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Switchblade 85 rides the swell at CFBG

by Ryan Snyder

Lorenzo Hall plays bass for surf-rockers Switchbade 85′  at CFBG. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

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There was a spontaneous, but not totally surprising instance of familiarity during the set by surf rock trio Switchblade 85 last Friday night at CFBG. The band was cornered under the spaces’ Spartan red lighting by a crowd of around 50 people, almost all of whom were pumping their fists to a guitar onslaught by Brad Biggerstaff during the band’s song “Invasion At the Drive-In.” Drummer Austin Pennington shouts one of the song’s hooks — a tongue-in-cheek bit of B-movie dialogue that was inspired by too many episodes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and then ad-libbed in the writing process — which was amplified with astute precision by a chorus of dozens in the college-aged crowd.

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“Linda, behind you!,” they shouted along with Pennington in one of the song’s breaks. For a piece of music that’s never spun outside of college radio and performed by a band that rarely plays beyond the Triad, the echo was nonetheless emphatic. The show they played was the release party for the latest issue of Shuffle magazine, but in a lot of ways, it was also like a home game for Switchblade 85. Aside from playing almost monthly gigs at the cozy space, Pennington — known by the pulpy alias Johnny Stabwound when he’s posted up behind his drum kit — shepherded the Chapman Street venue for a time while founder Max Benbassat moved to New York to take an advertising job.

“We had been playing solidly at CFBG and Seven-Day Weekend for about two years and for some reason, people gravitated to that song,” Pennington said. “I couldn’t really tell you why, but it’s just fun I’m supposing.”

Maybe it’s the attitude that Switchblade 85 emanates while burning through their capricious tales of crime noir at a breakneck 4/4 time. Their songs are all fast and gritty, and mostly imbued with an element of subversive humor that sets them apart from the median of surf rock. It’s reflected in the pseudonyms that each band member has adopted as well. Biggerstaff fittingly goes by the name Greased Lightning, and bassist Lorenzo Hall has been dubbed Prince Raul “El Diablo” Dominguez.

“I suppose that surf rock’s been around so long that bands have to tendency to pigeonhole themselves into that style of music, and sometimes you have to figure out your own way to not be like all the others,” Pennington said. “Part of it was that we needed an element of comedy to it. When we started writing these songs, all of the have this whimsical element of crime and car chases to it. We figured we might as well have personas that went along with it.”

The band itself is a direct product of the scene that keeps venues like CFBG — an acronym for Center for a Better Greensboro — above water, where bands like the Leeves and the Nondenoms serve as the central figures in a loose collective to which other musicians gravitate. Pennington himself played another band on the bill that night, the ’60s garage outfit Hot Ropes, as well as serving behind the kit for Mat Masterson’s nebulous country-punk band Friend House.

To him, places like CFBG are the life’s blood of a perpetually tenuous music scene, where most musicians are in it for the fellowship out of pure necessity. The goal, Pennington says, is to make something out of nothing. There isn’t a lot of money to be made, not in this economy, not for the venues and especially not for the artists. Hall saw it firsthand as the co-operator of the now-defunct Seven- Day Weekend. Depending on a perpetually broke demographic as the primary source of patronage is the shakiest of business models, regardless of the product.

Still, Pennington says he has a lot of love for CFBG after putting so much time into it. It’s a place where the broke can play for the broke. No one makes much money, but everyone goes home happy. There’s currency in that, just like there is in a lot of people knowing the words to your song. He’s also assured by the current stewardship of CFBG and the venue’s sustainability, especially after Benbassat secured a license to sell beer — cheaply, he’ll remind you.

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