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The Apes, says bass guitarist Erick Jackson, are trying to recapture that moment when you, as a teenager, first picked up Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and wondered why there was a guy with a motorcycle helmet hiding behind a bush with a samurai sword. Or the first time you asked yourself why the robot on the cover of Queen’s News of the World was holding bloody humans, for goodness’ sake. You could always chalk that stuff up to rockers’ daily breakfasts of coke ‘n’ pills, or the effects of too much Hipgnosis, but Jackson thinks of the lurid imagery as the inherent “mystery and creepiness” of rock music. He’s infatuated with the idea of a kid fan conjuring sinister sounds in his head from a goofy cover image on a concept album. In the Apes, he’s still coming up with secret meanings for rock and toying with its language of fantasy.

When Jackson was putting together his new band, at the end of 1997, he wasn’t looking for scripted schtick or the blase attitude that seems to afflict ascending scenesters. He didn’t even think of dialing up D.C.’s style-conscious insiders—rockers, he says, with a “wait-until-you-get-this-haircut” pose or a precious “original concept.” Instead, he grabbed a few friends who, like him, wanted to play energetic rock music and take it on the road if things worked out: singer Paul Weil (recently departed from the college-boys-with-major-label-daydreams band Sampson), keyboardist Amanda Kleinman, and drummer Jeff Schmid, from Jackson’s other group, BST Payback.

Most punk-derived rock seeks a genre for itself before the picks ever strike strings. The Apes, however, sound like a slightly tongue-in-cheek rock ‘n’ roll band that has forgotten to build in a gimmick or a marketable trick and has simply gotten on with its business. The band is not retro, emo, grunge, or garage. It rocks—period.

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Yet, given who the Apes are, and given their confessed fascination with rock’s dumber baggage, it’s likely that the band has been the product of a thought-out concept all along. The Apes dare to believe in rock in its most lumbering and absurd manifestations. After all, the Apes aren’t rock kids, really. You have to drive pretty far from the city to find those. They’re art kids masquerading.

Jackson, a sprightly, long-haired art-school grad, makes a living as an artist and illustrator. He, Weil, and Kleinman know the ins and outs of the D.C. art scene all too well. Weil works as a full-time artist these days, with his own studio space that doubles as a small gallery in Dupont Circle. Jackson complains about selling his works in the D.C. market: “People are lame about buying stuff.” Everyone, he says, wants to pay for a painting on an installment plan: “You go anywhere else and people are like, ‘Here’s $2,000, and get out of here.’” Kleinman is a comic-book maker and mixed-media artist; Weil and Jackson cackle when she admits to a past phase that culminated in her rendering Richard Pryor’s head in gelatin.

Why would these avant-gardians bother to form an apparently unselfconscious, anti-style outfit like the Apes? Weil confesses that the band was founded with “a performance-art mentality” and not just the primal desire to lurch on dark stages with axe in hand. When Jackson asked Weil, “You wanna start the band that you always wanted to be in when you were in high school?” he already knew the answer. By May 1998, the Apes had evolved from air-guitar daydreams into a hot live unit.

The Apes exalt the low end and their “primitive” garage instincts, but, like BST Payback, nod decisively in the direction of the Jesus Lizard, the heavies of the Chicago underground. The band’s three-song demo, containing “Lightning,” “Mountain of Steel,” and “Soundsystem,” sounds solid, energetic, and easily releasable. “Lightning” reveals that Weil’s appealing, but hardly menacing, voice can go from ’70s rock-god mode to rap-star-style boasting within the same track. Jackson sums up the band’s directness and affinity for nastiness with his choice of a fuzzed-out, graphite-necked Magnum bass as the lead instrument. Kleinman’s Hammond organ and Jackson’s bass meld into a dense, warm cacophony. And, whereas the lack of a six-string guitar might be notable for most underground bands, Jackson doesn’t treat it as a gimmick. “Our gimmick,” he says, “is [that] we have a vocalist.” —John Dugan