As the former drummer of the now-defunct, seminal Washington D.C. band, Soulside, Alex Fleisig knows the flourishing East Coast indie rock scene well. Now a permanent fixture in the band Girls Against Boys, Fleisig and his bandmates-who are among the best at marrying low-end rock and electronic music-are returning to their humble beginnings.
Founded in the nation's capital in 1988, GVsB disbanded only several months after forming. It regrouped two years later in New York City after one subtraction and two additions (including Fleisig).
Growing up in a hub of musical lore like D.C., Fleisig saw first-hand what an active local industry and the legend of Ian MacKaye's Dischord Records could do for a city's musicians.
“It's a great scene,” he recalls. “There are a lot of really good bands. There were a bunch of Dischord bands like Rites of Spring, and it was just a really supportive place to grow up in, especially with that punk aesthetic. We really felt we could do anything we wanted to do and really explore all different sorts of directions. We didn't have to be professional musicians from the Berkelee School of Music or anything.”
Fleisig and his grade-school buddies-guitarist/singer Scott McCloud and bassist Johnny Temple-formed Soulside in 1986. Fleisig grew up listening to classic rock, but eventually became interested in what he defines as, “'77 punk”-bands like Minor Threat, The Killing Joke, Wire, The Buzzcocks and The Clash. And Soulside's sound tipped its hat to such influences.
During their five-year lifespan, Soulside recorded two LPs and one EP for Dischord, which MacKaye co-owned with Jeff Nelson. Their song “Punch the Geek” is included in the newly released box set, 1980-2000, 20 Years of Dischord. As happened with most Dischord projects, the band eventually underwent creative mitosis.
“We moved up to New York and that's where [Girls Against Boys] got together as sort of a side project for Eli [Janney, bassist/keyboardist] and Scott,” Fleisig says, now an NYC resident of 12 years. “It is a lot tougher here [in New York] because it's much more cut throat and, in a way, that was good for us because if what you're doing is terrible, people let you know it's terrible.”
Jeff Nelson put out GVsB's debut, 1989's Tropic of Scorpio on his own label, called Adult Swim. The group later signed with Chicago-based independent label, Touch and Go (which now features San Diego bands Black Heart Procession and Pinback). They recorded three albums for the label, including House of GVsB (1996), which attracted the attention of major label, Geffen Records.
Two years after signing with Geffen, GVsB released its highly-anticipated major-label debut, Freak*On*Ica. For the album Janney not only played bass, but also assumed keyboard duties. The album was a stereotypical big label mistake-an overproduced mess that basically neutered a virile independent band.
The only thing that seemed to work was GVsB's notoriously strong bottom end-the heaving, gut-shaking lumber of two bass players and an ambitious drummer.
“It's been really good for me [to have two bassists],” Fleisig explains. “I usually work off bass lines and by having so many of them, including the way Scott plays guitar sometimes, which is a little bass-heavy, gives me a lot to work with. I'm able to play in between them, which is fun.”
After Universal Records bought Geffen Records, GVsB spent considerable time in record label no-man's land. And no wonder: any reasonable executive taking stock of his new stable of artists could realize that Freak*On*Ica was a failure. Only, the label was reluctant to release GVsB due to their loyal-and sizable-underground following. Not getting any support but also not getting their walking papers-McCloud and GVsB finally convinced the label to let them go.
Last year, the band signed a new deal with respected indie label, Jade Tree. And not surprisingly, this year's You Can't Fight What You Can't See shows a great band returning to form.
“The songs are a little better constructed,” Fleisig explains. “After our last recording experience, we wanted to do something a little more stripped down and simple. In the song structures you can hear that the vocal lines and melodies are a little more refined than our previous recordings, but it's also rawer-so it's a combination of a lot of different things.”
Embarking on a new U.S. tour is nothing new. Nowadays, other bands are taking cues from Girls Against Boys, learning from them at every opportunity. It's a switch from the past, when GVsB served as sonic apprentices to bands like The Jesus Lizard and Helmet.
“It's interesting to see the way other people work together,” Fleisig says. “The way we work is very democratic, and when we write songs, we get together and jam until certain parts surface. In doing it this way, it can be frustrating because you lose stuff you really like just because majority rules.
“It's interesting to hang out with bands where a couple of the guys write the songs or just one guy writes them and to see how they approach the process.”