Coming up with a catchy hook for a Death by Stereo story is like shooting fish in a barrel. Their forthcoming record is called Death Alive. Their last release was titled Death for Life and their debut album bears the name Fluffy Kittens and Pink Unicorns... just kidding. It's called If Looks Could Kill, I'd Watch You Die. Are you finding a theme here?
So, we've got death, death and more death. More death than a day in Iraq? More death than a night out in Newark? More death than a 14-year-old Goth girl's MySpace page? Let's get dead and see if we can't figure out how much grave digging the band is actually doing.
Death by Stereo formed in 1996 in Orange County, California -- a suburban wasteland that breeds bands like Petri dishes breed bacteria. The five original members (Ian Fowles, Jarrod Alexander, Efrem Schulz, Paul Miner and Jim Miner, for you completists out there) came together while playing in various other hardcore bands in the local scene. They started playing out in 1998 and released their first record on Indecision Records in 1999. By this time, three of the original band members had already taken their leave, starting a trend that would continue to this day; lead singer Efrem Schulz is currently the only original member still in the band.
After spending 1999 on the road, the band was approached by Epitaph Records, who signed them in 2000. Being signed to one of the best-known punk rock labels around certainly didn't hurt Death by Stereo's career, and after releasing 2001's Day of the Death, they hit the road with the Warped Tour. Unfortunately, the tour was rife with strife, and they summed up their experience on their 2003 album with a song called "I Wouldn't Piss In Your Ear If Your Brain Was On Fire."
After their less-than-enjoyable Warped experience, Death by Stereo continued to record, tour and change band members more often than celebrities switch romantic partners. In 2005, they released Death for Life, and they're planning to put out a live album in March.
Now that the supporting details have been dispensed with, we can get on to the two more important matters: what in the world do these guys sound like, and where did they develop an obsession with the end of life that would creep even Bauhaus out?
The first question is easy enough to answer. Like almost any band who released material on Epitaph, Death by Stereo is a hardcore punk band. It's not a genre that lends itself to much stylization or hybridization (very few hardcore punk bands incorporate artier elements), although it should be noted that Death by Stereo tends to feature mathier, meatier guitar parts than many of their contemporaries. When asked about his top five bands and albums, Schulz name-drops bands like the Dead Kennedys (of course), Bad Religion, Slayer and Fishbone.
Unlike rock bands who rattle off lists of hip bands while sounding like Creed, Death by Stereo sounds almost exactly like their influences. While they're not as political as the Dead Kennedys or Bad Religion, the band does tend to take a broader lyrical view of the world at large and write refreshingly few songs about being dumped by girls. People describing the sound of the guitars tend to use the term "shred," and, as much as that term reminds me of Beavis and Butthead, I have to agree. The music is loud and chugging, and the testosterone practically spills out of my iPod whenever I listen to any of the tracks. While the band members have matured as musicians over the course of their recordings, most of the albums adhere to the same basic formula, and while they occasionally throw in an ill-advised power ballad, listeners generally find plenty of screaming and thrashing to satiate their aggression.
The last and most mysterious part of the Death by Stereo formula is their obsession with all things deceased. Their songs have names like "Wake Up, You're Dead," "Entombed We Collide," and "I Give My Life." While the band's name was taken from a scene in the film The Lost Boys, and many of their lyrics deal with various permutations of death (emotional, spiritual, physical), they have never publicly commented on the root of the obsession with the end of life.
The simplest explanation is also the most cynical: the band found a shtick and stuck to it. Teenagers, usually having dealt very little with the harsh reality of death, tend to romanticize it and flock like moths to a lamp to anything that deals with the concept of dying. These kids generally find Romeo and Juliet brave, and spend a great deal of time dreaming of their own funerals, without taking into account the finality of the end of life.
The less cynical theory is that Death by Stereo is just as concerned with and consumed by the amount of death we have to process on a daily basis, and writing songs about it is their way of exploring their grief. It can be confusing and difficult to have to digest the numbers of people who are killed every day, and rather than simply shoving their need to mourn aside, the members of the band have chosen to deal with it publicly. Their music can provide catharsis for those who are struggling with loss and coping with sadness.
The third theory, I guess, is that their obsession with death springs from necrophilia. In which case, I'd suggest locking the cemetery gates the night they come to town.
Death by Stereo with Rise Against and Planes Mistaken for Stars at the Big Easy on Sunday, Jan. 17 at 8 pm. $. Visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 325-SEAT.