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[Cellars]

Suburban voices
Nullset and Halfcocked

BY SEAN RICHARDSON

Head west out of Boston just beyond Route 128 and you’ll find Framingham, the strip-mall-infested home of gridiron great Doug Flutie, Nomar supersub Lou Merloni, and . . . uh, I dunno, Framingham State College? Not exactly a hotbed for rock and roll. But take into account the similar cultural voids that nurtured rock’s latest generation of superstars (Korn’s Bakersfield, California; Limp Bizkit’s Jacksonville, Florida) and it makes sense that Boston’s newest major-label hopefuls hail from outside the city limits — something of which Nullset are acutely aware (and maybe even a little proud).

" Sometimes we say we’re a Boston band, but we basically say Framingham ’cause that’s where we rehearse, " explains Nullset singer Ken Smith when I meet up with him and guitarist Jim Foster at — where else? — TGI Friday’s on Route 9 in Framingham. Foster adds, " Nobody knows what Framingham is outside of Massachusetts. But Boston bands get all hot and bothered if we say we’re from Boston. It’s like, ‘You live in [area code] 508?’ It was pretty tough for a while to get gigs in Boston because of that. "

That was before the recent release of the band’s major-label debut, Nullset (Grand Royal), which they celebrated last weekend with gigs in Worcester, Attleboro — and, yes, Boston. Produced by Howard Benson (the man behind P.O.D.’s platinum breakthrough), the disc is a hefty, depoliticized take on Rage Against the Machine’s oft-imitated bullet blooze with more than a few surprises up its sleeve. The most notable is the hyperactive rapping of Smith (a devotee of former Faith No More vocal freak Mike Patton), who never sang in a band before forming Nullset (originally Gangsta Bitch Barbie) in ’97.

" I don’t really think of it as rap per se, but I guess it is, " he says when confronted with the dreaded rap-metal epithet. " I’ve always liked the comical side of music, like Mike Patton or Anthony Kiedis. Music doesn’t have to be depressing or a shoulder for a lyricist to cry on. It can be something that’s a lot of fun, too. "

Witness the parade of twisted metaphors on the album’s lead single, " Smokewood, " which also makes clever use of a loopy synth hook composed by Foster. " It’s funny, somebody told me that Grand Royal paid for ‘Smokewood’ and we just fit the suit, " says Foster, meaning that the label the band on the basis of the single. " I wrote that annoying little loop while my aunt and cousin were sitting in the other room. They were like, ‘What are you doing? That sounds great.’ I was tempted to throw it away right there. "

On the scathing " This Ain’t California " and " Better Days, " Smith proves he can talk trash with the best of ’em — or at least with Fred Durst. But he saves his choicest venom for " H Bone " : " Pop goes the weasel goes pop/Until they play me on the radio/Squeeze me till the very last drop, like a whore. " " That’s about how widely accepted compromise is in music and how easily musicians are swayed to compromise for the wrong reasons, " says Smith. " You write a song and it represents the band how you want it to be represented. Then people say, ‘This is why you should change your song and this is what you should change it to.’ It’s just compromising your integrity for a dollar. "

The irony here is that Grand Royal forced the band to censor the song’s original title, which was " Heroin Bone. " " We wrote that song the day before we went in to record, " says Foster. " We got really, really fuckin’ high before we wrote it. We were all convinced there was something in that weed — it was crazy. We just banged it out. We wrote [the hidden track] ‘Bong Hit’ that day too. That was one killer joint, dude! "

Those two songs are among the heaviest on the album. Recorded in a couple of takes as the studio clock was winding down, " Bong Hit " includes a tossed-off rap cameo by Foster that makes a few good-natured jokes at David Lee Roth’s expense. " I saw David Lee Roth in a strip joint in LA looking all bloated. He looked awful. He had a big bodyguard with him. It wasn’t that appealing, so that’s where that came from. It’s too bad: that guy used to be the balls. "

Nullset’s major-label rise began soon after the ’98 release of the self-made Gangsta Bitch Barbie disc This Is Not a Test, which has now sold in excess of 5000 copies. " Our A&R guy, Steve Patch, saw us at NEMO in ’99 and caught one song — ‘Kingpin,’ I think, " says Foster. The band were courted by several labels before signing a deal through Patch with the short-lived Den imprint, which later merged with Grand Royal. That was in December 1999. " It’s been so long and frustrating. Every time some kind of merger goes on, it takes up six months of our lives. "

They ran into more trouble when the initial sessions for the album, with former Nine Inch Nails drummer Chris Vrenna (who produced Cold’s current hit album) at the helm, proved less than satisfactory. They ended up coming home to regroup before heading back to LA to work with Benson last fall. " Chris is a great guy and I just can’t stand to say anything bad about him, but it just wasn’t happening with us, " says Foster. " We were in the studio constantly worrying about one note and playing things perfect. When Howard came in, he was like, ‘I don’t give a fuck whether you’re in tune. Just play really hard, like you do live.’  "

With the disc finally in stores, Nullset are happier with their business situation than they have been in a long time. " I think Grand Royal’s mentality is trying to break an indie band rather than take a band and skip right over the indie thing, " says Smith. " In relation to a lot of the bands that are exploding right now, like Saliva or Disturbed, we’re not getting tons of money pumped into us. I don’t think Grand Royal wants that kind of moniker, and there’s a side of the band that respects that as well. "

Like Nullset, Halfcocked got signed more than a year ago and are only now gearing up for the release of their much-delayed major-label debut, The Last Star (out August 21 on Megatronic/DreamWorks). But as the first signing to Megatronic — Powerman 5000 frontman Spider One’s new vanity imprint — the band might actually be emerging at just the right time. With Powerman also gearing up for an August release, the two bands will be hitting the road together in the fall, and that will allow Halfcocked to build on the sizable hype they’ve already garnered from the Powerman association.

" Spider is an incredibly articulate, intelligent person who understands the workings and the mechanics of the label and how to get the label to do things for you, " gushes Halfcocked drummer Charlee Johnson when I sit down with him and the rest of the band (who formed in Boston in ’97) at Thornton’s Grill in the Fenway. " You’ve heard of Santa Claus? We’ve got Spider Claus working for us. " " If we can’t get something done ourselves with the label, we just have to call him, " adds guitarist Jaime Richter. " He’ll walk in there and be like, ‘Look, this is what’s gonna be done for my band.’ And then it’ll happen. "

Upon moving to LA last year, Halfcocked went into the studio with producer Ulrich Wild (Powerman 5000, Static-X) and recorded several new tracks, along with a host of songs from the two albums they’d done for the Boston indie Curve of the Earth. The results sound as arena-ready as the band have always looked, complete with a glam-edged wall of guitars and a glut of snarling vocal performances from singer Sarah Reitkopp. Despite the group’s industrial-metal connections, they’ve got more of a retro ’80s-metal vibe than anything else — the disc even includes a full-blown Warrant ballad called " Sell Out " (though guitarist Johnny Heatley, who wrote the song, swears it was actually inspired by LA Guns).

The band haven’t been entirely inactive since recording the album. One song from the disc, " Sober, " ended up on the Dracula 2000 soundtrack, and the group contributed a cover of Joan Jett’s " Bad Reputation " to the soundtrack of the recent blockbuster Shrek. They also replaced original bassist Jhen Kobran with LA native Regina Zernay, though Kobran contributed a couple of songs to the album and also played on it.

Halfcocked have been on a couple of brief tours, too: last year with Powerman and more recently with new-metal upstarts Godhead and Skrape. Despite their roots in the Boston rock underground, they seem to be taking quite nicely to the teen-oriented world of commercial rock. " It’s all cool playing club scenes and stuff, but I’ll tell you one thing — you want people to be there to see your music, " says Reitkopp. " You don’t need a bunch of people standing there trying to see if you can impress them all the time. When we played with Powerman last year, it was so different. There was so much energy. You want to play and have fun and not deal with all the bullshit that comes with scenes sometimes. "

" Our type of band is the type of band to go for that sort of thing, " concludes Richter. " If we were more indie rock, it would be different, but it’s definitely big rock. It doesn’t make much sense to be playing like that at the Linwood after a couple of years. "

Nullset perform this Saturday, July 28, at Club Liquid in Leominster; call (978) 840-3500. They also perform on August 9 as part of the Warped Tour at Suffolk Downs in East Boston; call (800) 477-6849.

Issue Date: July 26 - August 2, 2001