In It for the Money

Choreboy's Punk Premise

photograph by Bruce Dye

Punk rock may be a traditionally tricky intersection for art and commerce, but former Skatenig Phil Owen has chosen his side. "Everything is for sale," says Owen. In fact, one could say this statement of purpose is at the heart of Choreboy, Owen's retro-punk side-project he founded alongside former Big Boy Chris Gates and fellow Skatenig alumnus Mat Mitchell. Fittingly, then, "We're in It for the Money" is Choreboy's anthem, as well as the lead-off track from the group's debut, Good Clean Fun... My Ass, a punchy little album from a project Owen says takes its name from a scrubbing pad junkies use as a crack pipe filter, and is ultimately little more than an outlet for "three angry bald guys singing about skinheads."

Equally to the point is the description on the little black sticker attached to the disc's jewel case: "Texan punk with members of Skatenigs, Poison 13, and Big Boys! Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers) vocals on track 4." Actually, the rights to that sticker is virtually all Choreboy guaranteed Triple X, a small, SoCal-based indie, which signed the band sight unseen -- without a demo -- and accepted Owen's demand that the band not undertake a full tour until the release of their second album.

"It was shit-talkin' straight-up, over the phone," says Owen of the three-album deal that hinged as much on bios as on Choreboy's musical promise. And yet, because the sticker is so clearly one big obnoxious name-drop, it could also be a promotional tool that'll drive righteous professors of punk ethics to scream "sell-out." Owen could seemingly care less.

"People are always talking about selling out," explains Owen, "but give me a chance and I'm sold out. I never want to deny that." An old-school follow-up to the initial success of punk-cum-latelys like Green Day, Choreboy was born on the road in 1995 while Gates was road-managing the Skatenigs final tour. "Punk rock my ass," continues Owen. "Punk rock is selling out. You want that fuckin' money... I don't care who the hell you are. You want to live doing what you love, which is making music. I'm not talking compromise, but my theory is that the catchier, popier, riffier -- the more generally accessible you are -- the more you can get away with vocally or lyrically."

Choreboy does indeed get away with quite a bit on Good Clean Fun. A batch of straight-ahead covers like The Dicks' "Dicks Hate Police" and Minor Threat's "Sob Story" sound oddly fresh, while Choreboy's own tongue-in-cheek originals like "Alternative to What" and "Bust Your Ass" (which recruits GWAR guitarists Mike Derks and Pete Lee), manage to sound like vintage punk anthems. And all this for $12,000, a recording budget the band scraped together and met by buying its own equipment to record in Gate's garage -- gear that was later sold to finance the album's mixing and mastering. Perhaps it came so cheaply because the band saved on a drummer; Mitchell merely programmed a drum machine to speed up and slow down in the grand tradition of bad punk drummers.

"I hate to pay drummers," says Owen, only half kidding. "Plus, you've got to listen to them."

But where Choreboy's winner-takes-all attitude really shows its smarts is in the band's marketing approach. Originally, Gates and Owen, who make no bones of Choreboy's side-project status, planned on hiring a group of local punks to tour under their new moniker, having the ringers open the show first, then come back as the headlining band, Choreboy.

"They'd get the money and we'd do the merchandise, sitting back at home sending out
T-shirts," says Owen of what he calls the "Choreboy hoax." Turns out, however, that securing proper release for the use of Gibby Haynes' services caused Good Clean Fun to be pushed back from a November '96 to a March '97 release date, and the hoax idea never really got off the ground, causing Choreboy starting life as something akin to a reverse Titty Bingo -- in that they record, but don't play live.

To date, Choreboy have only played two official live gigs: a South by Southwest showcase this year, and a gig in Dallas last week. And although Fear's Lee Ving wound up joining Choreboy for several numbers at their Back Room showcase, Owen admits having been tempted by the lure of pulling a fast one on SXSW -- a bait and switch that would have unveiled Sawed-Off, Owen and Mitchell's new full-time project with MOD's John Monte and ex-Butthole drummer Teresa Nervosa.

"Now, part of the hoax has been for us to actually play live a few places just to say we did it," says Owen of the band's upcoming string of Texas dates. And later in the summer, perhaps after playing Los Angeles with Fear and New York with the Dickies, Owen has tentative plans to hit seminal punk scenes like Chicago and Washington, D.C. with a mobile recording unit that the band will use to record guest vocalists for Choreboy's follow-up. Already, Ving, ex-Big Boy Randy "Biscuit" Turner, and members of the U.K. Subs and Exploited have agreed to their cameos.

"We'll do the Texas shows to warm up the band, but what we'd really like to do is get our money for the second album and start working on it right away," says Owen, who has recruited a couple of friends from the local punk outfit Dynamite Boy (including singer/guitarist Sean Neil, whose vocals already grace "We're in It for the Money") for the touring band.

"And while next time we'll be even more concerned with the money," explains Owen, "we're still going to write 'em our way and not say, `We did the old-school thing last album -- let's do something like Green day or Rancid now.' We're going to go back and do that same thing -- the style of hits. That's what was so cool about punk rock: Every band had a hit -- not on radio, not a hit that swept the nation, but a hit. We'll touch on that stuff as covers or for inspiration. It will be another album's worth of stuff where every song is not only worth singing along too, but also respects where it came from."

Obviously, a lot of where Choreboy comes from, both in inspiration and execution, is Chris Gates. In fact, even before Gates and Owen met, the Skatenigs covered the Gates-penned Big Boys' anthem "Big Picture" as the B-side to the local industrial group's first single, "Chemical Imbalance." Now, for his part, Gates says he'll gladly play the upcoming series of Choreboy shows and work on a new album, though he admits it's unlikely he'd ever consider a regular tour with the band.

"I'm the curmudgeon, the old fart," says Gates of his role in the band. In truth, however, he's the band's main source of credibility, the legitimate punk legend whose mere presence stops Choreboy from being viewed as shameless revisionists. Why Owen, whose mother would sneak him into Raul's and Club Foote as a child, wanted to play with Gates is a no-brainer. But why another punk band for Gates?

"Because it's something I'm good at, it's fun, and I wasn't doing anything else musical," says Gates. "People always ask, `Are you playing?' and I say, `No.' Then I realize I have a record that just came out. It's this sort of detached thing. I enjoy the project and working on records, but I'm not at a point that I'm interested in being in a full-time gigging band. I have other things going on in my life. And I did that for 15 years and am looking for something else now."

"Something else" includes family, a full-time job, and school, a hectic combination Gates gladly threw himself at after returning to Austin in 1992, following a seven-year, two album stint with Junkyard -- a Los Angeles-based hard rock outfit on Geffen. And although Gates spent a year playing bass for the Skatenigs after his homecoming, he maintains that what lured him partially out of retirement was the opportunity Choreboy afforded him to make his first real effort at punk songwriting in over a decade.

"Punk songwriting is like riding a bicycle... you don't forget, you just get rusty," says Gates, who contends punk went downhill when punk bands starting naming punk bands as their influences. "It was basically going back to doing what I knew, and a lot of the material is like picking up where the Big Boys sort of left off -- for me at least.

"You can't discount Tim [Kerr's] influence in the Big Boys songwriting, but the Big Boys were me and Tim, musically, and me, Tim, and Biscuit as a band live. I wouldn't even kid myself that this is what it would sound like if Tim was involved, but it feels for me like where I was headed at the time: straight ahead punk rock stuff, the East Coast and West Coast, the hardcore thing, and also other things like the more Flipper, Killdozer, Fang-type stuff."

As a result, Gates says there's a "big hunk of me" on Good Clean Fun and that he's legitimately proud of the results. "Yeah, I'm in it for the money," he says. "But there isn't that much. And I'm certainly not going to change my life to `suffer for my art,' and all that crap. It's just fun to do.

"It would be cool if it sold a bunch of copies and I got paid a bunch of money, but I think it's a really great record anyway," says Gates. "Especially considering how -- I don't want to say half-ass -- but how not very serious we were when we were getting started. And yet, it's punk rock, and you don't want to overthink it or flog it to death. There are other projects that I've done that demand more attention, but Choreboy really is punk: verse/chorus, get loud/stop. And if you come up with a good third part, start a second song."

Or in Choreboy's case, a second album.

Choreboy plays Emo's, Friday, May 23

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