Photo courtesy Cold Sweat RecordsSo how do you want to do this interview? I asked Wives.
“Where we speak as little as possible,” Dean said. He laughed and then Randy laughed, and then they both got nervous and looked somewhere that wasn't me.
This was the biggest crowd Wives had ever played for: a packed couple of hundred meticulously trendy pubescents, every kid you ever saw voguing in eye shadow on the Internet dumped out onto the streets of Pomona. Wives don't wear eye shadow; Wives dress like it's laundry day at the fitness club (Dean's shorts had a giant, DIY-repaired hole over the ass), and Wives are a hardcore (in the good old SST way) band from grimy LA proper, accustomed to playing living rooms and all-ages venues with no toilet paper. They stepped gingerly onstage and arranged themselves into a skirmish line (drum set right up front with everyone else) in descending order of gangliness: Randy Randall (guitar), Dean Spunt (bass/vocals) and Jeremy Villalobos (drums). They were smiling. People weren't sure what to think. They played some songs.
Like Big Black, says Laurel from Cold Sweat, the band's label. But not at all! Until Dean abandoned his bass, they had Minutemen instrumentation, hard-wired through the battle-damaged Black Flag guitar squall. When Dean started singing (Please don't just scream, please don't just scream, I thought), they had Minutemen cadence, too—that panicked, determined bark that most bands dodge because it doesn't give a voice anything to hide behind. But they didn't have Minutemen subtlety; they pulled everything in the room toward them—they were the reverse of a bomb, a flood of momentum whipped up by turning their own nervousness inside-out on itself until it hit chain reaction. And they had a jazzy looseness that turned their music into topological maps; they'd tease a song from furious hardcore into bare, barbed strips of guitar, into roaring fogbanks of noise, into a playful tattoo on the toms, even once (after shooting signals to one another) into each member of the band unfocusing his eyes and stage-screaming, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!”
One stout little girl next to me was flipping out, clawing at the air in time with Jeremy's cymbals like she was gonna catch a chunk in her fist. Every time I'd look over, she'd be further into the crowd, closer to the stage, teeth locked like a wrestler's. When she was too far away to see, more girls moved up behind me and started talking,
“You know what this reminds me of?” asked one, stretching her vowels like they do in all the corridor cities. “Pit's old band—Ripping Shit?”
“. . . a NOISE band?” her friend asked, grossed-out.
“Well, I like that,” she said back, more quietly.
“The Wives? The WIVES?” Cundo (from Wrangler Brutes, a Wives buddy band) was saying, sailing toward backstage. “The Wives got SPIRIT!”
He grinned a sharky grin and slid past Dean and Randy, who were panting, heads down, walking in long circles to let their bodies settle down. Randy had reverse stage fright, getting nervous now that he was done playing.
“I couldn't maintain!” he kept saying to Dean; maybe he'd been watching the Olympics too much. “All those kids looking at me, I couldn't do it! I felt like I was in grade school, getting up in front of the class and doing a thing!”
You guys are crazy, I said. So many bands just go out there and make noise and do their checklists; it's the most lifeless shit. Wives were some kind of supercharged statement of identity, and now they were worried they somehow weren't as good as they could have been. Crazy.
They were young enough that 30 seems to be where oldness starts, and they have the sort of hardscrabble idealism you have when you really don't care about anything besides music (not drugs, not booze, not furniture, not student loans, not career objectives). They've been a band for three years, and until now (when new indie Cold Sweat signed on to do their album Erect the Youth Problem), they'd done everything themselves—silk-screened the seven-inch covers, the whole deal. And when they talked, they mainly wanted to talk about wanting to talk with people.
“I don't care about selling records,” Dean said, with a barely desperate, not-quite-embarrassed kind of inflection that made me believe him. “I don't wanna sell merch. If I had it my way, we wouldn't even sell shirts. But whatever. I wanna travel; I wanna meet rad kids. I wanna learn.”
“It's part therapy, part needing to know . . .”
He stopped, picked up the thought from a different side.
“I don't know,” he began. He was circling a point, talking about door prices and teenage alienation and how he'd never written a riff in his life, and I was wondering where the center of gravity was. Maybe it was just simple reciprocation; when Wives puts out so much of themselves, they need to get something back. That could be why Dean sings a lot like he talks, why when he's not onstage singing, he's onstage talking.
“Randy was saying the other night, when we were talking, saying, 'Yeah, I wanna play,'” Dean said. “'But the thing I really want is to be honest.'”
I wrote that down, and Dean watched. He had been worried before about sounding pompous, and that's probably where it was going to happen. But it sounded right to me because I used to feel that way, too, and maybe I still did, even if I hadn't thought about it much lately. We were still talking as we left, this kid who wanted to do an interview where he said as little as possible, and as he showed me the Dodge minivan they toured in, he said, “Sorry, I usually talk a lot more.”
They were maybe two songs into the set, and Randy was balancing on the edge of the monitor, his face set and sweaty, gliding his guitar toward any kid who wanted to paw at it. As the song slid to a stop, he pulled the guitar back in one strong, fluid motion and pivoted to face Dean, fingers light on the strings, tensed, ready, a muscle set to snap.
“Hey! Hey!” someone right up front yelled, a reedy baby chipmunk squeak. “Where's a song for ME?”
“This song!” said Dean, and there it went, and everyone let their breath out.
Wives perform with Mannekin Piss, Battleship and Rainbow Blanket at Koo's, 530 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 491-7584; www.koos.org. Fri., 7:30 p.m. $6. All ages.