A big Marshall stack sits in one corner of the Sequoyah Hills basement where the American Plague meets twice a week to practice, obscured by a sparkly-red drum kit marked with a boldly-lettered "TAP" logo and a silver thunderbolt, both borrowed from the late-model Elvis' "Taking Care of Business" emblem. In the opposite corner there's a washing machine and dryer, with economy-size cartons of powder detergent on top, underneath a pair of Jolly Roger flags hanging from the water pipes. A black Gibson Flying V guitar rests against the amp, beside a work bench cluttered with tools and plastic skulls and a tiny Godzilla and cartons of canned cat food. A few empty bottles of New Knoxville beer are scattered around, as are a greater number of empty plastic water bottles. The basement is officially the domain of lanky lead singer Jaw's mother, but the band seems intent on slowly taking it over with the relics of their stripped-down, proto-punk rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.
Shaggy-haired bassist Dave Dammit is sitting on top of the dryer, the heels of his battered Converse sneakers tapping on the door of the front-loading appliance, his duct-taped bass leaning next to him. Jaw and drummer B.J. Fontana (yet another tribute to the King, a deliberate takeoff on the name of D.J. Fontana, E.'s drummer through the 1970s) lounge on small stools on either side of a large wooden support beam. Jaw has just broken another string on his Flying V—the third one this afternoon—and grumbles under his breath as he puts a new one on.
"Pretty much all I do is the band," he says, looking up briefly from his fretboard and pointing out the costs of flyers, T-shirts, recording, booking shows, and the snappy little buttons the band had made. "It's a lot of work. I put all my money into the band."
Since forming the appropriately-named Malignmen a few years ago, a foursome who toured the country but eventually gained enough of a local reputation for rowdiness to bar them from most rock clubs in town, Jaw, 24, has devoted most of his time and energy to his musical projects. It all started inauspiciously enough—"I bought my first guitar and amp from a kid who needed $50 to buy some pot," Jaw says—but he eventually landed a spot behind the drums with the legendary New York hardcore band the Undead, led by former Misfit Bobby Steele.
"I had a good time, too," Jaw says. "But it was more like a job. Bobby didn't live here, so I'd rehearse the songs here in the basement and then go out and tour. I toured America with them, the East Coast, the West Coast."
But he eventually tired of punk rock as a time-clock-punch gig, so he dropped out and began working on his own as the American Plague. The earliest incarnation of the band was simply Jaw; he recorded a short demo tape last spring, playing drums, guitar and bass and singing on three rough-cut original songs and a bristly cover of David Bowie's "Suffragette City."
At the time, Jaw was taking an art class at Pellissippi State, and B.J., a slim and innocent-looking 21-year-old who also plays drums for local indie-popsters Geisha, was taking a jazz drumming class in the next room. Jaw recruited him into the Plague, and the two settled on Dave Dammit, at 18 already a veteran of several local metal garage bands, as their bassist.
They've refined their sound since then, at least as much as raw and dirty rock ’n’ roll inspired by the Damned and the Stooges and Motörhead can be polished.
"From the shows we've played out, I don't think I've heard a band that sounds like us at all," Dammit says. Some of that confidence can be attributed to 18-year-old bravado, but there's not been much else on the local scene as punchy as the Plague's straight-ahead riff rock in a while. Song titles like "Past the Machine" and "Alabama Tough Love" and "Chain Gang" indicate something about the character of the American Plague's music, but there's also a pop element to their sound, the kind of precipitous sing-along hooks that Jaw evidently picked up with the Undead. "Pop music with balls," as he describes it.
The band's only played a handful of local shows, mostly at Pilot Light, but they've also played in Nashville, Lexington, and Athens, Ga., and have a long list of out-of-town gigs set for the summer, highlighted by a series of shows in Florida, opening for metal up-and-comers Burner.
By the end of the summer, they plan to release their first CD and then head out on an extensive club tour.
"I don't know how far it'll go," Jaw says. "We won't be on MTV, but that's not what I want. I'd like it if we could just be an underground band, so that we don't have to deal with anybody telling us when to tour and when to go into the studio, but when we do tour, we can count on a couple of hundred kids showing up."