Breakin' the Raw Law

With or without piano and horns, Columbus's New Bomb Turks play high energy rock and roll.

New Bomb Turks: Prep guys who play punk rock.
New Bomb Turks: Prep guys who play punk rock.
A few years ago, the New Bomb Turks were in Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest music conference and decided, almost on a whim, to play a closing party hosted by the fanzine Fizz. Crashed by fans who had gotten wind of the event, which was originally intended to be a private affair, the warehouse in which it was being held became overcrowded and, with nothing in terms of security, eventually started to spiral out of control as the New Bomb Turks took the stage in the early hours of the morning. Frustrated with the bad sound and veritable chaos, Turks frontman Eric Davidson began to antagonize the audience by putting his microphone in the monitors to elicit piercing feedback. For Davidson, who's been known to stuff cigarettes up his nose and circle the stage like a caged animal, his antics were simply business as usual. But when the electricity to the stage was cut, fans were so upset, they proceeded to attack the sound man and caused enough harm that the guy filed a lawsuit against Fizz. The New Bomb Turks have put the incident in their past, and singer Eric Davidson isn't about to admit to any wrongdoing.

"The sound guy was your classic anal sound guy and took the mic out of my hand and just turned off the sound," Davidson explains via phone from his home in Columbus. "Some kids bumrushed the stage, and a couple of drunks went up and started whaling on this guy while singing New Bomb Turks songs. It was kinda fucked up, but we started laughing and pitched all our shit in the van and headed north. For a little bit, we felt kinda bad, but [the publishers of Fizz] kept telling us it wasn't our fault. We didn't bait the crowd; we just stood there laughing. You can't feel bad about things like that, because it's the general nature of concerts."

While other New Bomb Turks shows haven't been prone to violence, the band never tones down its brash attitude -- even for interviews. Davidson holds nothing back when it comes to disrespecting the Warped tour, of which the Turks have never been a part ("We get enough guys at our shows, we don't need any more"); the current independent rock scene in Columbus ("Here it's all about that wounded indie rock shit"); or even young punk rock fans ("They look at us agape, like "what the fuck is this?' because most of those kids haven't fucked yet"). But then, that's about what you'd expect from a guy who once wrote a song describing himself as a "professional againster" and whose biting sarcasm has resulted in lines like "Maybe a war is what I need/A good haircut or a death in the family/I can't nail down just what is missing" (from "Hammerless Nail").

Like the other members of the New Bomb Turks, Davidson, who occasionally contributes articles to the fanzine Your Flesh, grew up in Cleveland and had an upper-middle-class upbringing (he attended Benedictine and Valley Forge high schools). He met his future bandmates at Ohio State, where they all studied English and became involved in college radio. The band, which at that time included bassist Matt Reber, guitarist Jim Weber, and drummer Bill Randt (who's since been replaced by Gaunt drummer Sam Brown), formed in 1991 and issued a series of seven-inch singles on indie labels such as Datapanik, Engine, Empty, Sympathy for the Record Industry, and Bag of Hammers. By 1994, the band had signed on with the garage label Crypt, which released its first full-length, Information Highway Revisited. At the time, the scene in Columbus was thriving, as bands such as Scrawl and Howlin' Maggie were getting national attention and on the verge of being signed to major labels. Davidson said that the New Bomb Turks got their share of offers, but weren't interested -- they eschewed the majors to sign with Epitaph, the imprint run by former Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz.

"If we would have tried to sign with the one or two record labels that actually talked to us three or four years ago, we would have been dropped by now, more broke than we are, and probably not a band anymore," he says. "Epitaph never has a problem with artwork or the sound of the record. We know where we stand at the label and what they expect. If we stayed around for another 20 years, we probably would never be dropped."

Being on Epitaph and playing fast and furious music has meant that the New Bomb Turks are often considered a punk band. While their irreverent attitude has its affinity with punk, the band's roots are more in garage rock -- and that foundation has become more and more evident, ever since the Turks released 1996's Scared Straight. Recorded at Cleveland's 609 Recording by Don Depew, Scared Straight comes off like Rocket From the Crypt backing Iggy Pop -- horns and organ temper the rugged guitar workouts with distorted doses of rock and roll soul. It's a sound the band has come to cultivate as its own -- by 1998's At Rope's End, the band was experimenting with Farfisa organ, harmonica, and even pedal steel guitars on songs such as "Bolan's Crash" and "Raw Law."

"It was just a natural progression," Davidson says of Scared Straight and At Rope's End. "We were listening to more and more soul music. We just wanted something different and didn't want to be playing 12 really fast songs on every record. I don't mind being called punk. Whatever people want to call us is fine. We play high-energy rock and roll. We listened to a lot of punk when we formed, but we also listened to a lot of Pussy Galore and Sonic Youth. We couldn't play [the Rolling Stones'] Exile on Main Street, because we didn't know any 14-year-old black girls who could sing background vocals. I wish we did. We just went with what we knew. My favorite music is punk and garage rock."

The band's forthcoming album, Nightmare Scenario (due April 7), isn't about to change the Turks' reputation as a fierce, garage-oriented rock band. Recorded in Detroit with producer Jim Diamond (Red Aunts, Volebeats, Bantam Rooster, the Go), the album is as raunchy as anything the band has done in the past -- if anything, the band downplays the piano riffs in favor of fervent handclaps ("Killer's Kiss") and tambourine shakes ("Spanish Fly"). Davidson, who said the band recorded the album at a studio in a section of Detroit so desolate that "the only human we saw was this old decrepit woman shitting on the street," maintains that the Turks didn't make a conscious decision to leave out the horns and keyboards.

"We just wanted to get a record out," he says. "You have in the back of your head that you could put a horn or background thing there. For this one, there weren't a lot of songs where horns felt right. We were only up there for five days. We had Harold Chichester from Howlin' Maggie -- he also played with Afghan Whigs, but don't hold that against him; he's a really nice guy -- come in and add some piano fills here and there. He also added some tambourine stuff. We wanted to keep it pretty stripped down. We didn't have as many guitar tracks layered on top of each other."

While Davidson says he doesn't identify much with the now-simmering punk revival that has continually loaded the Warped tour with Epitaph bands, he still takes an anti-establishment attitude toward playing rock and roll. After nearly a decade of recording for labels that are, for the most part, too small to register Soundscan reports, Davidson shows no signs of selling out or slowing down -- the band will tour Europe in April and come back to the U.S. for dates on the West Coast in June and July.

"I like to think that you don't have to live your life according to the get-a-house, have-a-kid formula," he says. "I'm 30, and I'm still doing this, and it's really a conscious decision. I like all our records. I think we still put on a good live show. In that sense -- if the punk aesthetic means being for your fans -- that's something we feel. I never wanted to get that much into the pompous attitude. Most straight-edge bands and stuff like that are not about music, but about finding a group they fit into, because their parents beat the shit out of them. My parents didn't beat the shit out of me, so I liked art. That's a good option. When you're well fed, you like art. That's honest, in my opinion. On our first tour, we got fanzine questions like "We thought you'd have mohawks, but you guys wear sweater vests. Why?' I was like "Because it's cold,' and they were like "But they don't even have holes in them.' I'm like "Who cares? They're warmer that way.' We've never made a conscious effort to be prep guys who played punk rock -- that's just who we are."