Ragin’ Up the Road

Hot Rod Circuit traveled from barren place to less-barren place to get signed. They say the journey was worth it.

Hot Rod Circuit moved from Auburn, Alabama, to New Haven, Connecticut, in a day.

They may not have arrived dressed like the Blues Brothers — looking more like a union of displaced roadies in T-shirts, jeans, and tats — but back in 1998, Hot Rod Circuit was certainly a band on a mission.

Singer Andy Jackson’s wife had been visiting her mother up in Yankee territory, and called him to urge a move there, noting its proximity to New York City and Boston. “At practice that night, I told everybody, ‘You know what? It’s time to do something with this band,'” says Jackson, who retains a serious twang in his speaking voice, if not in his punk singing style. “Everybody was like, ‘All right, let’s do it.’ There was no sitting there thinking about it, or a week, it was just, ‘Tomorrow I’m gonna get a truck and we’re goin’.’ And we did it.

“We got up there, slept on my mother-in-law’s floor; we’re talking my three kids, my wife, and all my band members,” Jackson continues. “We had a Ryder truck full of all of our equipment, furniture, and everything. We got jobs, worked for a couple of weeks, and got enough money to put a down payment on a duplex that we could all move into. We did everything we could for the band. We didn’t have anywhere to practice and we didn’t know anybody in Connecticut. We’d sit down in the living room and play acoustic, air drums and shit like that.”

Hot Rod Circuit, of course, isn’t the first band to bet the farm and then some, but that kind of passion rarely comes through in songs so starkly. This band makes music about actual life, instead of the tortured subconscious or other fantasia, the grist of too much rock music in the past decade. Even now that irony has been planted into every cell of the rock entity, you don’t need a microscope to pick out old-fashioned values like spirit and purpose when they’re present.

For one thing, few recent bands have articulated adolescence so well. “This Is Not the Time or Place,” from 2000’s If It’s Cool with You, It’s Cool with Me, says less but feels more than Green Day’s “Time of Your Life (Good Riddance).” It’s a blunt sketch about being busted for pot, “sittin’ on the steps one night in St. Mark’s, in the presence of an officer, which probably wasn’t very smart.” With a chilly bed of strings and the whispered refrain “20 going on 21,” the misadventure becomes a metaphor for youth’s uncertainty, reminiscent of a Paul Westerberg ballad.

Last year’s Sorry About Tomorrow, the band’s debut for Vagrant Records, graduates to adulthood with just as much resonance. “At Nature’s Mercy” and “Safely” are plainspoken songs about mature devotion, something almost no one in the underground rock nebula is doing successfully these days. Straightforward, catchy as hell, with Casey Prestwood’s big guitars and Jay Russell’s bass braiding into one another, Hot Rod Circuit specializes in major-key anthems undercut by slanted bridges and embellishments, all driven home at the point of a nail by Jackson’s gimmick-free lyrics. “Never gonna leave your side,” he sings to his wife in “At Nature’s Mercy,” “’cause I can’t resist the crazy things you do/It’s gonna take a lot of your time/And I hope someday, I’ll give it back to you.”

Now, granted, this was 2002, not a cynical 1996 ruled by Beck-ish cheekiness. In fact, irony’s supposed to be dead, supplanted by the earnestness of a mysterious phenomenon known as “emo.” Rock trends whittled into subgenres by the press might always be a crock of promotional B.S., but emo might just win the prize. A quick glance at the purported movement’s cultural lexicon should be proof enough of that: Weezer, Fugazi, the teen drama Felicity, Father Guido Sarducci …. the list goes on. Just where Hot Rod Circuit fits into emo — aside from its sincerity and flashes of hard-core influence — is anyone’s guess.

“As much as we all hate it, we always get lumped into the whole emo thing,” says Mike Poorman, who replaced Wes Cross, the band’s original drummer, after its 1999 debut, If I Knew Now What I Knew Then. “I think we’re kinda like a rock band. We have different elements to us that allow us to get away with going in and out of a lot of subgenres. We can get away with touring with New Found Glory even though we’re not a pop-punk band, just as we can play with bands like the Get Up Kids, even though they’re more of an indie-rock band.”

“People still don’t know what the hell emo is,” Jackson adds. “Older people, they think of everything as alternative. It’s just another new word in the industry and they just tag all the bands with it.

“It’s kinda weird,” he continues. “I’m 28 years old. I didn’t start playing in this band to be an emo band. The first time I ever heard the word ’emo’ was bands like Drive Like Jehu and stuff like that, which was also what people would call ‘math-rock.’ Emotional hardcore music was emo music at the time.”

Andrew Ellis, the band’s national booking agent, has the most likely explanation of the emo-fication of a band such as Hot Rod Circuit: “It’s out of pure laziness that people label them emo.” Back in the band’s early days, by its sixth live show in New Haven, Ellis was impressed enough with the band’s energy and meaty hooks to jump onboard.

You can get a taste of what he heard, listening to Been There, Smoked That, a compilation of early work from Triple Crown Records that Jackson dismisses as “a collection of junk, pretty much.” Yes, it’s cruder, and not as strong melodically or lyrically, but it still sounds like a beacon of straightforward, soulful rock next to other bands.

“It’s just music, it’s been done before,” says Jackson, who lists among the band’s influences post-hard-core luminaries such as Superchunk and Archers of Loaf, and shaggy brooders such as Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, which first made their mark on late-’80s college radio, and a boat ride down the mainstream, from the Stones to the Foo Fighters. “From the beginning, we knew what we wanted to do,” he recalls. “We weren’t trying to copy anybody. We have our own kind of sound, and I think some people just don’t know what to make of it.”

Of course, Jackson might have to adjust his self-image after Hot Rod Circuit’s first video, for Sorry About Tomorrow‘s lead track “The Pharmacist,” hits MTV. It’s not hard to imagine the band following Vagrant labelmates Dashboard Confessional into heavy rotation and blowing away the odd mawkishness of the latter’s sensitive-greasers routine.

But even if Jackson is right about there being some kind of inherent cultishness in his band’s appeal, signing to a label with corporate backing seems to have had other perks besides the potential of rock stardom. Namely, the band has won the resources to be jet-setters, living in separate cities. Of course, we’re not really talking bubbly and caviar, just the chance for Jackson to raise his family in Auburn. “It’s not like people driving around with hay in the truck,” says Jackson, describing his renewed home base. “It’s not like Hee-Haw or anything like that. It’s a city, there’s a punk-rock community. But you have to drive six hours out of the way to play somewhere.”

The band members, now scattered from Beantown to grits country, converge to tour and work on new material. But if their trajectory so far is any indication, the distance won’t interfere with the mission. “We did everything we could do to make this band work,” Jackson says. “I think we take our music way more seriously than most bands do.” After all, a band with a work ethic like Hot Rod Circuit’s isn’t easily silenced. Jake and Elwood Blues will sooner become emo icons — which, come to think of it, should happen sometime next week, the way things are going.

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