Photo by Michael MullerMaybe you can play guitar like a bad-ass. Maybe you can even write a pretty flashy song. But would you spend your down time scouring malls for Franken Berry cereal and obsessing over movie-monster kitsch? Nick 13, singer/guitarist for psychobilly band Tiger Army, does. Joey Ramone might call him a cretin. Legendary rock critic Lester Bangs might come up with something even worse. But that's exactly why we like Tiger Army.
Yeah, the band sorta sounds like a California werewolf tearing through Graceland. But coming out of Nick 13, it's somehow legitimately sensitive and angry—it's country-boy sentimentality and vampiric nihilism, alive with that same swampy hellfire that made the music of Jerry Lee Lewis age so well.
How else could you slap a song like "F.T.W." (yes, that is "Fuck the World") on the same album as the soppy "In the Orchard"? And how else could you explain Nick 13 singing like Motrhead's Lemmy and Chris Isaak on the same album? Seriously, how could anyone explain psychobilly?
This is what Nick 13 tells us: it started in England in the early 1980s, when rockabilly bands like the Meteors began injecting punk and horror imagery into their look and their lyrics. It developed into a small but growing scene of people with a fetish for horror kitsch (Frankenberry cereal and the horror movies of the 1940s, for example); a jones for manic roots rock; and creeper shoes, Teddy boy jackets and a special version of that 1950s 'do.
"You have to shave the sides and back of your head, otherwise you're a rockabilly or a greaser," Nick 13 says.
It may sound as if Nicky was trying a little too hard to be different, but you might, too, if you had grown up in Ukiah, a small city in hippie Mendocino County, which Nick 13 describes as a magnet for rednecks and serial killers. (Jim Jones and Charles Manson did spend some free time there, and you'd also find an address for mass murderer Leonard Lake.)
Punk rock was one of the only escapes from boredom—same as it ever was—so Nick 13 taught himself to play guitar and write songs and moved down to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he put together an early version of Tiger Army. Their first show was at legendary punk club 924 Gilman Street in 1996. They opened for their heroes the Meteors for their second gig, and then everyone in Tiger Army dropped out of the band the following year.
Nick 13 moved back to Ukiah, and it looked as if one more psychobilly career had died an untimely death. Then he got a call from Rancid's Tim Armstrong, who wanted Nick 13 to make an album for his label Hellcat (which released Tiger Army's most recent album, 2001's II: Power of Moonlite).
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After finding the right folks for the band—drummer Fred Hell and bassist Geoff Kresge, who attacks his stately standup with the precision of a top marksman and the abandon of a speed metal musician—Tiger Army cut a self-titled album in 1999 and started gaining fans. And now they can be as psychobilly as they want to be and put in some serious time looking for monster-themed cereal.
"For me and a lot of other people, [psychobilly] is a way to embrace life by giving up on the world and its problems," says Nick 13. "Psychobillies aren't interested in politics—or fighting for the most part."
Man, would that piss off Bono and Sting. On the other hand, Count Chocula would surely approve.
Tiger Army plays with the Tantrums and Rockin' Lloyd Trip & the Zipguns at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Thurs., May 30, 8 p.m. $12. All ages.