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Made in Santa Cruz

[whitespace] Riff Raff
Peter Saporito

'Kustom' Fit: Riff Raff's Odie (far left), Thom White, Paul Netto and Troy Lewis refine their sound on 'Kustom Made Hell.'

Santa Cruz's Riff Raff rages against the stereotypical punk-rock machine on its new album, 'Kustom Made Hell'

By Matt Koumaras

A SWARM OF SPIKED HAIR and tattooed fans prepares to reinvent the circle on the packed Catalyst dance floor one night in early November. The theme song for professional wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin blares through the P.A. system. The band's faithful minions eagerly reserve their mania until lead vocalist Troy Lewis belts out a quick "one-two-three-four." The audio assault of the local band Riff Raff begins. The fans sing along to every word of "Kustom Made Hell," which is also the title of the band's new CD.

Kustom Made Hell picks up where the slick, no-frills slab of Riff Raff's vinyl Stewed, Screwed and Tattooed left off, kick-starting hardcore with 12 songs of blistering glory. The magazines Maximum Rock 'n' Roll and Flipside went cuckoo for that release, and all bets are on that they are going to blow some internal gasket after listening to this dose of punk rock.

"It is finally here," Lewis remarks, "and we're very happy with the way it turned out."

Kustom Made Hell simply doesn't have a weak track. Listen to the intricate guitar between the raging verses on "Gone," and it is obvious that Riff Raff is not a two-chord punk-rock pony. "Just Another Day" shows that the band can play melodic hardcore as well as anyone, while "I Deserve To" is a successful exercise in building subtle tension, then letting it all detonate.

"Red Line" and "Get Away" are brash rockers that the '70s cult punk outfit the Misfits only wishes it wrote. "Why," with its infectious "It's in my blood" chorus, features some high-octane guitar wizardry from Lewis. Forget Mr. Twister and the Boardwalk, it is only a matter of time before Riff Raff becomes Santa Cruz's main attraction.

WHEN I FIRST encountered Riff Raff around five years ago in the smoky abyss of Santa Cruz's Redroom, I thought, noting the band members' tattoos and sideburns, "Here comes another bunch of Social Distortion clones." Although a few of Riff Raff's songs did echo Social D's "Prison Bound" in their nasally catchiness, there was no way Riff Raff could be accused of recycling the same old "riff riff." Instead of offering another stale serving of cookie-cutter punk, Riff Raff emitted intense audio waves of originality. The band experimented with metal, '50s rock, even surf music while giving the music a punk kick. Lead singer/guitarist Lewis cranked out jangly guitar leads too different to ignore. He also had a commanding stage presence, leering over the crowd like a demonic Chris Isaak.

Riff Raff began six years ago when bassist Paul Netto and Lewis decided they wanted to start a band. They had no "principle or theory," according to Netto, they just wanted to rock. The band has grown incredibly since the humble beginnings of Riff Raff's now infamous first recording, the generic, poorly recorded The Demo (which they'll gladly buy back at top dollar).

Netto learned to play the guitar just by playing along with his father. Lewis taught himself guitar by listening to Metallica's songbook. As for influences: "We're into a little bit of everything," Netto says. "I'm into '80s New Wave. Troy was pretty much into the Misfits."

"I'm into hardcore emo," adds Odie (no last name given; he wants to be referred to only as Odie 3:16 after Austin, his wrestling hero), their rhythm guitarist.

Drummer Thom White mentions he was influenced by '80s Orange County bands like the Adolescents and Youth Brigade but also gained musical inspiration from Snail. Through all their various influences, the members of Riff Raff have assembled a clean machine that is one step beyond dazzling.

These days, Lewis wields his Gibson guitar as if he's undergoing a mission from the planet hardcore on the Catalyst stage. His vocals possess an underlying urgency that give Riff Raff a rightness all its own in its sheer power and intensity. When Lewis belts out a line like "I will get you back no matter what the cost" from "Gone," the pathos of a tortured soul couldn't ring any louder.

Offstage, though, Lewis proves a stark contrast to his live-show mad man. He says, in his typically soft-spoken manner, that he tries to do at least "one thing a day" for the band, to make success happen.

"Whether it's making a phone call to get a show out of town or putting an ad together for a zine, it's something I try to maintain," Lewis says. He's also searching out a record label to help support a Riff Raff tour across the U.S.

As perfect tattooed bookend to the businesslike Lewis, Odie augments Riff Raff's live shows with some money-in-the-bank one-liners and Chuck Berry guitar shenanigans. At the CD-release show, he sported a new orange hairdo and wore a rather intriguing stud and PVC-leather outfit.

"I'm really in the band for the chicks and pork rinds," says the self-proclaimed "Tom Jones of punk rock."

Odie started out playing guitar with the local band Stench (of the working-class anthem "Pizza Hut" fame), then served as a roadie for Riff Raff, where he developed the nickname "Odie the Roadie." With his wireless guitar rig--a device that eliminates the use of guitar cable, allowing a musician to sow his/her electric oats from any remote location--Odie is a one-man wrecking crew.

At another of Riff Raff's shows at the Catalyst, he amazed everyone from kids barely out of diapers to crusty geezers needing diapers when he dove face first into the pit, then sprinted up and around the balconies. For the Catalyst CD-release party, Odie twirled his guitar 360 degrees mid-song without missing a chord, and involved the crowd by rapping, "Hell yeah." It's antics like these that seem to be missing from most punk shows nowadays, where bands are busy acting too cool to be real and their stunts seem far too contrived to be authentic.

"I'm busy choreographing my own hybrid of Riverdance/hardcore emo dances," Odie admits as he strikes a sassy pose.

Netto mentions that Odie even has a Jazzercise trampoline in his room to think up new moves.

Riff Raff manages to do the "weekend tour action" up and down the Pacific Coast several times a year, and the band is planning a January tour to Southern California with up-and-coming local punkers Three Left Standing. While Riff Raff shows attract all kinds, the best response to the band has always come from the kids. It's no surprise that all-age shows are what the band prefers.

"The kids get really stoked," Netto says. "There's so much energy and it's so much better than your typical crowd."

Netto promoted all-ages punk shows at the Portuguese Hall two summers ago--stopping when the city said he had to get an entertainment permit to have live bands--and all-ages shows are still important to Netto and the rest of Riff Raff.

"All-ages means something to [the kids] and something to us," White adds.

Besides keeping the all-ages audiences happy and manning the Riff Raff bass, Netto is also the marketing brain behind the band's merchandise--and he's doing a capable job of getting the word out. It seems just about everywhere in town you'll see a Riff Raff iron-cross insignia (sort of the Independent skating logo meets the Red Baron) adorning a T-shirt, the back of a car or even somebody's arm.

Netto says his primary influences are the hot-rod art of Robert Williams and Big Daddy Rock.

A close look at the Catalyst crowd proved that Riff Raff's sleeveless "Husband Beater" shirt, Netto's version of a stylish white tank top designed to show off one's muscles and fresh tattoos, is still a popular choice among the younger punk contingent.

"We made that shirt one day as a whim," Netto remembers. "We went down to Modesto one night with three dozen of [them] and sold them all before we even played. Originally, I was just trying to make shirts that I wanted to wear. Then I made a whole bunch of them, and people started buying them as fast as we would make them."

Troy Lewis writes all the lyrics for Riff Raff, but each member inputs his own ideas to the original song structure. Having each musician add his own layer of flesh to the song's body is a formula that works because it keeps each member satisfied and vital to the end result.

Riff Raff's song "You Don't Know Shit" (also featured on the Santa Cruz Still Sucks compilation) is about the age-old cliché that you can't judge a book by its cover. Like the time a local promoter wouldn't let Riff Raff open for Hayride to Hell because he heard Riff Raff fans were too rowdy--interesting considering Hayride to Hell's fan base is as bruising as it gets.

"It's about people having preconceived ideas about you without taking the time to talk to you," Netto explains. "We hear so many crazy stories about us that aren't true--that's what that song's about.

"We try to put real emotions in all our songs because it's what we know," he adds.

Kustom Made Hell is available at Streetlight Records for $9.98. For info, write Riff Raff, 706F Capitola Ave., Capitola 95010.

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From the December 9-16, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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