"I'm always surfing the guitar Web sites," guitarist/singer Caleb explains. "I heard you can get free strings from some of them, and we go through strings like cigarettes." (Both he and guitarist Keith chain-smoke as Caleb speaks.) "I found this Ernie Ball Battle of the Bands contest on their site, filled out the registration and then didn't hear anything for two months. Finally, they called and said we'd be playing Sandstone. I was like, 'You're fucking kidding me.'"
Now Caleb, who has never even attended a concert at Sandstone, is about a week away from playing there, albeit on a portable stage erected in the parking lot. Still, it's a pretty huge jump after months of hosting house parties or just letting people sit in on practices. "We started locking the door after a while," Caleb reports. "We weren't getting anything done."
Most of Explosion 9's friends and family will be shut out again for the Warped Tour -- at least all but two. "They told us that we have two tickets, and I asked, 'Two per band member?'" Caleb recalls. "'No,' they said, 'two for the band.' So a lot of people are really anxious to find out who will get the tickets."
It's safe to assume Caleb's mother won't be one of the lucky recipients -- his disputes with her served as fertile subject matter for Explosion 9's early, heavier material. "She's been really cool lately," Caleb says. "Dude, she had a restraining order against you," Keith retorts.
Even if Caleb and his mom have made nice, there's no shortage of feminine targets onto which the group can unleash its lyrical rage. "Our songs are mostly about teenage heartbreak," Caleb offers. "Dumb bitches," Keith translates into shorthand. "We'll never have a problem writing songs about girls because Caleb has an uncanny knack for dating whores."
Explosion 9 composed its latest contribution to this stockpile of similarly themed tunes at practice the night before this interview. Titled "Two Weeks Before," it details Caleb's most recent romantic misadventure. "The girl I was seeing, she told me, 'I'm in love with you,' then she went and did her thing with someone else. Then she called me and told me about twenty minutes after she got done."
Though its lyrical focus might not have changed much in the three-plus years Caleb has been part of Explosion 9 (the group formed more than a year earlier with another singer), the band's music has changed significantly, evolving from heavy grunge to melodic pop-punk. The band gives much of the credit for this transformation to its seventeen-year-old drummer, Jesse. "Our old drummer was really into metal," Keith explains, and when he adds, "He looked like he took a face-dive into a tackle box," it becomes clear that his meaning is literal as well as musical. Unlike his well-pierced predecessor, Jesse, whose grandmother, a jazz drummer, bought him his first set before he turned ten, prefers punk and ska.
Despite its stylistic metamorphosis, Explosion 9 continues to play the metal haven Neiner's regularly. "They don't boo us or anything," Keith says. "They're usually dancing by the end of the 45-minute set. We'll revert back to our heavier songs at the end, to give 'em what they want."
In sticking with that credo, Explosion 9 will offer the Warped Tour crowd a Blink-182-style blend of lowbrow comedy and catchy hooks. "We're total fucking dorks," Keith says. "We joke around between all the songs, insult each other. It comes naturally." Indeed, Caleb (who is pictured on the group's Web site, explosion9.com, donning a shirt that reads "I'm in a band: Show me your hooters") seems to be made to play the snotty punk role. He's also a shameless self-promoter, giving his band's business card to a bemused waitress and urging her to attend the Warped Tour. "There's cool bands there, like 311, Rancid, Less Than Jake," he says, delivering the pitch. "And us, we're cool too." He also makes a plug for a vote on the ernieball.com site; the five bands that receive the most tallies at the tour's end receive loads of free band equipment.
"One more person to vote for us is not going to hurt," he tells Keith after the waitress leaves. "I pimp the band by any means possible." And if pimpin' ain't easy, it's a lot easier in Kansas City than it is in Plattsburg. "You can act like a fool in the big city and no one will notice," marvels Caleb, standing on Broadway and observing the sidewalk traffic. Well, almost no one. Caleb drew a police officer's spotlight after climbing to the top of the group's van in his boxers to encourage passersby to drop into Davey's Uptown to see the band play.
In addition to the attention Caleb's antics attract, Explosion 9 receives unplanned publicity from a feud between its fans and those of the Kearney-based rock group Tytus Layne. A flame war wages on Explosion 9's message board between these factions, despite the fact that the bands have no animosity toward each other and, in fact, recently played a concert together. Still, not one to pass up an opportunity for attention, Caleb reveals his plan to print up shirts that read "Explosion Gay" and "Tytus Lame" and to have the group's members wear them at future double-headlining shows.
Punk purists might consider such strategies, and such gigs as Explosion 9's July 15 stint at a bikini contest at a St. Louis Planet Hollywood, beneath them, but the group's blueprint is clearly established. "Blink-182 played one of those bikini contests," Caleb says, "and there were some label representatives there who were really impressed."
Record company scouts may or may not attend that upcoming showcase, but there should be at least a few along for the Warped Tour ride. (Ernie Ball's press release promises that the winning bands will play in front of "record company and other music industry executives.") These bigwigs, in addition to hearing eight or nine tunes from Explosion 9, will get to see a stage show that stars Keith "smashing stuff and acting like a retard" and bass player Dan "looking like he has springs on his shoes."
Even if the talent hawks decide that the group doesn't have what it takes to become the next Fenix TX, Explosion 9 will always have Sandstone. But to the band's credit, it's not thinking that way, stacking July with shows, including a July 14 turn at The Hurricane and a triumphant return to Niener's on July 20. "I hope this pans out," Keith says. "I hope this turns into something better than a one-time deal."