Bay Area “chainsaw pop” trio Terry Malts are living in the moment. Years ago, the members of the band ditched a more contrived approach to their music, instead mixing morose vocals, poppy power chord progressions and undiluted energy to make their own signature brand of dive bar anthems.
In short order, the band’s raw and distorted sound has only gotten louder as its grey world view grows all the more bleak. While their first full-length release took a glance at an unforgiving world through rose-tinted glasses, their latest LP Nobody Realizes This is Nowhere tackles a similar vantage point through rotten red tomato eyes.
SF Station had a chat with Terry Malts lead singer Phil Benson about the music of the Knockout’s unofficial house band (Terry Malts perform at the Knockout on December 29).
How did you guys become Terry Malts? You started out as Magic Bullets, right?
We were playing as Magic Bullets since 2004, in various forms because we’d switch drummers all the time. It was pretty much a core group of guys, but the drummer would always leave and then be replaced.
Eventually, we were paying for a practice space we weren’t using while waiting on a new drummer, so we started Terry Malts as a side project. We’d bring a 12 pack, get drunk and write really simple music. Later on we made a tape and then Mike at Slumberland Records heard it and wanted to put in on a record, so we did that. We were losing our sixth drummer for Magic Bullets, so we all said, “Let’s just do Terry Malts.”
Between Killing Time and Nobody Realizes, you tried to steer away from love songs. Why is that?
That was just something I thought of in hindsight after we’d written a few songs that weren’t about love at all. Killing Time had a lot of love-y songs on it and Magic Bullets was almost exclusively love songs, so we were trying to challenge ourselves and not focus on that.
Your latest album title references Neil Young. What’s your favorite Neil Young song?
I have a few of them: “Ambulance Blues,” “Pocahontas,” “Love in Mind,” and “Will to Love.” I like his rockin’ stuff, but a lot of the ones I picked are his more introspective songs. Anything he does is okay with me. I even like the weird electronic album he put out in the 80s when he started hanging out with Devo.
How would you describe the evolution of the city’s music scene from 2004?
In between then and now there was a huge push for the whole garage rock thing and I feel it ran it’s course. I don’t see garage being as popular as it was before. It’s hard to say, really. It’s constantly changing and morphing into different things.
I’ve heard Terry Malts described as Jangle Pop, Hockey Rock, Working-Class, Fuzz Punk, and Dark Pop to name a few. How would you describe your sound?
Jangle has a really clean guitar sound, but we opt for a thicker [sound]. We use big muffs for our distortion. A lot of people will call us a fuzz-punk band, which we always think is funny because we aren’t using any fuzz, it’s just distortion pedals. I just saw dark pop written today, I’d never seen that before…
It seems like a more generic label to describe your subject matter as being “dark”…
At the same time it’s not all dark, there’s happy songs about just being silly. I would say that it’s definitely pop and it’s loud. The chainsaw pop thing, we borrowed from an old Descendants interview that I read. That’s something that they called themselves and then we just wrote it down because we thought it was cool and then people started using it.
I like chainsaw pop, it’s a good one…
Yeah, we played a show in Montana that was very sparsely attended, so the promoters were trying to reel in people from the street. People kept on asking what we sounded like and the promoter would say “They’re Chainsaw Pop!” and people would just be like “I don’t know what that is…” and then keep walking.
Fail. But, speaking of working-class, what’s the worst day job you ever had?
Probably cashiering at a natural foods store. As much as I can avoid dealing with the public, I do. It’s not just dealing with the public, it’s being in a position where people feel entitled and above you and have no qualms with treating you like you are lesser than them. It can be quite dehumanizing and it made me a lot colder, I feel.
Well at least you’re keepin it real…
Yeah, don’t get me wrong. I still cry at sad movies and stuff. I’m not an iceman.
You guys have a little bit of a history with the Knockout bar, can you describe that?
It’s one of our favorite places in San Francisco. For a while Corey and I were living with a few of our friends behind Safeway and we would go there—I mean, I can’t speak for everyone in the house I guess—but I would go there every night. It was almost like my Cheers for awhile there. I would walk in and they would have a drink ready for me. They’re just really cool people, super nice and willing to work with us a lot of the time. I can’t say enough good about them.
Did you see any memorable shows there?
In recent times, I really liked seeing Gravebabies. They’re our friends from Seattle. I remember I saw Black Lips at The Knockout a long time ago, when they had the stage on the other side of the club. I think I had a really good time at that show, although the memory is kind of fuzzy.
Terry Malt’s recently debuted a video for ‘I Was Not There’. Was that shot at the Knockout?
Yeah. Actually, the video for “I Do” was shot at The Knockout too. We’re like the unofficial house band.
Do you have a favorite Christmas song?
I don’t know that I have a favorite Christmas song, but I have a favorite Christmas album.
Go for it…
It’s Bing Crosby’s Christmas. It’s just something that I grew up with and every time I hear it around the holidays I get all Christmas nostalgic.
Have you guys started writing any new material?
We have been pretty slow writing new material since Corey is in LA, but it’s funny you should ask because we’re going to get together tomorrow to go ahead and write some new stuff. We plan to come out with a new seven inch, which we’d like to get out as soon as possible.
What can we expect from your live show?
Usually there’s a good crowd of rowdy people who like to bounce around. As long as that’s happening, we feed off that and in turn bounce around. So everybody is bouncing around, things are flying and it gets kind of wet. We encourage people to throw things at us. I mean, obviously we don’t want people throwing ninja stars or bottles or something, but I think it’s important to encourage people to have fun.