Steve E. Nix hesitates for a moment, looking down at a tattered sheet of paper, before continuing.
"And then, I dunno, all the typical dumb questions people always ask bands: When did you start? How did you get your name? Shit like that."
An hour before I caught up with the bottle-blond Briefs singer/guitarist, our roles were somewhat reversed. Back in his hometown of Seattle for a couple days of R&R before resuming his regular life on the road, Nix had been playing journalist, conducting a phone interview with members of Clit 45, the Briefs' BYO Records labelmates and fellow West Coast old-school punk revivalists, for a magazine article.
And me, I had been jumping around my living room to the pogo-tastic, three-chord blitzkrieg bop that is the Briefs' recent third album, Sex Objects, as if I could come close to generating the hyper, reckless energy that Nix and the rest of the quartet do whenever they play live. But I've already resigned myself to a career in writing rather than rock stardom, and as fun as it was for him to be asking the questions for once, the easygoing Briefs frontman has no immediate plans to give up his current way of life for anything resembling a 9-to-5er. Like his bandmates -- guitarist/ vocalist Daniel J. Travanti, bassist/ vocalist Lance Romance, and drummer/vocalist Chris Brief -- Nix happily lives like any genuine, self-respecting punk rocker should: never any money in his pockets; goofy haircut and fuck-you fashion whenever he feels like it; always hustling to scrape up the cash to pay for the crash pad that houses his precious vinyl collection; spending eight months out of the year stuffed inside a stanky tour van; engineering his friends' bands' albums in exchange for pizza, sometimes with toppings. Most people probably see it as a difficult way to get by, but Nix shudders at the suffocating alternative.
"I think I can put off getting a real job for a few more years," he laughs. "I mean, it's tough when you come home from tour and you're selling your belongings because you didn't make enough money to pay all your bills, but whatever. It's a pretty interesting trade-off. You sacrifice everything to be in a working band at our level -- we're always broke, we all sleep on the same floor of the same crappy motel room. You can't have a normal relationship with your girlfriend. But at the same time it's totally rewarding -- you get to tour with a lot of your heroes, and that's a huge thing for me. And it's a total, complete sense of freedom."
Seattle in 2005 is not an easy place to be even a semicrusty punk, though. The city still teems with the slate-blue dress shirts, Friends haircuts, and boorish behavior of the one-time dot-com yuppies who flocked there in the mid-'90s and never left. Rents remain high. It only takes one noise complaint from a neighbor to permanently shut down the smaller, dive-ier rock clubs, and the continually floundering economy has forced many of the independent, punk-friendly record, magazine, and skate shops to close their doors for good. And while Seattle's music scene could never be seen as monolithic (even during the grunge years), there's no doubt the city's been under the sway of sensitive-white-dude indie-rock outfits for some time now.
It was likewise difficult in 1999, when Nix -- an Adolescents and D.R.I. fan who grew up in nearby Tacoma -- and his friends started thinking about putting a band together. "With the onslaught of all this emo crap, where somebody's whining about the girl that left them and how everyone just needs to understand their fuckin' problems, I was like, 'Man, I'd really like do to the opposite of this, just something that doesn't take itself so seriously,'" Nix says. "When we started out we did it purely for fun. We got an opportunity to play a basement party before we even had any songs, so we just whipped three together. We were all listening to those Killed by Death compilations and were like, 'Wouldn't it be cool if there was a band like the Vibrators right now?' So that was kind of our idea, to try and capture that same spirit and energy."
Within a year, the Briefs had put together a 13-track, 24-minute debut album, Hit After Hit (on Seattle's tiny but well-regarded Dirtnap Records), that laid out the act's musical agenda in no uncertain terms: a nice dose of '77-style punk rock -- i.e., fast and aggressive but not brutal, snarky but not grouchy, loony but not asinine -- mixed with a healthy appreciation of simple, new-wavey pop melodies. Vocals that spit, sneered, and hiccuped, occasionally delivered in a faux-British accent; backing "whoaaaa-ohhhs" and chanting choruses; thick, growly guitar tones; tunes about being poor, weird, having crabs, and getting new shoes and socks -- sure, the foursome had pledged overt allegiance to the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, the Rezillos, the Damned, the Sex Pistols, the Weirdos, et al., but that wheel was getting the Briefs exactly where they wanted to be, so why reinvent it?
"Obviously, our influences are the first and second waves of punk rock," says Nix. "We love it all and bring it all together, from the New York stuff to the Orange County stuff, the London and Australia stuff, all of that, but we've always tried really hard to be innovative and fresh with our writing. I know we have elements of a lot of familiar things, but I don't think anyone considers us to be some kind of dumb retro act or anything.
"It's tough if you're starting a punk band to find your own thing, because what do you do in the beginning?" he allows. "It's like, 'Well, we could try to be like Rancid,' which I guess is cool. It's better than trying to be one of the million NOFX wannabes out there -- nothing at all against NOFX, I think they're great, but you know what I mean. It is hard at first, and I guess you ape other bands' stuff and try to figure out what you're all about."
With their skinny ties, striped shirts, silly shades, and brash two-minute anthems, the Briefs quickly became known as the band to turn to for a good time even as they were developing their own identity. Along with such similarly minded groups as the Spits, the Gloryholes, and the Girls, they began to foment an exuberant underground scene for anyone who wanted to get gussied up, go out, jump around, and get a little nuts rather than stand back and watch mopey dudes in rumpled T-shirts plumb the depths of their misery.
"I think we get a really cool, really lively crowd pretty much wherever we play," says Nix. "We get a lot of pretty hot girls that come to our show and dress up and have fun. I like that, man, I like going to shows where it's an event and people dress up a little bit and there's an excitement in the air. Like when we first played in Europe, there were a couple clubs in Berlin where, man, it was just like some photo book from 1977, 1978 -- hundreds of people completely decked out, and it was so much fun. I love shit like that; I wish it was more like that here."
Interscope Records caught wind of what was happening in Seattle and signed the Briefs in 2002, giving the group a decent chunk of change to record another album and stay out on the road. But when the band delivered the disc, the label couldn't figure out how to market it, delayed the release, and then cut the quartet loose. The band members got the last laugh, however, when they found a contract stipulation that allowed them to keep the recording they'd made on Interscope's dime. That album, Off the Charts, got put out in 2003 by Dirtnap; soon after, the Briefs signed to BYO Records, the esteemed Los Angeles label run by members of Youth Brigade.
Sex Objects, released last summer, follows the same high-energy, infectious, old-school formula of the first two albums, but the songwriting is noticeably sharper, the playing is tighter, and the production quality, while still on the coarse side, is a bit less murky. Most of the lyrics continue to center around stuff like blow-up fuck dolls and shoplifting at department stores, but the Briefs manage to tackle some sociopolitical commentary in their own semiabsurd way. Take, for instance, the memorable chorus to the Homeland Security-mocking opener, "Orange Alert" ("Don't know, don't care, don't talk, don't stare/ Don't know, don't care, we live in fear/ The end is near and we are easy to control"), or the rabid "Destroy the U.S.A.," titled like a rant by the Exploited but delivered with more good-natured aggravation than harsh vitriol: "I hate cops walking the beat/ I hate the president, and I hate me/ I hate neutron bombs, senior proms/ Uncle Sam, corporate scams/ I hate straight edge, I hate super-drunk boneheads/ I hate drivin' cars, hangin' out at bars/ Skateboarding scars, and useless wars."
Nix says he's obviously in this to vent, have a good time, and make people smile more than change the world or torpedo any prevailing musical trends. And though the Briefs are steadily making a name for themselves outside Seattle, Nix doesn't expect any big-time success, much less enough cash to dramatically affect his lifestyle. A bit more comfort and security might be nice, but, he says, it's punk rock that changed his life, it's punk rock he and his bandmates are passionate about, and it's punk rock he'll never abandon.
"I grew up listening to the radio in the suburbs, and I was like, 'I'll never be able to play guitar like that, I'm never gonna have a poodle haircut like that,' you know? So when I discovered punk rock and skateboarding and all that shit, that's when it really turned for me, where I could start participating in creative stuff and be involved in a scene that felt like home to me. It's what I'm all about. And if we can do something like that for the kids that are coming up now, man, nothing would make me more stoked."