Can the Biters Keep 1975 Alive?
Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t what it used to be. Nobody knows that better than the Biters. For going on six years, the Atlanta quartet has been kickin’ out the sort of fist-pumpin’, razor-riffin’, unabashedly catchy rock-candy anthems that ignite the young and the reckless into dangerous action on these long, hot summer nights. How many clichés did I just unload on you right there? Doesn’t matter, because the Biters employ twice as many in every one of their songs. Their looks, hooks, licks and tricks are appropriated if not snatched outright from nearly any and every worthwhile classic rock act you could name. But the Biters stand out because of their obvious hunger, wit, drive and dedication, and because they’re so fucking good at what they do. I find it impossible to not adore them. And, dammit, we need them.
But does the world want them? A lot of people seem to dismiss the Biters as a some sort of put-on or parody because they seem so obviously out of time, from a retro era long passed. Their style of simple, straightforward rock, with its generous doses of glam and powerpop, largely faded from favor amid the rising popularity of grunge and alternative rock in the early ‘90s. There are absolutely no traces of rap or industrial or techno or any other unnecessary pollutant in the Biters’ world. They do not attempt to squeeze themselves into whatever tiny, pretentious, supercool sub-genre someone conjured on the spot, nor is there a single hint of irony in anything they do. The Biters play rock ‘n’ roll, and they are the real deal.
For a band that so clearly wants to be rock stars, the Biters have worked tremendously hard, gotten onto some good tours and amassed a solid network of die-hard fans, but a record deal has evaded them, because nobody really signs bands like this anymore. But that all changed last fall when the gents at UK-based Earache Records – an independent label whose reputation has been built primarily on blood-and-guts grindcore and death metal – heard the Biters’ single “Indigo” through Spotify, loved it and got in touch with the band, as fans. That last fact alone bodes well for Electric Blood, the band’s debut album, which Earache will release on August 7th.
So it ain’t grindcore, but Electric Blood definitely cranks up the nasty riffage and wailing geetars on rockers like “Heart Fulla Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Loose From the Noose,” whose titles alone could’ve been pilfered from any given AC/DC album. But the Biters are an increasingly far-ranging gang, and those partial to their more bubblegum/powerpop tendencies will find plenty to appreciate. On the other hand, “Dreams Don’t Die” has the urgent heartland feel of an early Petty single, and “Restless Hearts,” the opening anthem and first video, encompasses everything I love about the Biters in three and a half minutes of utter perfection. In 1975, it would’ve been blasting from the dashboard of every Camaro in every town in America on every Saturday night. In 2015? Well, it’s a different world, which makes the Electric Blood cut “1975” so telling. In it, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Tuk Smith longs for the clear-cut culture, freedoms and values of that time period, “when all the kids were cool.” “Fast times get me high… take me back in time,” he sings, “I wasn’t meant for this place.”
Tuk is one of my all-time favorite people in Atlanta music. Dude’s a total trip. He’s a character, and he’s hilarious, talking a mile-a-minute and veering off into tangents that sometimes leave my head spinning. But he is genuine. He’s passionate. And he’s sharp. He knows exactly what he wants and what he’s doing.
I met up with Tuk, Biters drummer Joey O’Brien and new-ish bassist Philip Kross (formerly of Atlanta band Steadlur, LA-based goth-metal band Vampires Everywhere and others) for beers at the EARL. Guitarist Matt Gabs was at home in Baltimore and unable to join. What follows is a mere fraction of the trajectory…
Tuk: “I woke up yesterday, and I was like, ‘I feel like I need to dye my hair’ I saw this David Bowie documentary. The new one – it’s on HBO. And he’s on a whitewall, right? He looks like a fucking alien. And he’s got deep, deep, deep maroon hair, he’s pale as fuck, and he’s like, ‘This is Major Tom to ground control…’ It looked amazing. And I was like, well, I can’t do that, I need to do my own thing. I said, ‘I’m gonna dye this bitch slate.’ So I told my hairdresser, do this shit. And she did it. I felt like I needed to. I felt like a Smurf, I felt like an alien! I had to go blue. It’s a good, powerful color for me. It’s good luck. I dyed it last night, and we had so much good luck today. So much. I’m not even drunk. I’m so high on life right now.”
Joey: “I had a dream last night that me and Chase [Noles, from Dinos Boys, and Tuk’s bandmate in the Heart Attacks] and a couple other people were at the Braves game, and afterwards we were all gonna do a video shoot, and there was a whole big-ass crew of us, and you [Tuk] were slinging Biters records at the game, you brought a big stack of ‘em. And then all of a sudden our song came on over the PA and all these girls were in this one section standing up and singing all the words.”
Tuk: “See, that’s what happens, man! There’s some supernatural shit happening. It really is. It’s a collective consciousness – we’re all one mind. You know, you can do some fuckin’ crazy magical shit with your thoughts.”
You guys put out this flurry of EPs four, five years ago, all in a row, and a 7-inch and a compilation album from the EPs. You had a lot of momentum building, and then it seemed like the momentum died and there was a period where nothing was really happening.
Tuk: “We broke up. We were touring so much. And we were living like animals. And this was before Philip was in the band – my brother [Travis] was in the band. We just started getting a little ragged. We were doing great tours – we had the Ace Frehley tour, the Social Distortion tour. But somebody found enough money for us to go to Europe, because the promoter assured us X amount of shows. We went over there, dude, and he was working us 13 shows, 14 shows in a row, three hours of sleep a night. Like, we were just to make money. We ended up losing everything. Not because we couldn’t draw. Because it was so mismanaged, we lost everything, and went in debt, a lot. We came back, I was fighting, I was so mad, I was so miserable. It was probably the darkest time period in my life, mentally. And the whole band was in a state of, ‘We don’t need this – we’re done.’ I was like, I can go bartend over at the Star Bar, I can hang out with my dogs, I’ll be fine. I’m fucking done with rock ‘n’ roll, fucking over it. I don’t care – I’ll sit at home and write songs. All of us were like, ‘Fuck you!’ ‘Fuck you!’ So we went on hiatus for almost a year. But when we got away from each other, and some of the guys started playing in other bands, and we started working regular jobs…sometimes the grass isn’t greener on the other side. I know – it’s so typical. And it made all of us have an attitude change. Especially me. A big attitude change. I think a lot of us in the band were taking for granted how blessed we were to be able to tour and just play guitar rock. I mean, the music industry, there’s nothing. We weren’t making any money, but we were still living the fucking dream. None of us have skills – I don’t have a high school diploma. I never got to go to college – my parents thought I was gonna go to jail! They sure as hell don’t have enough money to set up a college fund! When you go back [to a regular job], and you’ve been being a miniature rock star in your eyes, fucking touring, it’ll humble your ass real quick.”
How did Philip come into the fold?
Tuk: “Dude, I tried out people from all over. And Travis wouldn’t come back. And then all of a sudden, Philip comes up and goes, ‘I’m back from LA. I was playing bass for a lot of stupid-ass bands, and I don’t know what I’m gonna do…’ Then I got hired to do a theme song for a soccer team. I had Joey playing drums, and we all made money off of it, and me and Philip had been hanging out, and I was like, ‘Philip, come over and help me fuck with this, let’s co-write it.’ We were really good friends back in our drug days. Like, we fucking partied and stayed up for days. High on ecstasy, too, because we used to get free ecstasy. And Philip comes, and I’m like, ‘I gotta find a bass player,’ and then my girl Ashley, she’s like, ‘How fucking dumb are you? You couldn’t get a better present to drop in front of your door. Just ask Philip!’”
Philip: “I’d been back from LA for about a year, and Tuk got me a job at the Star Bar, and so, literally, when we’d be working together, we’d be writin’ songs on the job! Or before we’d go the Star Bar, we’d write, and we’d do things over the phone. We’ve been working on this album a long time.”
Tuk: “When we regrouped, we had no money, no label, all momentum gone. We had no van. We started over, basically. Which was hard as fuck. But you know, it worked out, so it doesn’t matter.”
Philip: “Honestly, the main reason that I pursued Tuk about doing Biters was because after we all worked on doing the soccer song, Joey dropped me off in East Atlanta to meet some friends, and when I was getting out of the car he goes – this is classic Joey – he goes, ‘God fucking dammit!’ I was like, what? He was like, ‘You should just be in our fucking band! You’re good friends with Tuk, you sing, you play bass, I like the way you look – this is stupid! I’m sick of all these idiots tryin’ out for our band.’”
Tuk: “I was like, ‘Alright, this is what we’re doing, Philip – you’re on the team or not.’ I have a strong vision, and I wanna be a leader, and I want people to be excited, and I want people to get behind me, and I wanna do something positive and powerful.”
I remember when I first talked to you back in 2010, I was impressed by how much vision you had back then, and how enthusiastic and together you were, as far as what you wanted. And also just your strengths as a songwriter. In the five years since then, how has any of that adjusted or changed?
Tuk: “I went through a really, really dark period. Depression. You know, you’re a human being – you have to go through highs and lows. ’Cause you don’t know what’s going on. The future’s unwritten. I said ‘OK, sometimes people aren’t successful. What the fuck am I gonna do?’ There’s no hand up. There’s nobody telling me to do this. And I went into a period where I was almost like, fuck it.”
Were you discouraged by the level of success the band had had?
Tuk: “I was really upset that, you know, we were doing everything on our own, and that’s empowering to a degree, but we played for every major label. Every one. And they all loved us. But they wouldn’t sign us.”
Major labels aren’t signing rock bands.
Tuk: “Nobody signs rock bands. And especially what we’re doing. I had a lot of people coming around me, telling me what I need to do. How I need to change, to adjust, how I need to sound like this. And I started doubting myself. It fucked me up. Then I really got focused, spiritually, to a point where one thing led to another. I read one book, I come across one person, I started changing, rerouting my thought patterns. This is crazy shit. I started rerouting my thought patterns to control the way I think. And once I started doing that, I started becoming really humble, and appreciative, and more grateful, and I started viewing the world different, and I started going to this woman to do this spiritual breath work.”
This almost sounds like Pete Townshend studying Meher Baba or the Beatles going to the Maharishi or whatever.
Tuk: “I definitely had crazy revelations and an awakening, to a degree. And I’m still having them. But it was sought after. It was like, I need to figure out who I am, I need to figure how to be successful, I wanna figure out me as a person. I mean, in the Biters, man, I became a really vicious person to a lot of people, and I did some unspeakable shit in my life. Some really fucked up shit. And then when you start diggin’ those demons out from your childhood, or whatever, I feel like I cleansed myself. I started experimenting with higher levels of consciousness, drug free, and I started applying this to my daily life. I know this sounds crazy.”
No, it’s fascinating.
Tuk: “I woke up one day, Jeff, and I was like, I’m sick of feeling like shit, I’m sick of hating, I’m sick of hating on people, I’m sick of being jealous, I’m sick of being a dick. Everybody has their days – we’re human beings, of course – but my overall mentality, I wanna change it. And I’m still, currently, trying to change it. But my level of empathy and compassion has grown. And what that did, it started snowballing, it started rolling, man. And then I started building this invisible escrow. I was just stockpiling fucking power, or whatever it is. And I, uh… I know I sound crazy. I don’t know how to explain it. But then, it really inspired me, man. I grew up in this shitty, hopeless town where everybody fuckin’ goes to jail and does meth, lives in trailer parks.”
You’re from Griffin.
Tuk: “My dad brought Marine recruiters to my house, he told me I was gonna go to jail… You know what I mean? He told me, ‘You need to do this, you need to do this…’ You’re raised, instilled with this mentality of ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do this, you can’t do this…’ I shed all that shit. I have no doubts. And then I just fuckin’, ‘RAAAAUUURRGGHHH!!!’ I was reborn like a motherfuckin’ phoenix. I swear to God, Jeff. And I got really motivated, and I got really hungry – hungrier than ever, to the point where it was insane, I almost lost everything, like, I’ll go to the ends of the earth, or depths, everything. And then, with that came inspiration. And then I got really low again, ‘cause nothing was happening. And I was panicking for a while. I’m broke as fuck, my lady wants to fuckin’ leave me, what am I gonna do, man? I guess I fuckin’ did my best… And this is not even a year ago. And then we went on tour, and I was like, ‘Alright, guys, we need to record something new.’ We had a gang of tunes. And they were killer. But we can’t get to the next level. We cannot level up. We went in the studio, and the night before I was just layin’ in bed, and I wasn’t praying, but I was fuckin’ visualizing myself having a goddamn record deal. Anything’d be better… like fuckin’ Willy Wonka, that motherfucker Charlie wantin’ a better life and shit. You know what I’m saying? And we were in the studio, and then all of a fuckin’ sudden my manager calls. He’s like, ‘Um, there’s a big UK label interested in you guys, and when I tell you their name, don’t be scared off, because they do stuff that’s not like you guys, but it would be really good, I think we should do it.’ It was like God or the universe or whatever kind of hidden force or power slapping me on the back, sayin’ ‘Alright, motherfucker – what if I throw you a bone?’ Seriously, man!”
Do you guys recognize the changes in Tuk?
Joey: “Totally. He still has his moments, but we all have our moments. I’ve had my moments where I’ve fucked up. We’ve all changed, but yeah, he’s definitely changed. I wouldn’t play if he hadn’t.”
Tuk: “I activated something in my DNA, I’m tellin’ ya. It’s no lie. I have so much love. It’s crazy, it hurts. I almost wanna tear up, but I don’t, because I gotta be a warrior.”
Philip, what were you doing in LA before you came back and joined the Biters? Did Steadlur relocate there?
Philip: “No, the band broke up, after [Roadrunner Records] decided they didn’t wanna release [our album] in America. My girlfriend lived in Portland, and I would go to Portland and hang out with her, and come back and hang out with Tuk – we’d been talking about putting a band together for like, eight years. And then I got a call from this guy in LA that wanted me to come join his band… I weighed my options and I told Tuk, ‘[Steadlur’s] not getting back together, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just sittin’ around this town not doing anything.’ So I went out there for four years, played in a bunch of stupid bands, made money, did some dumb shit. Married a porn star…”
Philip: “Bad idea. She did a majority of all the parody porn. She’d paint herself green to do Simpsons porn, or yellow. Or she’d dress up as an alien, be Roger from American Dad.”
Tuk: “She’d be like, ‘OK, I’m going to work,’ And she comes home, and she’s been fuckin’ jacked off on by big black dudes. And they’re like skull-fucking her head. You know what I mean? And I’m like, ‘You’ve gotta kiss her!’”
Philip: “I made her brush her teeth like ten times.”
There’s absolutely no way I could deal with that.
Philip: “My favorite quote [to me] was, ‘Baby, all I had to do was eat his come.’”
How could you be married to someone like that?
Philip: “I don’t know. I did it for a year and a half.”
Tuk: “She quit porn for him. Then she started again. She gets butt-railed.”
Philip: “So, actually, when the light bulb came on in my head, my brother lived in California – he moved out there – and he said, ‘Hey, you’re going back to Georgia. You’re getting out of here.’ And I left, and the funny thing is, when I came back, Tuk and me started hanging out, and it was like we’d never been apart.”
Tuk: “So her getting skull-fucked ‘til she threw up on a dick actually helped me. See how the circle of life goes?”
Seriously, what was going through your head when you got down on one knee and asked her to marry you?
Tuk: “Good question! I wanna know this!”
Philip: “I don’t know, man… She was like, ‘It feels like you’re a dude version of me. We have so many things in common.’ She was beautiful, I loved her, we got along. And the thing is, it would be one thing if you married a girl and she lies to you about doing porn or stripping. But if you love the person and know what they’re doing going into it, I thought I could handle it. And it was fine, and she actually quit doing guy-girl porn for my birthday. And I didn’t ask her to do so. But, I don’t know, man, it was cool, but at the same time, once you move in with someone, and you get to know ‘em a little bit different, that’s when I started getting exposed to her lifestyle, and how she really didn’t have anything in common with me.”
Tuk: “It was quick, they didn’t date for like three years or anything. They got married at the courthouse, and got their rings tattooed. It’s was a total redneck-style white trash wedding.”
Did you do any scenes with her?
Philip: “No. They asked me to. Get this: there’s a thing called ‘Fuck a Fan.’ And what happens is, the biggest fan, if they win a contest, the winner gets to have sex with her. I was like, ‘No no no no! It’s not happening.’ And so the guy that’s associated with it, or runs it, was like, ‘Hey, man, what if you are quote-unquote the ‘fan’? And she’s like, ‘No, no – I’m not letting him ruin his music career.’”
Tuk: “Wow, this interview changed course…”
Philip: “In all honesty, I was in LA, went out there to do hired gun music, and the first years were amazing. It was a good switch for me, leaving Georgia. It was a very eye-opening experience. It cultured me. But it also brought me back. But at the same time, the last year, year and a half that I was with her, I call the dark time of my life. And, um, it led to me coming back here, and this dude [Tuk[, right when I got back, we started hanging out, got me a job at Star Bar, and we started writing music just for fun.”
Tuk: “I was a very positive influence on him. In a totally different, like, color than he was used to. I was trying to help him out as a friend, man. Help him out mentally and everything. Because I was in a really good state.”
And you just got married.
Tuk: “I did get married.”
How long have you been seeing Ashley?
Tuk: “A long time. You know, man, like, a musician attracts a certain type of woman. Kind of like a hanger-on type slut that don’t got nothing to do and they wanna leech on to what you’re doing. What I really like about Ashley is, she does not give a fuck. She doesn’t care. She has her own life, her own career. She supports me, and she’s not only an intellectual equal, she’s above. She’s her own person. She keeps me really grounded, and I respect her. And that’s really hard to find. I’m very blessed. I hope everybody finds that.”
Where’d you guys meet?
Tuk: “I met her at MJQ, high as fuck on coke, underage. We were both underage. Back then at MJQ you could just get an ID and walk on in. They used to play Bowie, and T Rex. That’s where I first heard ‘Jeepster’ and shit. She says, ‘I knew who you were gonna be before you were who you were.’ Like, how I am. ‘Cause I was so crazy, I’d go to jail all the time and stay up for days on drugs, and violent or whatever. And she said she invested in me. Isn’t that crazy shit to say?
She was in a band for a while, Stolen Hearts, but I don’t know how serious she was.
Tuk: “She’s great. That girl can write a good tune. She helped me write ‘Hold On.’ She’s like, if she wasn’t working a regular job, she could be a Stevie Nicks type. I’m not lying. I mean, not just ‘cause she’s my lady, just… she does it. She just owns it. So, it’s good to have that kind of person with you… She’s from Rockford, Illinois. That’s the home of Cheap Trick. In high school, her mom dated Robin Zander. Her mom went to high school with Rick Nielsen. They’re really good friends. So Ashley… Rick’s son, Daxx Nielsen, used to pick her up and drive her to school, ‘cause they lived in the same neighborhood. She was taking guitar lessons – Ashley was – and the guitar guy quit. So Ashley’s mom said, ‘Rick, do you know any guitar guys that can teach Ashley? Her guy quit.’ Rick goes, ‘Tell her to come over every Tuesday – I’ll tutor her.’ My wife got guitar lessons from Rick Nielsen. How bad of a rock story is that?”
You said that when you were going through those dark times, she almost left you.
Tuk: “I think it was to get me motivated. She was like, ‘You need to fucking be the motherfucker that I love.’ Because, my real higher self was like, ‘I do shit. It’s time to GO! I need to be that person.’ And I was wallowing. She was like, ‘No. This ain’t gonna work.’ So she helped motivate me to get up. Ever since I got married to her, shit has just been going really fucking good. I’m like, I should’ve done this shit a long time ago!”
Has writing Biters songs kind of become formulaic to you?
Tuk: “Here’s the thing – it gets harder the more you write.”
Because you don’t want to repeat yourself?
Tuk: “No, you’re only dealing with, like… to me, my favorite shit, you can talk about the classics and we can go from there. There’s something about the complexity that exists within simplicity. To use a couple chords, like the Ramones, or Tom Petty, or Springsteen, or AC/DC, for example. Whoever. To continue to use what you have, and make it work – that is not easy. So the craft of writing some sing-a-long, catchy songs, it don’t matter that ‘Oh, yeah, they’re playing these chords,’ that don’t matter. You make it work a hundred times over. It’s very thought out, it’s not a joke. And I challenge any motherfucker to write a pop hook that’s big as shit that people remember. It gets harder. Unless you’re inspired. And once you get inspired, it just flows.”
So when you’re writing, are you actively thinking, “Alright, let’s make a Really Big Rock Anthem…”
Tuk: “Of course! Dude, I want people to pump their fists! No, no, I listen to music and dissect it like a scientist. I know the shit. It’s my tools. When you’re a cook, you know your ingredients and you know your stove. You can season it any way you want, marinate it however you want, but at the end of the day, you’re just usin’ the fuckin’ spice cabinet. Not everybody can write a song. You can learn it, but… it’s called being phonogenic. You know how models take pictures really good? If you’re phonogenic, the way you write, and your vibe that comes off, and your color that you put on there, you can’t buy it and you can’t fake it. I just wanna make people feel good. I just wanna make people feel that emotion that I feel when I listen to music. When I get high and turn on… I don’t know, Nick Gilder, or Back in Black, whatever there is… I feel where it’s coming from. I just wanna carry that torch. I want to carry on the power of rock ‘n’ roll, because I believe in it. And people want fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll right now. They’re achin’ for it.”