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Age Against the Machine

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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."

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."

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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos ( if not in New Times.

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