The question before the assembled members of Pillmagnet is this: When did bassist-vocalist Mike Szymanski first play in a band? Lead guitarist Justin McNeal, the whippersnapper of the group at 24 years old, blurts out his guess -- "1968" -- waiting a beat before adding, "with Buddy Holly."
Szymanski, outfitted in a black T-shirt and jeans, rears up in his seat and says melodramatically, "Just shut the fuck up, it's not fucking funny!" Except that, when it comes to Pillmagnet, it is sort of funny. That's what happens when you get a bit older: You learn not to take everything so damn seriously. "Your mother was fucking in the '60s," Szymanski reminds his sideburned bandmate.
McNeal cracks up, and singer/rhythm guitarist Libby Bentley and drummer Tim Vaughn both grin broadly. The quartet has gathered at Fort Lauderdale's Digital Beach Studios to put the finishing touches on its debut CD, which is tentatively scheduled for release in August. The nine-track disc is a bracing sampler of Pillmagnet's melodic yet moody brand of punk, a paean to the catchier side of old-style punk.
As it turns out, Szymanski is 39 years old. Vaughn puts his age at 30, while Bentley merely rolls her eyes. "Why do you have to say anything about age? Age is only a number. I don't think it's relevant," she says.
She's right, of course. The South Florida music scene has its fair share of aging punkers, from local stalwart Frank "Rat Bastard" Falestra, who, at age 40, heads noise band the Laundry Room Squelchers, to the godfather of punk himself, Iggy Pop, who winters here in Florida. (He has said that the cold weather elsewhere makes his joints sore.)
The origins of Pillmagnet, in fact, date back nearly 20 years. In 1981 Bentley and Szymanski joined with Jeff Hodapp to form a Sex Pistols-influenced outfit called Morbid Opera; Vaughn joined the Opera several years later. For the record Hodapp is still alive and playing, fronting the Drug Czars. His wife, Lisa, another Opera alum, plays guitar in the Gargirls.
But the immediate impetus to form the band came by way of a chance meeting between Szymanski and McNeal. "As soon as I met Justin, I knew there was some sort of connection," Szymanski says. "We had been going out that night his band, the Shithouse Bowlers, was playing, and we just got along really well, and shortly after that we started thinking up all these funny song titles and said, 'Hey, let's start a band.'"
"This whole thing started as a big joke," McNeal chimes in.
The band's name, for instance, came from the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls. "I guess we were thinking about mixing drugs and glamour," Szymanski explains. "After a while we thought about changing the name to 'Killmagnet' because of the drug reference, but on the advice of many, we left it alone."
Vaughn, who joined the band earlier this year when previous drummer Laura Simpson moved to New York, was a natural fit. "When it comes to influences, whether it's a band, or a movie or, hell, even a magazine, we're all into the same things, basically," he says. "Libby's my ex-wife, Michael's one of my dearest, oldest friends, and I've known Justin for a few years now. When you know somebody for so long, when you get together, and you click --"
"You can do magic," sings Bentley, whose tousled bleached-blond hair shamelessly reveals dark roots.
Her bandmates burst into laughter.
As further evidence of the band's irreverence, consider its first demo cassette, entitled Ew, Gross, It's the Pillmagnets. McNeal mischievously chuckles at the reference. "The picture on it was... gross," offers Szymanski. After a brief, embarrassed pause, he elaborates: "It was basically a guy taking a diarrhea shit in a girl's mouth." The band bursts into laughter.
Though Pillmagnet started as a fluke, Szymanski says the band deserves a lot of credit in helping him break out as an artist. He says it wasn't until he formed Pillmagnet that he was ever given an opportunity to go beyond his role as a sideman and submit his own ideas for songs and music. "With Pillmagnet I have a lot of creative control," he says. "Some of the stuff that I come up with now I actually thought about several years ago, I just never had an avenue to do it. Libby likes what I do, and I love what she comes up with. She has a great mind for lyrics, a great mind for catchy melodies. I love what Justin comes up with."
At a recent show at Miami's Tobacco Road, the group's synergy was very much in evidence. They took the stage with nary a flourish, just a few mumbles, nods, and nervous grins. Then, out of nowhere, "Burnin' Love" burst from the speakers with a sound like a convoy of Harley-Davidsons ripping down a country road. Bentley set about a rapid-fire rant, while McNeal wrung abrasive, driving notes from his guitar, and Szymanski pummeled his bass. By the end of the set, numerous guitar strings had snapped.
Besides breaking down creative barriers, Pillmagnet's initial low-key approach to songwriting allowed the band members to open their minds and explore their instruments without restraint. "I don't just play power chords along with what Mike's playing," McNeal says. "It's just boring. I play power chords, but then I also play a lot of other things. I can't tell you what they are, because I don't know what they are." McNeal admits he doesn't even know the names of the notes he plays on his guitar. "Being naive is good," he insists, "because if you know all the technical lines, you know you're not supposed to do some stuff, and that's limiting you. I was going to take lessons, but I spoke to Jeff Hodapp and Mike O'Brien, both of the Drug Czars, and Scott Mitchell [a.k.a. Daisy Berkowitz of Marilyn Manson] -- all these people I have respect for -- and they said, 'Listen, the worst thing you could possibly do is take lessons, because it will kill your creativity altogether.' You have these rules that are in your head subconsciously, and you go, 'Oh I can't do that; that's breaking the rules.'"
"We play what sounds cool to us," Szymanski says.
"It's all by ear," McNeal says.
"It comes from the heart," Szymanski says.
"Less structure than Yes," chimes in Vaughn, "and a little more structure than [noise band] Harry Pussy."
Despite the penchant for wisecracking, the band soon began taking its endeavor more seriously. Silly titles in the vein of "Dick Smokers and Carpet Munchers" were abandoned, while others were renamed. ("Ye Olde Fart Shop," for instance, is now called "Flu.") "I didn't realize it then, but now I know the song 'Go to Sleep' is about a friend of mine who died from cancer," Szymanski says.
The lyrics of "Sleep" are simple enough in noting people's need to escape problems through sleep, but its menacing sonic landscape hints at the darker subject matter as well as hearkening back to the early days of punk. McNeal's minor-chord, high-pitched bass line recalls Joy Division, while the layers of churning guitars are a nod to My Bloody Valentine. On "Superpowers," Bentley and Szymanski sing about a stifling relationship in monotone voices reminiscent of Sonic Youth. The overall droning, abrasive quality of the music will remind older listeners of the Velvet Underground's edgier work.
The band's more devoted approach has also begun attracting more serious attention. Last winter Mark O'Toole, the former bassist of '80s dance band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, discovered the band.
O'Toole's wife, Laura, had caught Pillmagnet at a show. She liked them so much she told the band members she would bring her husband to an upcoming show. Three shows went by... and no O'Toole. Then came the fourth show. "I remember being nervous because he's a bass player as well," Szymanski recalls. "But then I saw him in the audience, and I could tell by how he was looking at us that he liked us."
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Although he moved to Hollywood to retire from music and be with his wife and her family, O'Toole says Pillmagnet rekindled his interest in music. He has since befriended the band members and is now handling production duties on the debut disc, which has yet to be named.
The band has selected four songs from the sessions with O'Toole to compile a sampler for the judges at the College Music Journal's annual music conference this September in New York. They hope to be selected to play the three-day event, which draws industry types from around the world. But Pillmagnet is keeping its hopes grounded. "It would just be fun to play New York," Bentley says. "In a perfect world, we'd get some kind of record label action, but everybody in the band has his or her own jobs -- it's not like the band's our job -- but it would be nice. We've always had simple goals: First we're going to play Churchill's, and then we're going to play Squeeze."
The band members realize they may be onto a good thing, but they haven't let it dilute their self-effacing charm. Szymanski says he's happy just to see fans sing along to the band's songs, as happened at last months' Tobacco Road gig. "It's already cool for us now," he says, "because people that we don't even know are singing the songs along with us. Libby was at the Poorhouse one day, and these two girls were walking down the street singing 'Dick Smokers and Carpet Munchers.' That's much more rewarding than any recognition from some major label hotshot."
Pillmagnet performs with the Jackie Papers and the Drug Czars on Saturday, June 12, at Home, 3841 Griffin Rd. in southeast Broward. Cover charge is $3 for the 21-and-over show. Pillmagnet takes the stage at 11 p.m. Call 954-965-0042 for more information.