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Rock/Pop

Wild things

West Coast label aims to save rock íní roll with a modern take on the devilís music

Not "nostalgic '50s bullshit": Luis & the Wildfires.
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Published 11/28/2007

"It frustrates me that people use the term 'indie music' but they think what we do is some sort of nostalgic '50s bullshit," says Wild Records founder, producer and president Reb Kennedy. "Indie is short for independent, obviously. Well, there's nothing more independent than what we do. We record our records ourselves in our own studio. We mix and master our records. We hand-make our sleeves. ... I mean, we are the true modern independent. We are the breath of fresh air. We are the underground cult.

"Unfortunately, when folks hear the word 'rockabilly,' they envision bands trying to imitate shit like the Stray Cats. And it's just done so badly. I think 95 percent of all bands out there playing a variation of rockabilly or '50s rock 'n' roll are a pile of shit. They actually do more harm than good by existing."

Kennedy, an Irishman who moved to England as a teenager just in time to witness the punk explosion of '76, has a great point. Revisionist history has rarely diluted a genre of music to the extent that it has rock 'n' roll's first big bang. But if he and his "Wild Records Family" — as he's come to refer to the stable of artists he manages, books and produces — have their way, that unfortunate trend will end.

The L.A.-based imprint's latest releases, Luis and the Wildfires' Brainjail and Omar Romero's Hog Wild, don't so much take the time to argue the notion as to simply assassinate it in a hail of pounding piano, trance-inducing maracas and screeching guitars.

Short-circuiting rockabilly, garage and the nastiest John Lee Hooker-fueled boogie, they're the kind of albums that strike the perfect balance between pure musicality and pure madness. They don't just stand up to repeated listening; they demand it. Not because they lack spontaneity and immediacy but because they're overflowing with it.

A visit to wildpresents.com reveals similarly lethal discs by Dustin Chance and the Allnighters; Santos; Chuy and the Bobcats; Li'l Gizelle; the Vargas Brothers and the High Strung Ramblers. Less prolific — but no less atomic — artists like Pat James and the Tomahawks and Rockin' Ryan join the crew on Wild Presents: The Young Breed, a seamless tour de force that runs the gamut from the Wildfires' brilliantly brakeless "Like A Storm" to Romero's primal take on the Rio Rockers' "Mexicali Baby." Ryan even salutes the Motor City by tackling Johnny Buckett's lascivious Fortune Records classic "Griddle Greasin' Daddy," just as Omar and Chuy did with their menacing reinventions of Detroit gems like Ray Taylor's "Connie Lou" and Johnny Powers' "Long Blond Hair" on Wild's previous compilation, the two-disc strong The Wildest.

It all started six years ago when the Wildfires approached Kennedy about booking their previous combo, L'il Luis y los Wild Teens. He went one better and recorded them. The resulting single, "La Rebeldonna," kick-started the label when it became an underground club hit.

Sung in Spanish, with a sleeve that boasted "Wild Mexican Rock 'n' Roll," the single established Wild as a Latino record label, which Kennedy stresses was never — and still isn't — his intention. He records artists he believes in, without regard to race or heritage. It just so happens that many are Latino.

"There are 12 bands on the label at the moment," Kennedy says. "It's a very bizarre thing, but all of those guys work together, interact together, drink together. They trust each other and they support each other. We're perceived as a traditional record label. But we can only survive because of that unity. I think what creates the unity, and makes the guys feel really happy about being together, is that they know I'm always taking care of business for them. All they have to do is rehearse their songs and play them live. Nothing else. It means they can focus on what's important, and that's the music."

The bands pool their talents in the garage behind Kennedy's house, which is outfitted with ribbon microphones, a Tascam reel-to-reel tape recorder and that vicious hallmark of the Wild sound —Vox tube guitar amps.

"On most of our stuff, the guitar's not doing anything until it lets rip," Kennedy says. "I believe the guitar has a job to do and that's to come in and just murder people. And that's it. Then get the hell out of there. Do the damage and leave. That's how we approach our songs."

In fact, it's how the Wild Records Family approaches everything. Their showcase at the Rockin' '50s Fest in Green Bay, Wis., last summer was one example. A weeklong, around-the-clock event that took place at the Indian-owned Oneida Casino, Detroit's own Jack Scott christened the opening night, setting the stage for the bar-walking tenor sax raunch of Big Jay McNeely, the white-hot Texas soul antics of Roy Head, the rocking doowop of the Five Keys and the twangy harmony of the Collins Kids. But as good as the original rockers, from Little Richard to Wanda Jackson, were — and most were jaw-dropping — it was somehow fitting that the most riotous show of the entire week took place at Purcell's Lounge, a tiny bar buried in the bowels of the Oneida Casino. It was so far away from the rest of the action that it felt like more a part of the adjoining hotel than the casino itself. But bottles and glasses of every size and description littered the stage and floor of the place after the Wild showcase.

Their plane had been late, their schedule scrambled. Nevertheless, the Wild Family descended upon the casino like a unified atom bomb. One only had to stumble in and witness a few seconds of L'il Gizelle's bluesy "Baby Please Don't Go" to be converted. It wasn't just the music. It was the whole crazy scene. Half of the label's roster was on the dance floor, simultaneously swilling, smoking and shaking as a reunited L'il Luis y los Wild Teens backed Gizelle with fiery abandon.

A typical Wild recording session is no different: an instant house party crammed with label mates cheering each other on, lending a hand and getting happily hammered.

"I think what having a few drinks — or a lot of drinks — captures is the same intensity that you can capture live. Apart from the Presley sessions, almost everyone on Sun Records recorded in a haze of Thunderbird. It gives the musicians that energy, that looseness. So our sessions start out with a lot of alcohol. We record rock 'n' roll music so we want the fire. We want the devil there.

"I was in London in '76," Kennedy continues, "so I was fortunate enough to have seen all of the first-wave punk bands — the Clash, the Buzzcocks, all that good stuff. Then I worked for Rough Trade Records in '78, when they had Stiff Little Fingers, a lot of reggae. So I'm pretty eclectic in what I listen to. What's exciting to me is that I think we're capturing some of that energy that existed in late '76 and early '77. In a lot of ways, the energy that's created by my guys will frighten some people. But if you want to listen to bland '50s rock 'n' roll, there are a lot of bands out there doing that. Our shows are not safe, though. We're talking about young guys — the average age is under 25. They want to chase women and get drunk out of their minds. And that's what their music should sound like."

For more, go to wildpresents.com.

Michael Hurtt is a freelance writer living in Detroit. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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