Breaking Bread With The Smashcasters

If I were to share a meal with this Richmond-based band, perhaps our discussion would take place inside the "battleship"-serving sandwich shop

that was featured on "Man Vs. Food." In between tasty bites of jerk chicken drenched in banana ketchup, I'd do my damnedest in convincing Adam Richman (the show's host) to sample The Smashcasters. I'd hope the man's musical appetite had room for the sounds of The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, U.K. Subs and Cock Sparrer. If so, I'd be more impressed with Richman's ear-stuffing than his winning strategy of adding salty fries in conquering a giant sundae.

Formed by Ryan Nowlan (vocals), Angelo DeFranzo (bass) and Shawn Stagner (drums), Nowlan and DeFranzo had served time in "gunk punk" greats The Halfways. After guitarist Mark Death's relocation to Portland, OR, The Smashcasters self-released their debut EP in 2003. Ace tracks like "Nothing Wrong With Me" and "Fairweather" gained airplay on Richmond stations with a clue, and the disc found the fingers of Andrew W.K. (the song "Where Are You Now?" could now be dedicated to him), Dave Smalley (Down By Law), Micky Fitz (The Business) and a plane passenger from "The Wedding Singer." 2005 saw the launch of The Smashcasters' follow-up, which contained a roughed-up version of The Halfways' "Danger Boy" amongst the strong set. Later that year, the band contributed a killer take of the Redskins' "The Crack" to a tribute album. Country music aficionado John Riggins would've dug its twangy leanings. In 2006, "24/7 Breakdown" was included on News Of The World Mk. II: Songs For Scootering. Rob Charles (guitar) joined in on the recording. Ryan and Angelo are here to add meat to the story, so drop your two-ton anchor for the fifty-foot-long "battleship."

Gunther: OK, which one of you guys gave a copy of the first EP to Billy Idol? Honestly, I think terrific tunes like "Motivated Heartbreaker" and "A.S.A.P." destroy most of what that dude's done since Generation X. I mean, "White Wedding" and "Rebel Yell" were decent radio songs, but "Mony Mony"? Not exactly Joan Jett, huh?

Angelo: That was me. I saw him live in Richmond in 2003. I made my way to the front of the stage and handed him a copy of our first EP as he was singing right above my head. I included a nice little note that told him how much I enjoyed his music when I was growing up, thus I wanted to share with him what The Smashcasters were doing. I think he set the CD on the drum riser behind him. From there, who knows? I hope he at least gave it a listen. I still own his first three solo LPs, but I’ve always played Don’t Stop (with its cover of “Mony Mony”) the least.

Gunther: Whose idea was it to do a street-punk redux of "Danger Boy"? The gang choruses in The Halfways' original lend themselves well to be heard in this fashion.

Angelo: I’d say both of ours. Ryan originally wrote the song while in The Halfways and wanted to play it again in our set. I wanted to corrupt it just enough to make it our own. For the boot-stomping at the beginning, we tried to create it in the studio but ended up having to sample it from a Slade song. Don’t tell Noddy Holder!

Ryan: During practice one day, Angelo and I started talking about about Halfways songs and we both agreed that "Danger Boy" would be a perfect fit for the sound we were going for with The Smashcasters. We both thought that having strong backing vocals would bring that street punk attitude to it. Angelo actually came up with the idea to use the marching boots at the beginning of the song. We tried recording a few takes of us stomping our boots on the hardwood floor. We must've stomped for about ten minutes. After hearing the recordings, it didn't sound that good. Eventually, we found that sample that's used at the beginning of song. Also, Rob Charles's guitar playing brought so much to "Danger Boy." His short, powerful lead added another element to the song. The sound of boots marching at the beginning of the song was just the icing on the cake.

Gunther: How many shows have The Smashcasters played in Richmond and the surrounding area? What were some of the most memorable ones? Was it a conscious decision not to make the trek to Tidewater?

Ryan: We actually only played about a dozen shows overall in the Richmond area. The bulk of shows we played was in the Charlottesville area. This is largely due to the fact that our drummer Shawn lived there. Angelo lived there at one point, also, and our practice space was there for awhile. Also, Shawn and Angelo had a lot of connections at the clubs around Charlottesville, and we had a good following there. One of the most memorable and crazy shows had to be when we played in DC at a skate park. Not to mention that our guitar player Rob Charles and I got lost on our way to the show. It was not the best of areas. It was the first time I went into a McDonald's that had bulletproof glass in front of the cashiers. Once we found our way there, we were rushed down a hallway and up onto a skate ramp. The stage was literally right on the skate ramp, and we had guys on skateboards whizzing by us and hoped that a skateboard didn't fly out of one of their hands and knock us out. I don't know why we didn't play the Tidewater area, because that was our favorite area to play when we were in The Halfways. I tried to book a few shows at the club where Larry May (The Candy Snatchers) bartended. The name slips my mind now, but those shows fell through due to scheduling conflicts. It would have been awesome to play in Norfolk or Va. Beach.

Angelo: No, we always wanted to play Tidewater. We figured that if everyone down there liked The Halfways, they might at least appreciate what The Smashcasters were doing. I think it’s just been difficult to coordinate the logistics of heading to Norfolk/Va. Beach thus far. Between work, family, distance, and being out of the loop on what’s going on in Tidewater, we’ve mostly played close to home. We’ve done about 25 shows in and around the central Virginia area. However, the most memorable gig was actually in New York City at the Pussycat Lounge in 2006. The venue had bands playing on the second floor, while strippers danced downstairs. For the show, we drove from Richmond to NYC, played, and then had to turn right back around and head home because of a family emergency.

Gunther: Angelo, being in the military (U.S. Army) must give you a different sense of perspective and discipline than most musicians. Are any of your peers in bands back home? How hard is it to juggle your profession and avocation?

Angelo: I feel that by joining the military, I’ve basically given up my freedom in order to ensure the freedom of others. This includes giving up some extra time that I would normally be using to pursue music with. There are similarities between being in the military and being a touring musician. I liken touring to the discomfort of being on a field exercise. You feel dirty all the time, don’t know when your next meal will be or when you’ll be catching some sleep. Discipline is a key factor in both fields. You need to have focus and mental strength in order to reach your immediate goals. Despite my notions about the similarities between soldiers and band members, I haven’t run into too many fellow musicians in my work-related travels (especially those with the same musical tastes as mine). Then again, it’s hard to spot any fellow fans of good music when we’re all dressed alike.

Gunther: Were there discussions with labels early on? The Smashcasters would've been a fine fit on imprints such as TKO, GMM and Pelado. Does being tied to a label even matter in 2011?

Angelo: Actually, we were talking to Mark at TKO around the time of the first EP, but nothing ever came of it. We also sent out copies to labels including GMM, but no dice. We have had better luck with smaller labels like Red Star Recording and Gunny Records. Still, neither EP has been properly released in its entirety on a label, only songs on compilations. I hope that changes one day soon. I think when you’re an independent band, all assistance to get your music out in the world is appreciated. I totally believe that working in conjunction with a label these days is still beneficial in terms of much-needed support. If anything, labels today have also gotten more Internet savvy. Love it or hate it, bands need to nurture an Internet presence to spread the reach of their music, and I believe independent labels can often assist with this.

Gunther: Some of my friends absolutely love The Clash. Others think they're not worth the snot in Helen Mirren's handkerchief. With your excellent cover of "Somebody Got Murdered," y'all would seem to align with the former group. Is such divisiveness the mark of a truly great band?

Angelo: Yes. Whether you love The Clash or are completely indifferent to the band, there is still no denying how the group affected music in general (but especially for fans of punk). Since that band was famous for incorporating many of their influences into their sound (such as reggae), we can identify with them, since we’re another band that sometimes wears its influences on its sleeve. We wanted to pay homage by covering a Clash track for our set, but we also wanted to give any track we covered our distinct treatment. We took what we felt was the somewhat overlooked “Somebody Got Murdered” and gave it some cojones.

Ryan: I think when it comes to punk music, it doesn't get much better for me than The Clash. Their first album with songs like "Complete Control" and "What's My Name" had that garage rock, snotty, raw, in-your-face punk sound. Also, Give 'Em Enough Rope is another one of my favorite Clash albums. "Safe European Home" and "Tommy Gun" are great songs. My unfiltered opinion is if you don't like The Clash, you just don't like punk rock music.

Gunther: Angelo, you oversaw the formation of the scooter comp. How long did it take to compile? Favorite songs from the project? Are you currently getting from points A-B via two wheels?

Angelo: Yeah, News of the World: Mk. 2 was released a few years back on my Howitzer Records label. It took awhile to put together, but I’m really happy with the results. The first News of the World mod/soul/power pop comp took nowhere near as long. The graphics were a real hold-up on the second volume. It took forever for the designer to finish the work, and then the proofs kept coming back wrong. In addition to the final version of the record, I still have a bunch of copies of the first pressing, which was manufactured with an earlier, incorrect version of the graphics. One of my favorite tracks on the record (other than The Smashcasters' “24/7 Breakdown”) is the opener “Get On With It” by Noise A Noise. I also really dig the one reggae track on the record: Maninblack’s “Straight Out Of Babylon.” Maninblack is actually fronted by André Schlesinger of the classic American Oi! band The Press. As for a Vespa or Lambretta, I’m actually without a scooter. I’ve lost my taste for the thought of two-wheeling, largely because I had a friend die in a motorcycle accident recently. I’m sure it sounds like a copout, but there are too many morons on the road who don’t see two-wheeled vehicles. I’m accident-prone, anyway.

Gunther: Why should I put the Redskins' Neither Washington Nor Moscow on my to-get list?

Angelo: Well, the tribute compilation is a very eclectic blend of bands and genres, but many of the songs are straightforward remakes of Redskins tunes. The original version of “The Crack” (the song we covered for the album) is a rare track to begin with. Our version even came out with a somewhat rockabilly flair. Besides our contribution, “Lean On Me” by the soul band The Inciters and Peasant Army’s version of the anthemic “Peasant Army” are both great covers.

Gunther: Ryan, did you become a Nolan Ryan fan due to the similarity with your handle? My nephew's name is Nolan, and I still tell people that he's named after the Hall of Fame pitcher. Seven no-hitters. Almost 6,000 strikeouts. A beatdown of Robin Ventura. What's not to like?

Ryan: Yes, my name did have a lot to do with me being a Nolan Ryan fan, but I also thought Nolan was an awesome pitcher. I used to try to collect all of his baseball cards. Whenever my name was called in school, they would call my last name first and the teacher would always slowly ask, "Is Nolan Ryan in the class?" I've asked my parents, and it was just a coincidence that they gave me my name. However, I always try to convince people that I am related to him.

Gunther: Would you like to use this space to update the current status of The Smashcasters?

Angelo: We’re still together. Being in the Army, though, has made it much more challenging for us to practice and play shows regularly. However, we have songs earmarked for our next EP, so we’re still chugging along.

Gunther: Sham 69's "Hurry Up Harry" or The Business' "Harry May"?

Ryan: "Hurry Up Harry" is a killer old school punk song. I like The Business a lot, and it was great playing a show with them in Richmond, but I still like Sham 69's version better. I have always been a huge Sham 69 fan. However, The Business's version is a very close second.

Angelo: Neither. The Business' cover of “Hurry Up Harry.” It’s a brilliant cover version. Would you expect any less of a balanced answer coming from a Libra?

Gunther 8544

Give me 20 days to write something for Hardcore Norfolk, and I'll piss away 19 of 'em.  Which is why my career caps on the site hover around 30 instead of 300.  Nonetheless, I am occasionally inspired by talented folks who call the Tidewater area home.  Believe it or not, glowing marks have been awarded to individuals unbeknownst to me.  My mathematician side would like to construct an NCAA March Madness-like bracket representing the 64 greatest bands in our region's history.  Perhaps Debra, Paul and I will assemble in a conference room somewhere in Suffolk and bring the draw sheet to life.