Veritas est Rock

Paul Karner

Rising out of the cluttered suburban sprawl of Detroit, four guys donning the abrasive name Thunderbirds Are Now! have managed to stir up some serious waves in the indie world. Battling a scene that seems to be insecure in its affinity for music that doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, the Thunderbirds went from being a sore target for Pitchfork’s boisterous pretension to being one of the most promising bands to surface from the recent dance-punk movement.
The Thunderbirds recently performed over Halloween weekend at The Annex in Madison. Opening for the more sedated Hold Steady and The Constantines, the boys from Detroit seemed to hit the crowd with more energy than their sober, costumed bodies were ready for. Ryan Allen is an unlikely front man for the Thunderbirds. His mildly geeky persona gives his brash tongue-in-cheek vocals a certain onstage charm that makes you forget that he sounds a little like a girl. Keyboardist Scott Allen served as a point of reference during their shows with his convulsive dance moves and almost stoic onstage presence. In the middle of the set he dashed towards the back of the crowd, only to reemerge in a California Raisin costume without missing a beat in his routine. Nonetheless the incessant dancing and flailing had a hint of self-confidence rather than the pandering appeals such antics often seem to become. The songs managed to condense some seemingly epic dynamic changes into their 2 1/2 minute songs. For what felt like an endless barrage of disco beats and sporadic hooks, the show contained surprising moments of clarity where a vocal harmony would shine through or a certain rhythmic figure would get under your skin. It was in these moments that the Thunderbirds managed to stake a small claim on the hearts of the small Madison crowd.
After the show, in a seedy lounge below The Annex, the Allen brothers explained how the Thunderbirds managed to get to where they are. As I mentioned earlier, the band’s relationship with Pitchfork, the Internet music-industry bully, has been remarkably influential, for better or for worse. Their 2003 release, “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief,” was trashed by a reviewer as being over-ambitious spaz-punk. Two years later their album “Justamustache” managed to earn an 8 out of 10 rating and landed them a slot on the Pitchfork-sponsored Intonation Festival in Chicago this summer. The two conceded to the push that Pitchfork gave them, and even hinted at the possibility that their move to French Kiss Records may have been an aid in being taken more seriously. Nonetheless it was impressive to hear the two brothers explain how their recent success has led them to hone in on their artistic goals. “We’re on the same page for the first time as a band,” Ryan explained “We finally have a sound in our head that we’re striving for.” The two also mentioned how the addition of bassist Howard Chang saved the band from stagnation. “Our old bass player Marty was like Kryptonite to the band,” said Ryan. “Howard really saved us.”
Having put in time sacrificing profits for more exposure as an opening act, the Thunderbirds look forward to playing their own tours again. “We’ve put in our dues,” Scott noted. “This is probably the last opening tour we play.” From here on out the sky’s the limit, as Thunderbirds Are Now! prepares for a European tour at the end of this month and an Australian tour in February. “We started out as the dumbest band you can ever imagine,” Ryan candidly explained. “We’ve come a long way, and we’re proud of it.