When the Los Angeles band Lords of Altamont began about a decade ago, they set out to strike a balance between purist garage-rock traditions and a heavier hard-rock sound.
"We found that we didn't exactly fit with the Beatle boots and Rickenbacker guitars guys, and (were) not quite like the Nashville Pussy and Supersuckers guys," said guitarist-organist Jake "The Preacher" Cavaliere during a recent phone interview.
"We wanted to wedge ourselves in between those two extremes; we were more pro than the low-fi camp and not as heavy as some of the punk-rock bands. We didn't have a deliberate mission statement or anything, but we were all about the sex and rock 'n' roll and the partying, you know. Motorcycles and hot rods, girls and guitars—that's our mantra, if you will."
The Lords of Altamont will bring that mantra back to Tucson for a special gig this Saturday night, March 6, at The Hut. They'll headline the Friki Tiki Garage Festival, which falls right in the middle of a three-day scooter rally.
In addition to the Lords, the garage festival will include the Wooly Bandits, Green Lady Killers, Vooduo and Tucson acts The Mission Creeps and Lenguas Largas.
Cavaliere said he "stumbled into" playing the organ when he was still a teenager.
"It was like that 'Johnny Bravo' episode of The Brady Bunch. I was really into garage and psychedelic music, and I bought an organ, so that was cool, you know: '96 Tears' or whatever. This band from San Diego heard I had an organ and asked me to start playing with them. I said 'I didn't really know how,' and they said, 'That's OK; you're fine.'"
Membership in the Witch Doctors, the Fuzztones and the Bomboras, a surf-rock band, followed. Cavaliere said the Lords came together as the Bomboras were breaking up at the end of 1999.
"As a surf band, we were really pigeonholed. I mean, we tried to slip a little garage in there when we could, but we thought, 'How much longer can we keep playing songs that were similar to Dick Dale songs?' In our van, we would listen to Love, the Stooges and the MC5. We really wanted to play something heavier and harder."
The name Lords of Altamont alludes to the infamous 1969 concert at Altamont Speedway in Northern California. The free show, intended in part as a West Coast Woodstock, was organized by the Rolling Stones and featured several other groups, including Santana and Jefferson Airplane, but was marred by violence, including one homicide.
That event, some of which is documented in the concert movie Gimme Shelter, signaled the end of the innocence for rock music, said Cavaliere.
"Altamont was a big change in the culture. It marked the end of the flower-power, Summer of Love hippie scene and led to a harder and more dangerous sensibility in rock music. This was a symbolic day, and we thought it summarized what the band was about. The name might piss some people off, but we think rock 'n' roll should do that—it's sexy and dangerous and antagonistic."
The Lords of Altamont have released three albums: To Hell With the Lords, Lords Have Mercy and The Altamont Sin. The band began recording its fourth last week.
Cavaliere's fellow Lords include Johnny "Stiggs" Devilla on guitar, Shawn "Sonic" Medina on bass, Kevin "The Phantom" Starr on drums and John "Big Drag" Saletra on guitar. All share a love of hot-rod movies, motorcycles, comic-book culture, tattoos and pinup art.
In the pursuit of the perfect garage sound—raw, loose, distorted, aggressive—the Lords love their effects pedals. The band actually is developing a couple of fuzz boxes themselves, said Cavaliere, who also owns a Burbank guitar shop, Primitive Sound.
While garage rock in the United States is specialty music with a limited number of devoted fans, Europe provides the Lords of Altamont with its most ardent admirers.
"Ninety-nine percent of our touring is in Europe," Cavaliere said. Explaining garage music's popularity in the EU, he elaborated, "I think that Europe really took to that style of music. It's not viewed as tongue-in-cheek as it is in the States. I think, also, over here, it's just guys with collars and ties marketing music, and if it's not instantly understood, they'd rather be pushing the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus or Pink."
European tours offer greater opportunities than in the United States, too, he said.
"Trying to tour is tough. We're not teenagers; we're not even in our 20s anymore. It's hard to drive all day, go into a bar and get paid $150 that we have to split between eight people. We try to choose our battles more wisely.
"The festival circuit in Europe is really great. We've opened for The Who, which was always a dream of mine. We played with Madness in front of 50,000 people, which was mind-blowing."
Garage music ignores popular trends. Its practitioners are never going to claim to be reinventing the wheel, but garage is a primal sound that "the kids" will never stop playing, Cavaliere said.
"We're playing the same chords that were played in 1966, with the same gear and the same fuzz sound and the same attitude. But once you discover (garage), you can't let it go. If you play a Fender guitar plugged into a Vox amp, and turn it up all the way, (and) make it distort a little, you realize this isn't so hard to do, and it gives you that rush from the 1960s. You're hooked."