Music Preview: Hi-Watt Hex keeps high-energy, stripped-down rock 'n' roll alive

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With their encyclopedic knowledge of rock music, it's easy to imagine that a talk with Spahr Schmitt and Robbie Tabachka would begin with a discussion about the 40th anniversary celebration of the birthplace of heavy metal (purported to be the West Midlands region of England) or the arcane origins of the "secret devil sign" -- whether it was Ronnie James Dio who learned it from his Italian grandmother or whether Israel native Gene Simmons holds a legitimate claim.

But that's the kind of detailed, heated conversation one can have over a few Iron City pounders with two guys who have been integral participants in Pittsburgh's punk and metal scenes since the early days of seminal local bands such as thrash-metal kings Necropolis and garage-punkers Pilsner and Silver Tongued Devil. More than that, Schmitt and Tabachka provided a crucial locus for underground music fans for 10 years with their management of the Brave New World record store on Craig Street in Oakland. (Last year, the store reopened under new ownership as Wicked Discs, still adhering to a similar punk and metal tradition.)

Hi-Watt Hex
  • With: The Cheats and The Undercover Saints
  • When: 10 p.m. Friday
  • Where: 31st Street Pub, 3101 Penn Ave., Strip District.
  • Tickets: $5
  • More information: 412-391-8334

The latest project that these two have collaborated on, though, could be considered the ultimate expression of their love for rock 'n' roll -- the band Hi-Watt Hex, founded in February 2007 with Tabachka on heavy guitar riffs and Schmitt as the long-haired howling frontman. They were joined by drummer Nick Flick, who was formerly a member of early Relapse Records death-metalers Rottrevore, and a bassist known for this article's purposes as Rhode Island Scott.

How they first met Scott was a strange story, according to Schmitt. "His best friend and his best friend's brother decided to take a road trip through Pennsylvania visiting record stores. They walked off the street into Brave New World and noticed the Wildhearts CD on the wall, then said, 'You gotta meet my friend Scott, that's his favorite band.' So Scott started mail-ordering from us, [but] he was also a Steelers fan.

"He wanted to see a game at Heinz Field, so he came here with his wife, who's from Bulgaria, to see if they liked the area, right around the time we were tightening up the first batch of tunes. At first, everything worked out well, but the resort he was working at in Cape Cod sweetened his deal, so he moved back up there and has been flying back for gigs ever since."

Scott will be returning one last time, as well, to mark the end of what Schmitt calls "Hi-Watt Hex, Mark I" Friday for a Halloween gig at the 31st Street Pub -- an event that also marks the release of their "Electric Rites" album, a limited vinyl pressing complete with a burned-CD copy inserted inside the package, which the first 100 people through the door receive free with the admission charge.

With Brave New World's long history of selling LPs and Schmitt's track record of recording local bands such as Caustic Christ and Kim Phuc, their commitment to the DIY aesthetic of vinyl is no surprise. "We know it's the only format that's been in an upswing, so we're trying to concentrate on the ethic that's still a source of strength for the underground, and with the printing done by a friend, we're keeping it all in the family."

What you can expect from "Electric Rites," as well as Hi-Watt's high-energy live show, is a commitment to rock that has as much to do with hard-rockers such as Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath and Motorhead as it has to do with proto-punkers such as MC5, the Stooges, and the Dead Boys, as well as modern back-to-rock revivalists The Hellacopters and the Backyard Babies. A pickup-driving WDVE listener should be able to comprehend Hi-Watt Hex as easily as the tattooed punk rocker drinking in a South Side dive, brought together in one rowdy, devil-sign-raising mass of blood and sweat by the universal power of loud amplifiers.

"Yeah, it's the same old sounds," adds Tabachka, "but in today's day and age, I think it's actually kind of different. You can't really pinpoint what we're doing compared to anyone else in the city, but I notice other local bands have started to add rock to the mix, and when I'm selling records at conventions, more young kids are coming up and buying Thin Lizzy and AC/DC."

Schmitt concurs but points out one difference between Hi-Watt Hex and the average hard-rock outfit -- the lyrics are more influenced by the sociopolitical commentary evident in mid-'80s thrashy, hardcore-influenced bands such as D.R.I., which tended to be more intelligent than the vague apocalyptic and satanic references other '80s metal bands were doing.

"The originality, if we have any, is in the juxtaposition of the rock 'n' roll with a lyrical approach more substantial than just singing about girls and cars ... [although] we still write three-minute songs with memorable choruses and riffs. People told us after our first show they were walking away with the songs still in their heads."

If there's one stage in Pittsburgh on which Schmitt and Tabachka want to make a stand for their stripped-down rock aesthetic, it's at the 31st Street Pub, a club that opened only 10 years ago but became legendary enough to place in WYEP's top 10 Pittsburgh venues.

"[It] remains the one true home of rock 'n' roll with no dance nights or anything else going on," Schmitt says, adding that owner Joel Greenfield has "fostered that same DIY ethic we have, where original bands can play on a quality sound system and walk away with the door money. That's why we wanted to do the show there."

Manny Theiner is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.


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