The (Brief) Return of Boyjazz

After a five-year hiatus, the Oakland band returns for one triumphant show.

Back in 2004, Boyjazz was one of the Bay Area’s most unlikely breakout bands. Its debut album, In the City Tonight, was a bedroom experiment of epic proportions, the result of two friends jokingly but also somewhat seriously ripping off Judas Priest, Van Halen, Iron Maiden, and AC/DC — “shamelessly and with fortitude.” Characterized by big fuzzy riffs, doubled-up vocals, and sexed-up lyrics, it was dubbed “arena rock for the indie kids” and it quickly earned the band label and media attention, slots on tours with bigger bands, and songs on episodes of MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules and on the video game Dance Dance Revolution. The band’s live shows were reportedly the stuff of legend, involving lots of hammy moves, audience interaction, and (at least on one occasion) nudity. But just as suddenly as the band burst onto the local music scene, it disappeared into the night, never to release new material or play a show again — until now.

What happened to Boyjazz is partially the story of what happened to a lot of promising indie bands that came of age at a time when the music industry was fundamentally changing and major labels were no longer the salvation for struggling musicians. But it’s also the story of every band whose members have had to face tough decisions and hard realities. Maybe they can’t all “make it,” but at least what they make can be on their own terms. Or so thought the members of Boyjazz.

From the start, the project was not to be taken seriously. According to drummer Aaron Levin, he and singer/songwriter Adam Hobbs decided to record a couple songs in Levin’s bedroom “on a whim, as a joke,” using a drum machine. It was in late 2002, just two months before Hobbs was to move out of Berkeley and back to Los Angeles, where he grew up. But much to Levin and Hobbs’ surprise, everyone who heard the songs were blown away, and wanted more. So they recorded a few more songs, which ended up in the hands of one of their friends, who played the songs for his co-worker, Duncan White, who happened to run the local label Frenetic Records. White heard the songs and apparently loved them, so much so that he released the band’s debut album.

There was just one problem: Boyjazz wasn’t a band, and by then Hobbs and Levin lived hundreds of miles away from each other. Their solution was to recruit other members and form two separate Boyjazzes — one in LA and one in Oakland, with Hobbs (a classically trained singer with a wide-ranging voice) as the only common denominator. That setup was brief, however; when they received an invitation to play the annual CMJ festival in New York, they consolidated. The result: two members, Hobbs and bassist Alex Pauley, who live in LA; and Levin, rhythm guitarist Dan Brubaker, and lead guitarist Eric Murriguez, who live in the Bay Area.

Soon, Boyjazz was playing shows with such notable local bands as The Lovemakers and The Fucking Champs. Of course, not everyone loved Boyjazz. In fact, the band was somewhat polarizing. After all, it was playing a classic form of metal in a very tongue-in-cheek way, wearing ridiculous outfits and looking nothing at all like typical metal heads — more like geeky music nerds poking fun at a macho form of music whose fans tend to take their allegiance seriously. Boyjazz wasn’t only playing that music in an irreverent way but was doing so on a level that was far more fun and catchy than most “serious” bands in that genre.

Of course, the band knew it was walking a tricky line — or, rather, blurring the line — between being fun and making fun. “I don’t think it’s this thing where we’re making fun of the music, but the music is supposed to be fun,” Levin explained on a recent Saturday afternoon at The Smokehouse. “When you listen to Zeppelin or Sabbath lyrics, aside from Tipper Gore, people aren’t taking it seriously, they’re setting a mood, they’re having fun. I think it’s, like, an homage to them. If you listen to T. Rex lyrics, it’s super silly, or Bowie. We weren’t making fun of how absurd it was, we were just doing what to us was super fun, which is, yeah, to make fun of it a little bit.”

Nonetheless, Boyjazz earned a fan in Fucking Champs guitarist Tim Green, whose band similarly plays metalish music to a largely non-metal crowd. Green, of course, is also a well-known local producer and engineer (who has since relocated to Grass Valley), having recorded such bands as Melvins, Saviours, Tristeza, Drunk Horse, and Monotonix. In 2006, Green invited Boyjazz to do its next record — its first as a full band — with him at his Louder Studios. The result was Unlimited Nights & Weekends, which was recorded on tape and is thus largely a live album. The ten tracks sound undeniably like Boyjazz, but in a warmer, fuller setting. It’s still cheeky, rockin’, and utterly silly (sample lyrics: Unicorn! Fuckin’ Unicorn!). In keeping with the whole Seventies analog vibe, the band insisted that it be released on vinyl, but after trying (and failing) to find a record label to front the necessary cash — vinyl is much more expensive than CDs — they shelved it instead.

Meanwhile, having members in separate parts of the state wasn’t exactly conducive to playing local shows. Any shows they did play had to be on the weekend and had to pay enough to cover gas money for Hobbs and Pauley to drive up from LA. “I think we became sort of a pain in the ass for local clubs,” said Brubaker.

In other words, Boyjazz never broke up or gave up. Despite all the attention and the perceived promise that said attention would create for its music career, the band simply fizzled out. In some ways, it was also a conscious decision.

“There was a burnout factor,” said Brubaker. “At a certain point, there’s a dangling carrot: ‘Oh, there’s potential, you could do this, you could do that, wouldn’t it be cool if you did this tour.’ Which is exciting but you also have to ditch your career path and make a certain amount of sacrifices that I don’t think we were willing to do. And at the same time we were watching other bands fail, and it was painful, specifically The Lovemakers — watching them get signed to a major label, have this dangling carrot, have big budget videos, and then all of a sudden get thrown out like the trash. ‘By the way, you owe us half a million dollars’ — just booted with no promotion. Fuck that, I don’t want to go through that.”

Instead, the members pursued other projects and continued with their careers, never officially disbanding Boyjazz but not exactly doing anything either. But now, almost six years since it recorded Unlimited Nights & Weekends, Boyjazz has finally released the record on vinyl using its own money (it’s also available for download on its Bandcamp page, and is reuniting to play a show at the Hemlock Tavern, on Saturday, September 15. Whether there will be more shows after this is uncertain.

So why release the album and play a show now, after all these years? “We’re ready to have fun again,” said Brubaker, who noted that his other band, the “liberal fascist punk band” Generalissimo, is basically the opposite of Boyjazz. “All the dangling carrots have played out. We watched how all that went down for everybody else — wow, I’m kinda glad we didn’t go down that road. At the end of the day, if you asked me what I miss most about that band, it’s playing the Hemlock, honestly, playing those fun shows. Well, that’s attainable.” Indeed.


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