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The Buzz Poets take their work seriously

By Regis Behe
Tribune Review
June 18, 2001

Pittsburgh has a history of producing bands and musicians that exemplify the area's working-class ethic. Joe Grushecky, Norm Nardini and the Clarks are just a few of the artists who fit this mold.

The Buzz Poets might seem a curious choice as heirs to this tradition, with their decidedly alternative looks and demeanor. But beneath that veneer is a band that works as hard as any in town.

"We play four or five dates per week, and about 200 shows per year," says bassist and manager Tim Gaber, noting that the band has dates planned from South Carolina to New York City this summer. The band will play Friday at I.C. Light Amphitheatre.

"How much time do we put into this? All the time we're not sleeping," says vocalist and guitarist Phil MacDowell.

"We're on call 24 hours a day," says keyboardist and turntablist Justin Sarra.

The group's five-plus years of touring come to fruition on their self-titled fourth release. Exhibiting proficiency in rock, alternative, reggae, funk and even hip-hop, the new album justifies The Buzz Poets' standing as one of the area's most adventurous bands.

Not bad for a group that admittedly had no goal at its outset, save to make music.

"We didn't have a philosophy in the beginning," MacDowell says. "We just wanted to be a band."

Somehow, that principle has stood the Buzz Poets well. Ask them to cite their influences, and each member immediately says the Beatles, before adding other bands ranging from Led Zeppelin to the Foo Fighters to Stone Temple Pilots to Incubus to Tool.

Blended together, these sources, and the members' ages (they range from 23 to 35), make for a sound that's refreshingly original for Pittsburgh. Part of that comes from the band's ensemble-like attitude toward the songwriting process.

"Instead of writing on our own, getting our ideas and bringing them to the band as a complete song," Sarra says, "we bring bits and pieces, and everybody puts it all together."

On the band's latest release, the single "Parasite" hits listeners with an incessant buzz of guitars and a frenetic beat that dissolves into a hook-laden chorus with some almost angelic background vocals. The tune recently landed the group a spot on the Friday Morning Quarterback (, a music industry Web site) list of most added modern rock tracks.

Another important aspect in The Buzz Poets' development has been the addition of drummer Ron Lavella, who along with Tripper (guitar, vocals), rounds out the band. Lavella, who has played in PUSH and Brownie Mary, has "really brought the group together," MacDowell says.

Lavella combines with Gaber to give the band a steady backbeat throughout the eight-song EP. But perhaps the song that most indicates that The Buzz Poets have grown and matured is the release's hidden track, "I Would." An amazing blend of Brian Eno-like textures abetted by Sarra's otherworldly keyboards and MacDowell's gorgeous vocals, it's an intoxicating song that indicates the band is capable of stretching its musical vocabulary.

"We have growth every day. We know we're getting better as a band every day," MacDowell says. "Some things may hold us back here and there, but we've been able to push through it. ... It's a great job, though. It keeps you on your toes every minute of the day. We've been lucky to be able to make a living at this, and it's an honest living."

The Buzz Poets will play at 7:30 p.m. Friday at I.C. Light Amphitheatre, Station Square. Cost is $5.

Details: (412) 323-1919.

Archives 2001

© Kimberly S. Grimm 2001
Last updated August 28, 2002