There's a valid theory that the best rock & roll emerges from the strangest places. Who knew about Seattle before Nirvana and the "great grunge explosion of 91"? And here in the land of Oz, Newcastle was just another anonymous town of industry (think Pittsburgh) until silverchair emerged from Ben Gillies' parent's garage. Now the city exports as much rock as it does steel.
Two-man band Local H are maintaining the tradition, having snuck out of small-town Zion, Illinois, about three albums back, and subsequently blazing a punk-pop path pretty much around the world. Ask bassist-cum-guitarist-cum-shouter Scott Lucas to describe his old hometown, though, and there's a discernible pause at the end of the phone line.
"Well, it's just like any other small town that doesn't sell alcohol, has way too many churches in it and doesn't have anything for kids to do", he replies. "Great place to start a rock band."
True to his words, Local H's roots in strip-mall Americana informs most everything they've committed to disc. Their third and most recent long-player, Pack Up The Cats, is loaded with heavy-duty riffing, moody pauses and shrewd outsider-looking-in observations of the rock life. Lucas readily admits he's inspired by the same records he was weaned on as a Zion youngster - think Cheap Trick, Black Sabbath and especially AC/DC. In fact, Lucas considers "It's A Long Way To The Top" a rock & roll touchstone ("truer lyrics have never been penned", he confesses).
Generically-speaking, Cats, as with Local H's previous two albums - 1996's As Good As Dead, and Hamfisted (1995) - does carry trace elements of the "g" word (as in grunge). The ghost of Kurt Cobain lingers in the background of Lucas' tortured wail, while African-American time-keeper, Joe Daniels, beats his skins with the steely intent of Dave Grohl, back before the Foo Fighter grew the goatee and learned how to dress.
Lucas is understandably weary of the Nirvana comparisons, but admits they're starting to diminish. "It's exactly what I thought would happen. If we keep slogging it out and making the kind of records we want to make, people'll realise we have something to offer, something to say. It's started to happen now."
"I think a lot of the bands that were labeled grunge were really interesting", he adds, "they made records that will last, great rock'n'roll records. Now kids won't have to listen to their older brother's records, or even their father's records. That's great. But it's just the bands now who are getting less and less creative and are hung up about getting some dumb song on the radio, bands who can't count their influences beyond Alice In Chains - that's the problem. There's no sense of the big picture of rock. Not that I'm really into a retro attitude, but a record like 'Sticky Fingers' was simply about rocking. Nothing more.
"I don't think rock is dead", he insists, clearly on a roll. "I just don't think bands I like are getting heard on the radio. I'm a big fan of the last Monster Magnet record, and the Lucinda Williams record is great. It's not that there's a lack of new music out there, it's just not getting covered. I don't read magazines anymore or watch music TV, it just makes me angry.
"In a few years time", Lucas adds, finally pausing for breath, "people'll forget about the Barenaked Ladies. At least I hope so."
So what separates Local H from the post-grunge pack, anyway? Well, tracks such as "All The Kids Are Right" are not only knee-deep in melody, but they showcase Lucas' shrewd observations of the rock world. Ditto "Cool Magnet" and "Laminate Man".
Mention these songs to their creator, and he launches into an ambivalent spiel about the rollercoaster ride that is the music industry. "I'm a little wary of the whole rock life, I'm determined not to let the bastards drag me down", he states.
"Mind you, I enjoy what I do and am really grateful for the chance to record and tour, but I do not want to get caught up in the bullshit I'm surrounded by. At the same time I'm all for having as much fun as I can with this whole thing.
"But sometimes you really wonder what the difference is between the musicians you meet and the people in the music business", he continues. "You get the idea some of these people would be more comfortable behind a desk. When you read an interview with Art from Everclear, you get the impression he's more interested in the demographics, where his record's sitting in the charts this week. Then you hear the records and they sound exactly the same. It supports my theory."
So if anything, Local H are heavy-rock classicists who just happen to be working at the wrong end of the millennium. Hence their decision with "Cats" to team old-school producer, Roy Thomas Baker (whose CV includes Cheap Trick and Queen), with Pearl Jam engineer, Nick Didia.
As Lucas explains, "The point was let's get someone who's made some of the greatest-sounding records of the 70s and team him up with someone who's done the same in the 90s. It's funny because Nick jumped at the chance to work with Roy, because he'd grown up listening to a lot of the records Roy had made."
However, working with your idols can have its downfalls. Earlier this year, Local H supported Chicago's finest, Cheap Trick, at a hometown gig. While teaming the old with the new sounds great in theory, Lucas remembers the show as one of the more serious disappointments in his rocking career. "It was horrible", he moans, "because they're so great. I remember thinking during one song, why do I bother? I'll never be as good a singer as Robin Zander, I'll never write a song as good as 'Surrender'. Suddenly I began to get really depressed, and the set kept going downhill. I felt like crap.
"But everywhere I go there was someone who was at the show - not the age of our usual audience, mind you - who comes up and says they bought our record because of the show. But still I stutter and act like an idiot whenever I'm in the same room as Cheap Trick."
(C) - Jeff Apter 1999