"One of the reasons I'm in a band is I wanted to kick guitars around," says Sammy James Junior, singer and rhythm guitarist for The Mooney Suzuki, whose six-year career makes them a veteran act in New York's neo-garage scene.
"As soon as I learned to play one chord, me and my friends set up the drums and guitars and some cardboard boxes as amplifiers," he continues, clearly amused at the adolescent memory. "We played the chord for about 20 seconds and pretended to smash the gear for the next 20 minutes. We trashed the boxes, and the drums and guitars got nicked up too.
"It's the same thing with [lead guitarist] Graham Tyler. We want to jump around on stage. Some people write songs because they have this message they want to get out to the world. Our thing was the opposite. We wanted to go out there and do something absolutely fucking retarded, so we figured we need some songs to do that. Hopefully our show is as close to air guitar as possible; air guitar with an actual guitar."
The Mooney Suzuki's sweat-drenched, mayhem-inducing sets are inspired by the likes of The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Stooges and MC5. You can hear vestiges of these legendary acts in the Moonies' gutsy, four-on-the-floor rock 'n' roll dosed with maximum R&B. James doesn't shy away from the comparisons. As far as influences go, "I'd say The Who involuntarily and the MC5 voluntarily," he says. "But we're trying to sound like the MC5 that was trying to sound like James Brown.
"I'd say that everyone in our band is a fan before a musician. We love these [older] bands so much that we just wanna be involved in doing something similar. It happens a lot. Some people are photographers, some are writers, some get into the business end. It just so happens that we play our instruments passably enough to get by doing a band. When I first started playing in a band it was all about you gotta sound original. 'It sounds too much like this, let's change it.' With that approach, at the end of the day you're King Crimson or Sonic Youth anyway, which is the opposite of Western harmony. Everything came from something. Nothing sprouted from nowhere. If you've got an original voice, it's about something more than the notes and riffs you play. You jump in and say 'fuck it' and do what you love. If people think it's too derivative, there's nothing you can do about it."
James has felt the sting of such assertions from certain rock scribes, who have lauded The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Hives and others as fresh voices here to save rock 'n' roll, while relegating The Mooney Suzuki to copycats. To these ears, that's balderdash. The Moonies' music is less contrived, better sung (James reminds me of a young Mitch Ryder) and better executed than most of their ilk.
James, 26, caught the rock 'n' roll bug in the NYC suburb of Tenafly, N.J. In grade school, he had Van Halen's 1984 mixed in with his Sesame Street records. He picked up guitar in junior high and went through the standard right of passage: reading guitar magazines, learning licks by The Who, Zeppelin, Hendrix and The Yardbirds. "This classic rock schooling just inadvertently happens," he says.
James also soaked up The Beasties Boys' Licensed to Ill, Run DMC's Tougher Than Leather and the like, becoming one of the myriad white kids to help push hip-hop into the mainstream. "It was a big part of my life, but I had no idea how it was made," James says. "I didn't know anything about scratching, didn't know what a sampler was. But I could go to my guitar and re-create a Who song. This music I could do."
In '97, while studying design at New York's School of Visual Arts, James posted a "musicians wanted" flier at a lower Manhattan record store. Tyler, a Parsons School of Design student, saw it and dug the listed influences. Soon the two were working out guitar parts together, even though Tyler was still a novice at his instrument. Another art student, Augie Wilson, who was attending Cooper Union, signed on as drummer. (After a few changes, Michael Miles now handles bass duties.)
The quartet built their quizzical moniker from the surnames of the two singers in the Krautrock group Can.
Their aim was to play honest, undiluted rock 'n' roll. And they donned black. "We did it first, just for the record," James says. "In the East Village in '97, the look was a mess. It was leftover slacker meets the beginning of the MTV House of Style version of rock star fabulous. You'd see horn-rimmed indie rock glasses with a sequined shirt, thrift store jeans. It was confused. This was New York City. This was supposed to be the epicenter of everything cool, and it was the antithesis.
"The music was focused on indie rock, but open to any kind of electronic or hip-hop influences. It was a non-artful patchwork of ideas and fashion. We wanted to do the opposite of that, create the simplest, purest, most concentrated thing: the five notes of the diatonic scale and black, the uniform. Black was most practical."
The Mooney Suzuki built their rep playing mod nights in New York and other cites around the Northeast. They put out some self-released 7-inches and an EP, then inked a deal with Estrus Records in the Pacific Northwest. The label released People Get Ready in 2000, which one writer called, "12 tracks of unrelenting rock 'n' soul."
After a two-year stint of virtual non-stop touring, the group hooked up with Detroit producer Jim Diamond of White Stripes fame. In three days, they banged out the tracks for Electric Sweat, which was first released on an indie then picked up by Columbia this year.
Given their unhinged live show, The Mooney Suzuki are one of those opening bands that can put real trepidation into headliners. "It takes a lot of balls to bring us on tour," James says. "Peers of ours that have their own thing going aren't threatened. The Strokes, people love what they do. I don't think our show interferes with The Strokes' thing.
"The Hives, it was great. We were both consciously trying to outdo each other. We'd be backstage working up routines trying to top each other. We got on great. Offstage we were friends; onstage, that was the pool table. We'd push each other. You wanna talk about value for your rock 'n' roll dollar.
"On the other hand, we've brought a lot of bands on tour as openers, then they blew up. It would be nice if they could return the favor, help us out. But they refuse to do it."
Can't really blame 'em.
Senior Writer Eric Snider can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 114.