As I sat in front of the tube a couple of weekends ago to watch Woodstock '99 highlights, all those lame-ass, testosterone-heavy, alterna-metal acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit made me wonder: Have melody-rich hard rock and shrewd humor completely disappeared?
Not if Protein have any say in the matter. On their sophomore disc, Songs About Cowgirls, the San Francisco trio follows in the footsteps of such playful predecessors as Presidents of the USA, Primus and the Refreshments, with tunes about lemonade, wading in glue, and their favorite Mexican restaurant (more on that later).
You know some warped minds are at work when the band lets notorious Bay Area pop artist Frank Kozik put a woman on the album cover clad in a bikini made out of beef and pictures of nothing but meat products on the back. These guys even survived an opening slot on the Jim Rose Circus sideshow, sans any stretched body parts.
But Protein—singer/guitarist Josh Zee, drummer Dan Thompson and bassist Russ Violet—took an odd route to realizing their rock-star fantasies. Zee and Thompson—not exactly model students—attended continuation school together in San Rafael. Then, at the height of Bon Jovi mania (around 1986), the two started a blues band.
"Dan really didn't care so much," says Zee, on the phone from a recent New Jersey tour stop. "He was the lead singer, just into playing drums. I was into playing blues. But San Rafael is a small town—there weren't a lot of bands around there, anyway."
Eventually, the pair went their separate ways. At 19, Zee lived a hermit-like existence, pondering the meaning of life, noodling with his guitar, not venturing out of his house much for three years. Then one day Thompson summoned him to join a joke band whose members were cross-dressers and transsexuals. "I was so bored that I went for it," Zee said.
Violet was a regular at their shows; when Zee and Thompson decided to get serious, he was the man for the job, and Protein was born. The group quickly hooked up with Kozik and released a 7-inch on his hip indie label Man's Ruin Records. It didn't take long gigging around San Francisco before the Work Group signed them and released their '97 debut, a dose of poppy, headbanging fun called Ever Since I Was a Kid. For the follow-up, they enlisted producer Garth (L7, Rage Against the Machine), and the result is a heavier, textured sound, with banjo, pedal steel, piano, horns and a string section all making their way into the mix.
"Garth had the idea to add the extra instruments," explained Zee. "At first, we were resistant because it wasn't our sound. But we'd record, and it would sound so good I didn't want to take anything out."
Songs About Cowgirls still finds Protein championing guitar solos in a big way, with plenty of disparate elements—one minute, they're Iron Maiden or Hank Williams; the next, REO Speedwagon. There's the jazzy instrumental "Intermission" and "Lemonade," in which a banjo riff (played by Zee's musician father) leads into crunching guitars and group shout-outs (this ability to deftly switch gears midsong is Protein's calling card. "That's what I like to do," says Zee, "but on first listen, a lot of people find it hard to pigeonhole us, so it sometimes works against us because people want things to be nice and clear for them to understand."). High-flying harmonies are the crux of "Passing By," which soars like Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" before Zee starts wailing away. And the insanely catchy Undertones-meets-Black Flag strains of "Sleeping on the Roof of a Mexican Restaurant" are led off by samples of people ordering food.
"I live in the Mission District, and there're a lot of Mexican restaurants and burrito places around," Zee explains. "I just took a DAT recorder that no one could really see and walked around into different burrito shops."
So what kind of fine cuisine does Zee recommend for people who happen to be in his hood? "Try La Cumbre and Puerto Allegra on Valencia at 16th Street."
Protein performs with King's X and Brand New World at the Boogie, 1721 S. Manchester, Anaheim, (714) 956-1410. Sun., 7 p.m. $15.
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