New Operator

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by Mike Gibson

Maybe you've heard the galvanizing new single on rock radioâ"the one with the huge, inexorable riff and the oh-so-powerfully-familiar vocal track, the lead singer wailing like a banshee in the throes of some berserker madness. The name of the song is â“Soulcrusher,â” and no, it's not a lost track from Seattle-era superheavies Soundgarden, nor is it a fresh cut from ex-'garden frontman Chris Cornell's new solo album.

The band's name is Operator, a Los Angeles-based five-piece rock outfit fronted by Johnny Strong, a young mixed martial arts enthusiast possessed of a distinctly Cornellian set of pipes.

A group of mostly unknown SoCal-area up-and-comers, Operator also features one established rocker in the person of former Floridian Paul Phillips, ex-guitarist for the poor-man's-Nirvana Nu-metal outfit Puddle of Mudd. The band is currently touring, playing a series of free and low-cost radio-sponsored shows in support of its forthcoming Atlantic Records debut Soulcrusher .

â“Chris Cornell is one of the greatest rock singers of all time, so I think it could be worse,â” Phillips says of the comparisons, which have followed the band ever since the release of the â“Soulcrusherâ” single.

â“You could be compared to way worse,â” he continues. â“It is what it is. He opens his mouth and that's what he sounds like, so it's not like he's going, â‘oh, I've got to sound like Cornell.' It's just what happens. Luckily, Johnny's got an amazing voice and he nails it every night. So we certainly don't take the comparison as a criticism, and we're not complaining about it.â”

Phillips joined the roughly four-year-old band two years ago. A Jacksonville ex-pat, he'd been living in Los Angeles since 1999, when he journeyed westward to enlist in Puddle of Mudd. He stayed with the band through two successful major label releases before quitting in 2004, a move motivated by both musical and personal differences.

â“It came a time where I had to leave [Puddle of Mudd] to maintain my sanity and my integrity,â” Phillips says. â“I had to jump ship. I put out a bunch of calls, and got a call back from a friend who said, â‘hey, there's a guy in L.A. who sings with this band called Operator, and you should really check them out.'

â“So I went over to Johnny's house and we started writing and demo-ing songs. We got the demos to Atlantic and Atlantic liked them. Since then, everything's been great.â”

Strong's is the band's dominant personalityâ"its principle songwriter, its stellar vocal talent, and its most striking visual presence with his shirtless, carved physique, honed through years of martial arts training.

Phillips says Strong no longer competesâ"at least not regularlyâ"in mixed martial arts tournaments, as he did prior to the band's signing with Atlantic. â“It's not as serious anymore, just because we can't have him showing up with a broken nose or something,â” Phillips says. â“We try to limit the competitions. You can't go busting out a knee when you have to go on stage and rock.â”

But he says Strong still trains fanatically, cleaving to a diet of mostly organic foods, even on the road with a collection of bandmates still prone to rock-star excess. â“There's the healthy side of the band and the crazy side of the band,â” Phillips laughs. â“There's definitely a lot of partying going on, especially where I'm concerned. Johnny, definitely no, but with the rest of the bandâ we go from one end of the spectrum to the complete opposite.â”  

It remains to be seen whether the rest of Operator's Atlantic debut, due out July 10, will fulfill the promise of the band's crushing first singleâ"though an early Penthouse review gave the Soulcrusher album five stars, calling it a must-have for rock fans still misty-eyed for the heyday of Grunge. â“I think we turned in a true album,â” Phillips says, â“not like one of those bands that just has one song.

â“I think I hear a little bit of the spirit of rock coming back in music now, that spirit from the time when rock was dangerous and had substance. When rock wasn't just a faceless song that sounded good on the radio. It seems like there's more straight up rock'n'roll. People just want to play the guitar and turn it up loud. Play it like it's meant to be played.â”

WHO: Operator w/ Mighty Sideshow and Contrast Gray WHEN: Thursday, July 5, 7 p.m. WHERE: Blue Cats

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