Flipping the Switch

Budding local band prepares to relocate to the Bay Area.

"Is it OK if I rell?" asks Josh Levine, the singer/guitarist of local rock 'n' roll band Red Switch.

"Yeah, it's fine," answers Andrew Skikne, the band's other guitarist. The two are sitting in Skikne's downtown apartment, working out acoustic versions of a few of their songs for a live radio appearance later that night. Perhaps even odder than Levine's concern for disturbing Skikne's neighbors is the fact that they've never even attempted any of these songs unplugged before now. But then, it was, after all, their pursuit of pure, unadulterated, smart-but-visceral rock that got 'em on the radio in the first place.

Levine and Skikne met when their former bands, the Apocalyptics and the Quadratics, respectively, shared a bill at a local club in early 2000. Skikne was wearing a Bazooka gum T-shirt that was printed in Hebrew and when Levine approached him to talk about it (both are Jewish), the two hit it off immediately. Meanwhile, Skikne left town that summer, and upon his return the two ran into each other at the practice space on Pennington (in which scores of local bands rent out soundproof rooms to hone their craft). They began hanging out socially, and around that same time, each realized that both their bands were falling apart; summarily, Red Switch was born. They recruited drummer Ernie Gardner, whose band Mala Vita had also recently broken up, and the first of a succession of bassists. (Billy Price is currently filling the bassist spot, until the band finds a permanent one--more on that later).

Things came together quickly; within a few months they had written 25 to 30 songs. The two knew that they wanted to make "real primitive, rhythmic rock and roll music," not unlike the Rolling Stones, says Levine. During the latter half of the '90s, Levine eschewed listening to current rock music in favor of British Invasion bands, old school punk (the Clash, Joy Division, etc.), classic R&B and then-current hip-hop. He says he felt that the majority of bands coming up around that time "just seemed prefabricated and stupid--that was the mainstream end. And then on the underground end, it was just revival retro bands like Mooney Suzuki. That kind of stuff just nauseates me, because the music that's always meant the most to me is not a joke, and I didn't want to play music that's a joke ... . An example of something that turned me off to alternative rock was Beck, because he was so 'funny' about everything. Everything was so satirical and witty, but it added up to nothing. I was offended by it because it almost ended up being racist, his appropriation of hip-hop, and no one was saying anything.... I hate irony."

Meanwhile, Skikne doggedly kept up on indie-rock bands, especially those that incorporated math-rock complexities and arena-sized atmospherics, like Hum and Shiner (although he cites Led Zeppelin as being his all-time favorite band). But, he says, "For this band, I wanted melody as the centerpiece, almost where you could say, 'This is pop.'"

"Andrew's into a lot more avant garde kind of stuff, so he brought that element to the band and sort of prevented us from just being a garage rock band," says Levine.

And though they borrow a trope or two from garage rock--Levine shouts the occasional "Oh yeah!" or "All right!"--Red Switch is decidedly not a garage rock band. There are no distortion pedals to be found on the Red Switch stage, no fuzz; in their place is a surprisingly jangly guitar sound, like the Byrds on crystal meth, or Television's guitar-to-guitar volleys; and true to Skikne's word, decidedly pop melodies.

The band's self-recorded, self-released, and self-titled six-song EP, released in March, is an excellent distillation of the band's dynamic songwriting prowess, but it's the live show that lets you in on the fact that there really is something special going on here.

With the rhythm section ably backing them, Levine spews tales of angsty lust--"I'm not content just to be your slave/but I do it anyway"; "Boundless is my love, but I know you won't/give into these demands"--in a sex-drenched voice that more than fits the content. And when he's not bound to the mic, he paces the stage in stutter-steps like a taut white guy doing James Brown's goodfoot dance, using the whole of his arm--no mere wrist-flick--to bash out chords, like Pete Townshend, if he couldn't quite manage a full-fledged windmill. Meanwhile, at stage left, Skikne--who resembles no one so much as a young Marty Feldman--gets a serious case of guitar-face, bulging his already wide eyes, contorting his mouth according to what section of the song he's playing, chewing gum all the while. All of which would mean nothing if the band wasn't playing kick-ass, start-stop bursts of visceral rock. Which it is.

Many have compared Red Switch to the Strokes, another band that gets unfairly lumped into the garage rock resurgence. While there are indeed similar elements between the two--hyper-strummed guitar interplay that sounds like a pissing contest between the Velvet Underground and the Feelies, a singer who isn't afraid to croon every now and then, and, er, a guitarist with big, curly hair--there are obvious differences, too. For one thing, the Strokes use a certain controlled tension, wherein the listener is waiting for a big payoff that often never climaxes the way one would expect. With Red Switch, the tension always leads to something bigger, an explosive chorus, or a chord sequence that jabs its way into the brain, like it or not. Red Switch always delivers the money shot.

Levine and Skikne are quick to point out that the similarities between the two bands are coincidental, with Levine noting that when Red Switch started, none of the band's members had even heard of the Strokes, let alone heard their music.

"When we first saw that they were getting success, we were really happy about it, like, holy shit, bands like this are getting mainstream [acceptance]," says Skikne.

And Levine and Skikne make no qualms about their intentions for Red Switch: They share a deep determination to make it work. "Bands that sorta take themselves too seriously, that's [usually] a stigma you don't want; but I think that's exactly what Josh and I want to do, is take it seriously," says Skikne.

"Music is the most important thing to me in my life, so I take it very seriously," Levine adds.

And both say that has caused some friction with other band members. "It always has seemed like Josh and me versus the other guys, but for no other reason than we want to work hard at this, we really want to do it. We have that in common--we're both on the same page. You hear a lot of, 'Well, I'm so committed,' and this and that, but I think, as everyone who's ever been in this band has found out, we define hard work and commitment so differently [than most people]," says Skikne.

Now for the bad news. To that end, following a tour of the Midwest in October, Levine and Skikne plan to move to the San Francisco area and recruit a new rhythm section in an attempt to see just how far they can take Red Switch.

"It's not the sort of thing where we're saying we're going there so we can 'make it'," Skikne says. "But the ultimate success would be where we can play in this band and be able to support ourselves off of it, and we at least thought that we could better put ourselves in that position by trying this out somewhere else. And we've got a couple friends there that we think might work out in the band, people I knew from the U of A, who are living up there, so basically we can just kind of go there and have a band already set up.

"We realize we're gonna fuckin' struggle. I mean, I don't even know if San Francisco is the right place. There's a very good chance that after half a year, we might say this sucks. But it seems like we might have a better shot of someone finding us who wants to help us out. It's a gamble, but that's how much we want it--we'll do whatever it takes .... We don't know if it's the right place, but it's a start. We're proving it to ourselves--this is a serious commitment. We're gonna be starving; Josh and I will not be living well in a couple of months. But it's worth it."