Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I know it’s weak to start with a quote, but after struggling through the smarmy world of rock music criticism (and the even smarmier world of rock music "journalism") I’ve come to relish the rare moment when a band actually has something interesting to say.

“There’s all these young kids in their twenties and thirties trying to be Nickelback. Let Nickelback be Nickelback and be yourself. Because if you’re trying to chase after a fashion you’re gonna be running forever.”

That quote comes from Brian (No Last Name), guitraist for Backlash. It’s a simple logic, but it is one which has fueled the history of rock and roll, inspiring young aritists and visionaries, igniting revolutions in sound and emotion from Elvis to John Lennon, to Iggy Pop, to Sid Vicious, to Kurt Cobain and beyond. The band is always different (Nickelback is only the latest best example) but the sentiment remains the same. Be yourself, play what you like, follow your own vision – be yourself. It’s that feeling that has kept rock and roll from suffocating itself all these years, kept it moving forward (however slowly), and, incidentally, kept people like me from getting real jobs.

Backlash is a Topeka band. Like every other band that’s ever formed in this city, they’re not visionary and they’re not revolutionary, but they’re about as rock and roll as they come. The band was born in North Topeka bars in the early 1990s, at a time when original music in Kansas seemed to be taking off. Lawrence had an active scene, (Paw and Stick had signed to major labels and were on MTV) and Manhattan was making a little noise (Truck Stop Love), but Topeka, though only a stone’s throw from the scummy trails record executives were leaving in Lawrence, was off the map. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t bands here.

“We never played Lawrence in the early days,” says Shawn Ames, guitarist and vocalist for Backlash.

“We were stuck down in North Topeka for years and years. We started as a country band and then realized we could play old rock and roll and still play in country bars. And that was the only way I was able to survive.”

The band survived for years as a cover band regularly playing spots like The Twilighter and other notorious North Topeka honky-tonks.

“At the time it was pool cues and brass knuckles,” says Ames.

“College Hill still existed,” says Brian (no last name tendered), the bands’ guitarist. “If you could dodge a bullet.”

“It was either new country or old rock,” Ames continues. “I got tired of
playing “Achy Breaky Heart” twenty times a night so I was like ‘Come on let’s play some old rock – it’ll be fun!’ And then it just kind of blossomed. We did that from 1993 to 1997 and then one of the members died and it fell into my lap and I just ran with it. Whatever happened is my fault.”

(Left, Shawn Ames)

“Progressively it went from oldies rock to 60s rock, to 60s and 70s rock, up to harder and heavier rock up to whatever the hell we feel like playing,” says Brian.

Today the band has repertoire of over three hundred songs, including covers and originals to choose from, but while, as Ames says, covers are “the bread and butter”, it is the original works that are the main attraction. Hopefully.

“We did our first record in 2003,” says Ames. “I’d always been writing songs before that but we just thought that we had the chance to bump it up to the next level.”

“When I first started writing songs for the band Shawn kept telling me ‘Keep it simple. Keep it simple and stupid,” says Brian. “And I was like ‘This is simple’. And he’d say “Keep it SIMPLE.”

“He would come up with all these glorious riffs and all these lines tacked into these small sections,” laughs Ames. “And I said, look, we get drunk a lot and we play and I gotta be able to teach the guys that come through the revolving door how to play it so keep it simple.”

Their first album, Dressed For Success, was recorded in one day in 2003, and three albums have followed since, culminating in 2009’s self-titled release, which, among their fans, has been the band’s most controversial.

“I knew people were gonna look at it and go, ‘Okay it’s the record without Danny’,” Ames continues. “But we managed to finish it and it all sounds like Backlash.”

“Danny” is Danny Tallent, an incredibly gifted bassist from Oneida, KS who worked with the band from 2006-2008. Tragically, Tallent was injured in a car accident (which took the life of his wife Ashley Tallent) in 2008, and is no longer able to work with the band. Tragedy is nothing new to Backlash – it’s part and parcel of the band, an integral part of understanding where the band comes from these days. In addition to the injury to Tallent and the death of his wife (to whom the band dedicated it’s last record) the band has had to deal with the death of two original members (bassist Steve Miller and guitarist Larry Torneden) and several close friends.

In many ways, the band’s struggle with tragedy is summed up in the chorus of the song “Everything Changes”, the fifth track from Backlash:

“Everything changes,

Nothing stays the same,

Build your empire on shifting sands,

And pray it never rains.

It all seems so familiar,

But at the same time so strange.

Everything changes,

Nothing stays the same.”

“What happens with this band is it gets to a point where it peaks, then somebody dies and you go all the way back to peg one,” says Ames. “Then you go and you peak, then someone dies, then you go back to peg one. That’s why it’s been eighteen years this year in the same band playing the same music.”

But, to alter the proverb, the more things stay the same, the more they change. In addition to numerous lineup changes, Backlash has also experienced a change in songwriting, shifting from their classic, straight ahead, badass rocker sound to a more accomplished, even thoughtful approach.

“The biggest problem we had with the last record is we’d really grown up as far as songwriting goes,” Ames continues. “[The last] record was completely different than the first three. The first record was like three minutes – ‘I’m gonna fuck this girl, I’m gonna drink this beer, I’m gonna drive this car’. This last one there moments where there’s a little Dark Side of the Moon. There’s Beatles elements. It goes from quite to loud without being bombastic. We’ve grown up.

“I got into an argument with someone the other day about how we lost our fan base because of the way we sound now. We just grew up, man… It’s like ‘Wow you’ve got acoustic guitar, you’ve got piano, you’ve got symphony, and the arrangements - you know we’re not just talking about pussy and beer.”

“There’s only one band that can get away with recording the same album over and over again and that’s AC/DC”, adds Brian. “I wish we had that magic where we could just record the same album over and over again”

(Right: Brian performing at Truckhenge)

“It’s like pulling teeth to write a song like ‘Bad Monster’ (track one from Dressed for Success) these days because I’m in a whole different world,” says Ames. “Our second record was basically our rebuttal to The Eyes of Alice Cooper. We were both floored by that record. The second record sounds just like it. For me it’s hard to write that stuff now because it’s so freaking simple.”

And keeping it simple is not something that Backlash seems to be interested in these days. Inside the band, the songwriting responsibilities are shared by Ames and Brian, and drummer Ron Prothe, all of whom have different influences.

(Above: Drummer Ron Prothe)

“Between the two of us our biggest influences would be the glam scene,” says Ames. “We both grew up on Alice Cooper. But where we split is he’s more Motorhead, punk rock era, where mine is going off into Genesis, Marillion, proggy stuff.”

Melding those two influences, which essentially come down to the minimalist punk ethos of less is more, and the prog philosophy of more is not nearly enough, is far from an easy task And keep in mind, after 18 years most bands, regardless of their level of success, rarely “grow” or evolve. For the most part they remain stagnant, rehashing the same shit, playing their greatest hits, reworking their most popular songs, or releasing half-assed crap every few years just to make an excuse to tour (anyone hear the last Neil Young album?). It’s just a paycheck to most bands at that point, and the vast majority of fans are too blind or too drunk to care that they’re being hustled. It is to Backlash’s credit that as fan bases dwindle and venues disappear throughout not only Topeka, but Kansas and the rest of the nation, the band has chosen to continue to grow artistically rather than stick to what fans expect, or even demand.

“It’s a wicked edged sword,” says Ames. “People expect three or four songs on there to be what you’d expect to hear. Fans come and go. I don’t think a lot of the fans realize that we’ve grown up and that things happen with a band that makes everything different. It’s like Brian’s always says, you change a band member, it brings in a whole other crowd of people who’ve come in at chapter 16.

“My days of playing tribute music are just…,” Ames trails off, as if reticent to continue. “You know, I’ve been fucking playing “Sweet Home Alabama” for 18 years every fucking night. It’s a four headed monster because there’s Backlash that plays covers. There’s Backlash that plays its original material. Backlash that does the Pink Floyd show. And then, when we’re fronted by JD Nash we’re JD Nash and Red Circle, and that’s countrified, southern hippie, Indian relations rock. So it’s got four different heads on it. We’re not just pigeonholed into one thing. One night we’ll be with JD Nash, the next night we’ll do covers, and the next night we’ll play The Boobie Trap and do our own material. We cover all the bases, but still we’re like the most loved hated band ever.”

In 2008 the band embarked on their most ambitious project to date – a faithful reproduction of the touring version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, complete with the infamous construction of The Wall between the audience and the band.

“The owner of a local bar had an idea to draw people into his bar by having bands do tribute shows,” says Brian. “We were asked to do an Alice Cooper tribute… [But] we decided to joke around, do a Spinal Tap thing and I said ‘I know, we’ll do The Wall and put shoeboxes in front of the stage so it’s sort of a Spinal Tap version of The Wall!”

“We thought it’d be funny to take the biggest arena show you could think of and put it on this little postage stamp,” laughs Ames.

“And then people wanted to pay to see it so we went from shoeboxes to actual bricks,” says Brian.

(Above: The Culmination of 'The Wall')

“[It’s a] hell of a live show,” says Ames. “It’s about as close to Floyd as you’re gonna get because we’ve stayed really true to the show. All the elements we create from scratch. There are only two elements in that show we’ve actually pulled from the album, but everything else, like all the symphony stuff that you hear in “The Trial” I had to create from a keyboard. Took me about six months because I’m not a trained pianist at all – I’m not a trained anything!”

Despite the occasional technical problem (“Fewer than Pink Floyd”, Ames insists, laughingly), and the general apathy of Topeka audiences, the show has been a success.

“That’s been the funnest thing in the last couple of years because for one, and I’ll say this egotistically, nobody else is doing it,” says Ames. “And it’s not as easy as it looks. It’s a hard album to do. But we’ve got it mastered down to a science. So it’s all pieces and bits, it’s all timing and when it all works together, you can’t beat it.”

And as the band continues to grow and explore new areas of songwriting it’s hard to say that their best work isn’t ahead of them. A summer full of shows looms on the horizon and they’re kicking around the idea of recording a new album.

“I’d like to do another album, because I think our best work is ahead,” says Ames. Or at least a good shot at it. There’s really not a showcase venue around here except The Boobie Trap. Times are really tough around here but they’ve always been like that. So if we do something that’s bombastic and fantastic and it’s the best album anybody’s ever heard besides Kansas that’s come out of here, nobody will ever hear it because we don’t get a chance to play it.”

“My whole goal since I’ve been with Backlash is to create a definitive sound so people say “That’s backlash” whether that sound sucks or not,” says Brian.

“And that’s how we’ve been able to survive like a bad cockroach is we adapt,” adds Ames. “We never practice, at all – it’s like pulling teeth to get us into the same room with each other so everything is always done on the fly and some people dig it and some don’t. That’s the only way I think to play music.”

Backlash will be playing July 17th at The Jolly Troll in Holton. Find them on the web at: