Music News

Hollywood Babylon

It's Trapped by Mormons' CD-release party at Churchill's Hideaway, and as usual, trouble has found them. Right before TBM's midnight slot, Orlando punk ruffians the Stud Dogs bum-rush the stage and start setting up. Harsh words are exchanged. TBM bassist Mark O'Toole grabs one of the Stud Dogs for a quick obedience lesson. Whimpering, the Stud Dogs grab their equipment and leave with their tails between their legs. It's Saturday night, but apparently it's not all right for fighting.

The four marches on-stage, beers in hand. In their two years of torching tricounty clubs, bullshit like this is the norm. They're South Florida's rock 'n' roll Rodney Dangerfields: They might not get any respect, but they're too jaded to give a shit.

The band plugs in. Feedback fills the air. Folks scatter, leaving an empty hole about 15 feet deep in front of the stage. Fifty friends gather at a safe distance by the soundboard. Vocalist Todd Nolan kicks the mic stand away and barks, "This is called 'Chinese Girls on Heroin'!" Drummer Brandon Samdahl glares from behind the kit and pounds away. His polo shirt and thick glasses give him a preppy, ax-murderer look. Jeff Hodapp bends his tall, lanky frame over his guitar, picking out tortured, midtempo, Detroit distorto-blues. O'Toole's bass-playing is rambunctious: a constant moving of tectonic plates that keeps the dirge from stagnation.

As the set goes on, the crowd slowly edges toward the stage, drawn by Nolan's David Yow-on-Quaaludes stage antics. Before their 30 minutes are up, Nolan will have karate-chopped his Theremin, replicated Bob Stinson's projectile beer-spitting, rolled on the ground, and cursed out the soundman twice, all in between shrieks of pain and pleasure. The set ends in an orgy of noise. The smattering of applause reflects both the audience's appreciation for the show and relief that it's finally over.

Afterward, Nolan retreats to the side of the stage to sell $5 copies of the band's CD, Go, Go, Go, and hand out complimentary, piss-yellow, crucifix-shaped lollipops. "Even the people who're offended love them," Nolan chuckles. "They say, 'That's sacrilegious! Can I have one?'"

The repulsion/attraction dynamic has been a constant throughout the band's lifespan. Only Hodapp and Nolan are left from the original lineup forged in 2001 by Pill Magnet guitarist Justin McNeal and Kreamy 'Lectric Santa drummer Tim Vaughn. "Justin and Tim dragged me into it," admits Hodapp, who has played in a string of Florida punk acts going back to an early '80s stint with Gainesville punkers Roach Motel. "They knew I was a bit of a lunatic," Nolan expounds. "They said, 'You seem like a guy who could handle the job. '"

Vaughn and McNeal's assessment of Nolan proved accurate. Screaming like a banshee proved to be the perfect outlet for Nolan's day-job frustrations as a waiter at Davie's Buca di Beppo. "When people are there with friends," he says, "everything's cool. But when they're with their families, they're miserable, cheap, and disgusting."

After a year of providing the soundtrack to Nolan's therapy, bassist Will Trev quit, and Vaughn moved to Tennessee. Replacing one half of the rhythm section was by the numbers. Drummer Samdahl was recruited from the ashes of Broward act Siesta Trailer Park. The bass situation produced one of the most bizarre pairings in Florida music history: McNeal recruited O'Toole, original bassist for UK one-album wonders Frankie Goes to Hollywood and co-author of the 1984 worldwide smashes, "Relax" and "Two Tribes."

O'Toole has lived in Hollywood since 1990, living comfortably off "Relax" royalties. While he continued to practice his bass daily, starting another band proved difficult. "When I came down here, I would go to clubs like Squeeze to see shows," he says. "But what was I supposed to do to meet people? 'Guess who I am -- do you want me in your band?' That's kinda lame." After nine dull years, O'Toole finally made a connection. "My wife saw Pill Magnet with some friends of hers and told me I should see them, and I did. I ended up recording their record in 2000. Then the Mormons started. I saw them a few times, Will left, and they needed a bassist."

Where anyone else would find a yawning chasm of differences between Frankie's flamboyantly bouncy dance pop and Trapped by Mormons' evil blues, O'Toole sees similarities. "Todd is a drunk guy. Paulie (Rutherford, Frankie vocalist) was the same thing. He'd do anything for attention. Frankie was pretty much a punk band when we started. It wasn't until after we got signed and went to the big studio that our sound changed. We were very aggressive."

Soon after joining the band, O'Toole led TBM into Fort Lauderdale's Digital Beach studio to record tracks for Go, Go, Go. Unhappy with the results, O'Toole convinced everyone to trash the sessions and start over from scratch in his home studio. He pronounces: "Brandon had just been in the band a short while, and it just didn't sound right. I knew we could do better." Instead of rushing through the tracks while the studio clock ticked, O'Toole tracked the instruments, one song at a time, in his garage. "It wasn't an everyday thing," he says. "We like to leisurely approach things."

Hodapp doesn't quite see it that way. "I'm used to banging out 15 songs in 25 hours," he says, "so it drove me nuts. Mark nitpicks. But I don't think you can argue with the results."

Most of the arguing seems to happen after TBM's shows. After a gig at Fort Lauderdale's legendary Poor House this past January, Nolan managed to get his band banned from the pub. "We were drinking like maniacs," he recounts. Trouble ensued. "One of their bouncers told me I was being a smartass and pushed me into the street. I ended up throwing a chair." O'Toole chuckles, "We got banned, but Todd got amazingly banned." But he won't miss the Poor House's low ceiling. "With three people over 6 feet tall," O'Toole notes, "it's not a very comfortable place to play anyway."

The bulk of TBM's gigs have moved around the corner to Tavern 213. Yet even there, the band has run into static. "For some reason, we just weren't on it one night, and we drove everyone out of the club," Nolan remembers. "There were a few stragglers, so I made as much noise with the Theremin as possible. It was the only time I'd ever seen them close the front door at the Tavern. The door guy was telling people not to go in! After we cleared the club, I turned around and sang to the window."

With their don't-give-a-damn aesthetic firmly in place, the members of Trapped by Mormons are poised to go as far as the project will take them -- if it wants to take them somewhere, that is. " I don't care if we play to one man and his dog or 15,000 people," O'Toole states. "We're pretty laid-back about the whole thing. We're not trying to get in every nook and cranny. If it comes, it comes. I'm not going to be too worried if it stays just like this."