The Bronx may come from the opposite coast to the New York borough of their name, but the LA four-piece share a grittiness with that famous neigbourhood.
We caught up with them in the Camden venue, the Barfly, to chat about tough times, whether fashion has a place in music and a certain, bodybuilding Californian Governor…
In southern California, the hour and a half drive from The Valley to Orange County has an abundance of around 250 clubs which just happen to be in the backyards of the world’s biggest record labels. The result – an influx of hundreds of bands performing like circus monkeys to bait the well-dentured moneymen, forcing the community of local bands to join the bottleneck to book a show.
This is the “myth of the Hollywood Dream” as The Bronx frontman Joby Ford describes grimly. His band have managed to clamber out of the Los Angeles hive and realise their own dream, with their intense street-punk earning praise from the likes of Rolling Stone along the way. Yet that doesn’t mean they forget where they come from, or why they’re here, lugging their equipment about in Camden.
It’s early evening and police have been combing the half-mile stretch of Camden High Street for Yardies for the last few hours. The usual array of tramps, pushers, goths and chic Camdenites dot about. The odd commuter speeds by, while couples stop and stare for a good bar or restaurant in which to curl up on this cold November night.
Upstairs in the Barfly venue, singer Matt Caughthran is tacking posters and merchandise to the wall. Ford is fiddling with his transparent guitar, drummer Jorma Vik is behind his kit setting up, while bassist James Tweedy is pulling out gear from large equipment cases. This is as real as it gets Matt tells me. The amiable bear-shaped singer is in a good mood. It’s the last night of their first European tour, which has seen them support The Distillers, Jorma tear a muscle just a week ago, and the band get banned from their hotel bar after trashing it with fellow bill sharers The Cribs last night.
In the depths of the Barfly’s ladies room Ford stares blankly at the pixel-tiled floor when I ask him to talk about the overdoses. “When you have no money to begin with things just get worse and worse,” he explains. “Matt got evicted from his apartment. It got to the stage where he had to try and talk people into letting him live with them. You get a ticket out there and you don’t pay it, you’re f**ked – they will come find you and take your licence plates. When things are going rough it’s human nature to turn to those things, which is always stupid,” he says clearing his throat, possibly with an ache of hurt and regret. “We’ve had friends pass away from overdoses and we’ve had overdoses in the band.”
“We’ve had friends pass away from overdoses and we’ve had overdoses in the band.” – The Bronx’s Joby Ford on past troubles for him and his band.
As his tone lowers it’s clear the band have been through dark times. A few listens to songs on their La Muerte Viva EP and superb upcoming debut album reveal scars which etch far bigger and deeper than their tattoos. Songs which document frustration from losing friends, seeing one gunned down, and having LA and life’s harsh realities kick them in the teeth every day.
Nonetheless Ford is proud of his home. “The scene we come out of is the best because all our friends are in the bands. The bands are all 100% different, they sound nothing alike, they look nothing alike. The bands that are here do it for real reasons – they make real music”. It’s for this reason exactly that their scene looks upon outsiders with apprehension and scorn.
“The majority of bands in LA can’t even get a show booked at a club because it’s so packed. It’s a music f**k out there,” spits Ford. “If I flipped through a magazine I can tell just by looking at somebody and what their name is exactly what kind of music it is… Like the f**kin’ emo-core bands have their black band T-shirts, Diesel jeans and some funky running shoes. I missed when fashion came into music, and where fashion dictates what you can and can’t do.” Ford’s words couldn’t be more ironic as a copy of the NME rests in my bag with its “Cool List 2003”.
After graduating in 1998 with a design degree, Ford did the rounds with several graphic design firms. Tweedy worked in marketing, Matt worked in a takeaway and Jorma drummed. Having known each other for eight or so years, the four twenty somethings only formed The Bronx a year and a half ago. “We’ve been putting around forever, begging people to come to our shows,” recalls Ford.
“Shitty offers” were coming in after the band played just two shows. When the majors canvassed with pillow talk and dollar bills, the band negotiated a deal with Island / Def Jam which they wanted. Consequently, their first album was released in the States on their White Drugs label. “We got a lot of criticism because we didn’t sign for any money. We signed for $150,000 which got a van, two guitars and paid us out of debt.”
Ford shakes his head with apathy when asked whether “Governator” Schwarzenegger will make a difference to LA. “When it comes down to it, people in America care really about one thing and that’s taxes, and if there’s somebody that says they’ll lower taxes, they’ll vote for them. Personally I think he’s gonna get shot because he wants to audit California and there’s so much corruption and dirty money.”
At this point Matt announces his theory about Schwarzenegger: “The Kennedys are trying to get back in office without having a member of the family get killed, so they’re using Schwarzenegger as a puppet. If the Kennedy curse holds true Schwarzenegger will get shot, or they’ll go round Arnold and kill someone in the family. It’s interesting to see what will happen,” he says with a grin.
“I missed when fashion came into music, and where fashion dictates what you can and can’t do.” – Joby Ford on why music and fashion should never intertwine.
Four hours later Matt is buzzing from Jack Daniels, trotting up and down from the downstairs bar every few minutes. Tweedy is watching The Cribs from a distance, while Jorma is nowhere to be seen. Ford cuts a lonely figure behind the merchandise stall. He stands with his hands wrapped in his pockets, like an emotionless soldier, gearing himself for battle. His cap is off and his bleach black hair frizzes over his red face. As his eyes move from an invisible point of focus around the venue, he glimpses dozens of faces he will probably never see again.
Within an hour the band will have played a blistering show which wins over the 100 or so in attendance. Matt had told me earlier that it was unreal to fly half way across the world and have people turn up. But it’s clear why. Onstage they’re transformed into rugged shards of energy, which shock to numbingly raw effect, even though Ford feels they’re still finding their feet live.
Though Ford maintains the band’s name has remotely nothing to do with them, it is almost fitting that the rough roots they call home and their background is straight out of that fabled New York neighbourhood.
“I think we’ll make a difference to our band’s lives,” muses Ford when asked about the future. “We’re in a band for ourselves – not that I don’t care what people think, it’s just not what’s important to me. We’re family, the band comes first. If we feel that we’re making a difference in our lives that’s enough. We’re fighting against things and f**king the system, for us, in the way that we want it be done.”
Just don’t ask them if they’re cool. They’re just a bunch of normal guys who managed to scramble out of an LA cesspit. Ask anyone else though, and they’ll probably tell you it’s just another Bronx tale…