Two critical qualities that define rock and roll are passion and momentum, and nothing kills both quicker than a long gap between albums. Maybe that's why all eyes are on Girls Against Boys, to see if the suave D.C. noisesmiths can rebound from their recent four-year hiatus, which began shortly after their former label, Geffen, was absorbed into Universal. But if the band's new album, the startlingly direct You Can't Fight What You Can't See (Jade Tree) is any indication, GVSB has clearly made up for lost time.
Although GVSB's prolonged break from recording might suggest that the group was embroiled in a long and bitter corporate battle for control of its destiny, it turns out that the conflict wasn't quite as messy as it appeared from the outside.
"When the big merger happened between Polygram and Universal Music, Geffen just fell apart as a label, and we got lost in the shuffle," says bassist Johnny Temple. "A lot of bands were lucky and just got dropped. We weren't so lucky. Once Geffen sort of came back together, they were saying, 'We want to see the hits,' and we weren't interested in that, so we asked to be let go."
Temple says GVSB was as much a victim of its own management as it was any stubbornness on the part of Geffen.
"Once we started actively trying to get out of the situation, it happened really quickly. What we had to do to get ourselves off Geffen was very tangible. What prevented us from doing that was poor management. We had a very good contract, and once we held it up and said, 'Free up the recording budget or let us go,' it was no problem."
Though it was prevented from recording as Girls Against Boys while extricating itself from Geffen, the band continued to work diligently on new material and tour fairly consistently. Members also wrote and recorded a batch of songs for the GVSB side project New Wet Kojak, scored an indie film called Series 7: The Contenders, and contributed heavily to the soundtrack for the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
By the time GVSB cleared its legal hurdles, a number of labels had lined up to court the band (one erroneous report had it signed to a two-album deal with DreamWorks), but it went with respected indie Jade Tree.
"The guys who run Jade Tree have been hard-core fans of the D.C. music scene for a long time," says Temple. "Tim Owen has always been a big GVSB fan. As soon as we got off Geffen, we sent an e-mail out to the world, letting everyone know 'We're free!' Tim immediately contacted us and said, 'Come to Jade Tree.' We looked at everything, and Jade Tree was our best option. We love them. They're like an old-school indie rock label in the Dischord/Touch & Go tradition. They work their butts off."
With all of the details settled, GVSB finally entered the studio to begin work on You Can't Fight. One of the first decisions the band made was to sign up veteran D.C. producer Ted Niceley, who manned the boards for two of GVSB's most revered albums: 1995's Cruise Yourself and 1996's House of GVSB.
"It was unanimous," Temple says of the decision to hook up with Niceley again. "We bounced some other names around, but for the songs that we had and what we were trying to establish with this record, we felt that Ted was musically and vibewise the right guy."
While Niceley certainly helped GVSB reconnect with its indie roots, the band made the process easy by coming in with a scorching collection of songs that are among the most focused and visceral of its 13-year career.
"Once we got off Geffen, we were free to record the album that we've wanted to record for a couple years," says Temple. "We wanted it to be aggressive, upbeat, and raw, with the guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, and vocals up front and urgent."
The title of the album would seem, at least tangentially, to refer to GVSB's issues with Geffen. Temple says the band understood that the title, conceived by vocalist/ guitarist Scott McCloud, might be construed that way, but insists that the idea behind it is much less linear than that.
"Scott's references are never totally literal or very specific," says Temple. "I think that's one of the connotations that we assumed people would see or think about, but I don't think it's that specific of a reference. I think it's more about the present than the past. It's not about the future, either."
Thankfully, though, You Can't Fight What You Can't See proves that at least GVSB has a future.
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