Any mutt chomping into the opening cut of Beware Of Dog, the Hangdogs’ new CD, might think he’s just met the business end of a buzz saw. Savage guitars, a relentless rhythm and caustic vocals shadow a Texas wife as she flees across state lines to escape her husband. Sprinkled with telling bits of Americana, “The Gun Song” is implicitly framed by a social and political landscape that nurtures abuse and lets any right-thinking cretin cop a gun at the local pawn shop. It also offers the double sweetness of revenge and catharsis: “She smiled, said ‘Oh darlin,’ slid her hand beneath her apron/And she blew a hole right through that fucker’s heart.”
Life doesn’t always imitate art. According to Matthew “Banger” Grimm, the band’s principal songwriter and lead singer, the real-life lady whose story was the model for the song “…was one of those idiots who remains with her abusive, psychotic, gun-nut husband out of some irrational and insecure clinging to some mythic ideal of marriage and love in the face of all contradictory evidence.”
Fired by rage and compassion, cynicism and a flicker of hope, the New York-based Hangdogs hold the mirror up to contemporary life in America, reflecting the dog’s breakfast of puerile political images, pitiless capitalism and inherited disenfranchisement. With fiction and reality continually at each other’s throats, the band charts the uneasy commerce between the personal, social and political realms that simultaneously spawns horrors and offers solutions.
Musically tough and lyrically bleak, Beware Of Dog, released in August by Shanachie, is, at least in terms of production, closer to the band’s initial offering, Same Old Story, a six-song EP released in 1995 after a weekend recording session, than it is to last year’s East Of Yesterday, which emerged from the studio with a fair amount of sheen. “We made a conscious effort with the new one to play it more like we might onstage,” says lead guitarist Automatic Slim. “And it also just happened to fit the material at the time. Even some of the ballads on there are kind of heavy.”
Produced by Bruce Henderson, Beware Of Dog was knocked off in nine days and resonates with freshness and firepower. Intensive pre-studio rehearsing meant that “we really had the songs mapped out in our heads,” says Kevin Baier, the band’s drummer. “We cut all of the rhythm tracks and some of the guitar in two days, which was awesome.”
With the country flavoring that infused so much of East Of Yesterday toned down, more guitars in the frontline, and drums taking their rightful place in the mix, Beware Of Dog is classic roadhouse rock, raw-boned and immediate. Grimm’s reedy, nasal voice can stalk or caress you, but it always stays close. “It has a barroom sensibility,” says bassist Kevin Karg. “Even the angry songs have kind of a guy-leaning-over-on-the-bar sensibility to them.”
That’s a pretty good description of what the Hangdogs have been up to since they first coalesced back in 1993. Baier and Slim, part-time musicians who had come out of broadcasting programs in college, were working together in video production at the New York headquarters of the World Wrestling Federation, getting some hands-on training in the nature of reality and artifice. Baier, the only one of the four who still holds down a full-time day job, had a friend from his student days, Matthew Grimm, an Iowa-born political science graduate who by day toiled as a business reporter at Brandweek and burned the midnight oil as a songwriter.
Grimm had a bunch of songs he wanted to demo, so the three got together. At the end of the session, Slim asked, “Well, geez, what’re you doing? Let’s play some gigs. Let’s have some fun. Let’s meet some chicks.” A newspaper ad netted the group’s first bass player, J.C. Chmiel. The band found a name when Grimm started free-associating one night in Mooney’s Pub on Flatbush Avenue: “Hanged men. Hangmen. Hang…dogs! It sort of clicked. I called the guys from the bar and they agreed.”
Those demo songs wound up on Same Old Story, and the title track enjoyed some airplay on Americana stations. A spot at Austin’s SXSW in 1996 drew a favorable response. A few more converts were claimed during a couple of shows at Dallas’ Barley House. Then, in 1997, the hurricane hit: playing their second Dallas gig, this time at Sons of Hermann Hall, the Hangdogs launched into “Monopoly On The Blues”. “It was like Britney Spears doing ‘Oops! I Did it Again’ or something,” recalls Grimm. “The place just erupted.” Dallas has been loyal ever since, boasting more fans than even New York City.
In 1999, bassist J.C. Chmiel — married, with a couple of kids — pulled the plug when faced with the prospect of extensive touring. Chmiel still played on three tracks on Beware Of Dog. John Carlin, who played on one track on East Of Yesterday, replaced Chmiel but quit just before the band was set to hit the road last year. Enter Kevin Karg, an engineering and economics graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, longtime Hangdogs fan and all-around busy guy (a member of Star City, he’s also a principal with the Rolling Hayseeds, though with the recent departure of his long-time collaborator, Rich Kaufmann, and the Hangdogs’ rapidly filling dance card, that may have run its course).
Having attended countless New York shows, Karg knew the Hangdogs’ fare inside-out and clambered on board without much ado. “My overarching goal when I joined was to not screw it up,” says Karg, “’cause I liked the band so much and it was really in a crisis. So I’m thinking to myself when we’re doing rehearsals, ‘I just want to be invisible and make it such that all they have to do is their job.’”
Since then, the sailing’s been about as smooth as any group of four musicians, thrown into the pressure-cooker of live performances, studio work and limited budgets, can expect. In mid-September, the Hangdogs launched an eight-week tour in support of the new album. A couple days before hitting the road, they discovered themselves on Napster, something Baier believes can hurt bands like theirs, though he agrees that pirating will at least broaden their exposure and maybe spark a few more CD sales.
“Out of the frying pan and into hell.” That’s what the hometown boy of “Out There”, the second cut on Beware Of Dog, discovered when he went hunting for fame and fortune. And that’s pretty much what audiences on the tour circuit and the internet will hear if they compare the collection of new songs to those on East Of Yesterday.