Metal as Art 

L.A.'s 400 Blows deliver thundering punk music--in uniform!

Skot Alexander, frontman for the brutal Los Angeles-based band 400 Blows, is not afraid of using the a-word when describing his 10-year-old band's music. Nor is he offended by it.

In fact, Alexander supports the idea of calling his music art.

"It is art in a sense. ... It attempts to paint its own picture of the world around us, to open people's minds to a new way of seeing the world, or hearing it, actually," Alexander said in a phone interview early this week from his home in L.A.

The sound of 400 Blows' world is a thundering and screeching brand of sludgy metal and proto-punk, owing as much as to Black Sabbath and the MC5 as it does to more recent avant/aggro rockers such as Unsane, Helmet and the Melvins. There's a bit of the attitude and attack of Bleach-era Nirvana in the band's grimy, claustrophobic music, too.

Most of all, 400 Blows' sparse arrangements of drums, voice and guitar recall a time in musical history when punk meant making an artistic statement.

"If you're not trying to create art, to create something new from what you are doing, you are just creating product," Alexander said.

En route to the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, 400 Blows will stop by Tucson for a gig Wednesday night, March 14, at Vaudeville Cabaret. Also on the bill will be the bands Triclops, Qui and Gito Gito Hustler.

Yes, 400 Blows was named after the legendary François Truffaut film of the same name, but not directly, Alexander said.

"More so, the movie's title--in France, that is a saying that signifies the trials you have as part of a coming-of-age period. You know, 'He's going through the 400 blows.' To us, it's all about trying to test out different ways of dealing with the world, living by our own rules and making them up as we go along."

Over the course of two 7-inch singles and three full-length albums, the most recent being Angel's Trumpets and Devil's Trombones (Gold Standard Labs) in 2005, singer and songwriter Alexander has explored an assortment of dark themes on songs such as "The Beauty of Internal Darkness," "No One Can Erase This" and "The Ugly Are So Beautiful."

The titles may sound bleak, but in the music is that old-fashioned rock 'n' roll sensibility in which nihilism is the only honest response to a world inundated by excess.

Alexander bellows like the ennui-drenched baby of Stooges-era Iggy Pop, Suicide's Alan Vega and the late Germs singer Darby Crash. He does so against the hypnotic grand mal guitars of Christian Wabschall and hurricane-like drums of Ferdinand Cudia.

A rock trio sans bass player may have seemed radical back in the late 20th century, when 400 Blows started playing, but these days, everybody from the White Stripes and Jon Spencer to Sleater-Kinney has done it.

Alexander said the lineup came about accidentally.

"Very early on, we had a bass player, but she didn't get along with the drummer, and she gave us an ultimatum: 'Either he goes, or I go.' He hadn't given us an ultimatum, and we liked his drumming, so she went.

"But then, we started developing our own sound because of it. To have a bass player now would change what we've become. It is so much a part of what we are doing. It's like the artist who uses only steel and charcoal, and those mediums only, throughout his career."

Perhaps the most visually notable aspect of 400 Blows is that they wear matching uniforms that make them look like jackbooted secret police. The uniform thing kind of occurred serendipitously as well.

"When we initially started the band, (we wore uniforms) because with some of the guys in the band, I didn't like the way they dressed. So I said, 'All of our equipment's black; let's all be in black.' It took fashion and taste out of the equation. It was an anti-fashion statement, but it has become a fashion statement.

"It also makes us look like we are on a team, with all of us doing this thing for the same reason. And it makes laundry a lot easier, because you have only one outfit to wash."

On stage, Alexander's sartorial embellishments include black leather gloves and what he calls "cop shades."

"I'll just go ahead and tell you--it was inspired by Dr. Strangelove. I love that character in that movie. This guy was looking at the potential end of the world, and he was not afraid of it. He is deep and dark, but unafraid."

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