In the studio with Red Penny Arsenal
“Do you think there are a lot violent images in your music?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Matthew Anderson says, nodding. “All of the songs are really violent, actually.”
We’re in a basement studio/rehearsal space in Candler, killing time till the rest of Anderson’s band, Red Penny Arsenal, shows up. In a corner, new drummer Hunter Thurston assembles his equipment. Anderson and I sit on opposite sides of a metal-framed, black futon, a pile of freshly laundered socks and an electric guitar between us. We’re looking over the tracks on a four-song demo CD.
Even at rest, Anderson’s body seems to hum with raw energy.
“When I was writing [the songs] … everything was setting me off,” he explains.
Anderson cut his teeth as a front man singing for such local screaming, angsty pop-punk groups as The Trendys, Junior Varsity and, later, the much-misunderstood Holiday Rd.
That last band helped Anderson develop the most musically. He went on tour in the DIY, live-out-of-your-van tradition, put out a full-length CD in 2002 (Next Exit on Celibate Records) and saw Holiday Rd. tracks appear on a variety of indie-label punk-sampler albums. The group even played a stop on the local leg of the Warped Tour.
Then, when Holiday Rd. fell apart late last year, the 18-year-old Anderson found himself writing much darker songs, like “21 Roses,” the story of a boy finding his girlfriend dead of alcohol poisoning on her 21st birthday. Images of flowers, wine and blood abound; the narrative, as well as the music, is alternately beautiful and harsh, lifting and soul-dashing. It’s far more than just three chords and a scream.
So Anderson began seeking musicians who could play out the musical dramas happening in his head.
Enter Red Penny Arsenal bassist Jared Rutledge. Literally.
“Has anybody heard from Lauren yet?” he asks, handing Anderson a CD containing remixes of some of the group’s more recent recordings. It’s become a standing band joke that Red Penny’s other vocalist, Lauren Habenicht, is inevitably late. With a sigh, Anderson shakes his head and goes to call her, and Rutledge takes his place on the couch.
Onstage, Rutledge’s everyman howl brings some balance to Anderson’s unrestrained wail
“Do you feel like Red Penny is accepted by the rest of the local-music scene?” I venture as he settles in, picking up the guitar and pushing the socks into a neater pile. In contrast to Anderson’s spastic energy, Rutledge is surprisingly unhurried and collected.
“Well,” he says, thinking. “You have bands like DrugMoney and Dig Shovel Dig and Piedmont Charisma; they’re kind of on a separate tier. I think it’s more a matter of style and influences than anything else.”
“I think we need more nu-metal breakdowns in town,” chimes in drummer Thurston, just awake from his nap on another cluttered couch. He’s mostly kidding.
Eventually, Lauren Habenicht rolls in, looking like a tired cat, still yawning and bleary-eyed. The group wants to rehearse, so with only a few cursory jokes at her expense, they plug in and begin. In a flash, the 18-year-old Habenicht goes from a sleepy, recent high-school grad to a spunky, video-ready pop singer with a hint of jazz sultriness.
In contrast to the acoustic set they’ve played for most of their existence, this version of Red Penny Arsenal is now fully electric. The music is hard, heavy and unflinchingly dramatic. Anderson’s throat-tearing screams, Habenicht’s delicate whispers and Rutledge’s occasional hoarse bellows unite with frequent tempo changes, varying from moments of thrash-metal abandon to fragments of haunting, melodic pop.
Afterward, all four members finally sit down together. Habenicht, still sleepy, curls up next to Rutledge on top of the pile of socks. I ask her to define her role in the band.
“I’m going to totally be conceited here, and say that I’m the calm after the storm,” she offers. “I’m the soft side.”
It’s exactly that contrast that Anderson and his group are seeking.
“I want the extremes,” he insists. “I want it to be the hardest band in town, and I want it to be the prettiest. I want to have people that listen to crazy hard-core stuff listen to us, and have people that listen to the really jazzy and pretty vocal stuff that Lauren likes listen to us, too.
“It’s good and evil,” Anderson adds. “Stark contrasts.”
Red Penny Arsenal plays a free show at Area:45 (45 Wall St.) on Wednesday, July 9. For more information on the band, visit their info-and-download page at www.soundclick.com/redpennyarsenal.