If you want music that’ll make your sweat bead and your ass bob, the Coachwhips are it — although they can get a little crazy in the process. The SF trio has stories that include smoking instruments, melted shoes, drug-fueled musical breakthroughs, instrument-stealing heshers, and sloppy kisses between strangers. They’re shaking up an already volatile booty-rock scene that includes noisemakers like Mr. and Mrs. and Mr. Evil, and the East Bay’s Numbers, all of whom come on like an epileptic epidemic.
Like the Gories before them, the Coachwhips are a primitive rock act, based on the idea that if you can match some cheap-ass instruments with some people who are willing to learn how to use them, you’ve got a garage band in the making. “We’re very lowbrow, for sure,” says frontman/guitarist John Dwyer. “If there’s a little bit of caveman or cavewoman in you, you’re gonna love it.”
“There’s been a series of bands over the last decade that made rock so intellectualized,” adds drummer John Harlow with a grin. “We’re doing something where people can have fun.”
The band started when Dwyer — an excellent guitar player who’s already a veteran of San Francisco’s experimental scene, with Pink & Brown and Dig That Body Up It’s Alive — wanted to do something with less gear and more raw noise. “Other bands I’ve been in have had a shitload of stuff,” he says. “The whole point of the Coachwhips is really basic music. I think if we had professional gear, we’d be a shitty band — the ghetto quality of it is what people get down to.”
The band has this amazing power to turn jerky, distorted, two- and three-chord rock into dance anthems that move at a rapid rate. Their debut CD, Hands on the Controls (Black Apple Records) is full of songs that, as Dwyer says, “hit that dance lobe in your brain where it’s like, ‘I can’t control myself.’ ” Even if most of the instruments — and the recording gear — sound like they were picked up from the same Dumpster outside Guitar Center, there’s an amazing energy that clumps all the noise together and makes you want to shout along with Dwyer, whatever the fuck it is he’s saying (most of the vocals are completely distorted).
Dwyer’s idea for the band was to pull together a trash-rock act in every sense of the word. His housemate Harlow had never picked up a pair of sticks in his life, but they found a partial drum set rotting in their yard and decided to put it to use. The floor tom, cymbal, and snare drum — all abandoned by a former roommate — were left half-covered by bushes, offering a safe haven for mosquitoes to squirt out a few million babies. After wiping off the wildlife, Harlow set to work learning how to smack ’em correctly. (Sans bass drum, which he still goes without to this day.)
After the two Johns started making music, their friend Mary Ann McNamara wanted to get involved. She too had never played an instrument, but she set to work on the maracas. When that got boring, she started playing a battery-powered Casio keyboard. Now she’s making up her own musical language, keeping cryptic notes that look like some high-powered math equation and sound like she’s pounding the same three chords till the keys give out. The band also includes a few peripherals — a belly dancer (“It’s an open relationship,” jokes Dwyer; “she can belly dance with other bands as well if she wants to”) and a fan who Dwyer claims crowd-surfed 460 times at one show. “We pop a lot of crowd [surfing] cherries,” he says. “And I know for a fact that we popped this guy’s cherry.”
Between sweaty crowd surfers and aroused audience members, the Coachwhips create a lot of wet stains, and it’s not all from song titles like “Look into My Eyes When I Come.” At the past couple of shows — including a Valentine’s Day event with two kissing booths stationed in the room — the band says their fans have been getting a little overstimulated. “People were making out all over,” says Dwyer. “They were diving over the drum kit to try and jam their tongue down my throat between songs — and these were straight boys. I don’t know what the fuck was going on, but I’m pretty sure one of them gave me a cold. They tried to rip my damn pants off too. It gets a little ugly, in a loving way — but love can be ugly too.”
When asked if he cares about being pigeonholed as a Bay Area makeout band, Dwyer shrugs and says that’s cool. “I like to encourage people to make out,” he grins. “As long as it’s with each other and not necessarily just with me.”