How to Blow a Fuse
Photo by James BunoanTonight is probably a school night for the Intelligista, but no one says a word about it. Instead, speeding toward a show in Hollywood inside a minivan with a busted passenger window, guitarist Nick Waterhouse and organ player Kevin Van are trying to think of stories they can tell to make them sound tough. They're banned from Chain Reaction (drummer A.J. Polizzi, wearing a frock and shouting at the sound techs as they dismantled his drum set, "DON'T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?"). They, um, played a ton of house parties for Edison High classmates. Their first show—actually more of a photo shoot—was at a Subway sandwich shop and got Kevin fired.
And right now, someone's trying to resolve a sudden mid-traffic-jam bladder issue with an Aquafina bottle and a little privacy in the front seat.
"Write about this!" they're saying. "Yeah, this is tou—ah, FUCK, why did I wear my white bucks tonight?"
So we pull over, and everyone pees on a tree, and that's how the Intelligista show up at a Hollywood tiki bar with their white buckskin shoes immaculately intact.
This is the Intelligista:
Nick Waterhouse, 17, Edison class of '04, 3.8 GPA, Rickenbacker 330 guitar, '66 Fender Bassman head ("Pete Townshend's '64 set-up," he says).
Kevin Van, 18, Edison class of '03, 3.6 GPA (says he had a 0.6 at one particularly dismal spot in his school career—good work, Kevin!), Wurlitzer electric piano.
Kyle Stephens, 17, Edison class of '04, 4.0 GPA, Rickenbacker copy bass ("To match mine," says Nick).
And Sir Anthony James Polizzi, 18, Edison class of '03 (circumstance permitting, Tulane University class of '07, B.S. Electrical Engineering), 4.2 GPA, drum set of unknown provenance and pedigree. "I definitely appreciate the likening to Keith Moon," he says. "I would also maybe appreciate a likening to Napoleon."
They are all from Huntington Beach, and together, they sound a lot like—but not exclusively like—the early Who and the Animals.
They have been a band for about eight months now. They have released one single on Paul Weller-disciple Chris Bradley's Unity Squad Records. "Everyone calls me Little Chris," says Nick. "But if he was 10 years younger, he'd totally be my best friend in high school." They won the school district's Battle of the Bands (defeating relatively infantile Sum 41 and Doors rip-offs) and are considering an offer to fly to Italy to play a show at a garage-rock fest.
To every other 17-year-old in Orange County, they must seem varying degrees of extraterrestrial: creeping from easygoing socialite partier Kevin through friendly everyguy Kyle, '60s man-out-of-time Nick, and then A.J., who segues easily from his bed-ridden Brian Wilson phase to his newest shtick, prowling the halls of his Tulane dorm decked out as a 17th-century aristocrat. ("He's so far ahead of the curve he's behind," sighs a friend.)
"The people we play for are us," Nick says, quickly clarifying, "The people we play for do not exist."
Obviously, they are nerds. But so are you. And there is a deep and primal tradition of nerdism in rock & roll, the muted counterpoint that puts the backbone in the decadence and debauchery, just as there is a deep connection between the best traditions of rock & roll and the squirrelly teenage idiosyncrasy of the Intelligista, too shy to piss on their shoes in a moving vehicle. You think of a quote from Ahmet Ertegun, one of the founders of Atlantic Records, on how the British rock & rollers of the '60 got so scholarly over dusty old American R&B. And you think of Kyle, fondly remembering the last time the Intelligista got a write-up in the Weekly: "That part about us masturbating over the Nuggets comps?" says Kyle, shaking his head respectfully. "God, it's so true."
"Oh, shitty," says Kevin as we slide into the club parking lot.
"Oh, strip mall," says Nick, more correctly.
As per every bar they have ever played, the Intelligista are carded, revealed to be younger than certain strains of brandy and sent to a special holding area at the back of the club, where they are to wait—penned—until they play. Could be worse: sometimes, they have to stand outside, says Nick. You offer to get them dinner on the Weekly tab; next door at the liquor store, Nick abandons an armful of bottled water (for later midset refreshment) when he spots the fridge full of Perrier. Play rock star for a night? You're happy to help. ("Thanks, dad," says Kevin). Back at the bar, they sneak you in as their manager—between the briefcase full of guitar junk you're handling and the Perrier you distribute to the rest of the band, no one's gonna argue.
They set up like they're gonna launch a model rocket: slow, deliberate, a little afraid something's gonna pop off. Everyone has changed into their gig outfits—nice white shirts, slacks, cagey and confident poker faces—except Nick, who, he says, lives his life in a gig outfit. He's very circumspect when it comes to the subject of Mod—what he calls (always with a grimace) the "M-word"—and rightfully so, when RAF logos are as prevalent and credible as anarchy signs. But you couldn't peel the rigid idealism and supreme confidence of the My Generation Who from the Intelligista without taking off their skins.
A.J. calls Nick the "reluctant leader"; you'd take him up a peg to brigadier general. James Brown held that mic in an iron fist; from the way the Intelligista intently watches Nick onstage, you're sure he demands the same martial discipline. There are probably 17- and 19-year-olds with flashier musicianship in OC; there can't possibly be any more cohesive.
The Intelligista are very ambitious about their musical ability, but more effectively, they know how to fit themselves together. "It's minimalism to me," Nick says. "We know our roles. It gets the point across easier."
Reflexively—almost accidentally—you follow-up: So what is the point of the Intelligista?
"It's that we're young, and in youth, we're filled with passion or visceral emotions . . . like . . . it's primal," he says slowly, a little startled. "We try to get how we feel into the song. The words don't matter. Maybe that's because we practice without mics. The music is more important than the words. I don't know if I can describe it without being stupid."
So you watch them when they play. The first three songs drip out a little lukewarm—technical difficulties, maybe stage jitters for fill-in drummer Pablo Estrada, covering for college-boy A.J. But at "Theme From the Intelligista," an overdriven Memphis-style instrumental, they break in. It's like a different band just crashed through the bar ceiling.
Next song: "Is That Clear?" Nick's breathless, slit-eyed, red-faced, slamming down to his knees, Rickenbacker racked close to his chest, stretching high notes till they snap. Kyle and Kevin are tipping into the barstools, clattering tambourines into the crowd. Pablo keeps his eyes on his hi-hat—first show for the new guy. He's the only quiet spot; if A.J. was there, he'd have his foot through something already.
You can't help but feel—in a nostalgic sort of way—a little old. The Intelligista use their ages as they should, which is to say, as raw atomic fuel, and when they're teenage-awkward, as they are now, it's only because they're so unadulterated—seeing someone really freak out is a little uncomfortable when you're used to the warmed-over twentysomething simulation.
They finish with mussed hair and crooked glasses. The room should smell like smoke. It's over fast and anti-climactically: they play a loosey-goosey new song after the bass amp belly-ups. People clap. The bartender asks if you can book them at his bar again. You pass the Perrier.
"I was thinking about what you asked me in the middle of the set," Nick says later, totally composed again, carefully toting guitar cases out to the minivan. "About the point of the Intelligista. I decided it's aggression and frustration."
You were thinking about that during the middle of the set? you ask.
"Yep," says Nick.
"This is for A.J. Polizzi!" shouts Nick, dangling the Perrier out the passenger window. We're going at least 80 down the last narrow turn on the 101, the exit that slides you back toward Orange County; the freeway slipstream is cutting through the busted window so fiercely that Nick has a blanket stuffed around his legs. It's loud and dark and cold. The Intelligista have deflated back to quiet and polite, talking cheerfully about an upcoming Knitting Factory show that A.J. is supposed to return and play. And you are wondering about them.
The Intelligista are not the tightest, most technical band around, though there's not much slack between them. And they are consciously, stubbornly anachronistic, breaking their own new ground only in one of the most unforgiving, arguably fossilized genres left—or, alternately, you think, within one of the most evergreen, timeless vocabularies ever devised. They are almost archaeological in their reverence and respect for rock & roll. If they were trying any harder, they'd be historical re-enactors; any less and they'd be failed homework assignments. Instead, they're right where they should be: they're cocky because they're 17, and they've already gotten right down to the heart of a certain kind of teenage rock & roll and drained out anything they wanted from it.
Listen, here's something every other rudderless punker band in OC is wondering, and here's the answer:
The reason we do not like your bands is because you are a feedback loop, a conduit for an environment and an experience and a valueless suburban world to roll back over itself. You stimulate no sensation unobtainable from a shot of Red Bull or a dose of Ritalin; advance no point of view different from the one we get from a passenger seat on the 405; offer no human connection beyond a mailing list and a merch table. You are the cul-de-sac you live on.
And the Intelligista have nothing to do with cul-de-sacs. They might have copped the aesthetic of the Who, but they've got the furious suburban frustration of the Modern Lovers and the alternate-world outsider solidarity of the Monks, all bands that through sheer discipline and personality and ambition managed to detach themselves from whatever boring place they had to plug their amps in and attach themselves to something beamed in from out of time or outer space. The Intelligista are nerds and aliens and anachronistic teenage misfits. That's a great place to start your band. And when you watch them play, you feel like you know them a little better.
By now, you should have heard a bottle smash. You notice the Perrier is still in Nick's hand. He quietly pulls it back inside—something about a $2,000 fine; "Write something tough," you think—and he holds it in the front seat all the way back to your house. When they finally drop you off, it is not yet 2 a.m.—not bad for a school night.
As you walk to your door, Nick hoists himself out the busted passenger window. "Hey," he says. "This is for you."
And he splatters the rest of the Perrier across the pavement.
The Intelligista perform with the Matachine at AAA Electra 99, 2821 White Star, Ste. D, Anaheim, (714) 666-1805. Sat., 9 p.m. $5. All ages.
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