They started out five years ago sounding like Pittsburgh's answer to 311 and Sublime. And one that was rated NC-17. But time has passed, the band has stuck it out, and as a new, self-titled EP attests, the Buzz Poets are branching out in ways no one expected. To be sure, there's still plenty of frenzied moments when they sound like Stone Temple Pilots and Busta Rhymes thrown into a blender. But the nine-song EP also finds the band producing a lovely acoustic ballad in "Angel Eyes" and, if you stick around for the hidden track, a dreamy piece of European techno pop in "I Would."
Phil MacDowell, who shares vocal, songwriting and guitar duties with Rob "Tripper" Garrison, says the Buzz Poets are growing into their sound and are capable of anything. "I don't not expect anything," he says. "A lot of people would be surprised by what we do. You look at Tripper and people think whatever they want to think. I've heard some of the most beautiful ballads come out of him. I don't put any limitations on our music. I think we can write any style from a jingle to a beautiful ballad."
In the past year, there was one direction they decided not to pursue, leading to the departure of drummer Dave Robertson in favor of Ron Lavella, formerly of Push and Too Tall Jones.
"It was actually a true case of creative differences," says bassist Tim Gaber. "A lot of people just cite that because it resulted from a fight or something. But [Dave] wanted to move toward the heavy side of things, like Slipknot, and our songwriting just doesn't ... go there."
In the early days, Tripper and MacDowell wrote separately and simply had the band back them up. Lately, they've been writing and singing together in the classic co-songwriter vein. It can best be heard in the record's single "Parasite," where MacDowell weaves in and out of Tripper's grungy and menacing vibe with a bright melodic chorus.
"In that writing process, something special happens," MacDowell says. "The Beatles proved that over time. Some of the great things that happened with John and Paul didn't really happen when they were separate."
The song itself, with its angry declaration of "we see that you're fakin'," is a reaction to people bashing the band in cyberspace.
"We get a lot of attacks on the Internet," he says. "People who anonymously say things. You can get on the Internet and attack someone without taking any responsibility for it. The song is poking fun of people who can't stand up and say something -- they might be right, but they don't come out and say it."
"Angel Eyes" was derived from a more tragic and compelling circumstance. Last April, they learned that a close friend, Magic Dave Mussen, singer for the ska band Distorted Penguins, had been killed. MacDowell and Tripper went into the studio with producer/guitarist Buddy Hall and wrote and recorded the kind of delicate ballad that recalls "Dust in the Wind."
Gaber, who added bass, thinks it's the best song they've ever written. MacDowell says, "When something tragic like that happens, I try to look for something positive in it. It's hard to find anything positive in this, but if anything positive came out, that song is one of them. We've gotten a lot of feedback from people who say that it's helped them through situations, people who have lost a loved one. They heard the song and knew exactly what it was about."
"Angel Eyes" was originally released on "The X-Files" CD. Now it finds its way onto the Buzz Poets EP, which the band, all working full time on being a band, is ready to push in a big way.
For opening day on Monday, they had banners flying over PNC Park. (MacDowell, by the way, sings the new Pirates theme song.) And using the services of local filmmaker Al Marschke, they've also created a slick video for "Parasite," based on a studio shoot, a live concert at Nick's Fat City and a cool black-and-white segment at Club Cafe that finds the Poets in rented tuxes.
Three different CD release parties are planned here -- tomorrow night on the Gateway Clipper and next Friday and Saturday at Nick's Fat City -- along with a CD release party in Baltimore later in the month and a spot on X-Fest May 18 at the Post-Gazette Pavilion. Meanwhile, the Buzz Poets are hoping that something good comes out of a showcase they played earlier this year in New York for a handful of major labels. For all those people wondering how the Buzz Poets, who won the Ernie Ball Music Man Competition in 1999, have managed to avoid being signed, MacDowell explains, "A lot of people don't understand how this works. They don't understand the connections you have to make before the record company -- the attorneys and managers and promotional people you have to meet along the way before you even want a record deal. It's not the end-all of anything. I think we've begun to establish those contacts, where we could make a good record deal that won't set us back."
MacDowell says there's no hurry. The Buzz Poets, like the Clarks, are in it for the long haul.
"We've been through just about everything you can think of. And we're still here," he says. "Everything that goes bad always brings you closer. We're like a group of brothers that have troubles, but always rely on each other."