Blood Brothers

People fill the stone basement, wearing heavy coats, scarves, hats, layers of clothing and drinking the liquor they brought to prepare themselves for the coming onslaught. The place smells of cigarettes and dust. In another era, these people could be hiding from the gestapo. But this is a party. It’s an apartment-building basement off 39th Street and Broadway in Kansas City called the Sleeper Cellar, and this is an Architects show.

Three bands warm up the stage, if you can call it a stage. It’s more a cleared space at the south end of the basement with lights aimed toward it. PA speakers stand on either side, and a mixer sits in the corner. The homegrown Architects set up speedily; they’ve done this more than a thousand times, in every concert situation imaginable.

Before they were called the Architects, they were the Gadjits, the same band but with an additional member, keyboardist Ehren Starks. As they are now, the four Architects have been playing together for only about a year. In their previous incarnation, they played all over America and Canada, from Nova Scotia to California, including a stint on the Warped Tour and gigs in immense arenas and countless clubs. In fact, they’ve been around the block way too many times, come too close to fame to be playing the Sleeper Cellar. Then again, they’re way too rock and roll not to play a place like this.

Household equipment can’t measure the voltage that shoots through singer and guitarist Brandon Phillips when he’s on. Whamming on his Telecaster, his legs wobbly and askew like a cracked-up version of Elvis, he hollers into the microphone, eyes closed, jaw extended, tongue and teeth bared. His voice rings and rasps with full-throttle soul, and when he sings quietly, his eyes remain closed and his body still twitches with electricity. He is the punk Van Morrison.

Lead guitarist Mike Alexander wears his Telecaster slung low. He lunges forward and steps back, standing with his feet wide apart. By the fifth or sixth song, the white pick guard of his guitar is splattered red from a busted finger. Someone in the crowd hands him a flask of whiskey. He douses the finger, shakes it off and keeps playing.

Brandon’s brothers, bassist Zach Phillips and drummer Adam Phillips, hold down the end. Sweat mats Zach’s dark hair to his forehead, and he wears the look of a marathon runner who’s going to drop dead when he breaks the tape, miles ahead of everyone else. Adam is deceptively cool as he bashes at his trap set like a workman, his arms powering the machinery that keeps the Architects going.

For a band like this to give it their all, to play their songs as though they will ignite into flames — this recalls why rock and roll was created.

It’s been a long ride to this basement in Westport, but the still-young band acts as if it’s only now reaching its starting point. Brandon is 28. Zach is 25, and Adam, the youngest, just turned 21. Mike, who has been with the band seven years and is thus the newest member, is the oldest, at 31. They have two albums to their credit, both on local label Anodyne Records, and an upcoming performance at South by Southwest.

A week or so after the show, the Architects are hanging out in the smoking lounge at McCoy’s. Brandon, who sometimes gives off the air of a slumming aristocrat (he pronounces rather to rhyme with father and drops aphorisms like Oscar Wilde), is relishing a Macanudo. Adam, straightforward and witty, sits near him in one of the overstuffed chairs. Next to him is Mike, the sensitive, philosophical one. Zach, the least tame (and most single) of the bunch, is stretched out on the floor.

The four are like a jovial British commando unit from a World War II film. They have spent more hours together in a van than some brothers spend with one another in a lifetime. Each has a matching skull-and-crossbones tattoo, acquired after touring in support of their third album, Wish We’d Never Met. Adam explains the design’s origin: “We’re pirates. The van is our ship, the road is the ocean. We’re fuckin’ pirates.”

Some years, they’ve been on the road 250 days. They have lived together, fought together and stayed together for 10 years as a band. Living in a constant state of action, each would take a chunk of shrapnel in the gut for any of the others.

“Do you know what your shit looks like after eating peanut butter and crackers for a week?” asks Brandon during a discussion of on-the-road hardships.

“Like wet sand,” Zach answers immediately.

When faced with the question of whether they’ve ever come close to breaking up, all four give an unequivocal no. The fact that they’ve never even considered it seems to surprise them.

So it’s no shock to hear how deeply Ehren Starks’ departure in the summer of 2003 shook up the band.

“I cried for 24 hours. I drank tequila and wept,” Adam says.

“He was a mentor. I was bummed the fuck out,” Zach adds.

Starks left during the recording of Keys to the Building, an Architects record in name but the Gadjits’ swan song in reality. Starks had been a musical whiz whose complex, soul-soaked playing formed the heart of the Gadjits’ sound. After spending an inordinate amount of time auditioning keyboardists, the core four decided to give up and move on.

“Fuck a keyboard player,” says each of the Phillips brothers in turn, remembering the attitude behind their decision — the relief they felt in letting go.

“Fuck trying to find another family member,” Mike adds.

It was also hard for them to settle on a new name. They didn’t play their first show as the Architects until April 2004, nearly a year after losing Starks.

Recorded in a four-day session with the band playing live and laying down tracks in one or two takes, Revenge is the first bona fide Architects album. It’s a raw, punky, blunt instrument. The middle of the sound — once held down by Starks’ keys — is gone, and what remains, says Brandon, is “silence versus screaming-fucking-herd-of-mammoths loud.”

Each band member says Revenge is the band’s best effort to date because it’s the most pure. Before, as the Gadjits, the four consciously tried to imitate their heroes, borrowing adeptly from AC/DC or the Specials instead of crafting something of their own. The results were solid — the soulful, chameleonic Today Is My Day is the best Gadjits album (though it got the band kicked off label Hellcat for not sounding ska enough), but it’s not as compelling as what the Architects are achieving now.

“On the other records [besides Revenge], it was like, ‘Watch us swing our big musical dick around,'” Brandon says. “There wasn’t much of a strategy. It was all tactics. If we didn’t know what to do, we’d go, ‘Let’s steal the bridge from “Shoot to Thrill”‘ — which we did magnificently.”

“Now, everything’s happening without having a discussion about it,” Mike says.

Another thing they’ve got going for them is their deal with Anodyne. Because Brandon is one-half of the work force at that label (with owner John Hulston), the Architects have complete control over its business.

“With other labels, it was always up to somebody else, and we felt we should listen to them,” Brandon says. “Now we’re not leaving it up to anybody else. After 10 years of that, I feel uniquely fuckin’ qualified to do what I do at Anodyne.”

Revenge, therefore, means just what the title suggests. The Architects’ days of touring for the sake of touring, of getting duped by shady promoters and club owners, getting ditched by labels — all that’s in the past. They’re tougher and wiser now. And though they’re still not making much money, every cent from now on will be earned and spent on their terms.

That’s the sweetest revenge.

Categories: Music