron Axelson picked the band to be one of two local acts performing at Live 105's annual BFD concert, alongside the Beastie Boys, the Violent Femmes, and the Strokes. Tours of the U.S. and Europe have been scheduled. Magnetand Rockpilehave already done interviews for features on the group. MTV even played one of the band's songs in the background of a news segment -- on the Strokes!
As for all of American Steel's pissed-off fans, Henderson has some advice. "Go buy a Supremes record, dude, it's the best fucking band ever. Listen to the Supremes -- it'll change your life."
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