Upward Momentum

With its ear-bleeding guitars, Roué delivers a great nervous breakdown.

Roué Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Boulevard, Cleveland Heights 9 p.m. Saturday, June 4, $7, 216-321-5588
Rou's latest is a sprawling, nervous LP, on which - blasts of jittery punk bookend wayward jams.
Rou's latest is a sprawling, nervous LP, on which blasts of jittery punk bookend wayward jams.
Roué has played but one song, and already the audience is backing off the P.A. "I'm moving away from the speaker," a small young gal with close-cropped black hair tells a friend, recoiling from a stage monitor as if from a bomb. She walks to the center of the room, joining about two dozen other college-age onlookers reeling in the racket at Kent's Electric Café Co., a homey rock hang that smells of beer and popcorn.

You can't blame the girl for wanting to put some distance between herself and Roué's raw throb. By turns sweeping and severe, the band sounds like a series of nervous breakdowns. Onstage, its songs bare their teeth, with enveloping guitars swallowing the room, then spitting out loud bursts of static and dissonance. During breaks between songs, the band says little, offering only beer burps.

And so it goes, late on a recent Monday night, when Roué plays a short, sharp set of stinging rock and roll. Backed by a massive video screen showing Apocalypse Now, singer-guitarist Justin Coulter stomps on close to a dozen effects pedals as Roué smothers the Café in distortion, the band's sound constantly morphing from panoramic noodling to outbursts of snarling noise-rock.

"Because we have no pretense of what we are, we're just always changing," Coulter explained earlier in the day, from the living room of guitarist Jeff Harris' home on St. Clair Avenue.

The band -- rounded out by bassist John Kalman and drummer Steve Mehlman -- reclines on a pair of couches beneath posters for Bright Eyes and Sleater-Kinney gigs. The musicians looked as untidy as their music sounds, with uncombed hair and holes in their T-shirts.

Even the formation of their band was casual. Roué started with Coulter and original drummer Jason Gintert jamming together, with no real intention of playing out.

"We had no preconceptions about what we played, when Jason and I were just playing together," Coulter says. "We didn't start it like 'Oh, we're going to make it this kind of thing' at all. And then Jeff just kind of came in, and John kind of came in."

A fierce, off-the-cuff live show would help solidify the fledgling group.

"Our first show was just, like, totally impromptu. It was guest-bartender night," Coulter says of Roué's debut at the Grog Shop in 2003, which soon led to opening slots for such big names as Interpol and Melt Banana. "Our first few shows were with national acts, and so it was like 'Well, guess we're a band now, guys.'"

After recording an EP, 2004's brusque Fuckin for the Future, Roué's lineup solidified last May, when Gintert left to dedicate more time to his family. At the behest of This Moment in Black History drummer Bim Thomas, the band sought out former Pere Ubu sticksman Steve Mehlman.

"I had the EP and nearly shit myself," says Mehlman, an animated presence with red, white, and blue hair. "I was like, 'Please, please let me be in the band.'"

With Mehlman on board, Roué began assembling its full-length debut, Upward Heroic Motive, released last month on Cleveland's Exit Stencil Recordings. It's a sprawling, nervous LP, on which blasts of jittery punk bookend wayward jams that stretch past the eight-minute mark. Coulter alternates a disaffected drawl with the pained shriek of a man getting his kneecaps broken. He's backed by a swirling mix of powder-keg drums, bullying bass, and shoegazer guitar.

Roué's songs often start with a moody strum and end with Coulter and Harris clawing at their guitars, breaking strings and fingernails. Their debut recalls the halcyon days of '80s indie rock, when bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. used loud squalls of feedback to dismantle every last rock convention while still crafting tightly honed songs.

"I think we come out of that era where people were still exploring musical genres: 'You take it from here and here and put 'em together and push 'em over here,'" Coulter says. "That's what we all grew up on. If we were born like seven years later, the people who would have affected us would have been a lot more boring."

Instead, Roué's unpredictability has made it one of the Cleveland rock underground's most promising acts. The band sold out the Grog last Christmas and routinely gets tapped to open for such hotly tipped touring bands as British Sea Power and Aerogramme.

"When all the cool kids who wouldn't talk to me before started talking to me a lot, I knew something was up," Coulter says. "We started getting free drinks and girls. It was like 'We're onto something, boys.'"

And with that, the room bursts into a round of guffaws. These guys are quick to deflate any headway they've made, primarily because progress was so unexpected that they're still learning what to make of it.

Still, the early response to Upward has been strong. The band quickly logged over 1,000 downloads on taste-making indie-rock website Pitchforkmedia.com, and it has charted on college radio stations from here to California. The group is launching a three-week national tour later this month, and with such a combustible live show, these guys'll either win over new fans or go deaf trying.

But as is Roué's nature, aspirations remain modest.

"I just don't want to write a song that sounds like another one that we have," Kalman says. "I don't think we have much more of a goal than that."

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