ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 4, 2003
Here’s a happy little comeback story for ya. Back in 1989, singer-guitarist Bryan Small led a rowdy, punk-inspired L.A. rock act called the Hangmen that was hoping to establish itself beyond all the hair bands of the day. The group scored a deal with Capitol Records and recorded its self-titled debut album with famed producer Vic Maile, who’d helmed such landmark hard-rock discs as The Who’s Live at Leeds and Motörhead’s Ace of Spades. Things were looking good for the band, until major-label weasels picked up the scent.
“His [Maile’s] production and mixing was great,” Small says on the line from his Hollywood home, “but Capitol went in and had it remixed by some hotshot. So it ended up sounding nothing like what we wanted.”
When the watered-down album bombed, Capitol dumped the new group, but it got picked up shortly after by heavyweight Geffen Records, which was hoping to add another Guns N’ Roses to its roster. A second Hangmen album was produced by Radio Birdman vocalist Rob Younger, then shelved forever when Geffen unceremoniously cut the band loose. “It was a bit unfocused for us at the time,” Small notes of the sophomore disc. “We were all havin’ our battles with our demons, so to speak.”
Drugs, that ever-tempting element of the rock ’n’ roll life, would send Small on a downward spiral of self-destruction that kept the Hangmen out of circulation for nearly a decade. “It just wasn’t workin’ anymore,” he relates, “and I couldn’t figure that out. I guess it just takes what it takes to realize that if you wanna play music, you gotta have a guitar, and if you’re pawnin’ your guitar for drugs, you’re not gonna be playin’ music.”
When he finally broke free from his addictions, Small rounded up former Coma-Tones guitarist Jimmy James, ex-Darlington bassist Angelique Congelton, and drummer Todd Haney for another shot at the rock crown. In 2000, the new Hangmen released the critically acclaimed Metallic I.O.U. on Santa Monica–based indie label Acetate Records, home to such earbustin’ acts as the Spiders, the Railsplitters, and Nine Pound Hammer.
“Acetate’s been a really great label for us,” Small contends. “They’ve done more for us than Capitol and Geffen combined. It’s not like throwing money at something and if it doesn’t automatically stick then you’re done. They know what we’re trying to do, and we’re all on the same page.”
Small has also been aided in his comeback efforts by Seattle raunch rockers the Supersuckers. The two bands have toured together and released a split single, and head ’sucker Eddie Spaghetti sang on a track from the band’s latest CD, We’ve Got Blood on the Toes of Our Boots. That album was recorded live at L.A.’s Swinghouse Studios in August of 2001, and took its title from the name of the Birthday Party’s first tour, which Small liked the sound of. “And it seemed to ring true with all the shit we’ve been through,” he adds.
With a new CD, Lotería, set for release early next year, the Hangmen are spreading their Stones-meet-Stooges gospel on a West Coast tour with SoCal proto-punks Social Distortion, which hits the Commodore on Wednesday (September 10). Although he’s pushing 40, Small doesn’t feel too decrepit to connect with youthful punk-rock crowds.
“I’ve never heard anything about bein’ an old man from anyone,” he relates. “I definitely don’t feel my age, whatever you’re supposed to feel at 38. I think a little bit of the drug abuse probably preserved me in some weird way.”