Gary Hankins was a black belt in karate at age 12.
"Well, you pay for it," he says, suggesting that the ancient art's purity was sacrificed in becoming a profitable exercise program for suburban youth. As we look at the certificate framed on the wall of his Allied Gardens home-where he lives with his mother, younger brother and a life-size cardboard replica of The Rock-he explains that his karate career culminated in a huge tournament up in San Francisco (yes, just like Danielsan).
Except, instead of kicking in the teeth of some snotty frat boy, he was pummeled. So he quit.
Ten years later, he's kicking ass again, this time as the sasquatchian frontman for local rock band Scarlet Symphony. In fact, all four Scarlet boys are redwood-scale and gathered in Hankins' living room: guitarist-vocalist Aaron Swanton and twin brothers Zach and Josh Wheeler on bass and drums, respectively.
Hankins opens a record player he pilfered at a swap meet for $25; he puts on Talking Heads' True Stories. The turntable wobbles, but "Love for Sale" comes across with authentic vinyl crackle-pop: "I was born in a house with the television always on...."
A few feet away, Hankins' 15-year-old brother clicks and clicks his way around the Internet; the medium has changed, but David Byrne's (and Marshall McLuhan's) message remains.
Scarlet Symphony originally formed in 2000, but broke up after only two shows due to some bad shit that none of them want to talk about. Swanton moved to San Francisco and did drum programming and keyboards for an electroclash group that almost toured with The Faint (up yours, No Doubt).
He moved back to San Diego late last year, and Scarlet Symphony reformed this April.
After all-ages svengali Len Paul finally booked them at SOMA, the club owner and his wife were floored by Scarlet's tunefully ravage rock. They began managing the band, and Paul used his industry clout to convince reps from mega-labels Sony and Island to check them out. Both labels offered demo-deals.
Demo-deals are what big labels usually offer great young bands like Scarlet Symphony. The big type says, "We'll pay for you to record, and all we ask is that you give us first right of refusal to sign you to a contract after it's done." The small print says, "We'll own your ass and freeze you from doing jack shit while we pretend to labor over our decision, which may take a few years."
So Scarlet Symphony politely declined the offers, and later amicably parted ways with Paul for unrelated reasons. Now, another San Diego icon wants to "work with them," though the band wants to keep the bigwig's name off the record until the relationship is solidified.
They have formed an informal collective with other local bands like The Sleeping People; Goodbye, Blue Monday; Canaveral; and The Viewmasters. Such friends e-mail Scarlet daily offering new gigs.
"We've gotten the most help from other local bands," explains Swanton, who, with eyeglasses and a derby hat, is the band's most serious member. "We wouldn't have been able to do anything if it wasn't for them."
All this for a band that has one measly demo album (released in 2000 sans cover art) and has probably played fewer club shows than there are songs on True Stories.
Possibly it's because of the twins' psychic connection as a hammering rhythm section. Or Swanton's knack for hooks. Or it's Hankin, the feral, poetic frontman with a hair mop of chaotic curlicues and an amiable, boyish face.
As he sits on the floor of his living room, Hankin huddles in a position that is neither fetal nor relaxed. He doesn't speak in congruous, balanced sentences and he doesn't maintain eye contact for long. You can tell there's a lot going on in his mind, and that maybe it's not all peachy. So when he screams on stage-his face cardiac red, his blood vessels engorged to the brink of rupture-it seems a manifestation of real, conflicted emotion, not a performance technique.
As we share a smoke on his driveway at the end of the night, I give Hankin and Swanton-the band's unemployed members-an uninvited piece of advice: Get a job, losers. Save up money, and tour your asses off.
Because though winning over Len Paul and Sony and Island and the unnamed bigwig is impressive, it's some kid in Arizona with 10 bucks in his pocket and a large list of pals on Friendster that really matters.
Love may be for sale for such a kid, but success is when he buys your t-shirt instead.
Scarlet Symphony performs with Spell Toronto at The Honeybee Hive, 8 p.m. on Dec. 27. 619- 702-6010. www.scarlet symphony.com.