Back from the dad
A road trip with State, (very) grown men who, after 30 years, conceal zero punk rock illusions
Published: May 11, 2011
It's nighttime, a couple hours north of Richmond, Va., and singer Preston Woodward and guitarist Art Tendler for the punk band State talk in the front seats of a full-size van, jumping topics with the kind of quick-synapse subject-leaping that can make road trips epic (think Dean and Sal losing their minds between New York and Denver), from digestion science to Civil War battles to vaudevillian concertina players.
The band's fill-in bassist, Jef Porkins, naps in the back, and drummer Keir Murray is already in Richmond — he typically jets to long-distance shows thanks to his parents' frequent flier miles — and regular bassist Jeff Navarre is off on Hawaiian vacation.
Hawaiian vacations? Flying in to shows? It doesn't sound very punk rock. But wait. The story gets even less punk rock:
Woodward, a husband and father to five, cleaned out the full-size Econoline van before making the rounds to pick the rest of us up in the morning, but there are still a few stray children's books and a shiny, plastic tiara resting on the console between the cup holders in front.
Since re-forming in 2003 after a 15-year hiatus, the Ann Arbor-based band has made up for lost time, gigging steadily and pumping out a slew of records in the last seven years. To accommodate family life, they don't actually tour; out-of-state trips, such as the headlining spot on the second and final night of the "Winter Apocalypse" fest that has this van Richmond-bound, are done in one-off, sleepless marathons.
Underground punk labels as far-flung as Minneapolis, California, Grand Rapids and the band's own Statement imprint have put out more of their music in the '00s than the band ever produced in the '80s. Still, none of them has outlived the legend of a small-run, 7-inch produced with some mixing help by Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and released on Statement back in 1983. To this day the band still measures its successes, and failures, by its ability to match the energy of No Illusions, a seven-songs-in-eight-minutes-and-change hardcore punk scorcher that rips as hard as any of the early Touch & Go releases of the same era.
While Negative Approach, the Meatmen and other heroes of that day have been getting their deserved due with recent waves of Midwest hardcore nostalgia via oral history, zine anthologies, record represses and reunion shows, the State guys continue to do their own thing — write songs, release records and play shows with renewed purpose and enduring fury — and that seems just fine with them.
A highway road sign for Dismal Hollow Road catches Tendler's eye out of the dark. He digs its creepiness and reads it aloud. (Hours later, on the post-show return trip to Michigan, Tendler will spot the northbound version of said sign shortly before we pull over for some 3 a.m. Steak 'N' Shake. This time, he and his bandmates joke it could be a slogan for their grueling travels.)
There's an Odd Couple chemistry between these longtime collaborators: Tendler is more about chaos; he maintains eye contact in the rearview as he rambles, starts threads and lets them unravel, and he's keen to drop poetic metaphors. Woodward stays on point, focusing on the road ahead and delivering concise responses that can only be taken one way.
The two hooked up in 1980, after Woodward's younger sister told him of a band whose singer-guitarist was "in this hypnotic state when he was playing."
This was Tendler's original incarnation of State, a fast and loose power-rock trio with bassist Jim Campbell and drummer Aaron Jones. They played originals and amped-up MC5 and Chuck Berry covers. "We didn't have preplanned set lists," Tendler says. "We were into the anarchy thing, ... a band trying to get their shit together."
One of the first State gigs was New Year's Eve 1979, supporting the heavily storied Wayne Kramer and Johnny Thunders' Gang War. In those days, Tendler was coming off the glitter and '77 punk scene, sporting mirrored shades, New York Dolls glam boots and a power coif. He remembers gyrating profusely. "I was always trying to be moving for the entire set," Tendler says. "I would do Spinal Tap things, like hump my non-stacked amp. My Fender Twin, I'd hump it. I didn't even realize it was ridiculous. I just thought, 'Well, if Jimi Hendrix is going to hump his amp, I'm going to hump my amp too.'"
Woodward first flipped on music seeing the MC5 play outdoors in Ann Arbor's West Park as a teen. He worked in the kitchen at the Second Chance rock club (today the Necto Lounge), where he caught life-forming sets by the Dolls and Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers.
While attending the University of Michigan, he caught State, who often shared local bills with local faves the Cult Heroes and Destroy All Monsters. (Tendler had cozied up to the Monsters while working at Apollo Music in downtown Ann Arbor, slipping free strings to the first "cool" musicians he'd met, and eventually letting them jam in his basement. Story goes, if former MC5 bassist Mike Davis hadn't arrived, Tendler might've have had the Monsters gig.)
When State needed a bassist, Woodward auditioned to no avail. A year later they met up and decided he should sing with a young new drummer Tendler teamed with, Keir Murray. "Keir was like the second kid at Community High to get into Minor Threat," Tendler says.
With the addition of high school-age bassist Chris Day, the group embraced hardcore punk but maintained Woodward and Tendler's roots in the southeast Michigan rock 'n' roll scene.
Understanding State's musical lineage, or at least traveling for 20 hours in a van with Woodward and Tendler, means being versed in a handful of inescapable band loves, including the Stones, the MC5 and the Stooges.
Yeah, they're into punk and hardcore staples, such as Minor Threat and the Misfits and G.B.H. and Discharge, but it's clear they think of State as a band branched off Ann Arbor's musical tree.
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