Until the beer kicks in, the four lads from the Piranhas don’t really say much. And Ami, the band’s comely keyboardist, is missing in action. Yet, crowded around a table at the Attic Bar in Hamtramck, the Piranhas soon reveal themselves as trash-culture literate, sometimes witty and often self-disparaging — a demeanor that hardly matches the band’s local rep. It seems getting booted from clubs and generally kicking up your standard punk-rock dust has long been a band routine since the group fell together four years ago.
In fact, the fellows were 86’d from the Gold Dollar a few years back when singer Gentle Jamie taped a rat to his chest and a ruckus ensued. An affected act, certainly, but the fiasco remains a badge of courage in the Piranhas camp.
“We just want to lay the whole rat thing to rest,” explains PBR-gulping guitarist Ian Ammons. “The night before we played there it was empty. Jamie went in and used the ladies room. The owner, Neil Yee, was so anal that he freaked. I mean, the place was totally empty. So, the next night we played there and Jamie took a dead rat and duct-taped it to his chest. Then Yee cut the power. The crowd got pissed so he had to turn the power back on. Then he kicked everybody out. Jack White was there yelling that Neil didn’t deserve this kind of treatment. It was a complete overreaction. It was just so dumb.”
“I didn’t do it. I wasn’t even behind the stage,” claims Jamie. With a face wrapped in unruly lambchops, the front man has big, kind eyes and thick, jet-black hair. With a woolen muffler and blue jeans, he could be your ordinary punk-rock lumberjack. “It’s just easy to blame me for that kind of stuff.”
The conversation veers from obscure mid-’70s pre-punk and post-glam Ohio and Oklahoma bands to their love of everything from Suicide, Crime, the Screamers, the Dangerhouse label, early Roxy, Coop and, of course, Iggy. Later, at a different bar just down the road, the dialogue degenerates to a certain member’s foot fetish and another’s love of all things butt porn, and a collective loathing of the cutesy aspects of D-town’s trend-trawling garage scene.
In context, the dialog is comical. The Piranhas are, after all, a young rock ’n’ roll band. And they’ve graced the cover of international punk lit zine Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll (the Piranha’s single “Garbage Can” made its top-10 list of the decade) and are a No. 1 editor’s pick in the current issue of Hit List magazine.
Ammons is the most effusive of the bunch, and looks like what would result if you crossed a Dickens pickpocket with Stories shouter Ian Lloyd, the outward garb of a gentleman junkie. The by-day telemarketer admittedly harbors a liking for Xanax and beer, sure, but he’s no junkie. When he talks, he smokes cigarettes furiously as if they were weapons. And he often wavers between the abject and the insightful.
Ammons came up with punk stand-up Tim Vulgar (Clone Defects) in the teen punk band the Epileptics, which never toured past Lansing but was, according to Ammons, “huge in Texas.”
“We wore polka dot shirts,” smirks the guitarist, shaking his head. “But, you know, fuck, it was a teen punk band.”
When the Piranhas play it is, like it or not, a rock ’n’ roll show, and Jamie is its ringleader, bounding and frothing; stands snap, booze spills. Calculated extremes aside, the Piranhas have a confrontational quality that they say is very much rooted in Detroit rock ’n’ roll history.
The Piranhas see themselves as part of a lineage that started here in the late ’60s. True fans of the Stooges, they are appalled that Detroit has so few “real” rock ’n’ roll bands to represent it now.
“We love the Clone Defects; Whirlwind Heat is fucking great live,” explains mild-mannered bassist Brian Krawczyk, between pulls of a draft. “They’re really young, like 17, 18. The Murder City Wrecks are great. The Wolfman Band. Eric Villa and the Name Games are cool. There’s a few others that we appreciate.”
The Piranhas’ Ypsilanti-based drummer Ryan Sabatis works a decidedly un-rock ’n’ roll day job as a computer tech, and he interjects very little. “Are you gonna put what I do in there?” He asks, slowly. “It’s kind of a contrast to Ian’s job.” The 25-year-old, who has been whacking skins for seven years, comes alive when the subject of his Ohio-based girlfriend comes up. He met her during Piranhas’ minitour. “I’m trying to get her to move up here,” he shrugs.
The band formed in 1998, split up and re-formed. It released a couple singles and an album; a CD and vinyl reissue appeared this year on San Francisco’s On/On Switch label.
The Piranhas just-released second full-length, Erotic Grit Movies, is a hefty glob of art-damaged punk. Jamie’s mostly indecipherable Burroughs-y cut-up lyrics — sung in a rather listenable growled croon — bop atop spermy guitars and weirdly hypnotic linear keyboard lines. “Ami doesn’t play the keyboard like your typical garage band,” Ammons says. “She doesn’t just hit chords, she plays single notes.”
Tim Pak recorded the 14-song disc, released on LA indie In the Red Records, at Ferndale’s Woodshed studio. The record took all of two days. The tunes spring from a well of mostly obscure songwriting influences: figure in Suicide and No New York, the Bags, Raw Power and the Alley Cats. But here, of course, comparisons are odious. The record actually sounds like nothing else; an auditory cataclysm that manages, at times, to transcend noise to become sing-songy. Lyrical themes run the gamut of child molestation (Underdeveloped genital surprise/hidden uncle fingers wiggle erotic grit movies passing by) to self-loathing (Here we live/silent hands, laden shapes/The great glitter nest/the clock strikes cuckoo).
All told, it’s a damn fine racket. The best of the bunch is “Girls Like it Too,” a near-poppy skronk of loveless, non-gender-specific desire for schtupping.
Ammons elucidates: “Girls can be as disgusting as guys, as least as disgusting as us. The way it sounds is us probably taking in way too much Captain Beefheart.”
The Piranhas gig selectively in Detroit, and are — though the band denies it — suspect of being, oh, just a little jaded.
“People don’t come out to see us here. I mean there is our circle, but that’s it,” continues Ammons. “We love playing the Lager House and CPOP. The Lager House is my favorite place; the room is puny and has a great vibe. But we do shows here as a warm-up. We love Chicago and New York. We just played New York and the places were packed. I don’t want Detroit to burn out on us. The Sights played five shows in like three days. Fuck.”
The band manifesto? Get in and get out.
“We have a Dwarves mentality,” says Ammons. “Just hit ’em with a blast. Our sets are only 20, maybe 25 minutes long, how it should be.”
Sabatis chimes in: “Are you supposed to play a lot around here?”
By night’s end, after innumerable rounds, three-fifths of the Piranhas (Krawczyk was lost between stops) amble off into the freezing night with armloads of porn videos (don’t ask). The antenna to Ammons’ cell phone (“Hey, it was a gift, and it’s cheaper than a land line”) snapped off, and he is suffering a cat scratch to his retina. A good night, I guess.
The Piranhas perform at their record-release party Nov. 29 at the Lager House (1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit. Sagger (from Milwaukee) and the Fondas will open. For information, call 313-961-4668.Brian Smith is the Metro Times music editor. E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org