As business partners at the independent record store Brave New World, Spahr Schmitt and Rob Tabachka surround themselves with the incendiary, political messages of much punk rock and hip hop. But for their own band, Hi-Watt Hex, it's all about rock 'n' roll, free of posture and pretense.
There's no doubt these guys know how to rock. Tabachka has played in a long series of worthwhile metal and punk bands, from Eviction, Pilsner and Silver Tongued Devil down to the recently defunct Kabuki Thunder. Schmitt fronted local metal juggernauts Necropolis from 1984 until the end of the decade, and compiled many issues of metal fanzine Warhammer. In April 1997, the pair opened Brave New World on Oakland's Craig Street, and over the next 10 years the store became known for supporting local music.
Yet the proprietors never joined forces in a band. That took the influence of yet another scene veteran -- drummer Nick Faccenda, from early Relapse Records metal band Rottrevore. The three amigos took the stage together for the first time two years ago at a "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" tribute at 31st Street Pub, a celebration of Schmitt's birthday.
But they still lacked one crucial ingredient -- bassist Rhode Island Scott. "I've always believed that a band should be four individuals united in a common goal, in the sense of overcoming talent limitations with passion," says Schmitt. When Scott and his wife finally moved from New England to Pittsburgh, Hi-Watt Hex came shuddering to life. "It was worth waiting for someone who shared our vision, instead of some 'chops-meister' who has the musicianship but not the same musical inspiration," explains Schmitt.
And for Schmitt, 37, and Tabachka, 43, Hi-Watt Hex has turned out to be a living history lesson in the raw power of rock 'n' roll. "The whole idea is us old farts trying to carry the torch of secret-devil-sign-in-the-air hard rock," Schmitt says. "In our minds, this is the school of 'crotch first, head second' pure rock 'n' roll ferocity that goes from Eddie Cochran and Little Richard through Sabbath, The Velvet Underground and The Stooges, then resurrected again with the Sex Pistols and Van Halen."
Wait a minute -- how'd Van Halen make that list? "At the end of the day, rock 'n' roll is just a colloquialism for sex," he says. "And if you follow that philosophy, you go right into Van Halen -- both they and Mötley Crüe acknowledge the influence of the Sex Pistols, the Dead Boys and the Damned.
"Really, David Lee Roth is a student of social behavior who distilled Americana as well as any popular artist," Schmitt adds. "He may not have been as literal as Springsteen, who gets credit for saving rock 'n' roll from disco, but I'd say he was equally relevant. ... Look at a song like 'Jamie's Cryin'' -- there's not a whole lot of guys singing about how he's going to use you and throw you away. That has a social conscience."
And indeed, for a visceral band like Hi-Watt Hex, the message of its own songs, such as "Trash City," is surprisingly topical. "It's just anthemic rock, but it also deals with social commentary on the state of America," explains Schmitt.
"The generation we came from is disappointed in the American dream and our place in it," he continues. "We're the children of working-class people who once made a decent living in the era of industrial prosperity, and without that, our opportunities are somewhat diminished. So there's a bit of dystopian angst at the core. I think we're trying to make things positive, though -- not changing the world political situation, but trying to find our place in the current social climate."
On paper, Schmitt's musings might resemble those of your favorite sociology professor. But Hi-Watt Hex comes across as original, in-your-face fervor -- a bit sensational and over-the-top, but not deadly serious -- from a group of guys who've grown up with the spirit of rock 'n' roll in their veins. "For the most part, that [sound] isn't really represented in Pittsburgh, so anyone who likes that side of things will like what we're doing," Schmitt says.
"We're not going at this for any other reason than the cathartic aspect," he adds. Perish the thought of any real attempt at stardom amidst decrepitude. "It's an exercise in bridging the gap between the power of our youth and the reality of our adulthood."
Hi-Watt Hex with Test Patterns, Gito Gito Hustler and The Burndowns. 10 p.m. Fri., March 2. 31st Street Pub, 3101 Penn Ave., Strip District. $7. 412-391-8334 or www.31stpub.com