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Weekend: A blend of punk, hip-hop and trashy humor have made the Buzz Poets a big turn-on with local club fans


By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Post-Gazette
Friday, April 16, 1999


The singer laps his tongue suggestively at every young woman in the audience, his crotch humping furiously behind his electric guitar. When he's not lapping, he's screaming something about shaven genitaliaprivate parts or psychopaths or stretched foreskin as the hues of his orange spiked hair morph under the colored stage lights and his eyes bug out like a Charlie Manson wall poster.

The second guitarist breaks his concentration by calling him an unprintable name, and the song falters for a moment while the band pauses to laugh at itself. When it recovers, the audience sings along to the graphic sexual descriptions, waving their arms and chanting every dirty little word.

There's another way to review the same performance at a local club: The poly-rhythmic band opens with a cool instrumental jazz segment that segues into a hip-hop verse before exploding in a grinding power-pop chorus delivered at the mercy of a colorfully animated frontman. After a moment of improvised banter, the vocal crowd joins in on the clever word play of a memorable hook.

There are two Buzz Poets -- maybe three. The first is a comic book caricature of the stereotypical gimmicky, potty-mouthed rock band that Tipper Gore used to love to hate. The second is a versatile group of impressionable young musicians who embrace all musical styles and meld them into a distinct, definable sound. The third incarnation is wise enough to know the difference between the first two and, so far, seems to understand when it is appropriate to unleash the disparate aspects of its character.

Meet the Buzz Poets, Pittsburgh's most popular unsigned band. Tripper is the spike-haired chief songwriter -- a former violinist and product of a school for born-again Christians who likes to blurt outrageous things and watch the reaction. Phil MacDowell, his intellectual songwriting sidekick and guitarist, comes from a close-knit family that traces its lineage to turn-of-the-century composer Edward MacDowell, famous among high school marching bands for penning the Tin Pan Alley standard "To a Wild Rose." Tim Gaber worked as their levelheaded booker and manager until the original bassist left for personal reasons. Now Gaber works both jobs. Dave Robertson is the quiet, polite drummer who would rather make percussive music than just bash and crash, and newbie Justin Sarra was a Buzz Poets fan until a few months ago when he graduated to the stage with his turntable, keyboard and effects rack.

Together they're a collection of contradictions who appear to be doing something right. In a local music market with lots of underground rumblings and very few standout hits, the Buzz Poets are a steady draw at urban and rural clubs. Last year they won the Graffiti Rock Challenge and were a mid-Atlantic semifinalist in the Discmakers Music World Series. In January they won the prestigious Ernie Ball Music Man Battle of the Bands. Combined, the contests put them in front of 40 or 50 A&R reps from indie and major labels, showcased them for management companies and gave them a fast-track to the local and national media. There's a buzz surrounding the Buzz Poets that extends beyond the Pittsburgh clubs, but it hasn't reached a critical mass.

The band is at the stage where its talent and distinctiveness have been noted -- the colorful performances and Beck-like injections of multiple styles into single songs have piqued the interest of at least some of the right people. The Buzz Poets' future is now in the hands of its third incarnation, the one that may have enough wisdom and business sense to make it happen.

The Buzz Poets registered on the local radar suddenly in 1997. They looked like a professional act -- well, Tripper did, anyway -- but anyone who hung around long enough heard something they weren't hearing from other bands: the forced integration of styles. Elements of jazz and hip-hop blended with country twang and heavy metal. A little ska, a shot of punk, a blast of jungle and some cool reggae swing. And it wasn't the same combination in every song. In fact, the thing that made them different was that although each song was different than the one before, the differentiation was consistent, constituting a definable style.

The dirty words and exaggerated stage presence became the gimmick that made the shows fun to watch. Their college-age audience liked seeing the band push beyond their parents' tolerance level, in the same way their parents used to like hearing "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" when uncoded drug references were considered taboo.

But if all the Buzz Poets had were dirty lyrics and quick tongues, or polyrhythmic arrangement and musical chops, they would still be just another line in the listings section. The trick was they did it all in the right proportions.

There was already a buzz growing talk aboutsurrounding the band when they blasted through the 1998 Graffiti Rock Challenge. After selling 1,000 copies of their first self-released album, "Planet Buzz," they spent their Rock Challenge prize money financing a second pressing (after one song change) and recording new material for a future project at McKeesport's Soundscape Studio.

Some 5,000 groups entered guitar string manufacturer Ernie Ball's annual Battle of the Bands. The contest culminated Jan. 30 at the Los Angeles Hard Rock Cafe during a major music industry convention. Everybody who mattered was there.

"We wanted to win because, well, we want to win everything," says Tripper on a plush couch at Soundscape. "But it wasn't that big of a deal. We just wanted it to be fun. We were joking around. [Phil] was drinking tequila and he hit me in the head with his guitar back stage and I was bleeding. No big deal. Other bands were saying that during sound check our hands weren't even shaking. I was like, 'Yeah. I know.' Our attitude was right. I know I wasn't nervous at all. It was just another show."

A panel of celebrity judges included Ahmet and Dweezil Zappa, Aaron Barrett and Matt Wong from Reel Big Fish, and Delmont's Paul Gilbert from Mr. Big. "We were feeding from the excitement. You could feel it," says MacDowell. "Everything went right. I think it was one of the best shows so far in our career."

In addition to lots of strings, the Buzz Poets won two weeks on the North American leg of the Van's Warped Tour. More importantly they got themselves in the faces of every label, management company and booking agent in the country. "We're now receiving an encouraging amount of national attention," says Tripper. "That's a prepared statement -- I've been told I have to say it that way because I have a tendency to have a big mouth."

Unofficially, the Buzz Poets are shopping for the right entertainment lawyer to fix them up with professional management. The band's greatest contradiction is that despite their wild, over-the-top performances, they've so far made remarkably sober business decisions. MacDowell says it has to do with the way they were raised.

"Once you get to the edge of where you want to be, you have to try to have some wisdom," he says. "It's your upbringing. Your family. Your parents. I had a great relationship with my parents where we talked openly about things. They were touring musicians so they've seen things. They informed me about everything and gave me the opportunity to try or do everything, and I could always go to them with anything without being afraid. And it's cool. I've learned to keep a cool head."

"That's the opposite of my whole childhood," says Tripper. "I had a real religious upbringing. I went to a born-again Christian school. I couldn't go to my parents with anything. When I started to break away from their teachings and philosophies regarding Christianity, they were just all over me to keep me in line. I guess any wisdom I gained along the line I got from screwing up and just never doing it that way again. But for whatever reason, we all have good heads on our shoulders. We're frugal with our money and we're patient."

Despite the Buzz Poets' lyrical excesses, MacDowell says he's convinced that parents have a responsibility to monitor their children's entertainment consumption.

"Some of our stuff should probably not be listened to by all ages of kids," he says. "I would hope that parents would monitor that to some degree. There's nothing wrong with that. If they teach their kids to use it wisely, they can handle whatever comes at them later in life."

"Including our songs," cracks Tripper.

To hold public interest while things are happening, the Buzz Poets plan to release their second album, "Alcohol Abuse Live," on Tuesday. A new studio album, in the works at Soundscape, includes the turntable scratchings and keyboard samplings of their newest member.

"I think I'm the utility guy," says Sarra. "They come up with the songs and I come up with the effects. Before me they had to do all the techno and hip-hop stuff manually or acoustically. My equipment fills in all the little things that couldn't be done before."

"There are no new styles of music that have come out since, say, hip-hop and maybe before," says Tripper. "Everything's been done. The new stuff that's coming out is taking hip-hop and ska and techno and rock and smashing it into one. That's what we're trying to do, but we want to take it years beyond where it is now."

"The only thing left is new technology," adds MacDowell, "and we don't want to wait until new equipment comes along. We were writing stuff that sounded sampled before we had a sampler and putting in all kinds of influences just because it sounded good. It's not a new idea. The Beatles were doing this 35 years ago. I think some bands are too afraid to experiment with other styles because people will say they sold out. Well, I don't think we're selling out. We never bought in."

"Alcohol Abuse Live" (Ego)

Seven months after winning last year's Graffiti Rock Challenge, the Buzz Poets returned to the Oakland showcase with a rowdy crowd, a set of new and old tunes and a spool of blank tape. After two nearly sold-out shows, they left with their second album.

"Alcohol Abuse Live" documents what happens to a young and horny crowd when it's incited by promises of promiscuous sex and musical assurances that anything goes. If juvenile braggadocio and dripping wet descriptions from the Kama Sutra leave you uptight, you might want to skip this one. If, however, you think naughty words are just sinful fun, "Alcohol Abuse Live" chronicles the Buzz Poets' blending of bad-boy rock and cultural diversity.

Call it musical menage o' plenty -- a Cuisinart concoction of dancehall, hip-hop, jungle, ska, reggae, free jazz, melodic rock, country and swing. Lead guitars are tossed out with the trash. Musical clichés exist only as the punch lines of a few clever instrumental jokes.

Buzz Poets fans already know the dirty words to tunes like "Foreskin," "Skin," "Nasty" and the band's unofficial theme song, "Psycho." Re-workings of old favorites breathe new life into songs by Nirvana, Bob Marley and Wall of Voodoo. Drummer Dave Robertson takes the high road with unpredictably melodic percussion, offset by Tim Gaber's meandering bass. At the core of the songs is the "lead rhythm section" of songwriters Tripper and Phil MacDowell.

"Alcohol Abuse Live" won't be remembered as this band's crowning achievement. The Buzz Poets admit it's a token offering to keep their growing audience happy until the next studio album is released. Still, its 14 songs and a tongue-in-cheek bonus track of recording out-takes give a good idea of what the buzz is all about.


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