No Pain, No Gain 

After leaving "def soul" behind, the members of A Band Called Pain prepare to break out as an old-fashioned, all-black grunge outfit.

Local rock outfit A Band Called Pain doesn't exactly match up with the other acts on indie rap hip-hop label Hiero Imperium. Guitarist Shaun Bivens wears a Mohawk, a wallet chain studded with dice, and black nail polish. Lead singer Allen Richardson keeps a permanent five o'clock shadow and has the slurry drawl of Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland. Drummer Tony Providence takes the stage in a full-body skeleton costume. Bassist Bryan Dean (aka Dark Kent) wears Basquiat T-shirts and performs barefoot. The band's songs, which feature ominous bells tolling, crunchy electric guitar solos, and samples from Gregorian chant, sound intentionally anachronistic — even though the idea of an all-African-American rock band is still pretty cutting-edge.

In fact, the only thing that binds the members of A Band Called Pain with the backpackers on Hiero is their race and their shared resentment for mainstream record companies. Still, it's a good fit. Hiero emcee turned mogul Tajai approached the band at a show two years ago. "He said, 'That's a good record, man, what are you guys doing with it?'" Bivens recalled. "We were like, 'We're just sitting on it right now.' They were like, 'If you guys wanna put it out, you know, [we] got distribution with Universal." It turned out to be a smart move.

Despite lacking some key elements on the business end — Bivens still doesn't have his own e-mail account, much to everyone's annoyance — A Band Called Pain didn't come to the table empty-handed. It had garnered a large fan base playing the Rooster's Roadhouses of the world; its video could hold its own against any recorded band performance on VH1; the band is getting spins on 107.7 the Bone. Its new album Broken Dreams ranked #21 on the FMQB Metal 100. Best of all, they have the drama — in the form of an ex-rapper and commercial R&B singer who'd essentially fallen from grace. In a former life, Bivens was actually a rapper; he cut a deal with RCA under the stage name Chocolate Chip. Richardson currently works at a South Bay bicycle company, but in his former life he was one half of Christión, the first R&B duo to sign with Jay-Z's label Roc-a-Fella.

Tajai says that if ever he planned to stake a small fortune on a grunge rock four-piece, this was the one. "It was a no-brainer," he said. Still, Bivens and Richardson are wary. They've been burned before, Richardson said: "After being on a major label you see all the bullshit."

Richardson and Bivens formed their first garage band when they were ten. Dubbing themselves High Voltage, they played Iron Maiden covers at ten times the speed, using two congas and an ice chest for a drum set. Even as a rapper, Bivens couldn't abandon the endorphin rush of rock 'n' roll: In 1992 he pulled out an electric guitar while performing at a hip-hop showcase for Gavin magazine and then-fledgling station Wild 94.9, and launched into a wailing Jimi Hendrix solo. The crowd was shell-shocked.

But Bivens and Richardson didn't see a future in rock, and they wanted to get paid. The magic ticket was so-called "urban music" — i.e., hip-hop and R&B. Richardson and his longtime friend Kenni Ski formed Christión in 1992, and signed to Jay-Z's then-fledgling label in 1996. He says the hip-hop-oriented label really had no idea how to market a neo-soul group. "We were on tour with Jay-Z," he recalls, adding that the label wanted to treat Christión's 1997 effort, Ghetto Cyrano, as though it were just another rap album. "'Def soul' was just a word that we used around the office. It didn't get established until we left the label and they signed Musiq Soulchild."

Christión fell through the cracks when Roc-a-Fella got a distribution deal with Def Jam in 1997. Richardson got locked into a deal as a solo artist (Roc-a-Fella cofounder Damon Dash called him a week after dropping the duo), though no album ever materialized. "I didn't like it," he says. "Especially when you're on a label where the rapper is the biggest rapper in the world, and you have 22 acts that never came out. There was a rift between Dame and Jay-Z, and we all got caught in it." Richardson says he didn't completely sever ties with Roc-a-Fella until 2005. "I called Damon from work and said, 'I don't wanna do this anymore.' It wasn't a good relationship. He let me go free and clear, which was the least he could do as far as I'm concerned."

A Band Called Pain began as a studio project in 2001, when Bivens and Richardson started writing songs together and "jamming on some metal shit" — as Bivens puts it — just to see what would happen. Richardson wrote the lyrics, which deal heavily with emotional catharsis, while Bivens produced all the tracks. At first, they had no intention of getting serious. But things started coming apart at Roc-a-Fella, and Richardson says he had to start thinking of Plan Bs. They recruited Providence to hold down drum duties, started recording, and went through a string of bass players before settling on Dean. Bivens, who came up with the name, said it nods to A Tribe Called Quest but foregrounds Richardson's preoccupation with pain.

Seen live, the band is stunning. Bivens, with his chunky, rumbling, nonmelodic guitar solos and punk-rock getup — wristband, chain, rings, spiky hair — has the wallop of an '80s metal demigod. Richardson hides behind a pair of aviator sunglasses that, when coupled with his lyrics, hark to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. His voice has toughened since the Christión days, and the new, grittier tenor brings life to lines like I feel so empty/I feel so helpless, which may sound vague and self-pitying on the page but ring true when performed live. These allusions to private ruin and self-immolation may or may not relate to Richardson's personal strife — his wife's cancer, his son's autism, or his shaky dealings with Roc-a-Fella — but they're definitely an extension of his psychology.

So they've embraced the pain pretty convincingly; now they just need to sell the albums. Dean insists that won't be too hard. "If we get out and are seen in front of the right crowds, kids'll go crazy," the bassist said. "I mean, artistically, because of the music. Sociologically, because we're all brothers doing this. You know how that works, man, it's like we're the Eminem of the rock world." Richardson isn't tripping. He says that back in the Roc-a-Fella days he played one of his early rock demos for Damon Dash, who couldn't believe it was the same person singing. "If I gave it to Jay-Z, he would have wanted to do something with it," he said.

But he hasn't called Jay-Z lately, and really, there's no need. This October A Band Called Pain will open for Buckcherry and Smashing Pumpkins at the Verizon Wireless Center in Indianapolis. The group is getting plenty of mileage on its own.

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