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Silver Spring is a husk of a city during the day, and it offers even less sustenance at night. Especially a dark and rainy weeknight that is on the verge of conjuring a tornado just for kicks. Even so, the guys in the Ruby Dare want to meet at Champion Billiards, a grimy gaming hall on Georgia Avenue, just a few blocks from the Silver Spring Metro stop. I initially think they have chosen this venue because it shows what the D.C. band is all about: frequenting seedy pool joints that serve cheap beer to crummy players on the
grift for a little tail and
just enough payback to cover the evening’s tab.
But the real reason the
band chose Champion
Billiards? It’s convenient for me.
The Ruby Dare’s debut CD, Lurk Late and Strike Straight, is a first-class blast of low-down rock ‘n’ roll. The 3-and-a-half-year-old band, featuring drummer Cinar Akcin, vocalist Ryan Chaney, bassist Michael Maran, and guitarist Burleigh Seaver, has been variously compared to the Birthday Party, the Jesus Lizard, and the Nation of Ulysses. But whereas the members of the Birthday Party couldn’t hold a song together because of the spikes hanging out of their veins, the Ruby Dare powers its way through tunes with the abandon of a raw blues band, thanks to Akcin and Maran’s locked-in grooves. Whereas Jesus Lizard six-stringer Duane Denison churns out song after song of unmemorable riffage, Seaver bends the razor-sharp wires strung on his guitar into dangerous hooks. (His guitar work recalls the angular chordal attack of the Fall, the trebly, single-note squeals of the Dead Kennedys’ East Bay Ray, and the reverbed shrieks of Link Wray.) And the only similarities between the Nation and the Dare are not in their sounds but in their fondness for fashion and their luck in having singers whose stage presence demands attention.
Chaney has the voice of a crooner and the looks to match. He’s equal parts Nick Cave and Dean Martin, Ian Svenonius and Johnny Cash. But unlike the wannabe Jim Carrolls and Charles Bukowskis of the world, who are too thick to separate their work from their lives, the members of the Ruby Dare know that while the whole world is a stage, they don’t always have to be performing on it. In the words of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” the poem that gives their disc its name, they know it’s no fun to “sing sin” and “jazz June” only to “die soon.”
When Chaney is onstage, he engages the audience with a commanding glare that complements his ribald tales of white-boy street-culture blues. He has a deep, dramatic voice and a well-defined singing persona, a refreshing change from the indistinct mumblers who usually front indie bands. But Chaney admits it’s a put-on.
“Oh yeah, of course. I mean, we’re onstage! I love performingwe all dogetting up onstage and going nuts, but it is controlled and it does have a purpose,” he says, taking a break from the cue and chalk. “So yeah, it’s totally affected, but I don’t think that’s bad. I don’t think a sense of irony is bad, and I’m not saying I’m not sincere. I definitely try to have something of what I really believe and think in our songs.”
Still, Chaney realizes his meanings could be obfuscated and diminished by his Nick Cavelike persona. “I do like Nick Cave, [though] he does get cheesy, which is Burleigh’s biggest criticism of him. But [Cave] definitely has a sense of irony, and he’s really creative and vivid. I really try to be vivid with my lyrics,” Chaney explains, though “[my writing] is not something that I’m satisfied with. I’m not as vivid as I want to be…”
From “Shag,” a noir road-trip song, to “Bangkok Baby,” a tale of brothel life, to “The Jig,” on which the singer testifies, “I’m living like an angel/I’ve got scales on my back/And I told you sin’s enough reason to ride,” Chaney conjures tale after tale of debasement.
“Friends of mine who have actually taken the time to think about my lyrics, that’s what they make fun of me for,” Chaney admits. “It is partly ironic; I haven’t lived a seedy life. I’ve lived anything but that kind of life. I don’t know much about the dark underbelly of things. I mean, we all know and live in this world and watch Cops,” he deadpans.
But Chaney’s walks on the wild side aren’t mere titillation tales. From “Man” (“To all our favorite politicos we say ‘hello’”) to “Hell of a Moon” (“There is a moon that is weeping over platinum boulevards in this country we love to hate so well”), there is substance to his words. And even if Chaney isn’t yet totally content with his writing, his high-energy presentation onstage and on record bespeaks confidence.
“That’s how we approach everything as a band,” Seaver says. “We might as well just do it. That doesn’t mean it always has to be balls-out, but we always try hard to convey the effort…and the energy of the song.”
In a time when art is so often deconstructed, its motives gutted and emptied of emotion, the Ruby Dare is caught in a quandary. “It’s hard to strike the right balance…to strike the balance between irony and self-referentiality, which is kind of a requisite these days,” Chaney says.
“You can’t be taken seriously unless you’re sort of cynical and self-mocking. Between that and the sincerity, which music can’t be withoutI like Johnny Cash because of his sincerity. And I think all of us are trying to strike the right balance between something sincere…” Chaney trails off, looking back at the pool table.
The Ruby Dare began life as the Shivers while its members were attending college in Pennsylvania and New York City. But when PCP Records, the label that funded Lurk Late’s recording, realized a long-standing band with several releases shared the name, the label asked the guys to change their handle. Maran retitled the band the Ruby Dare after a tale his Russian grandfather told his father, and his father told him. It begins in 1917, when Czar Nicholas II took control of the Russian army during World War I, attempting to bolster the hereditary monarchy. “But [Nicholas’] brother, who was always sort of jealous of him, decided he was going to at least take over on the home front,” Maran explains. “As part of delusions of grandeur or what have you, he announced publicly that he was going to have this ruby-encrusted Fabergé egg in one of the wings of their palace and have the guards not defend [it]. And anyone who would dare steal it would understand that he would then hunt them down for sport. The loose translation of the announcement of this is ‘the Ruby Dare.’ It’s something I’ve tried to look up in history books, and I haven’t seen any mention of it. Apparently someone did take [the egg], and there’s no word about what happened after that.”
In addition to worrying about the Ruby Dare’s moniker, PCP eventually balked at releasing Lurk Late, because the band members were tied up with college and couldn’t tour to support the record. Up stepped Secret Police, a label run by a friend of the band.
Maran doesn’t seem overly concerned about releasing the disc through a smaller label. “It’s definitely a little less exposure, and to come out as the first release on a new label…,” he shrugs. “But by the time [the CD] came out we had recorded the songs over a year previously, and it was just time for it to come out. It was just better than sitting and waiting and hoping that something bigger would come along. We already have eight or nine [new] songs. We only play four or five songs off the CD…”
“If that,” Chaney adds.
The Ruby Dare’s illusions of depravity may be conscious and partly ironic, but Lurk Late and Strike Straight’s cover photo unintentionally alludes to the less-than-straight life: It’s a picture of Chaney, from elbows to mid-thigh, sitting in a chair, his French-cuffed arm dangling off the armrest. He has long, scoop nails on his ring finger and pinky, and next to him are a spoon and a bowl of white powder. A cup of tea sits nearly unnoticed, almost cropped out of the photo. The scene reeks of heroin chica fact that has attracted the notice of several friends.
“We’re, like, ‘No, that’s sugar for the tea! Jesus! What are you thinking?’” says a flabbergasted Akcin.
“‘Are you into coke or something?’” Chaney mockingly asks.
“‘No, tea. Do you drink tea?’” Akcin responds.
But even the band lineup photo of Chaney inside the CD booklet leads a listener to certain assumptions. Chaney’s finger is resting on his nose, covering it as if it were constantly dripping from riding the white pony. The truth? Chaney says he was covering his face because he had some dental work done the day of the photo shoot and his face looked like a balloon.
Two hours and a few Buds later, Seaver whiffs on two pool breaks. His bandmates let him have it, and soon we decide to call it a night. It’s only 11:30, not exactly a late lurk.
“This world is about soundbites and superficial understanding. And more than anybody, that’s like me. And that sucks,” Chaney laughs as we gather to go.
We exit the dump and enter the storm, Silver Spring’s streets even more barren than before. The last thing the guys ask me is if I need a ride home.CP
Lurk Late and Strike Straight is available at area stores or for $10 ppd. from P.O. Box 2804, Kensington, MD 20891. Checks and money orders should be made out to Simon Mertz.