Punk-Vintage Design Drives Big Drill Car

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Starting with its apt name, and continuing with its stripped-down sound and forthright outlook, Big Drill Car is a band that likes to keep things simple and direct.

While there may be no actual blueprint and operator's manual for a conveyance called a big drill car, listening to the band gives you a good idea of how such a machine might function.

Mark Arnold's guitar playing suggests both the scraping edges of a heavy-duty cutting tool and the chunky, massive slabs of rock the tool would hew out and plow aside. The quartet's hard, propulsive beat suggests plenty of horsepower and speedy acceleration. From singer Frank Daly come melodies that are compact and crisply efficient--nothing too elaborate, but catchy enough to keep pop-sweetened additives gurgling through the carburetor.

Whatever a Big Drill Car is (the name comes from a science fiction B-movie), the rock 'n' roll version has a rapidly revving engine of punk-vintage design, and will be winding up its latest tour with a series of Southern California concerts: Saturday at the Showcase Theatre in Corona, Sunday at the Troubadour in West Hollywood and Monday at the Ice House in Fullerton.

Comparable product lines in the showroom of punk-pop include Husker Du, which rolled out of Minneapolis in the 1980s, and the band All, which has its roots in two early L.A. punk bands, Black Flag and the Descendents. All has served as a kind of big-brother band to BDC, with All members Bill Stevenson and/or Stephen Egerton contributing production work to Big Drill Car's 3 studio albums and its debut EP.

As it approaches its seventh anniversary (the band's first gig was on Halloween, 1987), Big Drill Car seems to be living up to the title of its current (and best) album, "No Worse For the Wear." But even a reliable model is going to require pit stops and repairs over the long run. During a difficult transitional period that began early in 1992, Big Drill Car frequently found itself stuck in the garage, scrounging for spare parts.

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"For two years, we couldn't take five steps forward without sliding back three. It was a drag," said Daly, summing up a period that brought three personnel switches in the rhythm section and a change of record labels.

The now-retooled band gathered for an interview last week in a Costa Mesa warehouse block that is a warren of rock 'n' roll activity, housing recording studios, an independent record label/concert promotion company called Stab You in the Back, and the barely-big-enough cubicle that the four members of Big Drill Car jam into for their rehearsals.

Daly, sharp-featured and lean with intense blue eyes, did most of the talking, setting off his earnest answers with wry turns of phrase. His foil and the band's co-founder is the mellow Arnold, a friendly bear of a man with a big, slope-shouldered frame, a mild, husky voice and a broad, open face framed by long, blond hair.

The two newer recruits bring a quietly impish streak to the band personality. Darrin Morris, who took over for original bassist Bob Thomson in 1992, is the youngest member at 24 (Arnold, 32, is the oldest) and has the sly grin of a mischievous choirboy.

Jamie Reidling, who joined just three months ago, is, at 26, a veteran drummer who has played in many local bands including the Cadillac Tramps. He replaced Keith Fallis, who stayed a year before getting married and leaving for New Mexico. Reidling didn't need much inducement or coaching: He has been friendly with Daly since their school days in Costa Mesa and was enough of a Big Drill Car fan to know most of the songs before he joined.

The departure of Danny Marcroft, the original drummer, was the hardest change to deal with, according to Daly, who is 26. "When Bob quit (to join the Orange County band Xtra Large) there was no doubt we'd keep going. But when Danny quit, the entire future of the band was up in the air. He was an integral part (but) he said the idea of getting in a van and going on tour again gave him a stomach ache."

It helped, Daly said, that he, Arnold and Morris had confidence in the songs they were working on at the time.

What eventually emerged was an album that stuck with themes and musical approaches familiar from the band's previous releases, "Small Block," "Album Type Thing," "Batch" and the live "Toured." But the usual Big Drill Car formula came across with renewed power and exuberance and, in the best songs, an extra measure of melodic appeal and thematic bite.

Daly--whose fourth wedding anniversary is Saturday (he met his wife, Penny, while on tour with Big Drill Car in Canada)--sings winningly and affirmatively about sustaining love amid difficulties and separations ("Friend of Mine," "Step Right Up"). He said the troubled relationship depicted in the album-closing "Hye" was inspired by the departures that temporarily stalled Big Drill Car.

"I've always written about the plainest things, the things closest to me," he said. "My relationships have always been the closest. It's gone from 'get out of my hair' to 'it's pretty good to be hanging with you.' "

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Like many of its colleagues who came up on the Orange County punk scene, BDC has a continuing theme in songs warning about the dangers of hard drugs. "Yer Holdin' " is the latest.

"We've all pretty much experimented with whatever's out there," said Daly. "Watching my friends crash and burn is what's kept me from crashing and burning. It's just a waste. You don't know them anymore. They're just a different person."

He said he isn't sure whether the substance-abusing friends he wrote about in "Yer Holdin' " have recognized themselves in the song. "They're still my friends. I see them, but it's like (being with) a ghost."

The straightforward quality that comes through in Big Drill Car's music carries over in the members' unusual and refreshing willingness to acknowledge their creative failures and limitations.

Arnold said he was able to bolster the band's live sound on its last national tour (which included nine shows opening for the Offspring, a pairing suggested by the bands' mutual booking agent) by playing his guitar through two amplifiers instead of one, adding a stereo effect.

Was it a matter of an improved tour budget finally allowing a more elaborate rig?

No, Arnold said. "It was more (a case of) me not being such a stooge and (finally) figuring it out."

Daly said that "No Worse For the Wear" is "by far my favorite" among the Big Drill Car records. Yet he confessed that he disappointed himself by not seizing the opportunity to take more creative risks with the album. Some atypical tempos and studio effects that the band had come up with in rehearsals were jettisoned for the final recording.

"We tried some of those things (in the studio) and for some reason, it didn't blow us over anymore. Or," he added after a slight pause, "I got scared and said, 'We never did that before; we can't do that.' We just went the safe route. I've never been too hip on taking chances."

His even tone suggested he knows how to be critical of himself without beating himself up. More recently, in a series of vinyl singles, Big Drill Car has been experimenting with different approaches. One notable result is "Song No. 40," released recently on "By the Banks of the Mighty Santa Ana, Vol. II," a vinyl EP compilation of Orange County bands.

With its ballad tempo and elegiac tone, and its use of a warm, wailing Hammond organ and a throbbing, countrified guitar, the song (approximately the 40th Arnold and Daly have recorded together) takes a big step away from the BDC norm. It sounds like a cross between Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes" and Neil Young's "Roll Another Number (For the Road)," and is one of the band's most memorable and emotional recordings.

Big Drill Car's three upcoming shows in Southern California mark the end of an extensive touring campaign in which a Dodge van acquired 13 months ago has logged 45,000 miles. The results have been mixed, Daly said.

Playing to between 200 and 500 fans a night, "we're drawing as well as we ever did, if not better." But he is disappointed with sales of "No Worse For the Wear," BDC's first studio release (after a stop-gap live album during the band's unsettled period) on the San Diego label Headhunter/Cargo.

Daly said sales of the band's first three releases, on Cruz Records, are "pushing 20,000" each, a respectable total for a small independent label. "The new one hasn't sold that many, to be perfectly honest with you. I don't know if it's a distribution problem or a lack of popularity problem or a lack of advertising. I'm kind of miffed."

However, a video for "Friend of Mine" has just been released, and with luck (well, a lot of luck) the album might get a commercial boost. At this point, Big Drill Car's members don't earn a living from the band, although their tours make money and provide a stipend to go with earnings from an assortment of day jobs that ranges from Arnold's work as a recording engineer and concert soundman to Morris's job delivering Chinese takeout.

At the same time, they are experienced practitioners of a brand of music that in the past year or two has shown vast commercial potential. Everybody knows what's happened to the Offspring and Green Day. Now, Big Drill Car's mentors in All have signed their first major label deal, with Interscope Records. Interscope's roster also includes Rocket From the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu, who share the same management as Big Drill Car.

Daly said Big Drill Car will respond to the new climate by continuing business as usual.

"It's not like we're purposely trying" to write songs that will land a big contract, he said. "If you do that, it becomes contrived. You're not yourself; you're being what someone else wants you to be. We'll do what we've always done. If the pendulum swings our way, or smacks us in the head, we're open to it."

After a three-year gap between studio releases, BDC's immediate plans call for writing new songs and being ready by spring to begin a new round of recording and touring. Things seem stable after that turbulent patch--unless, of course, somebody in the band starts feeling the seven-year itch and brings more unsettling to the BDC marriage.

It's a concept not foreign to Daly, who kicked off Big Drill Car's recording career by singing a song about a collapsed relationship called "5 Year Itch," the first song on the first Big Drill Car release.

Now, speaking in his firmest tone, he is having none of it: "I think the only seven-year itch is a Marilyn Monroe movie."

* Big Drill Car, the Goops, Bottom 12 and Lidsville play Monday at the Ice House, 112 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton. 8 p.m. $8. Taped information: (714) 740-3052. Big Drill Car also headlines Friday at the Showcase Theatre in Corona ((909) 340-0988) and Saturday at the Troubadour in West Hollywood ((310) 276-1158).

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