Do you ever have one of those, VH1 “Where are they now?” moments, when you’re going through your CD collection and bum out that a band that at one time, ‘rocked your lame ass’ has fallen into the musician’s grave? That moment fizzled through my little brain a while back with Hagfish, the suave and dee-boner guys from TX that brought a fresh punk rock swagger to the scene, becoming college radio favorites with tunes like “Stamp,” “Disappointed”, and “100% Woman.”
I don’t know if the stars were aligned in my favor, but soon after, the Stockage music festival in Ft. Collins popped up with Armstrong listed on the roster, the new band formed by two of the original Hagfish members, Doni and Zach Blair. It was very Twilight Zone. This gave me a chance to sit down with Zach and get the scoop on the new band, whose name comes from a type of clear green guitar called the Van Armstrong once owned by Greg Ginn from Black Flag, “because it was cheap and known as a pawn shop guitar.”
Doni and Zach had been writing some songs due in part to the pressure they were receiving from previous friends and fans, and to their own desire to feed their creative music engine, “I was getting asked about Hagfish so much, that [Armstrong] just came out of necessity,” says Zach. After putting a few demos together at a friend’s studio in Dallas, they sent those tracks to Bill Stevenson who had produced and engineered some of their previous releases out of Bill’s Blasting Room recording studio, where Hagfish had recorded their first release on Polygram/London, “…Rocks Your Lame Ass” (in addition to other punk stars Good Riddance, MxPx, and Lagwagon). After Bill took a listen, “He came back to us and said, ‘This could be a great record, but you need to get up here…like now,’ but we weren’t even a band yet,” Zach says, explaining that Bill not only dug the new stuff in a big way, but wanted to put it out on his Owned and Operated (O&O Records) record label out of Ft. Collins.
Zach and Donivan scrambled to get the remaining songs completed and polished by the end of 2001 in order to get on the O&O recording schedule. But there were some challenges ahead, like getting an interim drummer to record the album and play some initial gigs. Since George Reagan, the original lead singer for Hagfish, wasn’t a part of the equation anymore, that left Zach to fill those shoes, “I had never really sung before, so that was an ordeal.”
He pulled it off both on the full-length debut recording, “Dick, the Lionhearted,” (due out in July), and on Armstrong’s first live performance at Stockage under their new moniker. There were hints of the Hagfish sound, including that guitar style that resemble a racecar going around the track, along with the poppish edge and hooking choruses. But Armstrong now embodied a new found aggression in both the guitar licks and lyrics. Plus, Zach fit into the lead vocalist skin quite well, especially on the more melodic track, “Follow Me.”
Hagfish had originally started with just Zach and Doni when they were still in their teens, bringing in George to lead the vocals and Tony on drums. Things happened quite quickly after that, landing a record deal with Polygram/London and their first big tour with Badbrains, before “…Rocks Your Lame Ass” even had a chance to reach the shelves. But just as quickly as things took off, they also took a turn for the worse.
I had first met the guys during their rise in popularity in 1995 on their tour through the Bay Area. Meeting them at the merch table, my friend and I got invited to hang in their panty party van (and no, not in a groupie, ‘let’s get physical’ kind of way), which was strewn with undie souvenirs from their many gigs across the Americas (again, not ours). That was when George was proudly discussing his prospects of fatherhood.
“We had put the fate of the band with George, our lead singer. But when the shit went down and we were really getting a lot of tours, and the money was flying, he decided to start having kids,” Zach says with some inklings of irritation that still exist today.
This made their touring schedule more difficult, but they had a number of commitments they needed to keep the success of their first CD rolling, so stopping in mid-success stream was not an option. They continued to push forward and kicked out a second set of songs for the next album. Unfortunately, their major label decided against its release, and dropped them.
So the Hagfish boys went onto, “Honest Don’s, which is Fat Wreck Chords. And we were doing better on that anyway. We had toured so much on the major label that we had our own guarantee, our own following, and were totally self-sufficient. But then he had another kid. And that was it. It just dried up,” Zach says, explaining the demise of the group.
Zach sees Armstrong as almost a vendetta to continue on their musical path in spite of George’s decision to throw the band off course by choosing fatherhood versus a future in music. Despite this, they are on pretty good terms. Four of the songs off “Dick, the Lionhearted,” were originally co-written by both Zach and George for the next Hagfish record, which never happened, including the track “Chicago.” Plus, Zach has always admired George’s writing talent, “George was prolific as shit. He would write ten songs to my one at that time. But we collaborated quite a bit.” Since then, Zach has taken those songs, rearranged them a bit and added his own lyrics. After hearing some of the tracks, George was very proud of what Zach and Doni had created in his absence. “But now he’s dad/computer guy, with a 9-to-5 and everything,” Zach explains in a very weary tone of voice.
Tony, their drummer, went on to maitra’d in an Italian restaurant and started his own furniture design company, “He was so talented, but he’s not playing much anymore. His [furniture] is really cool though. It’s almost the kitsch thing to do – have furniture designed and built by him.” Although Zach respects what his former band mates have decided to do with their lives, “I never gave myself something to fall back on, because this is all I want to do. I quit high school for Hagfish.”
Now at 28, he’s learned as much as many other musicians who’ve been in the biz for a number of years, including the experience of going through the label mill and band break-up blues, but the band’s back to start anew. The album title “Dick, The Lionhearted,” reflects their previous Hagfish crown icon and a self-titled description of Zach’s persona in his lost love experiences over the years, with a dash of cynicism that wasn’t as apparent in their earlier songs.
On “So Much For Everything,” Zach belts out “Will you be my world? Will you save me twice? Can I split my loss? Instead of being nice?” with a contrasting sound that is filled with fluid melodies and jazzy guitar riffs, making one want to swoon with a scotch in hand instead of weeping into a Bud Light (although being forced to drink Bud Light is enough to make me cry). “Shamus” blasts out of the gate with groin pounding drums and tightly wound guitar rhythms, while “Chicago” retains the signature Hagfish chorus hook, but with a message of self-loathing and regret versus a girl’s desire to take a break from her email long enough to be pleasured by her water cooler boy.
“Average” could stand as the anthem of their power of persistence to move forward in their own way, sans their previous obstacles, “I’ll hold out for simplicity; And the law of averages is none; Cash can’t buy the knowledge; And knowledge wears the crown: Mental ammunition…to mow you fuckers down.”
Although Armstrong are out to make a name for themselves with their new band and music, it’s not to say they won’t take advantage of the Hagfish name to make that happen, “I’m going to ride those coat tails ’cause it’s my coat tails,” Zach comments with a grin.
In support of the “Dick, The Lionhearted,” which will be released on O&O on July 7th, Armstrong is hitting the road this summer with ALL, Wretch Like Me, and Someday I as part of the Muscle Memory tour. Check out the recent tour schedule on www.hagfish-armstrong.com and download their single, “Sink or Swim,” in MP3.