Some fans go crazy when their favorite band changes — ask Bob Dylan. When he busted out an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, an angry fan famously called him Judas. And if you think a bunch of folkies can be vicious, don't mess with East Bay punk rock fans. Just ask the members of American Steel. When the Oakland-based punk band found their music going in a different direction, they "broke up" — and rebanded as indie rock group Communiqué.
"When you've been in a band long enough, people value your catalog, so there'd always be people who wanted to hear stuff off our first record, and we'd just be like, over it," says guitarist and vocalist Ryan Massey. "And we also had people who were angry that we were trying new things, which is silly." So after releasing Jagged Thoughts, the record that earned a 2001 California Music Award nomination for "Best Punk Album," American Steel called it quits.
"We were tired, and just not having as much fun doing it," explains guitarist and vocalist Rory Henderson. The band had been playing together since 1995, when the members were fresh out of high school. "So we kind of took a break [but] decided we still wanted to play music with each other. We kind of wanted a rest and ... to just sort of try something different." In the midst of recording their 2002 album, A Crescent Honeymoon, the band unabashedly changed their look, sound, and name. What was expected to be the latest American Steel record instead evolved into the first of release by Communiqué, an indie pop reincarnation of the same core members: Massey, Henderson, and bassist John Peck.
"We had to draw a line in the sand because we were still playing music together, but people came to shows and they needed to understand there was no way we were going to play American Steel songs at Communiqué shows," adds Massey. "Basically, with Communiqué, we felt like we had a musical clean slate. We could do whatever the hell we wanted." Over the next five years, Henderson, Massey, and Peck toured and recorded two more albums as a brand new band, with the addition of drummer Jamie Kissinger and keyboardist Steve Loewinsohn. They never expected to play as American Steel again.
That is, until the punk rock muse came calling back. This year, American Steel rebanded for the same reason they broke up: The music simply demanded it. "We started writing songs that we thought didn't really feel like they make sense for Communiqué any more," says Massey. So he, Henderson, Peck, and drummer Scott Healy re-reunited, and went back to the studio as their new, same old selves.
The result, Destroy Their Future, was released on October 2 on Fat Wreck Chords. Though Massey doesn't know how many have sold so far, he's especially happy with the album — the first record without a single track he'd have preferred to leave off. It's gotten positive reviews and a warm reception from old and new fans. And in the punk world, there's no warmer reception than a drunken fan getting all up in your face, jumping around and shouting the lyrics with their friends — just what happened at a recent show at New York City's Knitting Factory.
"I'd say the thing that was most surprising to me at that show, and also most exciting, was that there were a bunch of people in the front row singing along ... to the new album, which has never happened to us — ever," Massey said afterwards. "That was very exciting, to have people screaming those lyrics at me. I'm like, really? The record's only been out for two or three weeks. That's awesome."
It's not really so surprising given the songs' awesome fist-raising, scream-along potential. The opening track, "Sons of Avarice," is a melodic, danceable war protest reminiscent of the Clash, while "Razorblades" is a hard-rocking critique of the religious right. "Hurtlin'" is a gorgeous acoustic guitar and accordion love song that sounds like something off Graceland. The crowd favorite "Mean Streak" has the infectious, repetitive chorus I like you, 'cause you're like me/we both act miserably — and a breakdown to boot. "It's kind of silly and almost like being a soccer hooligan chanting through something, so that's been fun," says Massey.
Slightly more hopeful than pissed off, Destroy Their Future is fun, solid rock backed by intelligent songwriting. Though Henderson admits the band probably has even more fans now than it did in the Jagged Thoughts era, no one's promising anything beyond this coming year's tour plans. They had never expected to make this last record, he points out, so no one's sure where American Steel will land next.
And in light of the reunion, what happened to Communiqué?
"Theoretically, it's on hiatus because I don't think we can do both at the same time," says Henderson. "But I don't consider one [band] to be dead and one to be alive. Because it's always us. It's just a matter of what we feel like doing, and we can't do both at the same time."
"We've definitely had to answer for ourselves," he says with a smile.
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