Bowling for Kerouac
I was irredeemably behind. And then, with the four final throws in the final frame, it was over. I lost a game of bowling to Kerouac or the Radio.
Guitarist Matt Cavanaugh, smiling wryly behind his glasses throughout the game, was holding fast to the lead there at the end (with a seemingly unstoppable 75), followed closely by drummer Denny Ball (with a very respectable 67). Vocalist and bassist Jeff Markham and I had been vying for the lowest score all night, and were rarely more than 10 points apart. Sure, I was reasonably certain I had the better of him by the final frame, with my whopping 47 towering over his puny 34.
Obviously, none of us are exactly kingpins.
Earlier, when we’d all sat down for an interview in the upstairs of Vincent’s Ear, the group had seemed to have something up its collective sleeve. They weren’t in the mood for just a typical interview, they told me. They craved something more … unique.
“We want to go bowling,” they said.
And so out to Star Lanes we went.
The man behind the Formica desk was paid for a lane out of sight of all the real bowlers. When we found our way over to it — the next-to-last lane before the bathrooms — we immediately donned our tread-less, neon-colored, numbered shoes. Balls of varying color and weight were chosen. A stern bunch, we adopted serious faces.
And then we bowled.
The combined score at the end of that first frame, band and press combined, was a beyond-comical 11. All seriousness was abandoned. The game, if you could call it that, was on.
The thing about Kerouac or the Radio — if you haven’t gathered it already — is that they don’t care much for convention.
Their music sounds like a mid-’90s 7-10 split of Nirvana’s fat bass and Perry Ferell’s careening vocals, the spare pins waiting to be picked up by a gutter-hugging cannonball of inward emotion, shot clean from the 3-point grip of Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins.
And then, right when you expect it all to stay tight within that groove, here comes a vibe straight from Led Zeppelin — only with that sense of floating in darkness you’d expect from, say, Pink Floyd.
But what’s most striking of all is the band’s approach to the bass, which dominates the music, charging out from behind driving drums and darting guitar, and reining the whole melody in before a song can choke on its layers of grunge, emo and heavy rock.
It’s not like they really planned it out that way, though.
“Everybody everywhere wants to be the lead guitarist and lead singer, and nobody wants to be the bassist,” Markham explained over a pre-game beer. “We could never find a bass player. Finally, one day I said, ‘F••k it — I’ll play the bass and sing.’ I didn’t really expect it to work out, but it did.”
It’s a good thing, too.
“I have a totally different guitar style than Jeff does,” Cavanaugh said, “so the band would sound different if Jeff hadn’t decided to be the bassist.”
He and Ball are both pleased to be in a group that encourages bending a few of the rules of rock. “It helps that no one here is classically trained, because we don’t know what boundaries we can’t break.”
It’s a trait they share with some of their immediate peers.
“We started out as part of a definite community,” Markham said. “Our first show was at a Halloween party, and it was also the first show for Dig Shovel Dig, Descolada, and The Staring Contest, which is my brother’s band.”
That tradition of massive group shows evolved into the monthly free concerts at Pritchard Park, which Kerouac or the Radio helped put together.
“We traded a lot of shows this summer, but then the community kind of split apart,” Markham reported with a sigh. “That’s all right, though, because a lot of us are at a point where we’re a lot more self-sufficient.”
Well before the last frame came up, Markham and I had utterly abandoned the idea of winning. Instead, we spent most of the remaining game talking about Kerouac or the Radio taking the title at UNCA’s Battle of the Bands contest several months back. We also discussed the band’s plans for the near future — occasionally turning to watch the action as Ball and Cavanaugh contended for first place.
There’s an album in the works, Markham told me — a roughed-out project tentatively titled Real Life American Movie. Too, he was greatly excited about the group’s then-upcoming jaunt to New York City to play a showcase at CBGB’s (the band is rumored to have had a great time playing there, in spite of all three members being extremely ill).
In the end, I lost the bowling match to two-thirds of Kerouac or the Radio, narrowly edging out Markham by a mere 14 points — 52 to 38. Markham tactfully responded to the situation by claiming that he was a musician, not a bowler.