It's past midnight on Saturday at The Alibi, one of the few straight bars in San Diego's gay district of Hillcrest. A well-oiled crowd packs close to the stage as Dreaming of Tanks heeds last call and rips into the last song of the night.
As the song crescendos into a vortex of guitar chords and off-time drumming, the band ventures into uncharted territory. There may have been a new song embedded in the riffs being explored by lead singer-guitarist Lance Heffley, bassist Jamie Kum and guitarist Randy Benitez, but the crowd at The Alibi won't know. Things are cut short as drummer Mike Desjean explodes Keith Moon-style, sending pieces of his drum kit flying across the stage.
The crowd roars approval.
To the chemically enhanced, the destruction seems like a visceral bonus, the critical mass of a set that seemed to gain energy as the crowd drank on. If only the band shared the same sentiment.
"Uh, thanks," Heffley says to the crowd, "but I wanted to keep going," The other members help Desjean pick up the scattered drum debris.
Earlier that week at band practice, the Tanks had run through their set in preparation for The Alibi show. Packed into the front room of Heffley's house, the band huddled around Desjean's drum kit as Heffley laid out the skeletal arrangement of a new song.
Leaning against Heffley's kitchen window, I could see rain start to fall outside-not the usual San Diego drizzle, but a big-ass cloudburst. Inside, the band has their own storm to deal with, as they start to argue about what part of the new song goes where.
"Overall, uncomfortable tension is necessary for making us pry open the clam of creativity," says Heffley. "Without the tension, we'd be in danger of writing songs that follow the same pattern: Here's the riff, A-B-A-B, verse-chorus-verse."
Uncomfortable tension may suck on first dates, but it's what forms a band's signature sound. Every verse is a compromise, every guitar melody a proposal that's been accepted, grudgingly or not. Whether it was the sibling rivalry of The Kinks or the love-hate dynamic of bands like The Police and Rage Against the Machine, rock history proves that tension good, polite apathy bad.
And tonight the feuding personalities of the Tanks are on display.
"Creative tension can be a bad thing if someone is pushing for something [like a guitar part or a drumbeat] so bad that they don't let anyone else have a say," says Heffley. "But it can also be good because you sometimes need a good kick in the butt to write a really good song."
Desjean offers to slow the song down with some heavy, Melvins-inspired drumming, but the others aren't thrilled. Kum lets his frustration show by performing with his butt cheeks hanging out of his jeans. Benitez quietly glares at the others. Nothing's working.
By now, Heffley has raised his voice to a yell. Despite his bandmates' growing disinterest, he's determined to make this song work. The godz of rock won't settle this dispute tonight, however-the session ends in a wash of arguing and unfinished sentences.
While a touchier band might crack under such antagonism, the Tanks are soon poking fun at themselves for the miniscule flare up.
"We let it all hang out," says Desjean.
"For the most part, creative tension in our band has been a good thing," adds Kum. "It's good to have many different ideas to structure songs around."
Imagine if U2 had grown up listening to the hardcore manifesto of Fugazi and you get an impression of the Tanks' sound. Guitars loaded with distortion and reverb slam up against a rhythm section that is constantly doing hairpin turns with the beat.
The guys honed their craft in other bands, notably local outfits Skydiver and Niner, with Desjean found the same way Tommy Lee found Motley Crue-a want-ad in a local alt.weekly.
The Tanks play the local circuit-Scolari's Office, The Alibi and The Casbah, among others, and just launched the self-promotional tool of 20th century indie artist-their website, www.dreamingoftanks. com. They're finishing up their debut EP with help from friend and No Knife drummer, Chris Prescott.
But right now, the Tanks just want to plug in and play-live is where they shine, where tension disappears for an hour of pure one-for-allness.
"I'm up there on stage with three amazing guys, each with their own weird quirks and ideas, and yet we are able to create this music that people seem to enjoy. It's a rewarding process," says Kum.
"Everyone has a certain quality they bring to the band," says Heffley. "If we can break the normalization of music and push it further, then we are a success."Dreaming of Tanks play with Anya Marina, Actionslacks and Craig Markel at The Casbah, 8:30 p.m. on May 5. $8. 619-232-HELL.