Since punk rock was born or at least since the Clash signed to a major label disillusioned ex-punks have been pronouncing it dead. Happily, that oft-repeated obituary hasn't reached the basement of a south-side two-family flat, where a few dozen heads are bobbing to the Humanoids and only the occasional ringtone gives evidence that this is 2007 and not 1997 or 1987. Who cares if you can barely hear the singer through the jury-rigged PA? So what if you couldn't make out the words in the shouted vocal blur, even if you could hear it? Between the twin-guitar buzz and frontman Tim Clarkson's wall-climbing nerd gymnastics, there's no mystery as to what the Humanoids are all about.
Who are these Humanoids, who have inspired such devotion among the youth in the few short months since debuting last fall? While guitarist Greg Stinson has filled in with angular post-punks In Medias Res and So Many Dynamos, he and bassist Ryan Zimmerman cut their punk teeth in bands like Kill Me Kate and Step On It!, who stuck closely to a charged-up take on the '80s hardcore verities. Drummer Shaun Morrissey and guitarist Bryan Clarkson (Tim's brother) previously appeared in public with the horror-sleaze bad joke the Frankenhookers, and Tim Clarkson's only onstage experience was singing at Bryan's occasional punk karaoke nights. "Turns out Tim's a fucking amazing frontman," Stinson says.
Morrissey agrees: "Not only can he sing, but when he goes off, he's fucking nuclear."
"I don't know if I can sing," Tim Clarkson deadpans, "but I am nuclear."
From their disparate corners of the punk diaspora, the Humanoids have regressed toward the mean: straightforward, non-hyphenated punk without any microgenre baggage. Too often, the stuff people think of as regular old punk rock comes off as bland and flavorless. Somehow, the Humanoids have devised the magic formula that turns "generic" into "timeless" and "basic" into "classic."
Bravely, the Humanoids' MySpace page (myspace.com/thehumanoidsruleearth) describes them as "pop-punk," a term that was diluted by the mid-'90s wave of derivative Lookout! Records-style bands, and then tainted by the vapidly commercial likes of Blink-182 and Sum 41.
"It's definitely not like the Ramones, Screeching Weasel, the Queers-type formula," Morrissey says. "I kinda thought we were gonna try a power-pop band. We just didn't know how."
"We kinda aimed for [power-pop], and then realized we couldn't write those kinds of songs at all," Stinson says.
The band says there's been only the mildest backlash from the hardcore ideologues over its move away from triple-speed polka-beat HC. "I've been doing that for, like, six years," Stinson says. "Hardcore stuff is great for the community and the scene, and touring is so easy if you're into hardcore music. But the stuff I truly like playing is, I guess, catchier.
"Most of the older kids who still go to hardcore shows like classic punk-sounding stuff. But some of the new kids completely missed that phase. When they were in high school, nü-metal was what was going on, so some of those kids don't get it whatsoever. They probably never will get it."
"A few of the shows we've played where it's predominantly a hardcore crowd, we're wedged in between two bands where everybody's throwing down and everything," Zimmerman says. "It's just kind of an odd pairing, but it feels really good doing that."
But those shows are "usually in better environments," Stinson explains, "like houses or DIY spaces. It's kind of fun to mix it up instead of playing in bars all the time. We definitely don't want to be confined to being a bar punk band. I like playing in basements the most."
About hardcore, Morrissey says only: "I didn't start playing music to be tough."
Instead of shopping a demo around with the hope that some label dude would pluck it out of the slushpile, the Humanoids just put out a record themselves, as any self-respecting punk band should. Well, The Humanoids Are Born isn't technically a record yet: The one-sided, twelve-inch-vinyl version of the CD EP is due at an unspecified date in the near future. But it's a crackling blast of kinetic punk rock whether it's on vinyl, CD, eight-track or wax cylinder. After a sampled joke intro, a melodic fragment called "Lab Rat" leads into "Minor Wound," an anthemic midtempo chug punctuated with some Dillinger Four-style dynamics. Other high points on the fourteen-minute, eight-song EP include the reflective, super-catchy "In Search of an Exit" and the darker, rockier "For Better or Worse." The EP's powerful closer, "Targets," mixes Naked Raygun paranoia with the pop sense of the Descendents and it's a particular favorite of the band.
"It's a little bit rough on the recording, because we didn't know if we were going to use it on the record," Stinson says of the song. "But that and the third track, 'Men of Standard,' are the stuff I'm striving to write. I think whatever we do next, especially if we try to write a longer record, will be a lot more cohesive. [The Humanoids Are Born] is definitely a sampling of different things we were trying to do. We were still forming when a lot of those songs were coming together."
For a band with so much ambition musically, the Humanoids have no great pretenses of demolishing everything you know about punk rock, blah blah blah. How do they hope the punters feel after a Humanoids show? Zimmerman: "Like they had fun."
Tim Clarkson: "Like they were actually excited to go to a show."
"There's so many shows now, it's just humdrum," says Stinson. "You get bored halfway through the set. Keeping it short and keeping it fast is usually the best way to get people feeling a sense of excitement like they had a lot of fun. The only bands I want to see play 40 minutes better be pretty legendary."
"Twenty minutes is good," says Bryan Clarkson.
The Humanoids Are Born and their active show schedule are rapidly establishing the band as local darlings. (The feeling is mutual: "I'll go on the record as saying I love St. Louis," Morrissey says.) Now they're antsy to take the act on the road, an aspiration made somewhat easier by the fact that Stinson owns a company that fixes up and resells used vans specifically to touring bands. (It's called, logically enough, Vans for Bands.) Morrissey says, "I've yet to feel like I have to grow up yet, and if I could spend the next four or five years just on the road six months out of the year, that's what I want to do. Then I can grow up after that."
"I love touring," says Stinson. "Pretty much the whole reason to do a band is traveling and seeing the country with your friends and meeting all kinds of new people. It's definitely going to happen." No doubt. But for the near future, there are still a lot of new people in St. Louis who will enjoy meeting the Humanoids.
8 p.m. Thursday, May 3. Cicero's, 6691 Delmar Boulevard, University City. $5, or $8 under 21. 314-862-0009. Also playing at 9 p.m. Saturday, May 5. CBGB's, 3163 South Grand Boulevard. Free.