Out of Our Heads

The Semis are half mad, and wholly worthwhile

click to enlarge KEEP ON TRUCKIN'? The Semis' Billy Summer - (middle, with bassist Chris Martorelli, left, and - drummer Christian Ripoll) won't say he's getting - serious: 'I'm not opposed to making a fortune, but it'll - never be a career." - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
KEEP ON TRUCKIN'? The Semis' Billy Summer (middle, with bassist Chris Martorelli, left, and drummer Christian Ripoll) won't say he's getting serious: 'I'm not opposed to making a fortune, but it'll never be a career."

Most of what you've heard about idiosyncratic local rock trio The Semis is based, in some part, in truth. That when they're on, they're damn near untouchable, and when they're off, they're so far off as to redefine the term "live entertainment." That their slinky, dynamic "Asian Girls" might be the best three or four minutes currently being played by a Bay area band. That their style and volatile onstage chemistry barely hint at both the musical ability and adolescent love for metal that brought the group's principals together in the first place.

That they're amazing.

That they're also completely out of control.

Semis guitarist/singer/songwriter Billy Summer is that rarest type of musician, a born entertainer, savvy hype-maker and adventurous weirdo who is actually as talented as he is publicly over-the-top. While Summer's bravado or behavior hardly seems contrived, he's the kind of character people need to talk about; that iconoclastic sense of self is also no small part of what makes The Semis so musically compelling.

"That really is a part of who Billy is. That's how he creates his music," says drummer and longtime friend Christian Ripoll. "That's a part of him, and to get rid of that would probably be to change him as a songwriter."

And for good or ill, that combination has fostered an endlessly grinding rumor mill dedicated exclusively to The Semis in general, and Summer in particular. On one hand, it validates the band to a certain degree — I know plenty of crazy people in bands that suck, and nobody's constantly talking about them — but the flipside is that, at this juncture, contemplating just how good The Semis are without inserting the latest "Billy story" is next to impossible.

Summer and Ripoll hooked up while both were still in high school, cutting their teeth together in various short-lived hard rock bands. ("The first time we played, we played Dokken's 'Alone Again' for four hours, taping the whole thing," says Summer). Both remained staples of the local music scene afterward; Summer played some gigs with storied Pinellas act Freaks Rule, among others.

Eventually, wanderlust and a desire to spend some time away from the insular rock-club crowd led Summer to the Pacific Northwest, where his changing tastes embraced the region's penchant for nurturing an eclectic mix of underground artists. It was there he began writing the songs that would comprise the first Semis set, before returning to the Bay area and rejoining Ripoll.

"It started out with Christian and I playing together in a warehouse. Most of the songs were written in Eugene, Oregon, when I was out there by myself," Summer says, "but I never unleashed it."

Another friend, guitarist Joe Harley, quickly came into the mix. Many of those original tunes are still with The Semis, and reflect the appetite with which Summer took in everything, from warm, fuzzy pop and hooky singer/songwriter melodies to muscular punk, off-kilter rhythms and the occasional jammy, Hendrixian lead burst.

"Every song, to me, when I play it, has its own individual personality," concurs Ripoll. "And I love 'em like my children."

The trio began gigging around the Bay, and almost immediately earned a reputation as a must-see act, as much on the strength of the tunes — which sounded like nothing local original-music pundits had heard in a while — as their mercurial transcendent-or-trainwreck performances.

It wasn't long, however, before Harley bowed out of the group to devote more time to his other love, fishing.

"He was my ace … I probably won't talk to him for five years, but he's still my best friend," says Summer.

Summer and Ripoll really wanted another guitarist, but nobody seemed right ("Would you want to wade through all the idiots, dude?"), so they settled on a process of working their way through several bass players. Enter Chris Martorelli, a guitar player from South Florida who'd moved into the area, caught a couple of Semis shows and decided to give bass a go.

The threesome gigged more heavily, playing anywhere and everywhere, turning sets that continued to careen wildly. The song "Crowned Out" appeared on garageband.com, a music networking/charting site where tunes are rated by other musicians worldwide. "Crowned Out" eventually hit No. 1 on the site's Alternative chart, garnering the band some publicity and out-of-town opportunities along the way.

The Semis get the weirdest one-off road dates of any band I know, and their knack for antics only makes them more outlandish. Their gig stories are peppered with tales of opening for a Kiss cover band made up of lip-syncing midgets, of playing the entrance to a Six Flags and having their rented Ford Excursion stolen, of being kicked off of an airplane in Detroit for public intoxication, of discovering a transsexual in their New York City hotel room.

About the only thing The Semis haven't done yet is put out the obligatory self-produced full-length, a fact that continues to irk fans who realize that their songwriting is at least as noteworthy as the, er, peripherals.

Local imprint Mekka Records has been hyping a forthcoming volume called Upper Middle Trash for at least a year now. The band says a disc is forthcoming, and soon, but it won't be that one; most of the digital tracks for Upper Middle Trash have since been replaced by the trio's own, raw eight-track recordings.

Many see the release of a CD as somehow legitimizing a local band — it's supposed to let everyone know you're serious. The Semis, or at least Summer, seem a bit hesitant to come right out and say they're serious. They are serious, of course. But on the subject of vying for a career in music, as with almost every other topic, Summer is wont to mix the truth and the outlandish, and let somebody else talk about it for a while.

"We're not going to make a fortune. Yes, I'll sign a — what was that cocksucking band? — a Goo Goo Dolls deal, but that's not a career, that's a fortune.

"I'm not opposed to making a fortune, but it'll never be a career."

Note: As we go to press, The Semis have announced the addition of guitarist Neil Anderson. The Nov. 23 Green Room show will be his debut.

Contact Music Critic/Features Writer Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].