Listening to the Selby Tigers' new Charm City EP is like being at a pep rally. Their poppy punk gets you bobbing your head, clapping along and cheering them on. You want them to score a big win against the evil, hard-edged, testosterone-fueled, mentally challenged rock giants who dominate today's radio. It's a long shot—there aren't many rock-star-championship banners hanging from the rafters anywhere in their St. Paul, Minnesota, hometown—but when the Selby Tigers start playing, they make you believe they can win, baby! They've got the eye of the tiger! Go, Selby Tigers, go! Woo-hoo!
The band appreciates the support, as any good, scrappy stickball team would. "It's always nice if people are into it," says guitarist Arzu Gokcen of the band's shows. "When they're not, it kind of drains you. It's like, 'Why did you come out tonight if you're just going to stand in front of the stage, arms folded, and not even clap?'"
But the Selby Tigers aren't kidding themselves, either. St. Paul is home to such great but relatively unknown bands as Sean Na Na, Grotto and Dillinger Four. But it registers even lower on the recording-industry radar than Minneapolis—just across the river. That's fitting: the band's label is called Hopeless Records.
If talent counts for anything, the Selby Tigers have a chance. They cull some of the best elements of late-'70s punk, early '80s new wave and 1990s dual-guitar pop. All four members write and sing, often weaving male and female voices into a mesmerizing mix. Much of the pop in their punk comes from growing up in the 1980s, listening to Top 40 slumber-party tunes from Billy Idol, the Go-Go's, the Cars, Joan Jett and Cheap Trick.
"I love new wave," explains Gokcen. "My sisters were into the Cure, so I listened to that a lot. Then I got into punk, but not even hard punk. More like the Buzzcocks."
You could almost categorize the Selby Tigers' music as anything: rock, pop, punk, new wave. Anything except emo, a tag they often get stuck with and loathe. "I don't know where that comes from," says Gokcen. "Once we were at a clothing store in St. Paul, and the employees there were talking about our band while we were coincidentally at the register. A customer asked them what we sounded like, and they described us as poppy—kind of punk, kind of emo. We started shouting, 'No! We're not emo!'"
People also compare the Selby Tigers to X, perhaps because lead singers Gokcen and Nathan Grumdahl are married—call them the John and Exene of St. Paul. And after three years of mixing art with marriage, the couple can certainly identify with some of the stresses involved with intraband romances. "The only thing that's hard is when we have tension at home and then have to go to practice," says Gokcen. "Then it's like . . . shoot. But we try to keep it at home. That doesn't happen too much, but there are obviously going to be times when we're not getting along. On tour, it works out well because we don't keep anything inside, while with other band members, we might not say certain things. Sometimes it's more emotional, and I'll take things out on Nathan that I shouldn't because he's family."
Sometimes the Selby Tigers channel those frustrations into their writing. Their song "Geometry Is a Lie" indicts the ineptitude of public schools that can't seem to find the time to teach critical-thinking skills. "A lot of people have gotten upset about that one," says Gokcen. "We did this NPR interview, and the guy was asking us what we were trying to say with the song—'I don't understand: How can you say geometry is a lie?'"
What bassist Dave Gardner—who penned the song—was trying to convey wasn't so much anti-Euclidean but his own disillusion with an educational system that leads kids to believe that society is always and forever A-okay. It's a whitewashing of hard, brutal, historical truths—think Columbus, slavery, and isosceles triangles, contrived facts that present someone's version of the truth, even if it isn't exactly the truth.
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In "A Robot's Perspective," the band examines the dull life of the Everyman, written, Gardner explains, about a four-month stint he spent working in an office. "The people who went to work day in and day out would go to the bar next door after work to complain about work. So they would never go home from work—they were just all about work. There were three or four other musicians who worked there, and we would always discuss how we couldn't imagine not having something else in our lives besides work. We had something creative that was a release for us, but our co-workers couldn't understand that our job wasn't all we were."
In other words, when it came time to go on tour, Gardner didn't mind giving up the stability of a cubicle. "It was pretty easy to quit because I was so sick of it," he says. "It's not like I'm going to be able to go on tour when I'm 60. I'd regret it if I didn't go while I was young."
Sounds like he's been inspired by a rock & roll Vince Lombardi: time to rally, team! Now go out there and get 'em!
THE SELBY TIGERS PERFORM WITH JOE & THE CHICKENHEADS, THE PINEHURST KIDS, THE WUNDER YEARS, AND THE MRAIM MROOM AT CHAIN REACTION, 1652 W. LINCOLN AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 635-6067. SAT., 7:30 P.M. $7. ALL AGES.