By Liz Tracy
By David Rolland
By Alex Rendon
By Terrence McCoy
By Natalya Jones
By County Grind
By Liz Tracy
By Chris Joseph
"It's always something," Poison the Well guitarist Derek Miller laughs through his dying cell phone from Cleveland. "Every time we release a record, it's always, 'What the fuck happened?'"
Such is life for the world's most-beloved and hated hardcore band. If you listen only to the first 40 seconds of any song from the group's three albums (The Opposite of December, Tear from the Red,and You Come Before You), you might wonder what all the fuss is about. PTW's dual metal guitar attack, pounding rhythm section, and blood-curdling yells sound evil enough, but they are hardly revolutionary. By the 41st second, though, singer Geoffrey Moreira drops the screaming and makes like Mel Torme, crooning over melodies imported from Miller's favorite Cure and Smiths records. Just when your average, toughened-up, hardcore kid would reach for the off switch, the noise kicks back in -- making a potent brew that far exceeds any of Poison the Well's influences and induces sexual confusion in any self-respecting hard guy. To make matters worse, even when Moreira screams, he's usually screaming about girls, which puts the band firmly in the "screamo" genre.
And tough guys aren't allowed to dance to that stuff -- right?
"We did a month with [Saddle Creek violin-rockers] Cursive last year," Miller relates. "A lot of people were like, 'What the fuck is that Cursive shit?' But what do they know?" Certainly, the tattooed masses have enough of a problem with one of their own branching out musically, let alone dealing with arty cornhuskers. Miller continues: "We get a lot of grief from guys who just want to hear screaming, but you reach a point where you've said everything you can say with a scream. As far as I'm concerned, singing is endless. I can hear someone sing forever."
Back in 1997, a 16-year-old Miller was all about screaming. The Benjamin High junior was a normal, Nirvana-loving, alt-rock kid, blissfully stuck in the boondocks of Jupiter until a friend hooked him on hardcore's angry pleasures. He began making pilgrimages to Davie's Club Q, where bands like Strongarm, Brethren, and Morning Again played to hundreds of slam-dancing straight-edgers. After a year of hanging out in the mosh pit, Miller met Ryan Primack, Poison the Well's guitarist, who invited the teenager to join the band. Suddenly, Miller's secondary education became, well, unique. He explains: "I'd get out of school on Friday afternoon, and we'd get in the van and drive to play New Jersey or the Unitarian Church in Levittown, Pennsylvania. We'd be back for school the next Monday. Friday nights, [while] my classmates were at school dances, we were in New York."
In late 1998, Poison the Well was signed by hardcore titan Trustkill Records, but halfway through writing the songs for The Opposite of December, Primack quit when his girlfriend began squawking. "He was dead serious: 'I quit! That's it!'" Miller laughs. "But he came into the studio and did his parts." Primack's three-month absence cleared the way for Miller to inject his melodic past into the band's breakneck cacophony. After the initial barrage, the second track, "A Wish for Wings that Work," features a hook-laden Smashing Pumpkinsesque chorus followed by a pretty spoken-word interlude. But it was the fifth track, "Nerdy," that gave Poison the Well its identity and became its trademark. The song opens with a chunky, distorted, rhythm track layered over a catchy guitar lick that sounds like the bastard son of "Sweet Child o' Mine." Over that base, Moreira screams: "Why do your eyes paralyze me?/Why do I feel this way?/Just carry me away with silence and heartbeats/As rapid thinking about your embrace and how it makes me feel /I just want to feel this way forever!"
Then the bottom drops out, and for 45 seconds, the hardcore stops in favor of a big, fat, sing-along chorus Billy Corgan wishes he wrote. Moreira stops screaming and sings in a pleasantly nasal tone: "Sleep on portraits painted as perfect as you/Why have I been given the chance to fly?/When I'm not with you I feel lesser, alone."
Then the hardest hardcore kicks back in, dialing the brutality knob all the way up, climaxing in a frenzy of double-bass drum and trash guitar while Moreira implores the object of his desire to actually hold his hand. Back in the pre-Dashboard Confessional era, wearing your romantic intentions on your sleeve was tantamount to treason, yet "Nerdy" became the token punk-rock girlfriend song. "I can't tell you how many e-mails we've gotten from people who've said 'My girlfriend and I fell in love to "Nerdy,"'" Miller mentions. "It's funny, because I remember writing the song in my bedroom, and years later, we're still playing it, and it still affects people."
After The Opposite of December, Poison the Well really learned about the life of a hardcore band. Every weekend and school vacation was consumed by guerrilla touring, playing in front of 15 to 100 people. Even Miller's 2000 enrollment at Florida State University -- ten hours away from the band's rehearsal space in drummer Chris Hornbrook's garage in Davie -- didn't slow them down. "I'd drive every other weekend to practice," Miller recalls. "I put 1,200 miles a month on my car." After a semester, Miller dropped out, and the band began touring nonstop. "When we got home, we'd have to work shitty jobs so we just tried to stay out on tour constantly." The band came home to record its second album, 2002's Tear from the Red. Three times as heavy and with twice as much singing as its previous record, Tear from the Redboosted its popularity while further annoying the tough guys who barely tolerated "Nerdy." Perhaps intended to tweak the tough guys another notch, the sixth track, "Horns and Tails," is an acoustic ballad with angrier lyrics than any of the record's louder tunes. While "Nerdy" sings the praises of the fairer sex, "Horns and Tails" wonders what "I'd do for one more day without you." "It was 18-year-olds writing lyrics," Miller explains. "You never expect to be held accountable for that."