The Biters are a four-piece band hailing from Atlanta, Georgia. They unabashedly play a trashed-out, almost anachronistic combination of power-pop and punk rock, weaving together wonderfully incessant melodies with fuzzy twin guitars. I’ve been seeing their singer, Tuk, play shows since I was an embarrassing 15 year old kid, and he was the guitarist in a once up-and-coming band known as the Heart Attacks. And now, after driving through hours of stagnant Northern Virginia traffic, my fiancé Mary and I finally arrive in Springfield, looking forward to seeing them play in the reincarnated version a club once known as Jaxx. At the strip mall where the club is, the first thing that catches our eyes is an enormous carpet emporium, framed in our view by two different gas stations. It’s not until we’ve driven through the entire parking lot that we even notice a meager line forming in front of the Plexiglas entrance to the newly refurbished Empire.
Mary finishes retouching her makeup and we step from the car. We’re meeting up with an old friend, Palmer, whose interest and enthusiasm for the scholarly edge of punk rock eclipses anyone else I’ve known. Dressed entirely in black with three blonde dreadlocks hanging down his neck he runs gleefully over to our car. “Have you seen the people here?” he asks us. For the first time, Mary and I look towards the crowd, and find ourselves taking in a bizarre mismatch of fishnet gloves and parachute pants, eyes with heavy liner and no mascara. The kids lined up for this show—kids obviously not lined up to see the Biters—are dressed as if they had unlimited access to a locker of unsold Hot Topic merchandise from circa 2002. As we stand in the parking lot, Mary laments having not found a liquor store before we arrive. Palmer and I readily agree.
The three of us wander around to the back of the venue. With a stroke of luck, we find Tuk hauling equipment from a van I suspect to date from the days of the Heart Attacks. In his ripped-up shirt and Bowie-esque mullet, it’s almost impossible to believe he can lift the amps. Each grip causes the muscles beneath his tattoos to surface against the ink. I call out to him and we spend a moment catching up before I learn he has no idea about the interview I’ve set up. We agree, however, to start the interview once he’s finished moving stuff inside. “You better watch out, man,” he yells as we’re walking away. “Your old lady is looking fine.”
The doors open late—or at least later than advertised. At the door I realize the cover is at least triple anything I’ve ever paid to see the Biters play. Regardless, the three of us wander into the poorly lit opening of Empire and pause to reminisce about Jaxx, a spot I frequented as a teenager. I note the corner where I once cried over a girl, and the hallway where my best friend once asked a girl out for the first time (she turned out to be gay). While they’re trying to build a bar in the opening corridor, the man standing behind it tells us to go around the corner if we want a drink. We do. There, we find the main stage and audience area, a space with enough room to warrant holding bigger local shows. It’s spacious, though somewhat awkwardly arranged, with the bar and its immediate proximity partitioned off to keep teenagers at bay. On the stage is an instrumental band whose name I never catch. Palmer and I agree we’re not torn up about it. I ask the bartender for a gin and tonic. She mouths something to me that appears to be the word “ten.” I smile and say back, “rail?” She smiles and repeats “ten.” Palmer shrugs and orders a bourbon.
We find Mary sitting at one of the bar tables talking with Joey, the Biters’ drummer, and Travis, the bassist. Joey wears a homemade tank-top and tight blue jeans, though, his signature coonskin hat is missing, somewhat regrettably. Travis, the quieter of the pair, is wearing a tight jersey and black jeans. They tell us that Wednesday 13 (both the name of the headlining band and the singer’s individual stage name) handpicked them for the tour. The two bands have almost nothing in common sonically, and their fanbases have virtually no overlap. He simply loved their music. The Biters, with no pressing shows lined up, said yes. “But we haven’t been selling any vinyls,” Joey laments. “The kids just aren’t buying them.” There’s a pause and I ask Joey when we can start the interview. He tells me to relax, it’ll happen. “I spend all day on a bus with those fucking guys,” he reminds me. “When we get off, we’re not always clamoring to be in the same room together.” Fair point.
Sometime after that, the instrumental band finishes. To our chagrin, however, it becomes apparent the Biters aren’t on next. Instead, we see middle-aged men in various stages of zombie face-paint hauling guitars and a (token) standup bass on stage. We only watch for a few minutes before it’s clear we’ve encountered another band that has almost nothing to do with the sound that drew us here in the first place. Reluctantly, I buy another drink. It hurts less to shell out the money this time around, but it still tastes like rail gin. I make a half-hearted attempt to find a Biter to interview, but aside from the strangely abundant number of husky boys in Slipknot shirts, I can’t find a soul.
The zombie band finishes. The audience (Wednesday 13’s audience?) has begun to arrive, and while the floor is far from capacity, there are an increased number of sweaty guys pressed up against the stage. We mill about for a few minutes, looking for a spot. Mary asks one of the boys if she can switch with him to see the band she came for. He turns around, vacant, looks at her, and responds with a dull “No.”
The Biters begin moving their equipment on stage. Later in the night, Tuk told me that at shows these days “everybody is so scared of doing something different for the fear of being made fun of. And if you actually try and you’re not apathetic and you give a shit about something, people are going to go ‘Oh look, they care! Haha.’ And what happens if you get up here and you dress fucking cool and you fail and people boo you? ‘Look, they’re trying to be rock stars and they fail! Hahaha!’” But what’s clear as soon as the Biters appear in front of an audience is that they are rock stars (though with a smaller fan base); they’re glamorous and they’re disciplined. If, as Tuk states, “everybody is trying to be the Anti-Hero, the Anti-Rock Star,” The Biters are clearly more than willing to step into the void left behind. Even before they’ve tuned a guitar, you can tell the Biters have learned from their lineage. Standing in tight jeans, with leather vests and matching haircuts, you can see their interpretation of the Ramones’ uniform and their adaptation of the New York Doll’s streetwise androgyny. And as the red lights of their amps come to life, they look down to kill.
The first chords of the Biters’ set are always huge and gnarled—hanging in the air like a frozen tornado. Matt Gabs, the guitarist, stands with his back to the audience and his foot pulsing as if his body were ready to burst. Quickly, though, you realize they’re more than a high-energy punk band: they’re each exceptionally talented musicians. “I don’t really like any 80s rock at all…it doesn’t influence me whatsoever,” Tuk told me later. “I’m influenced by [the] bands Mötley Crüe and Guns ‘n’ Roses were influenced by. Rose Tattoo, Sweet, Bowie…that’s why I don’t sound like whatever cheesy cock-rock comes out today …I’m a sucker for the pop hook,” he said, toying with the empty vodka he and I had just shot.
In true punk fashion, the Biters tear through their set in 30 minutes, knocking out songs as insatiably catchy as “So Cheap, So Deadly” and “Oh Yeah (The Bitch Wants More),” the latter of which features an apparently effortless twin-guitar solo. Few punk bands, let alone the hair metal bands that pioneered it, could match two separate guitars with such flair. In between songs, rather than embarrassing themselves with pointless banter, Travis and Joey keep the music going, listlessly tossing rhythms back and forth to each other—hinting at what might come next. Near the end of the set, Tuk calls a friend up out of the crowd to play guitar for him. The guy manages seamlessly to back up Matt’s strangled licks and blends nicely in with the powerhouse of Joey and Travis’ rhythm section. Yet all eyes are on Tuk, scrambling to the top of the amps and captivating even the most devoted Wednesday 13 fans as he leaps irreverently into the arms that may or may not be waiting below.
Triumphantly, Tuk makes it back on stage. Taking back his guitar and stepping up next to Travis, they finish the set very much the way it began, with guitars swirling out of control and Joey’s drumming feverishly helping the group to crescendo into absolute silence. And in spite of their theatrics, their flawless hair, and their clear indulgence in the histories of rock ‘n’ roll, not a single heckle can be heard as they climb off stage.
The rest of the night descends into a bizarre blur. Wednesday 13 takes the stage shortly after the Biters. Their singer looks be at least 40 and wears a top hat and heavy raccoon eyes. His long black hair blows in a fan set up nearby. As he yells “What’s up, Springfield!!” I wander off, vaguely looking for the Biters. I see Tuk up in the sound booth but happily head outside, where I find Matt Gabs talking with Mary. Matt tells us he used to skate—with a lot of talent, nonetheless—but that he’s give it up, saving his hands and bones for guitar. As we stand outside Empire (under the guise of smoking a cigarette to circumvent the venue’s No-Reentry-Even-if-You’re-Twenty-One policy), Matt gives me a tutorial on how to cut up a shirt. (The key, for those wondering, is to cut loosely around the collar. Follow the stitching). “I used to have that skinny, teenage boy chest like you, but then I got these,” he says, coyly flaunting his pecs. I head back inside where Palmer and I down absurdly-priced Jager Bombs, waiting for Wednesday 13 to finish.
When the set is over, Tuk and I sit at the bar. The floor lights have come on, and a line of giggling girls forming at the merch. Wednesday 13 has gone over to to greet fans, his makeup dripping and the theatrical illusions fading. “I never wanted to be a lead singer,” Tuk tells me off the bat. “I wanted to be like Mick Jones, you know? I wanted to be the right-hand man.” It’s a bizarre statement given the natural allure that seems to surround him. As we talk, people constantly come up, shaking his hand, hugging him, reminiscing.
“I’m really interested in the glam rock angle of your band…because a lot of what is called ‘glam punk’ could have existed without T. Rex or Bowie,” I tell him. “The term punk has limited so many people,” he declares back. “T. Rex—if we were in a different era that wouldn’t be called glam. There’s bad connotations to certain words. Glam has such a bad ring to it because of 80s glam metal stuff. But 70s glam? There would be no punk without it. It was the stepping stone between rock ‘n’ roll and punk.” It’s a point few musicians working the contemporary punk circuit are willing to admit, let alone accept. But putting records like T. Rex’s “The Slider” (“one of my favorites,” Tuk interrupts when I bring it up) side by side with The Damned, it’s impossible to truly wash away the inheritance.
The discussion turns to the state of the modern punk scene, a favorite topic of anyone who has ever played in a punk band. “I think a lot of what the punk scene does right now,” I tell him, “is very heteronormative.” Tuk’s eyes light up. “It totally is. And it’s based around…useless trivia…Memorizing whatever stupid ass 7” of whatever band got a review in some stupid ass magazine and who’s fucking cool with the local show. It’s the exact same as what the scene is supposed to be against. It’s like memorizing baseball facts and eating chicken wings…The Biters are trying to step outside the box…There’s no fucking coattails to ride on.”
From across the bar, Mary asks Tuk about the Biters’ experience within the record industry. “I can fucking talk for hours,” he warns us. Mary, of course, prompts him to go ahead. “We have no label, we have no publicist, we have a booking agent that we earned—but most of the bands we get on tour with asked us—Wednesday 13 asked us…Social Distortion hand picked us,” he tells us. “We have no label. We buy our own t-shirts…We are totally self-sustainable and we can barely stay above water.”
There’s a somber pause. At that, Joey saunters into the room, asking Tuk where the free food for the band is. Tuk begins to explain but Joey notices the phone recording the interview on the bar. “Hey,” he shouts, “let me get a fucking word in! Joey. Needs. His. Fucking. Food!” As he wanders away, Tuk picks back up. “We’ve played for tons of [labels]. They love it. ‘Oh, a couple of years ago I totally would have signed this but it’s just not selling now…’ If we played fucking nu-metal or did some fucking boy-band that was autotuned, maybe we could get along. But at the end of the day on my deathbed, is that who I want to be? And I’m not even playing music that’s inaccessible! I consider it pop!” He snorts. “And I’ll tell you what: when you’re doing a band like we’re doing in this day and age, and you have no one to follow, it’s harder dude. But I’m not doing this because of money. True art isn’t about money; it’s about love and passion! I sleep on floors and I eat like shit. And it’s not because I think I’m fucking cool. I don’t post on Facebook, I don’t fucking Tweet—I don’t fuck girls, I don’t fucking sniff cocaine every night. I just play music and I do it because I love it and that is real fucking art.”
The bartender makes a last call for “a Joey” to pay his tab. “He’s in the Biters, dude,” Tuk calls out. “He’ll fucking pay it.”