It's not easy being in a band that's labeled pop-punk. Not only do fans of other, more "mature" genres look down on you as sophomoric, but there are divisions within pop-punk itself. Forget the distinction between underground (bands inspired by the Ramones and Screeching Weasel) and mainstream (those who dig Fall Out Boy and women's jeans); we're talking strictly underground here. But within underground circles, there are two main camps: bands that unabashedly ape the Ramones and/or Screeching Weasel, and those that dig a little deeper into their rock 'n' roll memory banks.
Though it wasn't always the case for them, the Ridicules are an example of the latter. The West Palm Beach-based trio led by guitarist/vocalist Matt Parker has carried the pop-punk torch for the past eight years — time that has seen the group grow from teenage Weasel worshippers to a band that has taken the three-chord sound and made it their own. Now, a dozen ex-members later, Parker can look back at the Ridicules' early days as ancient history. And he's the first to admit that the band had, well — how do we put this nicely? — a learning curve.
"We first stepped into a studio in 2001 with hopes of releasing an album by the end of the year," says 24-year-old Parker, who along with bassist Nancy Mae Perez and drummer Tony Sacchetillo fills out the current lineup. "After a few days, I think the general consensus was that we were, in fact, a lousy band. We had nothing good to offer performance-wise and the songs were pretty weak at that point. Hell, even the engineer was making fun of us. So we cut our losses and stopped booking time there."
Ouch. And they paid that guy. So the next logical step seemed to be home recording. The Ridicules laid down tracks using "anything with a record button on it," Parker says. But those recordings were as doomed as their initial studio attempt, and all have since been trashed. With the exception of Parker's solo album Time to Kill (released under the name Johnny Ridicule in 2003), the Ridicules had no recorded output to show. Until now. And it was worth the wait. After spending time last year at the Saturn Sound Studio in West Palm Beach, the Ridicules recently unveiled the fruits of their long-awaited labor — Don't Try, a full-length CD Parker released on his own Nastatalious Records. The disc is cleverly designed and packaged like a seven-inch record, and it comes with three lapel pins and a bottle opener. It's about as DIY as a new release can be in today's music culture. And whatever ineptitudes plagued the Ridicules' early recordings, they are absent here. Sure, there's an obvious Screeching Weasel influence throughout much of the album, but it's tempered by Parker's other influences.
The 11 tracks that comprise the album range from the rock 'n' roll-styled punk of Social Distortion ("Beer Goggles," "Every Day and Every Night") to the gruff melodiousness of Crimpshrine ("Waste of Time") and the 11-second Ramones-in-double-time of "Breakup Song." Lyrically, Parker takes a more earnest approach than a lot of his bubblegum-fueled brethren. But it's not the "woe is me" brand of earnestness some songwriters use to appear sensitive. Parker isn't whining. Not only that, the people he's writing for seem to be the people he's writing about. Each song comes across as a private conversation with his subjects. Whether singing about an ex-girlfriend ("Every Day and Every Night"), a never was ("Love I Never Met"), or even a male feminist ("Boner"), it's like Parker is addressing them directly — and everyone else is eavesdropping.
If nothing else, Don't Try is proof that the Ridicules aren't "Screeching Weasel Jr." — a label Parker says he's tried hard to avoid. "It sucks, because I've tried my best to steer away from that and still play good music, but it's hard to shake an eight-year stigma," Parker says. "Nobody down here gets it... at least not in West Palm."
Well, that may be true on an average weekend, but not the one coming up. The Ridicules' show this Saturday at Respectable Street puts them on the same stage with two of the biggest bands in underground pop-punk — Teenage Bottlerocket and the Copyrights. But in his typical fashion, Parker's enthusiasm is blunted by an inconvenient truth: South Florida's just not hip to this kind of music. It doesn't matter that these bands sell out venues in cities like New York or Baltimore. After all, the last time a band of this sort came to town — New Jersey's the Ergs! — the turnout was abysmal.
"I felt bad when the Ergs! came down to the Culture Room in Lauderdale, and it was basically me, Nancy, and five or six other people watching them play to a huge empty venue," Parker recalls. "Hopefully that won't be the case on the 12th, but I wouldn't be surprised. I guess I'm not the most optimistic person."
No, he's not. But as the past eight years have shown, he's damn committed.