By Sarah Bennett
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Laundry doesn't seem like a very punk rock thing to be doing, but on the eve of a two-week tour, that's what Death By Stereo frontman Efrem Schulz is handling—the lights, the darks, the gentles, that and watching Slayer's War at the Warfield DVD.
Schulz says heading out for the road "is always a little stressful. I keep walking around saying, 'Shit! I forgot to do this or that.' But once we leave, it's always a lot of fun."
And Death By Stereo have been leaving home a lot lately. The OC natives finished a stretch with old friends AFI in October, the last stop practically in their backyard at a sold-out UC Irvine Bren Center. After that came a European tour with Suicidal Tendencies, then another stateside jaunt with TSOL.
Schulz keeps a map of the United States on his wall outlining the group's grueling 45-date stint on the 2002 Warped Tour. "The thing about touring is, we're always in our tiny little van, driving all night to get to the next show," he explains. "It always sucks when you're doing it, but when you look back on it, it's a great memory."
Not all memories from the road are good. In September, during their set at Blacksburg, Virginia's Solar Haus, a residence converted into a popular local music venue, one fan died and five more were taken to the hospital when a group of people fell through a third-story window onto a concrete patio.
"I can't even describe to you what it was like to stand there and watch it happen right in front of you," Schulz insists. "Basically, [the Solar Haus] is set up like a big open living room or loft. They have bands come through there all the time. The place was packed and everybody was just moving back and forth. There was this mattress up against the corner and we didn't know it, but it was covering up a window. I guess it just gave way."
The band stopped the show immediately and tried to aid the situation as best as they could. "We couldn't talk about it for days," Schulz says. "That's like something you'd read about with the Who, but you never think it'll happen at one of your shows. It's awful, because it was such a positive place and it meant so much to that community's music scene."
(The band held a benefit for Daniel James Martin, the 19-year-old Virginia Tech student who died, and the rest of the victims and their families, at Chain Reaction on October 29, with 46 Short, the Mistake and Destruction Made Simple on the bill.)
Coming home to Fullerton, even if only for a short time, was a chance to heal and recharge for the quintet, which includes Schulz, bassist Paul Miner, guitarists Dan Palmer and Tito, and drummer Todd Hennig.
"The music community here in OC is really tight, the clubs are really supportive, the kids are great and so are the other bands," explains Schulz. "Although it's strange: For some reason, nobody realizes we're from Orange County. I don't know why. We've got a really strong fan base here and we grew up coming to clubs like Chain Reaction. I guess everyone thinks we're from LA. I mean, we've been a band for more than five years, and this is the first time we've even been in OC Weekly."
Orange County is also where the band recorded most of their latest release, the blistering Into the Valley of Death. Their second album for Epitaph and third full-length, Valley was produced by Miner and recorded via ProTools at his house (with the exception of the drums, which were tracked at the legendary Sound City studios in Van Nuys).
"With our other albums, we always had big fights in the studio when it came time to record," explains Schulz. "We just went in and hashed everything out while we were on the clock, which wasn't very productive. This time, we practiced and practiced and practiced before we even got to the studio to make sure we were as tight as possible. When it came time to record, we went in and laid everything down. And with Paul behind the board, it was a great experience. It's much easier to accept criticism from somebody who actually knows who we are and knows what we're about and what we're trying to do."
Lyrically, Schulz unleashes a volley of politically volatile verses, but says he took most of his inspiration from his band. "This time I went around to the guys and asked them what was on their minds. I wanted to write lyrics that represented what the whole band was feeling at the time."
The band weighed in thusly: anti-child-molesting priests ("Shh, It'll Be Our Little Secret"), anti-Bush ("Good Morning America"), anti-consumerism ("You're a Bullshit Salesman With a Mouthful of Samples").
Schulz insists he's not trying to propagandize for anything but freedom. "We just think that individualism is the most important thing," he reasons. "Maybe that's a real 'punk' message, I don't know."
That message is delivered by a combination of brute-force punk and dexterous guitar riffs and solos more commonly associated with heavy metal. Something like Black Flag meets Black Sabbath or, more likely, Iron Maiden.