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Piebald get ready to conquer the world

Boston wuss-rock heavyweights Piebald are only three dates into their first European tour when frontman Travis Shettel calls me from Germany to talk about the bandís new album, We Are the Only Friends We Have (out this week on Big Wheel Recreation). So itís no surprise that the wiry singer sounds, to borrow from one of his old song titles, giddy like a schoolgirl ó and immediately breaks into a vivid description of the tasty continental food spread heís stumbled across backstage.

"Iím in the back room, which is right next to the stage of where weíre playing tonight, and in this back room there are nice little snacks," he announces dramatically. "Like, there was some marinated mozzarella, and thereís bread with cheese on it and some olives. Thereís actually a bottle of wine that weíre gonna open, and thereís some bread with some spread. This isnít even the real dinner, and I would eat this for dinner. Itís pretty amazing. I bet you want some. Iíll send it to you, but itís gonna be rotten by the time it gets there, so that would be pointless."

Needless to say, Germany is a long way from Andover, where Shettel formed Piebald in í94 with guitarist Aaron Stuart, bassist Andrew Bonner, and drummer Jon Sullivan. Since then, the band have evolved from an occasionally tuneful bunch of straight-edge hardcore kids to one of the most beloved hard-rock bands on the national (and, given the 100 to 150 kids Shettel says theyíre playing to every night in Europe, international) all-ages scene. Which makes the self-deprecating title of the new disc ó their first since emerging from a year-long hiatus, during which they watched former tourmates New Found Glory and Saves the Day crack the pop charts ó a bit of a stretch even for these jokers. Theyíll celebrate its release with two Boston-area shows: Thursday, February 21 at the Middle East, and Saturday, February 23 at the Palladium in Worcester.

Friends or no friends, Shettel feels like a lucky man these days. "I thought we were on the way out for a little while," he admits, referring to the long period of silence that followed the í00 release of the bandís surprisingly downbeat EP The Rock Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Big Wheel Recreation). "We called it a hiatus, but really never thought that we would play music together ever again. We didnít know how serious it would get the second time around, you know? We were just playing songs because we like playing music, and then we played a few shows, and it just escalated. We went on tour and wrote a record, and now itís what we wanna do and what we love doing."

Like the best of Piebaldís previous work, We Are the Only Friends We Have is both sensitive and smart-ass, painstakingly melodic yet tough enough to rock arenas. Produced by renowned Boston studio vet Paul Q. Kolderie, itís also their best-sounding record to date. And the bandís trademark yuks are all over the place, starting with the tongue-in-cheek account of what they were up to during the break-up that opens the discís first track, "King of the Road." From there, the song turns into a turbo-charged ode to the infamous "short bus" they drove all over Allston and the rest of the country before it died on the way home from Florida a few years back. By the time the band get to the tuneís crystal-clear chorus ("Wait, after all, he did get us across the world and back"), itís clear theyíre back in all their wisecracking glory.

Piebald have never been afraid to stretch the stylistic boundaries of emo ó the genre theyíre most often associated with ó but until now, theyíve never had the chance to move beyond the traditional bare-bones production values of hardcore. Keyboards, trumpets, and handclaps show up at various points on the disc, and Shettel brings new meaning to the punk-rock edict "for the kids" by recruiting a chorus of grade-schoolers from the Edgerly After School in Somerville to sing along with him on the intro to the driving pop tune "Just a Simple Plan." "I was in the teaching program when I was at UMass Boston," he explains. "After I graduated, I did an after-school program where me and some other adult figures took care of kids after they got out of school. We would help them with their homework or play kickball or freeze tag. They like freeze tag a lot. Especially when someone older is playing, they love it when youíre it. Because you chase them around and when you donít catch them, theyíre so excited. They live for moments like that.

"Anyway, I talked to the program director, and she said that we could have kids sing on the record, but we had to send home permission slips. So she typed up permission slips, sent them to the parents, and I got like 12 or 14. Nick [Zampiello, who engineered the album] came with me and we set up some mikes in the classroom. I played guitar and taught them how to sing it. It was pretty cool."

The albumís pop-production touches extend to the piano-led "Long Nights," which starts off like a weepy Oasis-style ballad but eventually works itself up to Queen-worthy levels of big-guitar bombast. "Fear and Loathing on Cape Cod" reaches back to an even earlier pop ideal, evoking the jaunty í60s chamber-pop of the Beatles and the Beach Boys with its lazy acoustic-guitar strum and goofy horn lick. Shettel brings his trademark humor to the occasion by telling the story of a drunken vacation weekend that sounds like it probably lived up to the legend of the songís title, but the sentimentality in his voice almost overtakes the mischievous glee in the lyrics.

Along with "Fear and Loathing," the garage-rocking "Rich People Can Breed" is the biggest surprise on the disc ó despite its delicate acoustic chorus, no one will be calling it an emo song anytime soon. "I think that came out of seeing [mod-rocking BWR labelmates] the Damn Personals a lot of times in a few short weeks," says Shettel. "Weíre all like, ĎOkay, the Damn Personals part here.í Even though itís probably an MC5 part." The song also boasts some of the wriest lyrics on the album: Shettel finds himself ogling beautiful rich girls, feels a little uncomfortable about it, and even goes so far as to name-check Babylon, New York, an affluent town on the preppy hardcore haven of Long Island.

"Thereís various places in the US that have this plethora of very attractive people," he explains. "And then you look at your surroundings and you kinda understand why itís like that. Even my hometown, Andover ó you notice that places with wealth, the people are so much more attractive. And itís so sad that itís true, because what does that mean, exactly? I donít know; itís not really sad itís true. Itís just like, thatís the way it is."

Shettel has another ax to grind on the big pop-punk bash "The Monkey Versus the Robot" ó this time, with nine-to-fivers who arenít willing to admit how dissatisfied they are with their lives. Heís not shy about rubbing it in their faces, either: the tune ends with the lines, "We have the best job ever/Yeah, we really got lucky/Weíre nobodyís robot/Weíre nobodyís monkey." "I always hear people talking about how tired they are, or that they canít believe that itís only Monday and that they have to go to work for the next four days," he says. "I canít imagine not liking your job and being like, ĎOh, this will be good for right now.í Because itís really not acceptable. If youíre not happy, thatís not what you should be doing."

That said, Shettel becomes audibly upset when I mention the recent closing of the Allston rock landmark Big Burrito, where he worked for three years before deciding to pursue the band full-time. "Yeah, what a bum-out!" he says. "I hate that itís not there, because itís such a part of my Boston history. As soon as I moved to Boston, I got a job there. I worked there when I went to school, and I went on tour and came back and worked there. I guess I should just say at least Iím not working there anymore, right? But I do wish it was there."

Shettelís best job ever should keep him from having to return to the Mexican-food business anytime soon: Piebald will be on the road with Saves the Day and others for most of the spring, and theyíre planning on joining the Warped Tour for select dates this summer. The group recently recruited drummer Lucian Garro (a veteran of New England hardcore faves In My Eyes and Fastbreak) to replace Sullivan when the latter left the band after recording the album. And Shettel reports that the entire band are planning on following label boss Rama Mayo to LA in the fall. "We wanna conquer the world, and I think thatís the first step," he says. "Itíll be a very big change. I love Boston, itís a great city. But we figure the worst that happens is, if we move to LA and we donít really like it, we can move back ó or move anywhere else, for that matter."

As he wanders around outside the club in Germany, though, Shettel has just one thing on his mind: the groupís impending UK concert debut. "Weíre going to the UK, Iím so excited!" he gloats. "Thatís like historical rock land, right there. Iím gonna buy shoes, and Iím just gonna walk around and be like, ĎOh man, Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, millions of other bands.í Aw, itís gonna be great."

Piebald perform this Thursday, February 21 at the Middle East (call 617-864-EAST) and next Saturday, February 23 at the Palladium (call 508-797-9696), in Worcester.

Issue Date: February 14 - 21, 2002
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