Static in Stereo sets the controls for the heart of the seventies

 

 

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 5, 2001

A silver Keith Richards–style skull ring catches the glare of the dressing-room lights as Todd Kerns wraps his fist around a can of Coke. The blue and red dragon etched on his right bicep, a ringer for Ozzy Osbourne’s chest tattoo, quivers slightly as he lifts the can and takes a swig before resting it in the crotch of his black leather pants. A lightning-bolt pendant that David Bowie might have donned in his Ziggy Stardust days dangles from a necklace half covered by a shock of pitch-black Nikki Sixx hair. Add it all up, and Kerns is the embodiment of the late-20th-century rock star. The former lead vocalist for Age of Electric is equal parts glam pop, neometal, and classic rock, with a smidgen of punk tossed in.

And so is his new band, Static in Stereo.

You can hear it best in “Superdrop”, the second single from the Vancouver four-piece’s self-titled CD. The song’s climactic guitar solo, performed by Kerns’s little brother Ryan, sounds like it was lifted directly from the Ace Frehley Instructional Guitar Book. “I love that ’70s guitar style,” professes the younger Kerns, lounging with his bro backstage before a gig at the Commodore. “I don’t know what it was about the ’70s—every guitar player just smoked. From Kiss to Steely Dan, Boston. I mean, everybody was wicked.”

I have to agree with the guy. But then, I’m a little biased toward ’70s rock. I was 17 years old when I saw Kiss play the very venue we’re chatting in, whereas the two Kerns brothers seem too young to have been influenced much by the era of flared jeans and 8-tracks. The older of them would have just turned three when Aerosmith first blasted out of Boston. “And [Marc] Bolan was dead before I was, like, 12 or something,” Todd remarks, “so people do wonder how I fall into this realm of influence. I was really young when I started playing—I was like 14, playing with people 10 years older than me, but they were really into, like, ‘Rock! Rock! Rock!’ So Bowie’s been a big influence, and T Rex. I just find that music to be timeless, in a sense.”

With melodic, hook-filled rock tunes, a big promotional push from heavyweight Universal Music, and management by the same folks who guided Rush to rock-legend status, it might not be too long before SIS—which includes a third brother in bassist John Kerns, plus former Rymes With Orange drummer Scotty McCargar—starts gaining a little fame of its own. The group’s signing with SRO Management Inc. has meant that Todd Kerns has gotten to press the flesh with Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson several times, although he claims that he’s not that keen on meeting his other ’70s-rock heroes. “I’ve had a number of opportunities to meet Kiss,” he confesses, “and I never want to meet them because I’m afraid of them being fuckin’ assholes. I’m pretty sure Ace’d be cool, though.

“But one time in Age of Electric, we were recording and Aerosmith was in the next room, and it was a fucking nightmare every day. I’m just like, ‘What do you say to these guys? It’s Aerosmith!’ Then Steven Tyler walks into your studio in the middle of a session and asks, ‘Do you guys got any tambourines?’ and it’s like Wayne’s World—‘We’re not worthy!’ So you never really say what you want to say.”

Kerns’s habit of distancing himself from his rock idols doesn’t mean that he won’t hang out with some of this town’s most popular noisemakers, though. Like Matthew Good, for instance, who shared the songwriting credit with Todd on “Superdrop”. “It’s funny,” Kerns says of the collaboration, “because the more I’ve been thinkin’ about that, the less it seems like a cowrite as much as just sort of a… I mean, a lot of people look at rock musicians as being songwriters, but I’ve always looked at it more as just being in a garage and making noise with your friends. I mean, Matt’s a friend of mine—I sang backups on [the Matthew Good Band’s] Beautiful Midnight—so we were just sort of playin’ around and stumbled across something. Then I took it with us and put it in the machine and it became this big, massive rock song. With Ace Frehley solos!”

Steven Drake’s name might not get tossed around in the same breath as Bowie or Bolan, but as anyone who’s followed the local rock scene can attest, he’s been one of its leading lights since the early ’80s. After helping make playful popsters the Odds one of the best reasons to feel proud of Vancouver, Drake established himself as a producer-engineer-mixer par excellence through his work with the likes of 54•40, the Tragically Hip, the Planet Smashers, Marcy Playground, and Staggered Crossing. He recorded and engineered Static in Stereo at Bruce Levins’s Greenhouse Studios in Burnaby before handing the tapes to the Tea Party’s Jeff Martin, who mixed them along with Nick Blagona. “With Steven and Jeff both being band guys,” Todd says, “it was easy to have that same kind of language, as opposed to Joe Producer who’s been sitting behind a desk. And Steven throws things at ya that are just fuckin’ off-the-wall.”

“But in a beautifully odd way,” Ryan interjects with a laugh.

“And he wasn’t shackled by any pop thing,” Todd continues. “I kinda figured he’d be a lot more like, ‘Let’s stay to the three-minute religion of it all,’ but in reality there were all kinds of moments where it was like, ‘Oh, no, let’s drag this on a little longer.’ ”

As well as coproducing Static in Stereo’s debut with the band, Drake contributed background vocals to four songs, played mandolin on one, and delivered the subtly effective slide-guitar work that slithers through Todd Kerns’s fave tune on the CD, “Wrapped in Cellophane”. But it wasn’t as if Drake pulled a big shot–producer heavy on the band and demanded they let him get his licks in. “He was just the best slide player,” Ryan explains with a sheepish grin.

Although the Static in Stereo members have no qualms or complaints about Drake’s work on the CD, he wasn’t the only producer they considered. There was a time when the band considered luring knob-twiddler-to-the-stars Bob Rock—who executive-produced two songs on the ’94 Age of Electric album—behind the console. “We actually had a meeting with Bob when he was workin’ on the last Bryan Adams record,” Todd notes. “We tossed the idea around, and he was really into it. I mean, he’s at one of those stages in his career where he can do whatever he wants sometimes.”

“He wanted us to go out to Maui or wherever his studio is,” Ryan adds, “but at the time, it was like, ‘Naah, we don’t want to wait that long.’ And we ended up waiting that long anyways.”

“But I’ve always felt like our paths will cross again in one fashion or another,” Todd says, “and that’s still a definite possibility.”

It would be interesting to see what a producer like Rock might do for a band like Static in Stereo. The former Vancouverite has certainly helped hard-edged acts such as Metallica, Mötley Crüe, and the Cult discover their hit-making potential. For the moment, though, SIS is more concerned with winning fans one gig at a time. When Todd drains the last of his soda and pulls his lanky frame off the couch to embrace a female visitor, it’s getting close to showtime. But the band members don’t seem the least bit nervous about their first major show together. And they aren’t worried about having to re-create the music precisely as it appears on Static in Stereo. In true ’70s fashion, they plan to jam things up a little.

“We’ve already built upon them to stretch them out a bit,” Todd says. “I mean, bands like The Who, if you look at Live at Leeds, they just go off—and I love that stuff. I don’t really feel like playing the songs exactly the same as they are on the album, anyway. It’s kind of fun to bounce in and out.”

Another thing the Kerns brothers promise to provide with their imminent performance is real music played by real people: there won’t be any samples or loops in evidence tonight. The recording procedure for Static in Stereo was very organic to begin with. “There were no computers turned on while we recorded the album,” Ryan confirms before Todd counters that there might have been once or twice—though only to download “weird German porn”.

As if taking a cue from the conversation’s lewd turn, SIS tour manager and sound engineer Mike Price struts into the room with three boxes of inflatable dolls in his arms. It turns out that the band has a song called “Blow Up Doll”, and McCargar has purchased some plastic props for the occasion. Isn’t it always the drummer who thinks of these things?

“They’re actually called party dolls,” Todd explains, eyeing the proceedings with a suspicious grin, “because they don’t have any orifices.” But Price—tearing open the packages and putting his lungs to good use—takes mild offence at that comment. “Give them a chance!” he pleads. “I mean, you’ve got a doll, you’ve gotta have some imagination.” A few minutes later, two of the dolls are fully inflated and Price stands one up on a chair, then places another tight against it, upside down. “Ah, you’re so naughty!” he jeers. “Oh, I can’t believe you did that!” The throng of rockers, young women, and backstage hangers-on cracks up at his antics, and Ryan Kerns shrugs. “We’re desperate,” he confides. “It’s sad. We should get them on the rider, those blow-up dolls.”

Thirty minutes later, these same plastic gals have transformed into comical crowd surfers, being bandied about over the heads of the Commodore floor crowd while Static in Stereo bangs out its first single, “Before My Time”. As if to cement its fondness for ’70s rock, the band quotes AC/DC in its on-stage greeting (“For those about to rock, we salute you!”), drops a few riffs from Kiss’s “God of Thunder”, and even employs the trusty ol’ talkbox on the power ballad “Ariana Incomplete”. (Eat your heart out, Peter Frampton.)

The band plays nearly every song on the new CD and tosses in the raucous AOE tune “I Don’t Mind”, which gets the crowd bopping along in recognition. Todd—now draped in a fuzzy silver coat and sporting a Gibson Flying V—looks even more like the embodiment of the late-20th-century rock star. With his slicked-back hair, jean jacket, and white T-shirt, Ryan resembles a ’50s rockabilly artist, but he keeps a firm grip on a classic sunburst Les Paul that could easily have been pilfered from the Ace Frehley collection. Low-slung bassist John Kerns—known as Johnny the Creep in his Age of Electric days—brings the band some valuable visual appeal, his head shaved clean but for a patch on top, from which long strands dangle over his eyes and down past his chin. Scotty McCargar—he of the passion for plastic, and for having his drum kit set up sideways—echoes Ryan’s greaser look but embellishes it with dark shades and sideburns. All in all, it’s an interesting-looking group, which can’t hurt when those handheld MuchMusic cameras swoop in for the inevitable close-ups.

After pummelling the audience with the riffola raunch of “Anybody”, Todd Kerns thanks everyone who purchased the new album for contributing to the band’s “drug fund”, but the group’s energized performance belies any serious reliance on illicit substances.

Maybe these guys aren’t so ’70s after all.

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