The road less traveled

Life on the road — and in the recording studio — is a mighty risky business for The Bad Livers. Mark Rubin, the band’s bassist (and occasional tuba player), explained this to me after an exceptionally rough day on tour.

“Well, you know … there’s a big conceit in the music business about touring,” he said, via the band’s van phone. The night before, the Livers had driven 14 hours from St. Louis to a Minneapolis gig, only to face an uncontrollable crowd that screamed epithets along with its requests.

“A lot of people die on the highway, in between hither and yon. When you see a guy onstage play[ing] music, he literally had to risk his own life to get there,” the bassist noted morosely.

But then, The Bad Livers have built their reputation by putting their musical lives on the line (and that’s every day). Rubin (who hails from Austin) and bandmate Danny Barnes (who resides in Washington state) started out playing acoustic roots music. Soon, however, a layer of punk flavored the mix, alongside other favorite musical influences — call it the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup effect. (“Dan [the band’s vocalist, guitarist and electronics guru] is the alchemist, as far as that all goes,” Rubin is quick to note.) As a result, the group’s sound has been labeled “slamgrass” (as in bluegrass and slam dancing), attracting a cult following — as well as the ire of bluegrass fans everywhere — in the process.

“There are a lot of people who have … an agenda … about music,” Rubin says about critical purists. “They see something in our music that they think relates to that agenda, and so they’ve signed us up for it. The fact of the matter is, we’ve never joined any of those clubs. So if they want to reflect their agenda unto us all day long, they can — but they’ll be very disappointed.”

The group has survived yet another dangerous left turn with its latest release, Blood and Mood (Sugar Hill Records, 2000), which Rubin declares is “the way kids are making records right now.” With this album, all bets are off, as the band incorporates electronic elements and makes sort of a rural version of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (EMD/Capitol, 1989).

“With the Blood and Mood operating system, we’re presenting music in a way with which people can readily identify,” Rubin explains. In a way, Blood and Mood is a logical next step to the band’s early work, which included bluegrass versions of songs by such artists as Metallica, Iggy Pop and the Misfits.

It’s all new territory for the Livers, though, and that’s probably why the album is as fun (and occasionally as rough and silly) as it is. Blood and Mood is a genuinely experimental release, and Barnes and Rubin are like two kids with new toys. Even the CD’s awkward moments are playful, and seemingly necessary to the conception of gems like “Fist Magnet,” “Death Trip” and “Love Songs Suck,” all highly danceable tunes (a theory I tested with a friend in her kitchen — thankfully without serious injury).

This is the band’s fifth trip to Asheville — so be sure to check your rear-view mirrors this week, folks, because for the first time, the band is packing a full array of electronic gadgetry (not to mention a drummer, Steve Bender).

“I’d recommend that your readers come with open ears and with no preconceptions,” cautions Rubin. Ever the ethnophile, he wields a precedent to help make his point: “When Bill Monroe came out, he used absolutely the highest technology available to him, and a lot of old-timers stood around him and told him he was crazy for using it — it was called ‘radio.’ A lot of people thought radio was going to destroy the music industry.”

And if Rubin has his own agenda, it’s more along the lines of “debunking myths” and dodging categorization. “Christ, they’re just records, you know what I mean? … It’s probably better just to express and present people with this joy that you have, and that, in and of itself, will be infectious and interesting.”

Still, it must be asked: How exactly did “slamgrass” happen?

“I guess early on [before Blood and Mood], we put kind of a filter on how we would express ourselves to the world,” Rubin recalls. “The filter at the time was in an acoustic format, and as we got older and experienced more things, both Danny and I came to the realization that it’s better just to play music and not worry about what box it goes into or what kind of outside filter you want to put onto it. … I think the realization came to us when we were working on the soundtrack for The Newton Boys (Sony/Columbia, 1998), because … Danny was leading the Seattle Symphony through his own compositions. And there was a moment there, like, ‘Heck, why didn’t you do this before?’ And the reason was, ‘Because you didn’t think about it.’ We had our own preconceptions about what we did, which limited [us]. And the only limitations you have are the ones you put on yourself.

“That’s kind of what Blood and Mood is,” continues the newly liberated bassist. “It’s like complete freedom, no restrictions. It’s actually been very, very satisfying. I mean, if it never sells a copy — and it may not — it doesn’t matter, because we made this burnin’ record. We listen to it in our own van, and it makes us happy. So we win.”

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