Rock ‘n' roll isn't about deciding. You don't wake up one morning and make the decision that you will be in a rock band; you either are a rock musician, or you're not. You either feel the blood-soaked guitar licks pulsating into your vena cava, or you're forever entrenched in the many other genres you can pick or choose from willingly. You can either be the old-school, fast-talking rockers of yesteryear like The Sonics or The Stones, bands that capitalized on chasing women and drinking booze, or you can venture into more poetic territory à la Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Jim Morrison. It doesn't take years of restless nights to determine your stance, but it does take a shitload of effort to find a sound, to dream up a shameless vision. I learned that when I sat in on a band practice for Full Speed Veronica. Their type of rock ‘n' roll? Indie pop rock. And these guys can fucking play.
Formed in 2008 and comprised of Malcolm June (guitar, vocals), Matt Worley (drums, vocals) and Nathan Hey (bass, vocals), this trio of New Mexican instrumentalists has an extensive pedigree of musical outfits (The Hollis Wake, Old Beans, Minim, etc.). But now they call Full Speed Veronica home. They strap on their guitars and get behind the drum kit in Malcolm's basement, decorated with Christmas lights, a Scarface poster in the far corner and a big picture of Johnny Cash flipping the bird on an opposite wall. A dry-erase board near Matt's drums has names of songs (old, new, covers). Electric and bass guitars hang from basement columns. Right away, I like these guys. Nathan wears a white t-shirt advertising the band, white pants, purple Converse kicks, has a bass with an American flag painted on it and a gold-studded guitar strap, his gray/white hair slicked back in a pony tail. Malcolm's bearded facade rests with guitar in hand and a simple t-shirt/jeans/Chuck Taylors emsemble. Matt is dressed similarly to Malcolm, though no hair coats his face.
They waste no time. “Let's let Mark pick out the first song,” Malcolm says. I go with “Idiot's Guide.”
It's straightforward. Energetic. Catchy. “You only left me pocket change ’cause I'll spend it at the bar,” sings Malcolm as he gleefully strums his guitar. They ask me to choose again. “Lullabye.” They pause and give a quick chuckle amongst each other. They can't remember how it goes. Malcolm worries the sound is too loud. “I don't wanna blow Mark outta the room.” I tell him it's fine. If it ain't loud, it ain't worth it. The song has a simple bass line, but then the guitar comes in, its high notes signalling the heavens to come down and take notice. Nathan sings lead on this one. His voice soft; the others come in for the chorus, providing nice harmonies. They're no Crickets, but it works.
The tune is over. “I can't believe I forget the two-chord song,” Malcolm says. “Yeah,” Nathan agrees. “I completely dropped the A's and the E's. Should we play new stuff so Mark can see us mess up?” They start on a song called “Tell Me That I'm Wrong,” which they say is a response to “Lullabye.” The sound reminds me of '90s alt-rock. Then they slowly burn out, coming to a quiet halt. “I still really like your background vocals,” Malcolm says. “I still do that classic rock thing of 'let's bring this to an orgasm,'” Nathan says with a slight laugh.
It isn't until I see Nathan pull out his harmonica that I straighten up to pay close attention. Not that the band had been boring, but once I see a harmonica, the rest of the room fades to black, that silver-coated instrument taking center stage in a sea of Christmas lights and amps. They start in on a spoken word, blues-inflected ditty. Malcolm and Matt join in on background vocals: “Don't you be on the wrong side.” Within minutes, it takes me back to TC's Lounge in Austin, Texas, an old house in the far east side that was converted into a small space for gritty blues. It had sweaty dancing, liquor and loose floorboards. It was dirt-filled and beautiful. It was the kind of blues bar you don't find anymore and probably never will again. “I wrote that song to show the ridiculousness of beating each other up,” Nathan says when it's over, snapping me back into reality. I'd gone in a daze. Good music'll do that to you. “I don't know; maybe people do have to beat each other up,” Nathan continues. “But I just wanna be in the basement playing rock ‘n' roll.”
They begin another song, and I notice the ease with which Malcolm shifts his guitar pedals. I'd never been this close to a guitarist to discern when and why he or she will switch pedals at random intervals of a number, but now I can see. And as I watch, I realize I'm learning; I'm catching the faint noises screeching out of the amp in the corner of the room. Malcolm does it so casually. One pedal gives the song a particular crunch that takes me back to the first time I ever listened to Mudhoney. It's majestic. Then they come to an abrupt stop. Malcolm: “What happened?” Nathan: “I was playing the wrong stuff.” There's a pause. Then Malcolm, Nathan and Matt all start laughing.
Their practice runs for about three hours, though at one point the band takes a break, and we go upstairs to bask in the lofty waves of air shooting out of Malcolm's swamp cooler (and I'm reminded again that just a few years before this, I'd never known what a swamp cooler was). We talk about punk rock, an old Albuquerque swingers' bar called The District, Sleater-Kinney's show at Sunshine, The Cramps, becoming better musicians and not becoming better musicians. As the afternoon sun starts to beam down brightly on Malcolm's north Downtown house, it's time for me to go. I say goodbye and start walking the eight blocks home, and I'm thinking about the band. Their sound. Their energy. And how they just wanna play rock ‘n’ roll. And I can't help but smile.