At one time, Thrillbilly was a joke - at least to themselves.
But the seven-year old band isn't laughing anymore. It's first CD, ``Black
Top Open Road,'' was met with rave reviews all over the Northwest, and its
second, ``Movable Feast,'' appears to be doing the same as it continues
to acquire major successes in this region - and on national radio now.
Originally formed by vocalist J. Bowman and members of Portland's then-up-and-coming
Gravelpit - including their vocalist, Steve Wilkinson - Thrillbilly was
as much an expression of their desire to party as it was their interest
in music. ``We were horrible,'' said Bowman of Thrillbilly's early days.
``We wouldn't rehearse very much. and we'd hit the stage - well - we'd hit
it piss drunk. Really drunk. I mean knocking shit over drunk. It was a combination
of being hedonistic and needing to do something to quell being nervous on
stage. Steve would kick his whole drum set over. He'd totally Keith Moon
the thing. It was hysterical. And rehearsals were just another excuse for
a good party. We had to turn down opening for a national act because we
were too fucked up and not ready.''
After awhile, the members of Gravelpit left and drummer Tom Killman stepped
in. Bowman credits Killman with straightening out the band. The eventual
result was the first CD, a spot on the ``Live at Mt. Tabor'' compilation
and a career path set out before them.
And although Killman left the band in 1998, these days, the only laughing
the boys do is with each other. ``Everybody's really tight,'' Bowman said.
``It actually feels weird to go out without somebody in the band.''
Though friendship with the others is a strong element in Bowman's life,
much of the subject matter on the first album reflects a different aspect
of relationships for him.
Guitarist Doug Lindstrom laughingly referred to it as Bowman having a neon
sign on his head advertising his desire for a screwed up tryst.
``You'll notice that most of the female characters in the lyrics on the
first album are seriously fucked up,'' Bowman joked. ``There are a lot of
tunes about going out with manic depressives. I guess if you're not a heroin
addict and not seriously messed up in the head, I guess I just don't want
anything to do with you.''
Their music creates an interesting bond between mosh pit and barn, treading
a high energy line between country, pop and hard rock. Occasionally, heavy
doses of REM-esque vocal harmonies weave their way into the mix, soaring
over the top of this vibrant, explosive form of Americana. ``Black Top''
spreads out before you with all the twitching energy of a group of hicks
in their late teens ready to head for a weekend binger in their rusty 4x4,
while ``Feast'' sees the same group of kids in their early twenties having
acquired an education in literature, THEN heading out in a rusty old truck
for a weekend binger in the big city.
Initially influenced by early Patsy Cline and Hank Williams material, Bowman
said the band first called itself Hank At 100 MPH. He said the fusion of
punkishness and country shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, even though none
of the band members claim to be fans of country music.
``Guess what: You put enough energy and muscle behind a country tune, you
can create just as much energy as people who play only in front of mosh
pits. It all depends on how you do it.''
``Black Top'' has a gutsy newness to it, the sort of unpolished, almost
punkish rawness which seemed to scream of a band ready to explode on stage
or in a bar somewhere. It was filled with passion and angst turned into
one big, happy drinking song and hinted at the band's country roots and
its initial name. ``Feast'' is truly more refined, at least in sound, partially
because of new members Danny Carbo and Mark Dybvig. In some ways it lacks
that twitching, pent up feeling of the first CD, but it does bring out some
greater emotional dimensions and more serious subject matter in the lyrics.
Bowman's time in the military and his sympathies with war veterans become
apparent in his touching treatment of shell shock in ``War Tune.'' But rockers
like ``Texas,'' ``Slacker'' and the softer ``La Cruda'' show the billy boys
still know how to throw a party, up chuck with style and grace and handle
the subsequent hangover with brave dignity.
So it's no surprise 1998 would yield the big surprise it did.
They aren't fashion plates by any means, and they don't seem likely candidates
to be spokesmodels for designer clothing. But the hard drinkin' boys of
Thrillbilly will be doing just that, entering the world of high fashion
via the radio.
In early 1998, the band won a national contest sponsored by Ralph Lauren/Polo.
They are is one of six whose music will be featured on national radio advertising
spots by Lauren in the fall of `98.
Yet band members said they weren't aware that someone at Washington-based
guitar manufacturer Stump Preacher Guitars had nominated them, and the win
came out of the blue. Manager Lisa Lepine said she'd sent along the needed
information to Stock and then promptly forgot about it, neglecting to even
tell the boys.
And in true Thrillbilly style, there's some irony underlying it all - from
song selection to the timing.
``It's really ironic that they chose the song they did,'' Lindstrom said,
talking about the winning entry, ``American Sex,'' from the band's first
album. ``It's really kind of making fun of that whole wealth scene, with
lines like `I ain't got no gold card or good personality traits.'
``It's also really ironic that this song is two years old, and we're on
the heels of the next one. Just when we thought we finished with that one,
this thing pops up.''
Thrillbilly is no stranger to large amounts of regional success. The band
has performed at three North By Northwest festivals and two South By Southwest
fests in Austin, Texas. They've even got their own limited-edition line
of beer brewed by the Portland Brewing Company. ``Thrillbilly Beer'' seems
the perfect promotional product considering the band's Americana sound,
their hard drinking lifestyles, and of course, the numerous legends throughout
the state of Thrillbilly's van: Stocked to the brim with liquor and serving
as an impromptu bar for them and other fellow musicians they might meet
at any given gig.
``We used those as invitations at South By Southwest,'' Lindstrom said.
``We'd hand them out at the convention. It was a great play on the old `Billy
Even before that SxSW, their stint at the 1996 North By Northwest resulted
in another infamous stunt which has created its share of legends. The band
rented out a hotel suite at Portland's posh Benson Hotel and proceeded to
turn it into a weekend-long party and mini-showcase, called ``The Possum
Like a possum, this clandestine creature was mostly an invite only situation,
featuring a multitude of bands attempting - with varying degrees of success
- to perform quietly enough without raising the ire of other guests.
Somehow, this now-notorious party, which was even sponsored by some local
breweries, managed to go unnoticed by hotel staff - or at least they inexplicably
refused to shut it down. Crowds gathered and sardined themselves in great
numbers throughout the weekend, carousing, drinking and passing out with
regularity into the wee hours.
Stuffing 50 people or so into this small space was no easy task, so come
Sunday morning of this particularly hazy October weekend a small army collected
itself there and frantically tried to hide the damage done to the room before
checkout time. It was a scene destined for rock `n' roll lore. Friends and
band members were spray painting over scars left by beer kegs in the bath
tub, while others took exacto knives to cigarette burns and scrapes in the
lovely carpet. The craziest part of it all is that it worked: You really
couldn't tell the hotel room had seen the battle it had.
The Possum Room party was later written up in a multitude of local publications,
and Lepine reports no negative backlash from the hotel. You can't help,
however, but picture some unlucky, wealthy, out-of-towner shmuck later trying
to take a bath and finding parts of the tub secreting a mysterious white
substance as spots of paint disappear from the enamel.
They didn't even try to rent out another hotel room at the 1997 NxNW.
Things aren't all beer and silliness for this roughneck band, however. This
highly charged, Portland powerhouse was hard at work on a new album, ``Movable
Feast.'' throughout 1998.
It's an album Lindstrom said represents the band's musical maturation. Even
the title comes from their rather grown-up fascination with history, especially
the American expatriates of Paris in the 1920's.
`` `Movable Feast' is the title of a Hemingway book about that period,''
Lindstrom said. He made frequent references to the 1987 film ``The Moderns''
when talking about inspirations for the new CD, which was based loosely
on the Bohemian existence of various famous artists in Paris during the
`20s. The influence is no surprise considering the similar lifestyles of
the members of Thrillbilly.
Yet now that Thrillbilly is poised on national radio play, it seems rather
prophetic its latest album was inspired by the period and place in which
legends such as Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Josephine Baker made some
of their biggest contributions to the art world.
``It's also a play on words with `Black Top Open Road,' our first album,''
Lindstrom said. ``Really, it's like the music - it's a more grown-up version
of that title.''