THRILLBILLY: Riding the fashion airwaves

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 Beer' too.''

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 Room.''

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.''

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