Well, Well, Well
"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 Red boosted 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."
Tear from the Red struck an immediate chord, and the band began playing much bigger gigs. The guys were so encouraged they refused to stop, even when common sense would have dictated it. "We were on tour, and Geoff got really sick," Miller recalls. "But he kept screaming. At the last show, he was dying. We had to have people from the crowd sing." The band took Moreira home to Hialeah and discovered that his right lung, filled with fluid, was on the verge of collapsing. "The doctor said Geoff had walking pneumonia for a month. His mom was hysterical. She kept telling him the band was 'el diablo. '"
After Moreira recuperated, "el diablo" sent him to a vocal coach so he could learn to sing properly and avoid further lung trouble. "The voice is like any other instrument," Miller pontificates. "It's like picking up a guitar and just banging on it, and then you sit down with someone and they teach you some shit. Geoffrey still doesn't have complete control, but his sound moves me."
It moved Atlantic Records as well, and the company signed Poison the Well after discovering that the band had sold more than 50,000 albums. Once it recorded basic tracks in Los Angeles, the group traveled to Sweden to record the vocals and mix the record.
The result, You Come Before You, is the band's hardest and most melodic record and one of the year's best. Predictably, the Internet message boards are full of "Poison the Well Are Sell Outs!" headings. But the whining didn't slow down You Come Before You, which, in only three months, has outsold Tear from the Red. "We're very grateful," Miller says. "We don't write records to sell them; we write records to express ourselves. They (Atlantic) are in the business of making money. Profit isn't the big motive with us."
Poison the Well's success is so evident that even Moreira's mom has come around. "She's a great woman," Miller declares. "She's cool with it -- now that we can pay the bills and we aren't homeless losers anymore."
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