A Real Knockout

Pills pump potent punk.

There's a Kids in the Hall sketch that portrays a band of middle-aged men who can't play their instruments, gathering, as they obviously have so many times before, to practice their craft. Clichés abound--the member who's always late to practice, for example--but perhaps the biggest cliché of all, the one that lends the sketch its pathos, is that they would still hold band practice after all those years, that they would bother to hold onto the rock-and-roll dream at all. At a ripe old age, they're still delusional about making it big. It's funny, yes, but sad, too. Like that wise sage, Homer Simpson, once said, "It's funny 'cause it's true."

It has oft been said that rock and roll is a kid's game, and that statement is seemingly truer than ever today, with a major label system that systematically sucks kids in with the promise of The Rock and Roll Dream, then spits them out with regularity when they don't deliver The Big, Big Hit.

Consider, then, the Knockout Pills, a local punk rock-and-roll band comprising four thirtysomethings with a rich local musical history who hold onto their day jobs and use their vacation time to tour, and who hold no delusions of--or interest in--riding the Billboard chart. Unlike the band in the Kids in the Hall sketch, they know how to play their instruments. And they also know how to write songs. And perhaps most unlike the Kids band, they certainly don't suck.

The men of the Knockout Pills use age to their advantage. They're, quite simply, music geeks who can't imagine life outside of a band, guys who sit around and compare notes about how many records--that's vinyl, mind you--they own, and between which bands their brand-new, self-titled debut album--released on both CD and vinyl--is shelved alphabetically in their collections. (One member has it between the Knack and Kraftwerk.)

When you obsess over music for as long as these guys have, you end up with a hell of a lot of records and a hell of a lot of musical knowledge to accompany them. Their conversations are littered with musical references: quoting Billy Joel lyrics leads to an in-depth discussion of a particular guitar solo in a specific live version of a Deep Purple song, and so on. And within the realm of rock, they pay no mind to subgenres or labels, as long as it moves them. They know it's only rock and roll, but they like it.

"We're lifers," explains guitarist Jason Willis. "I don't see anything weird about me loving Topless Opry and Shark Pants, two very different local bands. We're all bringing up a lot of different sounds just because we've got a lot of different music in our record collections."

The band was formed when singer/guitarist Matt Rendon (a onetime circulation manager for this paper who also records '60s-influenced psych-folk-pop albums under the name the Resonars and performs as half of the duo Foolscap Fire) moved back to Tucson after a stint in Seattle, playing with a band called the Vultures. A chance meeting at the now-defunct downtown bar Double Zero led to Rendon asking Willis and singer/guitarist Travis Spillers if they wanted to start a band. At the time, Willis was in the Weird Lovemakers, and Spillers in Los Federales, two of Tucson's best '90s-era punk bands, but they both wanted to play with Rendon, so they agreed. Drummer Gerard Schumacher, also of the Weird Lovemakers, was recruited later, and the Knockout Pills were born. When the Lovemakers broke up, in 2000, and Los Feds followed suit, in early 2002, the Pills went from part-time project to main gig.

To those who were familiar with the members' other bands, Rendon (who admits that he never really listened to contemporary punk rock until the late '90s) might have seemed like an unlikely collaborator. As Willis jokingly describes it, the band is made up of "three punks and a folkie."

"I think Matt's record collection is probably different from Travis' and mine and Gerard's, probably less so now than when we started," says Willis.

As Rendon explains, "I was busy listening to all the branches of '60s rock--proto-rock, proto-punk, British Invasion--just trying to hear everything, so it took me a long time to get around to [punk]."

Although the band is generally wary of labels, they concede that they're a rock-and-roll band that plays with punk elements and punk energy.

"You see that 'punk rock and roll' thing a lot, with bands that are more inspired by '70s rock," says Willis. "I mean you listen to a Ramones album now, that was considered punk when it came out, and it just sounds like good rock and roll. Punk is so funny because everyone is so concerned with defining it."

"Good punk is good rock," says Schumacher.

Which brings us back to Rendon, and his efforts to bring elements of his beloved '60s rock to the more punkish tendencies of the other members. "Just from a songwriting standpoint, I wanted to bring in things like harmonies," Rendon explains. "Not that much punk uses harmony, so it certainly makes it stand out."

Also unlike some punk purists, the Knockout Pills aren't afraid of guitar solos, though they are quick to clarify that plenty of punk bands share their sentiment.

"There's a difference between solos and solos with fuckin' soul," says Spillers, while Rendon finishes the thought: "There's a difference between wanking and contributing something to the song."

And in the end, labels aside, the Knockout Pills are all about "the song," which is evident on the self-titled album, recorded by Rendon at Coma Cave (a guest house-cum-4-track studio that also serves as the K.O. Pills rehearsal space, located behind Rendon's parents' house, where he has also recorded a host of other local acts, including Hobart, the Okmoniks, Invisible City and Scott Moody). Released on Los Angeles label Dead Beat, the recording perfectly captures the raw energy of the band's blistering live performances, and exposes the nuances within the songs that can be obliterated by the volume at which they're performed live.

The recorded version of album opener "Reject Button," for example, reveals Rendon's winding lead guitar line as essential to the song's allure, where it is often merely relegated to ambience in a live setting: You "get" it, even if you can't always isolate it. From there, the album never lets up. Favoring quality over quantity (though the record contains 13 songs, it clocks in at just over a half-hour), it's a constant barrage of pure, unadulterated, punk rock and roll.

"What comes first, the song or something else?" Schumacher asks. "Punk rock was a revolution in that it began with the song is the main idea and not the technical ability or the solos or the production or the sound. In that sense, I would agree that we are a punk band. But we also like to make the music we want to make."

The Knockout Pills are currently gearing up to promote the album, with a West Coast tour that will have them on the road from mid-July through early August.

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