Each fall, the local pop-punk quartet Ben Diesel opens up its big, goofy heart and performs a show in benefit of the Ronald McDonald House. But rather than play a standard-issue set of originals, the band hits the woodshed to prepare a 45-minute covers set. For the past two years, Ben Diesel has, briefly, embodied those twin pillars of modern pop-punk: Blink-182 and Green Day.
Those California bands are the Beatles and Stones of that particular sub-genre: You can love them, hate them or choose sides, but you can't ignore their influence.
"They totally matter," says Ben Diesel singer and guitarist Dan Kelley. "At the time we did the Green Day set, we were a trio. We were thinking, 'What is within our reach? What would sound good as a trio? What would people like?' Ah, Green Day! That would be great!"
For Kelley, who also plays drums in Bassamp and Dano, Green Day provided a formative moment in a young punk's life. "They hold a special place in my heart — at their 2001 Pageant show I got pulled up on stage to play drums for the Operation Ivy cover, 'Knowledge.' No matter how much eyeliner they put on, I'll always love them."
For its latest release, Ben Diesel channels a punk relic older than even Green Day: that of the split seven-inch, wherein bands each take a side of vinyl and fans get a two-for-one experience. For the cleverly and appropriately named Get Splitfaced, the band has partnered with St. Charles-based quartet the Stars Go Out for a more grown-up version of a split: This one features four tracks from each, and while the album will be initially available as a download or CD, the bands plan on releasing it on vinyl in the near future.
The partnership between bands works on a few levels. Primarily, both show a reverence for that melodic, charging brand of pop-punk mentioned above — these eight tracks, four apiece, sit nicely together and show the energy, harmony, heart and wit that give the style its grounding. But the bands also show the variety of the form — Ben Diesel's side is sophomoric but smart, with a wit that can be withering, while Stars Go Out channels a more stratospheric slice of the genre, with lyrics that are a bit more searching and heart-on-sleeve. One is the class clown, the other is the sensitive type, but they both play well together.
According to Kelley, a chance booking brought these bands together, while a few lineup shifts brought them closer. "We met these guys when we were randomly paired together to play a show five or six years ago," Kelley says. "We never played together that much, but a year or two ago I hit them up to play a show at the Heavy Anchor. It just kind of went from there. We've done a few weekend trips together, including twice this year."
When it came time to record, Ben Diesel turned to Stars Go Out singer and guitarist Joe Maestas, who also runs a recording studio out of his construction business. A lineup shift left Ben Diesel drummer-less, so Maestas got behind the kit and helped them finish what they started. He became a full-fledged member, and his presence was so integral that they scrapped the earlier recordings.
"Joe is real pop-punk at heart, so he just totally got the energy," says Kelley. "I will say Joe is a better fit for our sound. He had the songs ingrained in him anyway."
That energy translates onto Ben Diesel's tracks, most of which rely on the interplay between Kelley and fellow singer and guitarist Jason Koch. Opening cut "The Left Can't Meme" carries a title that wouldn't have made sense three years ago, but the song's lyrics about divisiveness and miscommunication will probably have resonance during future election cycles as well. Koch's fascination with internet culture extends to "An Open Letter to Jason Tate," which name-checks the founder of AbsolutePunk.net, who personally banned Koch from the site.
Maestas recorded all the tracks on Get Splitfaced, but he shines as he steps forward on the Stars Go Out side of the split. Along with his wife Julie (bass), his brother James (guitar) and drummer Frank Ciccone, Maestas finds the middle ground between atmospheric and visceral, like Hum bashing out a Buzzcocks cover. Opening track "The Way I See It" works its way up from slow, fuzzy churn to its snappy, buckshot rhythm, and Maestas' vocals are able to show both force and fragility.
For Kelley, the split release is a way to emphasize these bands' bond, but it's also a good reminder that this style of music has legs beyond your favorite bands from junior high.
"Every time I put together a show, I'm like, 'Man, I don't know if I know enough bands to play with us,'" Kelley says. "Then I find twenty — that happens every time. I think there is a lot of this going on around town, it's just that you don't see it until you look for it."