Lollygagging in Pop No-Man’s Land
by Kevin J. Elliott

The history of the San Francisco Bay area trio Nodzzz could have likely began and ended with their self-released 7-inch “I Don’t Wanna (Smoke Marijuana).” Simultaneously topical and timeless, adept and oddball, it’s the kind of irresistible single most work their entire careers to record. Add the perfect logo, the black and white picture of the band in x-ray specs on a ratty couch and the simplicity of the melody found in those vinyl grooves, and you’ve got an artifact that effortlessly encapsulates the summer of 2008. Twenty years down the road it’s the lead-off track on some Nuggets-style comp of turn of the century garage rock. But the guys in Nodzzz don’t seem content being merely a footnote in the annals of millennial underground American music. Though they’ve already become associated with aesthetically similar upstarts that share a love of quick tunes and a DIY technique (i.e. Vivian Girls, Wavves, Times New Viking, and Crystal Stilts), what they do on record couldn’t be further from that camp. Nodzzz infectious and compact sound is surgically clean, while their riffs tumble through a balance of jangle and prismatic resonance. The vocals roll a bit off-center, nearly geek-chic, conveying a smarmy humor that never veers into the comic or the absurd. Instead they call to mind groups like the Dead Milkmen and the Modern Lovers, or better yet Pavement and R.E.M. before those bands began to take themselves too seriously. Their debut 12-inch for What’s Your Rupture? is built for multiple plays, over and done with before the listener can fully ingest the copious quirky twists and turns that belie the trio’s simple charms. After speaking with Nodzzz in the midst of a West Coast tour with their new BFFs, the Vivian Girls, I found that pop is the only signifier the group should be aligned with—that and a healthy, if sonically detached, love of hardcore. If I could make an observation, the trio reminds me of the anti–Vampire Weekend, possessing thrift in design that could easily make them palatable to a much wider audience, even with their tongues firmly stuck in their cheeks.

So can you give your names and ages and where you currently reside (include your neighborhood)? 

Anthony Atlas: I’m 24. I live in Oakland. The neighborhood used to be called Pill Hill because it’s near a hospital—and near a hill—but no one I’ve met here calls it that.

Sean Paul Presley: I’m 26. I live in North San Francisco, where it is somewhere of a no-man’s land, so much of a no-man’s land that everyone on my block didn’t even have our own polling place. Our block is the divider of two different districts. It’s Laurel Heights.

Have each of you been in bands before, and if so, can you list them all, and explain how they differed from what you are doing now? 

AA: In New Jersey I was in a lot of hardcore bands: Down In Flames and Kamikaze. When I moved to Olympia, Washington, I stopped playing that sort of music and stopped playing bass. A conventional hiatus was induced by college drugs and college alcohol. The next band I started was one with Sean up in Olympia called Vacation and another with some friends called Study Buddies. Study Buddies was a fantastic experience for me. It was the first group where I wrote the majority of songs and did all the art. After I left for California, the other members of Study Buddies started Gun Outfit, who are fantastic.

SPP: Gun Outfit really is fantastic. I grew up playing in punk and hardcore bands too. My first band was called Lugosi which started out as TSOL-ish spookycore, then turned into youthcrew style hardcore, then turned into stoner-punk. Nodzzz is not spookycore youthcrew stonerpunk. It’s really pop. Also, I don’t make really mean faces and jump a lot when I play live anymore.

How and when did you come to form Nodzzz? And the name?

AA: I moved down to Oakland in 2006 to finish my undergrad at art school and for fun started jamming some songs with Pete, the first Nodzzz drummer, and Sean after he moved up from L.A. because he was sick of renting out his brother’s couch. So we started the winter of 2006. A dozen or so songs were written and recorded for a demo that following spring, which the “I Don’t Wanna (Smoke Marijuana)” single came from the following fall. That is the tedious Nodzzz history, abridged. I don’t know who came up with the name. It could have been Pete. The name is a little hard on the eyes. It was shorter than our sub-titled name, the New Jersey Dads.

SPP: I think when we first started playing together and writing songs, we were trying to let each other know when the next part in a song was coming up so we would nod at each other. That might be a lie though. Also, my uncle’s name is Nod. Maybe the name came from that. Choose your own adventure.

I take it you prefer short songs. Is that something that’s a conscious decision,or is that just how the songs progress?

AA: Personally, the verse-chorus-verse pop structure makes me feel a little guilty, but it’s what comes most natural to us when we write. Because it’s a predictable structure, we feel more comfortable keeping those sorts of songs short. Plus, short songs have more play life in them. We learned that from the hardcore bands.

SPP: To reference TSOL again, there is a song off the album with the cover that looks like A Clockwork Orange, and in the song there is this part that is the most ripping, catchy part of the whole album and it lasts a total of like seven seconds! You keep thinking they are going to play it again and they don’t! On one hand you’re like, “Fuck! What a rip off!” But, ultimately you just play the song over and over again. So yeah, the short stuff has lasting power.

It seems you get lumped into a lot of different categories. I’ve read everything from post-punk, which I just don’t hear, to Dead Milkmen to Black Lips to Pavement, and I’m hearing things like early R.E.M. and Fuck, so I’m curious to know where you guys think that you fit in.  

AA: When people ask me what we sound like, I usually avoid the response altogether by saying we sound like “nothing weird,” while Sean says we’re “weirdo punk.” I guess we disagree here. We’re not trying to reinvent the pop wheel, but we care for writing songs, in the traditional sense, which could make us a little weird compared to other bands less focused on that. And as far as comparisons, I don’t stress as long as they are song-oriented bands, which I think Dead Milkmen, Black Lips, and Pavement all are. “A song is anything which can walk by itself.” Five points to whoever knows who said that. [That would be Bob Dylan. —ed.]

SPP: Anthony and I don’t disagree about this at all. I am just bullshitting whenever I describe us to people. I don’t think we are weird at all. But if I say that, you are intrigued. I really only describe us that way for the success of the band and to get hits on our sites. And I think it was Darwin who said that Anthony.

What were you listening to when you were recording the record? And what were you listening to in 10th grade?  

AA: I’m not sure. I feel like there was a moment when we were recording the 12-inch when Sean and Rob Barbato, our friend who produced the album, started figuring out songs from Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. I think “Yea Heavy and a Bottle of Bread.”  We were listening to a lot of that song, a lot of the Basement Tapes. It’s a Nodzzz favorite.  I had a dreadful 10th grade year. I am certain I was listening to a lot of self-centered, frustrated hardcore music. I was too shy and stubborn to smoke pot and to get into the looser stuff.

SPP: Yeah, Basement Tapes. In 10th grade I was listening to stuff that was blowing my mind. I also had a really rad English teacher that made me tapes of the Gun Club and Sandinista. Also, I was listening to anything on Revelation Records.

You’ve played with Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts. Can you think of any identifiers that link you to those bands?  

SPP: We all seem like surfers.

AA: The Vivian Girls are all from New Jersey. I feel linked to them through that because New Jersey is an important bond to me. And as for the Crystal Stilts, I sold one of them some E when they came to California last. They seemed like very nice people.

Being West Coast, is there any animosity to being associated with the East? Is there a feud in the works?  

AA: Well, there is an internal feud for me, deciding when and how I can move back to the East Coast. Once Nodzzz are done, I’m going to move from the Bay, probably back to the Northwest or New Jersey. If there was a feud, I would be a turncoat for the East and expose California for what it is: expensive, seasonless and sleazy.

SPP: I’m West Coast all the way, baby. Unless someone out east wants to show me a good time. The East Coast has better food, cheaper food and more food. There’s no way I could stay on my diet out there! If there was a fight between the coasts I would probably be in Wichita, or back in Miami.

Oakland or San Francisco? It seems like Oakland gets a bad rap in comparison, so is there something going on there that the world should know about? Is there a history to the Oakland music scene that you think is unknown? 

AA: Both cities are vaguely disappointing in their own way. San Francisco is expensive, and in Oakland there’s a lot of crime. It would seem that San Francisco is less a relevant place now to do weird creative things because of the high cost of living, but we try to ignore that and do what we do despite the present situation there. One thing I try to do with Nodzzz is contribute the same sort of energy to the band that was expected from people doing roll music in a more spirited, competitive music scene, like San Francisco in the late ‘60s, or late ‘70s. But I don’t want to insert the band into any local history for the sake of feeling connected. There’s been a decade-long garage rock scene here, a beautiful punk scene here, but it’s not us. I still feel like an outsider in San Francisco, and Pete did too. It’s why he moved to Bulgaria. Though the place is inspiring to me, I’d like to think I’d be doing the same stuff if I lived anywhere else in the country.

SPP: I like living in San Francisco. It is very small. It is more expensive than Oakland, and I don’t like that it is expensive. The baseball field is better than the field in Oakland, but the field in Oaktown is less expensive. I grew up in the West Bay Area, so I definitely feel more connected to this side. I was listening to all the punk bands from San Francisco and going to see them at Gilman in the East Bay. The East Bay had Gilman, so that got them points. Back then punks claimed San Francisco, and jocko hardcore kids claimed Oakland. At least that’s how it seemed to me. The Oakland hardcore scene was pretty scary. These dudes would try and fight anyone who would claim anything besides Oakland Brand Hardcore (OBHC), like that movie Edge of Quarrel with the Murder City Devils in it. I hated going to the shows that had OBHC bands because they’d bring their whole fucking posse and they always were causing drama. Also, CCR is from just outside Oakland.