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[whitespace] Getting Down: With a new video, an album in the works and plans to hit the road, things are looking up for the members of Thumbs Down (from left): Nick Handley, Adam Wallace, Roland Cameron and Garrett Baldwin.

Photograph by George Sakkestad


Tweaked

Ex-girlfriend fetishes, Canadian dreamin', more lineup changes than Menudo--somehow Santa Cruz's Thumbs Down puts it all together on the upside

By Matt Koumaras

THUMBS DOWN is not your average local punk band. While the group's members readily admit that Good Riddance is a major influence, they thankfully don't fit the mold of local bands that shamelessly ape their musical icons to the disgusting point of complete unpunkness.

Thumbs Down is also not silly enough to be considered pop punk, nor aggressive enough to be considered sheer hardcore. There aren't even any traceable odes to Satan or Casio keyboard debauchery in sight at the band's live shows as well.

What Thumbs Down does well is brew a whirlwind sound of intricate and upbeat music that has been making the kids dance Ritalin-style in circles from Santa Cruz to Vancouver.

"My influences are not really punk," soft-spoken guitarist Adam Wallace says. "I really look for bands that have really good compositions--like early Soul Asylum."

Wallace, a geophysics student at UC-Davis, can play pretty much "a little of every instrument," according to his band mates.

"We have melodies because of Adam," lead vocalist/guitarist Garrett Baldwin chimes in.

"Damn right sexy music," bassist Roland Cameron adds, trying to put his finger on the band's style of music.

'THE ORIGIN OF the band's name, much to my chagrin, doesn't have anything to do with everyone's favorite pear-shaped film critic, Roger Ebert.

"We were thinking of a band name," says Baldwin, "and my friend Jeff says, 'You're all losers. Why don't you call yourselves Thumbs Down.' And we're like ... hmmm, all right ... that works!"

The self-effacing Santa Cruz band has been working hard musically to dispel any notions of ineptitude implied by its name. These days, Thumbs Down whips out a confident brand of speedy, melodic skate punk that has endured more lineup changes since the band's humble beginnings in 1996 than Menudo--in fact, Thumbs Down is still seeking a full-time drummer.

The core members of the group are Baldwin and Wallace, who began playing music together four years ago while attending San Lorenzo Valley High School.

"I used to listen to Illiterit [an ex-SLV punk band that evolved into Reliance] practice in the house next door to mine, and I would think to myself, I gotta start a band," Baldwin recalls.

Thumbs Down played a few high school house parties before working its way to the Red Room in downtown Santa Cruz. "Running Chicken," the band's sizzling, tempo-twisting rock exposé, remains one of the top pop tunes off the Santa Cruz Still Sucks compilation CD.

In 1998, Thumbs Down released its first CD, Tweaked, which proved that Baldwin and Wallace could craft a mean hook-laced tune with clever patterns. The dual guitars soared to atmospheric heights and catapulted each beat to a promise of something more thrilling--and the payoff delivered.

More recently, the band was part of the Freedom Is Forbidden compilation from T4 Records, which included such big punk names as Propaghandi, Kid Dynamite and Strung Out.

The Canadian-raised Cameron hooked up with Thumbs Down a little over a year ago after the release of Tweaked. He is a veteran of many Canadian bands, the most substantial being Fuse.

A CENTRAL THEME of Thumbs Down's soundscapes has been Baldwin's neurotic ex-girlfriend fixation on songs such as the aforementioned "Running Chicken," "Natalie" and "No Good."

"I wrote a lot about relationships because I used to get screwed over big time," he explains. "Writing a song about it made me feel a lot better even if it made me sound like a total wuss."

Pathos-filled lines like "Where were you when I needed you the most?/Did you even care or were you too busy playing with my mind to understand?" from "Running Chicken" are all but a thing of the past.

It was also during these painful teen years that Baldwin published the delightfully obnoxious music zine The Finger. The mag raised literary hell with DIY demons tackling local and national punk bands.

Baldwin, however, vows he's trying to move on to more positive terrain. With the readily apparent ease in Baldwin's Billy Bragg-like bellow, "Champion" can be considered part of the new breed of Thumbs Down songs that focus on how there are solutions to every problem. While opting not to shine the spotlight on the identity of his personal hero, Baldwin discloses that "Champion" is about someone who made a big difference in his life.

The band members' close friendships with each other make all the pieces fit together despite geographical obstacles. In addition to Wallace going periodical with tables up in Davis, Cameron has been working on an electrical engineering degree in Sunnyvale. Baldwin reportedly has sold his soul locally to the Safeway graveyard shift.

"We just practice when we can and play, and everything just works out--everybody knows each other's quirks," Baldwin explains.

WHEN THE GUYS do have time together, they rope it in by the horns. Thumbs Down went on an impressive northwest tour in August last year to Canada. The biggest show on the 12-day tour was a gig in Vancouver with former Santa Cruz punks the Swingin' Utters.

As epic as swigging from the same beer bottles as the Swingin' Utters was for the band, the most rewarding gig turned out to be a random spot on the map in the shape of Roseburg, Ore. As Thumbs Down showed up to play, it wasn't expecting much--in fact, nobody was in sight for the show.

But as the band began to play, a modern-day Twilight Zone episode erupted. "By the second note, all of these wild kids just started showing up from out of nowhere," a wide-eyed Cameron exclaims. "One hundred and fifty of the raddest kids just started going crazy--a couple of the kids even wore bike helmets and started ramming into each other," Baldwin boasts.

A successful show when they returned to Santa Cruz with Pulley (one of Baldwin's all-time favorite bands) at the Vets Hall clearly boosted the group's morale. The sold-out show, put on by Numbskull Productions, made coming home the perfect elixir. The local kids who usually reserve their enthusiasm for headliners were completely enthralled with the band's tunes.

"It was exactly what we needed," Baldwin states, "just to see that the Santa Cruz scene was still there."

But while the Pulley show was a success and the band has sold out the Felton Hall with Craig's Brother in the past, these sporadic gigs are only a stopgap measure.

"Once a nice all-ages club is opened as a regular thing, then my morale about Santa Cruz in general will be fully restored," Baldwin says.

The band is currently finishing up video footage for the song "Champion," which will broadcast on Much Music throughout Canada. Cameron's uncle works for Much Music and helped the band get its foot in the door. Through what is known as a Video Fact grant, Much Music helps fund underground bands with video shoots. The "Champion" video will include live footage from the Pulley show and the usual band "hangin' around the practice room" bit.

"Unlike MTV, Much Music really wants music," Cameron states. "Bands should look into it, because they're willing to support you. Plus the kids in Canada will go off when they see you!"

"They show stuff other than Britney," Baldwin chimes in.

"But we do love Britney," Cameron mentions with a sly grin.

Thumbs Down is also finishing the three-song EP The Shame of Being Ugly to accompany the video. It was recorded at Sam's Sound in San Francisco and Future Rhythm in San Jose. Andrew Seidel, who recorded Tweaked, was in charge of the recording duties on this project.

After Wallace and Cameron finish school, Thumbs Down hopes to become more prolific: more touring, more recording and even more kids donning bike-helmet attack gear at shows.

"I can't wait to quit my job and go on a nice, three-month tour," Baldwin declares.


Contact Thumbs Down at P.O. Box 862, Felton, 95018; email at thumbsdownsc@hotmail.com.

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From the January 19-26, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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