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Music Feature Funky white boys: The Buzz Poets bring da noise and da funk

Friday, December 19, 1997
By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

The Buzz Poets' debut CD, "Planet Buzz," is out and they want all the planet to know about it.

With the possible exception of Rob Garrison's parents, who are living down in Houston blissfully unaware that their son has embraced the world of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll - and profanity.

Garrison, who goes by Tripper, of all things, was brought up in a fundamentalist Christian home where secular music - from The Beatles on up was not tolerated.

So Tripper missed The Beatles, missed The Stones, missed all the classic rock and went to Johnstown Christian School, where the most radical musical carved out for him was that of classical violinist.

And then a funny thing happened. He heard rock 'n' roll and wanted a guitar. His parents refused. Now, at 27, he's got bright yellow hair, a goatee, piercings in both ears (that's what we can see, at least) and he's got that guitar.

Is it safe to say at some point that Tripper rebelled?

"Yeah," he says laughing. "I'm carrying out, and probably will be till the day I die, the rebellion against the sexual frustration of my youth, the moral frustration, etc., etc.

"Not that I'm amoral now," he adds quickly. "In some ways I'm old-fashioned, but onstage I'm a sexual entity and crude person trying to get out of me, in a harmless way, all that frustration."

Whether you love 'em or hate 'em, The Buzz Poets do break the mold of the Pittsburgh alternative bar rock band by adopting some of the reggae-hip hop energy of groups like 311 and Sublime. Tripper assures us though that he learned what he knows on the streets.

"Back in '89 or so, I spent time living with a friend who lived a block away from the projects in Rankin," he says. "They all listened to rap, and they all started to teach me to rap. Getting into rap and hip hop and hearing P-Funk, it was all over."

Tripper says he was able to put aside the white-boy guilt that may come along with co-opting the black man's culture.

"Oh, man, that dude that taught me to rap, he said, 'You always had soul.' I said, 'Man, I'm white.' He said, 'It's not about black or white.'

"I see a lot of music in Pittsburgh that is like the white boy funk, that's not real soul. That makes me kind of sick. I write from my heart what I feel, period."

Tripper hooked up Phil MacDowell, Todd Demont and Dave Robertson two years ago to form the Buzz Poets, and the plural at the end of the name is relevant considering that all but Robertson the drummer writes and sings for the band.

Unlike Tripper, MacDowell's parents were musicians and exposed him to classic rock and folk (even Seals and Croft, God forbid) at an early age. He admits that he was into the metal scene until Nirvana broke through and turned him around. Of the grunge scene that followed, he says, "all that angst got to me - if you're human you should show all your emotions."

As for one band accommodating three songwriters, MacDowell says it works out because if one guy is struggling, the others pick up the slack.

"Phil and I see almost completely eye to eye," Tripper says. "Todd and I are most at odds with each other's styles. However, 'Stone Jesus' is one of the best songs on the record and he wrote it and sings it. We're just being ourselves and being cool with it."

Among Tripper's songs, one can't help but leap off of "Planet Buzz," and that's the fastcore "Cocaine," which at first glance sounds like a paean to the powder. The singer-guitarist insists it's just the opposite.

"Anyone who's done cocaine would know by the lyrics and the speed of the song that I have done it, but as William Burroughs said, that stuff it junk. Marijuana, mushrooms, things like that have some redeeming value. But heroin and cocaine have no redeeming value. That's what sucks sometimes - if you're subtle sometimes people won't catch it."

In getting the track and others on "Planet Buzz" down on tape, the Poets at times felt like the project was cursed.

"The machines did funny things and we had to go back and re-record a lot of it," MacDowell says. "I feel like we recorded two albums to get it out. We always steal this Sting quote, 'You never finish an album, you just give up on it.' What we went through and the problems we had, I'm thrilled with how it turned out."

If, by chance, a record company likes the way it turned out and wants to sign the band and put them on MTV and in Spin magazine, then Tripper is going to have a new set of problems.

"If we get signed, I'll probably be disowned," he says, more than half-seriously. "My parents will find out what we're all about."

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