Teeth Marks to Prove It:
The Biters Want to Be Your Rock ‘n’ Roll Heroes
Tuk Smith had had enough. He’d watched his first band choke on its own clichéd rock ‘n’ roll excess. His second was swiftly careening down a similar vomit-encrusted pit. He’d woken up after a night of post-show partying in Cincinnati to find a friend cold dead from the same combination of pills and alcohol that landed his drummer in the ICU. Then his guitarist, in an attempt to kick heroin, went to rehab – and got himself thrown out.
“That was officially the demise of the Poison Arrows. I just had to get away from that,” Smith acknowledges. “I don’t want to be around that anymore. I think a lot of people might think I’m tryin’ to be contrived about it, but it’s totally real, and it sucks, and it isn’t funny.”
Tuk (actually, Josh – Tuk’s a nickname from when he was a kid, but it’s stuck) is no angel, and he’ll readily admit it, but he’s bursting with talent and ambition and drive, and at 26 he’s come to realize that his chances of getting anywhere are significantly curtailed if he’s saddled with delusional losers who think they’re Johnny Thunders. It’s about time, because his current band, the Biters, deserve to be fucking huge. They kick out the sort of all-American fist-pumping power-pop that just makes you wanna put the top down on the Mustang, pick up all your buddies and blast it as loud as you can while searchin’ for parties or chicks or better yet parties full of chicks. Yeah, they look like they just strutted out of a time capsule buried in 1975, and they pretty much sound like it too. Some people dismiss ’em ‘cuz of that, but I say nonsense! They’re an irresistibly fun band with insanely catchy songs and great potential. And matching Rod Stewart haircuts!
“I want people to kind of get it,” Tuk says of his band’s style and image. “I think they do. I mean, look at it!” he laughs.
Where the Biters are going for more of a hard-edged, hook-heavy, harmony-driven power-pop thing, Tuk’s old band the Heart Attacks, in which he played guitar, fashioned themselves as trashy glam-punks that looked and sounded more like a Hanoi Rocks ripoff. They caught a break when they were invited on the Warped Tour in ’05. That turned into a bit of a disaster when the deal fell through, but they decided to crash the party anyhow, parking their bus at every show to sell cheap beer and promote their first CD. Rancid’s Tim Armstrong happened by one afternoon, met the boys, got a copy of their disc and obviously liked what he heard. With the five members barely out of their teens, they signed to Armstrong’s Hellcat label (a division of Epitaph), which released the Heart Attacks’ second album, Hellbound and Heartless, in 2006. It’s not a great album by any means – for all their overdone badass posturing, they sounded unbelievably tame and slick on the recording – but it had Joan Jett on it, singing a duet with lead singer Chase Noles, so there’s that. The point is, they were presented with a golden opportunity most bands never come near – and they pissed it away by swallowing a whole bottle of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle myth and acting like morons.
Smith: “I was kinda wakin’ up and bein’ like, ‘What the fuck? Are we gonna make a career out of this? We’re on this big label, we need to start concentrating on writing songs and bein’ professional,'” says Tuk. “All the bands we were touring with were trying to make careers out of it, and we were actin’ like fools. It was basically me and [Chase] buttin’ heads, and he kinda lost it. He kind of got too far into it. And I had to quit, man. I’m still friends with everybody in the band, but I just couldn’t see myself having a future with him and being happy.”
Tuk wasted little time assembling the Poison Arrows. While he didn’t present it as such, it was clear that this was his band. In addition to guitar he was on lead vocals and writing the songs. The quartet’s sound immediately heralded the shift from the Heart Attacks’ overbearing hairspray punk to the rockin’ Sweet/Cheap Trick-informed approach that carries on in the Biters. They were a damn fine band, with a good single released on Chicago label Full Breach. Only problem was, Smith was still dealing with guys who didn’t know when to leave the party behind them. Debuting in October ’08, by the following March they were on a decent enough tour opening for teetotaler punk veterans The Queers and Seattle up-and-comers the Cute Lepers. After the Cincinnati date, Poison Arrows drummer Joey O’Brien (then 20) and Cute Lepers guitarist Travis Criscola, 24, took some unspecified pills while drinking alcohol. O’Brien landed in intensive care and Criscola never woke up. Meanwhile, Poison Arrows guitarist Michael Portwood, who’d been recruited from a later Heart Attacks lineup (he replaced a guy who kept going to jail for drug-related reasons, naturally), had emerged as the Poison Arrows’ most destructive limb, overindulging in all manner of dope and booze.
“I brought him in Poison Arrows because he was helping me write some songs. And he got really fucked up on drugs. I tried to stand by him, because, you know, you’re friends,” Tuk explains. “He went to MusiCares for rehab. They fronted the whole $25,000 bill, and he ended up getting kicked out of it for shootin’ up again… I still love him to death as a friend – I just had to say, ‘You can’t play with me. I can’t be around you no more. It’s so much negative energy.'”
Smith intended to simply replace Portwood and carry on Poison Arrows, but a cease-and-desist order from a Chicago band with that name nixed that. And for the best, I’d maintain. Poison Arrows could imply “dirty needles,” which is not necessarily an image you’d want hanging over a band when you just kicked out a junkie. Besides, Tuk desperately needed a fresh start. The Heart Attacks were chained to a terrible reputation because of thoughtless, drug-addled behavior, and the Poison Arrows were well on their way to earning the same. The less baggage, the better. So, Tuk’s “new” band the Biters emerged last fall. So far, so good.
“I’m finally in a spot where everybody I’m around is good,” he says. “When you’re in a band, and you’ve got other people to depend on, and they’re fuckin’ up…I’m not sayin’ they were holdin’ me back, man, but sometimes you gotta cut your losses, and I did that. I just want to get busy.”
Busy they have been. Portwood’s replacement came in the form of Matt Gabs, formerly of the Baltimore band Fishnet Stalkers. Gabs still lives there, where he saves enough money from bartending to fly down to Atlanta every month or so for local shows, recording sessions and the two-week tours they’ve been embarking on regularly with their Atlanta comrades the Booze.
“We’re trying to form a rock ‘n’ roll alliance,” Smith says of the Biters/Booze relationship. It may seem like an unlikely match – as much as the Biters draw on ’70s influences, the Booze revel in early ’60s R&B-informed British Invasion sounds. But both groups are very talented, ambitious, close in age and anything but lazy. And they’re sort of misfits in the current Atlanta scene. Last month, the two bands embarked on an East Coast tour together, and this month, after a co-bill at the Star Bar, they’ll take it to the Midwest, including Chicago, where both acts enjoy strong followings. Tuk’s known Booze guitarist Randy Michael since both were in their late teens, and they clearly appreciate each other’s aspirations. “Me and Randy have a healthy camaraderie,” he says. “He’ll be like, ‘Check this [new song] out.’ And next week I’ll be like, ‘Alright, check this out!’ We show each other songs.” The two musicians formed a partnership called Rock N Roll Kills, a banner under which they book shows in Atlanta (always featuring the Booze and/or Biters, of course!) and were behind the Now Dig This! multi-band video shoot earlier this year, styled like a ’60s rock ‘n’ roll dance party TV show. Hopes for the project being picked up by a local station or Comcast haven’t panned out, but bands have posted clips from it online, and they’re shooting a second version during the Star Bar show on Aug. 6th, this time with more of a ’70s atmosphere.
Such multi-pronged determination and enthusiasm is part of why Tuk Smith reminds me of another, better known Atlanta rock ‘n’ roller: Butch Walker. I told Smith this, expecting his eyes to roll, but he recognized it as the honest praise that it is, adding that “other people have been tellin’ me that.” Both of them came from smaller towns outside of Atlanta (Butch from Cartersville, Tuk from Griffin). Both started out kind of naïve, and their early bands reflected their youthful desires to fit into a certain rock ‘n’ roll image. Both got signed to labels early on, only to have the band break up. Both ended up moving on musically, writing catchier songs more influenced by ’70s classic rock and power pop, earning more respect along the way. Tuk’s even been interning in a recording studio (The Factory), learning more about that end of the business. Truthfully, Walker would probably be an ideal choice to produce a Biters album someday.
As for physical records, the Biters only have one out so far – a ten-inch vinyl self-titled EP – but a second EP, It’s OK to Like Biters, is just up on iTunes, with a CD edition coming any day now. A third EP is currently being written.
“I’m trying to do three [EPs] a year,” Smith says. “Instead of putting out an album and you don’t put out another one for a whole year. I don’t want any filler. I wanna have all killer songs on there.”
Mission accomplished on EP number one. Bursting forth with the utterly perfect “Hang Around,” which is also being released as a 7″ single (along with “Beat Me” from the EP) on French label Pop the Balloon next month, the record is a fresh-yet-familiar explosion of passion, spirit and fun. Smith recalls describing to engineer Jeff Bakos how he wanted it to sound:
“I brought him like a 30-song reference disc – everything from Status Quo to rare Dutch glam, like for certain sounds. I’d say, ‘I want the Status Quo harmonies…How do they blend them?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I know how to do all that!’ He’s one of the last purists in town, as far as recording goes. I told him, ‘I want the drums like [Sweet’s] Desolation Boulevard,’ and he got it! He taught me a lot, bein’ in the studio.”
The five songs on It’s OK to Like Biters (recorded by Dan Dixon of Dropsonic) punch a bit harder but are every bit as appealing – actually more so, now that I’ve been crankin’ ’em all afternoon. I mean, if you want the ideal soundtrack to your summer, look no further, my friend. It doesn’t get any better.
With (hopefully!) the right lineup in place – Tuk’s younger brother Travis, who also plays in the Customers, has replaced original bassist Josh Hitson, and O’Brien remains on drums (“I gave him an ultimatum” about being a fuckup, Tuk assures me) – it’s entirely conceivable that the Biters could really break on a national level, if they can somehow avoid the “retro” tag, or use it to their advantage. They’re young, they’re “hot” (ask any girl about that), and their songs have “should be a hit” written all over them. And I hope they do make it big. Because it’s hard not to like Tuk. His enthusiasm is infectious (dude talks a mile a second, with a funny small-town Southern inflection), his talent is genuine and, after all the craters in his wake, his friendliness almost seems humble.
“I write a lot [of songs] about regrets. How I used to be. Just bein’ an asshole. And the dust settles, and, like, you got some topics to write about,” he explains. “I just try to be a good person now. As lame as that may sound, it’s true.”