By Bob McMahon
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"If you're going to play music this ugly, you need to be really good-looking."
It's probably not kosher to start an article about a band by quoting another journalist (namely Andy Capper writing for NME), but this quote about Pittsburgh rockers Modey Lemon just happens to be the way the band's press release starts off, so it's fair game. Besides, singer Phil Boyd is awful pretty for a man, and the music is as rock-&-roll ugly as Sid Vicious' ass. But Boyd doesn't want to focus on his cheekbones.
"That's something our publicist did," says Boyd. "She does what she thinks she has to do, and I guess that's what she's there for: to do that, handle us from that angle, because that's something we're not concerned about. We don't really like that being a focus, and she knows that. We don't think that that's something the band needs."
Fair enough, but that hair doesn't cut itself. Still, Boyd maintains that it's the songs, not the looks, that bring fans.
"One thing that has always frustrated us," explains Boyd, "is when you hear about a band looking like this or that, or a prank that a band played. You're like, 'That sounds interesting, but are they a good band?' You can talk about a band all you want, but how do they sound?"
Touché. Modey Lemon, on the face of it, plays the kind of angry, roiling garage rock that is too easy to compare to the Stooges. But Iggy and the gang are just part of a wide array of influences from which Modey Lemon pulls: The Moog keyboard (whose keys are now pressed by newest member Jason Kirker) squiggles and slinks around songs while avoiding both the '60s-garage and '80s-electro tropes that would pigeonhole the band. Modey Lemon (named, sort of, after the fruit on the sidewalk outside a produce stand in Pittsburgh where Boyd and drummer Paul Quattrone used to play for passing drunkards) began as a street-playing blues duo, but the blues, in this case, have turned to red. A leather sap of a band, Modey Lemon thumps the side of your head with its songs.
The addition of Kirker, who engineered Modey Lemon's latest release, Thunder and Lightning, moves Lemon out of the now-passé pack of duo rock bands and back into the more traditional number of bandmates. Boyd says it was a fortuitous meeting of minds, not timing, that inspired the change.
"We're not going to do anything to play some media game," says Boyd. "We're going to do what we want to do. There are a lot of benefits [from adding Kirker], but the driving reason for becoming a three-piece wasn't the media."
While the world was astounded for a few years by the power a two-piece can bring, thanks mainly to the sudden success of the White Stripes, most people have realized that you can take minimalism too far. The members of Modey Lemon didn't want a label to affect their growth.
"A lot of bands keep the two-piece thing because it works well and that's how the media knows them," says Boyd. "But we really didn't want to be restricted by that. We did what we had to do to keep ourselves happy as a unit."
"We're real proud of what we did as a two-piece," Boyd continues. "But we just felt like it was time to expand. A lot of the ideas that we wanted to try to conquer, we'd be better equipped with a third member adding more dimension. Fundamentally, we're not going to change. Some of the new songs that we're working on have more melody, more dimension. It's still going to be rock & roll. We just wanted to free ourselves to do whatever we wanted to do."
It's worth noting that the addition of a keyboard player (before, Boyd traded off between the Moog and guitar while singing) doesn't make life any easier for Quattrone. He garners comparisons to Keith Moon, and here the comparisons are pretty accurate: His drumming is so busy and pounding, he's his own rhythm section (quite literally -- in both its two- or three-piece mode, Modey Lemon has no bass player). Like the legendary, self-destructive Who drummer, Quattrone proves that the key to rock drumming isn't diamond-sharp precision or a flailing hurricane of noise. Instead, it's mastering both sounds at once: a flailing hurricane of diamond bombast.
Boyd agrees that having a man like Quattrone behind you makes life easier.
"Rhythm has always been a staple thing in the band," says Boyd. "Not that all of our songs are really complex rhythmically. The thing that the band was based on, even when we were a two-piece, is that Paul can handle more, rhythmically, than the average Joe. That's a given in the band. With the music we're making now, there's more melody or dimension, but that's all on the understanding that when we play these things, it'll be filtered through Paul's drumming. And it'll end more rhythmically interesting."
But you don't want to take "rhythmically interesting" too far.
"We're a rock band, still," says Boyd. "We're not trying to conquer fusion or anything."