by Mike Gibson
There weren't any more explosive performers on the Knoxville rock scene of the mid- to late-1990s than Tom Pappas and Eric Otto; Pappas as the original bassist and mop-topped flashpoint of the city's successful power-pop outfit Superdrag, and Otto as the yowling frontman of a grungy little trio known as the Scenesters. At the time, the notion of putting the two men on the same stage together might have seemed dangerously inadvisable, like tossing a machine gun to a rabid silverback, or dropping a load of dynamite into the middle of an inferno.
Cue the sound of a distant explosion. Now living in Nashville, Otto emailed Pappas on MySpace last October, looking for tips on finding a bass player for a new project with local drummer and studio engineer Mark Petaccia. Pappas, also a Nashville resident now, volunteered himself for the job.
â“They had some songs they'd written without lyrics, and asked me to play bass over them,â” Pappas remembers. â“Then I wrote some lyrics, and that lit a fire under Eric, and he started writing more. It's turned into an approach kind of like the Raconteurs' with Jack White and Brendan Benson, only with Flesh Vehicle and the Scenesters instead.â”
That might not mean much to most people, folks who don't remember the Scenesters, or even Flesh Vehicle, the supercharged Stooges-meet-the-Flaming Lips solo project Pappas started during the latter years of his membership in Superdrag. But for those of us who were there, the collaboration holds as much tantalizing promise as any hypothetical indie-rock supergroup you'd care to imagine.
â“I was always a big Scenesters fan,â” Pappas says. â“They had that good Mudhoney-ish vibe. And Eric always had such a cool voice, really bluesy and strong. He's singing better than ever now, even better than he was in the Scenesters.â”
For Otto, the pairing was serendipitous; the first time he met drummer Petaccia, Petaccia drove up to his home blasting a Superdrag record on the sound system of his car. â“I told him â‘You like Superdrag? I know those guys,'â” Otto remembers. â“I don't think he believed me at first.
â“Tom and I already had some weird things in common from back in our Knoxville days,â” Otto continues. â“First I got a job with the same guy that had been Tom's first employer when he came to town, and then I ended up living in the same Fort Sanders home, in the same bedroom he used to have. Now it seems like it's all come full circle.â”
After four rehearsals together, WHIP! had already recorded its inaugural EP Hellevator , seven songs that showcase the surprisingly harmonious juxtaposition of Otto's hurtling, riff-oriented song structures and Pappas' soaring choruses and loopy melodies. The vocal chores are split neatly down the middle, with both singers taking a turn at the mike, and sometimes trading off tit-for-tat on the same song.
â“I'm still into bands that pay homage to balls-to-the-wall rock'n'roll,â” Otto says. â“Some of the riffs are riffs I came up with for the Scenesters to use some day. So if you saw the Scenesters back in the day, it's kind of like you'll be seeing me now right where I left off.â”
But a few things have changedâ"for the betterâ"for both men since the days they rattled the rafters at erstwhile Knoxville rock hovels like the Mercury Theater or Gryphon's in Fort Sanders, or at the infamous free-for-all keggers at a long-running band house on White Avenue. Both are married, with childrenâ"Pappas is stepfather to two girls and a Chihuahua named Xena; Otto has a three-year-old son. Gone, for the most part, is the youthful discontent, the anomie and festering self-doubt that once pushed their music consistently into redline territory.
Make no mistake; WHIP!'s songs still rock with merciless abandonâ"check out the band's MySpace page (whiprocks), and take a listen to full-throttle sample tracks like â“Uh-Huhâ” and â“Gas Guzzlerâ” should you have any doubts. But now the energy that drives them springs from a wholly different place; Pappas notes that even the EP title Hellevator hints at the notion of rising above the inner turmoils that threaten to consume most of us at some point in our teens and 20s. â“The word Hellevator came from the idea of an elevator out of Hell,â” he says.
â“I call it â‘getting past the bullshit,' getting to that point in life where you're not so tormented anymore,â” Pappas continues. â“When you're 22 and you don't get along with your parents, you rant and rave and yell it in your music, and maybe it goes away for a little while. Now the music we play is still some violent shit, but the lyrics are maybe a little more positive.â”
â“My desire and my ability to get f---ed up and play in the garage all night has changed,â” Otto says. â“The way we function as a band is a lot more efficient than it was with the Scenesters. We have our own lives, so when we get together we make it count. It's more efficient, but at the same time, it's out and out more fun.â”
WHO: WHIP! opening for The American Plague WHEN: Friday, June 29, 10 p.m. WHERE: Barley's
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