The Fucking Champs helped change the indie perception. Over the course of three primarily instrumental albums, they proved that metal could have complicated time signatures, creepy synthesizers, and even humor. And it could be about getting paid. The Champs sold out shows and scored glowing reviews in Rolling Stone, Time Out New York, and Vice Magazine. Smith even quit his day job to focus solely on music.
So why, in April 2003, did the axman walk away from music?
"I was so burnt out I couldn't write or play," he recalls on the back porch of an Oakland cafe. "Everything sounded exactly the same to me."
For the first time in more than 10 rocking years, the San Francisco resident packed away his ax and tuned in to silence. The metal world shed a big honking tear for its fallen hero.
It's Halloween weekend 2006, and Smith's new band, the Makes Nice, is playing the Stork Club in Oakland. The audience is made up of about 50 people. There are no Rolling Stone reporters; there won't be any big payouts at the door. Your heart could go out to Smith if he didn't look so ecstatic.
One listen to the Makes Nice, and it's easy to see why he's so happy. The garage-pop trio mixes the euphoric aggression of early Who with the sublime vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys and Big Star, blasting the mod sound of the '60s and '70s into the future. Drummer Jack Matthews moves at superhuman speeds, while bassist Aaron Burnham pounds away with agility and Smith rips off tightly wound solos. The threesomes' songs as heard on the Makes Nice's recent debut LP, Candy Wrapper could make Pete Townsend's chest hair fall out.
How did Smith go from burnout to blast off? Two months after he'd given up music "forever," he headed back to the electrical outlet with a surprise in store. Smith decided that he wanted to make people dance. "I kept thinking about how that late-'50s, early-'60s post-jump blues thing gets a really bad rap with kids these days," he says. "And how if you put together a sort of Freddie King, funky instrumental, guitar-based blues thing and played in people's kitchens at parties, everyone would have to love it."
It seemed only natural, therefore, that he hook up with Matthews, the frenzied drum machine for Alternative Tentacles' favorite soul outfit Harold Ray: Live in Concert. Over the next year, the pair morphed from instrumental R&B to Meters-y funk to James Gang-ish hard rock. The Makes Nice's big breakthrough came, though, when Smith started writing in the style of mods like the Who, Powder, Tomorrow, and the Jam. Next, all they needed was a bassist. Enter Burnham, the young heartthrob in Oakland garage-punks the Mothballs.
Few supergroups even the super-indie sound as good as their initial bands. Forget about sounding better. But in the Makes Nice, the three musicians coalesce unlike before and Candy Wrapper perfectly captures the outfit's full-on intensity. The sped-up '70s boogie-rock hook of "Novembers Girls" feels like ZZ Top on 78 rpm, while the cymbal-bashing, riff-monster "California Sun" makes you feel like someone's spiked your veins with caffeine.
And then there's the harmonies. Listening to Smith and Burnham entwine their vocals, it's shocking that Smith was hiding his voice all those years in the Champs. Then again, his shredding guitar gives pop songs fresh context. "I think a lot of modern day fake mod/psych/whatever bands usually leave out the solos, or just suck at them" says Smith. "All the great bands had wailing guitar: Yardbirds, Les Fleur de Lys, Tomorrow."
The Makes Nice's tunes also contain deceptively complex songwriting. "Anna Karina" is the story of a girl who can't manufacture short-term memories. On "Dear John," Smith infuses swinging rhythms and chaotic drumming with a mournful sadness. Burnham's "Cop Killer" feels like a '50s ballad trapped in a '70s power-pop number, his boyish croon describing a man struggling with unfaithfulness.
As good as Candy Wrapper is, Smith promises the next disc which the trio has already started recording will be even better. "It's going to be a fist in the face of everything talentless, boring, and afraid of melody," he says. "Melody equals guts! No-wavers beware!"