Rock & roll is alive and well in St. Louis, living in sin with the Highway Matrons

Oct 20, 1999 at 4:00 am
Rock & roll has taken a beating in recent years. Mainstream sources (Rolling Stone, Spin, MTV) have pronounced rock dead on several occasions in the last decade, and even as you read this they're huddled around its ailing body like a cabal of semiliterate Kevorkians, lunging to pull the plug with all the fin de siècle fervor they can muster.

They cite hip-hop's domination of Billboard's chart system, the return of the boy group as profitable commodity and the whole Ricky Martin/Britney Spears Marketing Project as sure signs that rock's stylish boot is coming dangerously close to kicking the bucket. They wring their payola-grimy (is that borderline or full-blown libel?) claws and gloat over the fact that folks they touted just last year as rock's saviors (Manson, Love, Corgan, that chubby Eddie Money clone from Matchbox 20, et al.) failed to derail the No Limit gravy train from the pinnacle of the charts. So they declare rock dead (again) in order to avoid the prickly embarrassment of admitting that their choices for Rock & Roll Messiah all sucked (again). But, just as with their prediction that ska would be the next big thing, the critics are wrong, again. Rock & roll is fine. It's right here in St. Louis, living in sin with the Highway Matrons.

Ask 10 people to describe the unique sound of the Highway Matrons, and you're likely to get 10 different answers. Terms like "country rock," "No Depression," "honky-tonk" and "drinkin' music" come up a lot, but the truth comes from Matrons drummer Fred Friction: "It's rock & roll." Friction punctuates that assessment with a belch, so it carries a little more heft in person than it does on the page, but that's true for most everything about the Matrons. Until you see the Highway Matrons do what they do live, you're just not going to get them. Like any good rock & roll band, it's their sound and soul that draw you in, not their image or ability to approximate the sound of the current radio darlings.

Recent "rock" releases mine the industrial veins of metal, or chase Korn Bizkit's tail by adding turntables and beats, but the Matrons stick with the guts of rock & roll and keep it dirty with guitar, bass and drums, and they leave a trail of twisted songs in their wake that kick you in the belly like a Cuban-heeled boot. Friction and Mark Stephens (guitar/vocals) were recently named Best Songwriters in the RFT's "Best of St. Louis" issue, but a better testament to the power of their music is bassist Hunter Brumfield. Hunter used to go by the name DJ Toast back when he was spinning for Sky Bop Fly, and he actively hated rock & roll. Then he heard Stephens play one of his own compositions ("Garden"): "It was the first time I ever thought white people could have soul. I didn't know someone else could write a song that would mean something to me." Brumfield was living in the Matrons' house at the time, and before long, while Stephens and Friction were rehearsing downstairs, Brumfield was upstairs learning how to play bass by playing along with them on the sly. He was found out when the Matrons were auditioning new bassists. "They walked in while I was teaching this guy how to play one of their songs," Brumfield says. "Mark said, "Just take the job, Hunter.'"

In perhaps the greatest turnaround since Saul became Paul and started going to church on Sundays, Brumfield sold his turntables and bought a bass cabinet. Friction maintains that Brumfield is the best possible Matrons bassist, because he doesn't know how to play the bass properly. "He doesn't have any inhibitions about playing the wrong notes; he just plays what sounds right." When you consider that Brumfield is married to Friction in the rhythm section, that makes sense.

It's a safe bet that while Kenny Aronoff was delivering his drum seminar to a crowd of Neal Peart/Carmine Appice-wannabes in the Duck Room a few weeks back, Friction was safely drinking on the other side of town. And he's a better drummer for having done so. Friction readily admits that he doesn't know anything about keeping a steady beat or time signature, and he doesn't care. He likens his style of drumming to "dancin', only sittin' down." There are no precise, metronomic beats in Fred Friction's world. He's all over his kit, but even when he's somewhere he ought not to be, he's right on. He's got the splashiest cymbal crashes you'll ever see, and he hits them from every angle. It's hard to determine whether Friction is purposely clipping his cymbals on the upswing or flailing his arms like that to keep himself from tipping off the back of the stool. Friction says, "It's probably about 50-50. Alcohol plays a role in my performance" -- which is not to say that he's a drunken windmill barreling through sets.

The Matrons have a remarkable ability to stick together when playing, even when it seems like they're falling apart. Stephens and Friction both credit Brumfield with keeping them grounded while they roam around in the night, but when you see them live, you'll have a hard time figuring out how they know when their songs are going to end. They'll be charging along at full bore, then drop off to let it all sink in, then resume playing without any obvious signals or counting off. These blasts of negative space come without warning, swirl around until the pressure builds up, then vanish as the band starts playing exactly where they left off.

None of the Matrons can explain the phenomenon, but they all appreciate it. Friction believes that it's a natural byproduct of their songs: "Mark comes in with the words and a riff, usually, and we try to build around that. We try to add to the feeling of the song." Stephens is quick to point out though, that though he writes a big chunk of their songs, Friction writes the ones people love. "Heart Full of Pus" is a Friction-penned crowd pleaser, but when Stephens sings it, you'd think he was born with the words in his heart. His voice and delivery are bitter and plaintive, with none of the andro-fueled angst that has replaced emotion in too many rock songs. He sings with the song, not against it, crafting a mood of loss and regret that is palpable and strangely comforting. Stephens' wife says the Matrons' songs are "universally personal," which is probably a result of Stephens' presence.

The Matrons are often singing about love's nastier side effects, which is a rock & roll staple, but there is something about Stephens' voice that sounds both familiar and new. If you've had enough Stag when they're playing, you'd almost think his voice was coming from that lonely hole inside you where you keep all your exes. It's a nice place to visit sometimes, but you sure don't want to live there.

The subject of exes and currents is the wellspring of enough material for the Highway Matrons that they are in the process of creating a concept album about all the sordid details. Stephens describes it as the "getting over the last girl, living with loneliness, finding a new girl and falling in love, and then the ax falls -- again" cycle. They plan to finish the album before November and get it out early in the new year. "It'll either be on Rooster Lollipop or Capitol Records," Mark says with a laugh. Don't bet on Capitol, because no one at the majors is into rock & roll anymore. Music written with the purpose of expressing universal emotions and shades of feeling doesn't sell. What sells these days are Desmond Child's schlocky nonsensical rhyming exercises, sung by Puff Daddy and Celine Dion. With Fred Durst and Babyface producing. Featuring a remix by the Chemical Brothers with Cher. But if you're looking for rock & roll, keep an eye out for the Matrons. Like the man says, "The Highway Matrons are swell."