"Invariably, the first time we play a town, there aren't many people there," guitarist and singer Michael Crow says. "Usually of the four people who show up, two or three will enjoy it and will bring back friends the next time. There are only a few towns where we've chosen not to come back. Small towns, maybe in Arkansas or something, you get the sense that it's not for you."
Or at least not for anyone closed to the livid tumult of rock & roll -- played as furiously and as fast as any young band on the circuit. In name, Grand Champeen has existed little more than four years, but the members -- guitarists Crow and Channing Lewis, bassist Alex Livingstone and drummer Ned Stewart -- grew up together in Virginia. "In high school we started essentially the same band we have now," Crow says. "Even Alex [the newest member] was a childhood friend of our first bass player. So we've known each other since we were kids. After high school, we went to different colleges, but we'd get together over the summers, pick a town, make a tape and try to keep the band together."
Those high school friends started out as the Frosted Megawheats, mostly playing covers, preferring the Sex Pistols to anything one might confuse with roots rock. "After we started writing our own songs," Crow says, "we decided we wanted a less goofy name. Unfortunately we chose Mucho Maas, which is a character from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. We didn't know Spanish, how lame it was when it was translated."
After a stint in Colorado and a consideration of Minneapolis -- "A lot of our favorite bands are from there," Crow admits -- the band wound up in Austin and settled into a scene that didn't exactly echo their love of ragged, blister-breaking, smartly hooked rock & roll. "We were living in Colorado and everyone was doing hippie music, so I got into country," Lewis says.
"Then we moved to Austin, and that's all anyone did, and I just got tired of it. It's just so pervasive and I can't stand being a part of anything that big. Part of the problem in Austin is that the older generation still has the reins. The guys who were doing something rebellious in their twenties, now in their late forties and fifties they still want control over what goes on. It can be a bit hard for a younger band wanting to do something different." But unlike many of the younger bands in the not-quite-underground Austin rock scene, Champeen has taken the risk of the road. "The vast majority of bands in Austin don't have high aspirations of getting out of the city," Crow says. "There's a slacker element. One of our favorite bands, Prescott Curlywolf, never plays outside of Austin; their records aren't available elsewhere. And most of the bands we play with in Austin, we don't really sound like them anyways."
Given Champeen's relentless guitar attack, its scabrous shouts of joy and rage, you wouldn't think it would be too difficult to get a handle on its sound. Still, the occasional critic latched onto the intermittent twang of its second album, last year's Battle Cry for Help, and tagged the band "alternative country."
True, brief country-ish sounds drifted in and out of Battle Cry, most notably on "Four Years," where steel guitar sighs along to the refrain "Where does the time go," and on the Palace-like pedal steel ballad "Sparks," but such moments were but suggestions of a style, not the style itself. It's not that the allusions weren't compelling. Battle Cry for Help echoes the early work of Blue Mountain and Uncle Tupelo, which were fresh experiments in discovering whether punk energy could be reconciled with the evocative melodies of traditional country. Grand Champeen had offered more evidence that it is possible.
The One That Brought You, Grand Champeen's latest release on Austin indie label Glurp, is a rabid statement of rock & roll purpose, where anger spills over into ebullience, even when railing against the absurdities of life in a band. "You try to tell them it's no fun, that no one was born to run," Lewis seethes on opener "The Good Slot." On "Step Into My Heart," an existential self-examination masquerading as a lilting neo-soul ballad, Lewis sings, "You don't want to work at this/You'd rather it was gone....What you're afraid of makes you wonder what you're made of."
"That was a conscious effort," says Lewis of the band's respite from twang. "It's not that we don't like country sounds, but we were tired of being pigeonholed as alt-country. Maybe we went overboard. Maybe we've got too much testosterone now."
While the band has three songwriters, distinguishing a Lewis, Livingstone or Crow tune would be impossible without liner notes. Although they compose separately, what one songwriter invents in privacy finds a genuine voice only in the band's fury. "We're trying to change that," Lewis says of Champeen's songwriting process. "For me, I had always written an entire song, structure and all, and brought it to the band and said, 'Here it is.'
With this record, we started to rehearse the songs before I had words; I would just sing nonsense over the tune. We're trying to go farther with that. Now, I'm trying to bring songs to the band in a more natal state."
No one would call The One That Brought You painstakingly produced, but the record's manic energy, pitched between Black Market-era Clash and early Soul Asylum, wasn't an accident. "We had to work really hard to get it to sound like we didn't try at all," Lewis says. "We tried to do it real live in the studio, but ultimately it didn't sound as off-the-cuff as we had hoped. We got sidetracked for a long time and just did track after track after track. We wanted something raw and spontaneous, but we had to spend a lot of time getting that. We wanted controlled chaos, which is pretty hard to achieve."