It's a long way to the top if you wanna rock 'n' roll. It's even longer if you have to burn dreary thruway miles from Ithaca to do it. Each week members of The Black Arrows drive an hour and a half to converge at their bass player's home in East Rochester.
The quartet entombs itself in the tiny basement --- a loud and bleak cinderblock shoebox with no adornments except for a picture of a snub-nose .38 --- and hones a brand of rock music that hasn't been heard in a while.
The Black Arrows play rock music that goes a little deeper --- rock music with emotion and without the whine. They leave the backbone in.
The band is still a newborn, barely clocking in a year of existence. They're at the teething stage, slowly becoming aware of what they're capable of.
In many fledgling outfits, the members' musical influences tend to conflict. And you would think The Black Arrows' various backgrounds would do just that. But the group's positive push and pull blends those influences into something completely new.
"There's a lot of hardcore influence and then a lot of early '80s post-punk influence," says singer-guitarist Nick Walter.
"I think the 'hardcore' is in the drumming mostly," says bassist Paul Phillips. Drummer Chris Romeis explains why: "Breakdowns baby, breakdowns."
And then there's the blues. At a recent Black Arrow cellar summit, Phillips and his twin brother Jay called up the ghost of Stevie Ray Vaughn by simultaneously jamming --- or cramming together --- the guitar lead to "Texas Flood" with the bass walk to "Crossfire."
Jay Phillips loves SRV. He sold his motorcycle to buy The SRV Signature Series Strat when Fender first introduced it.
"On the day he [SRV] died," says Paul Phillips, "my brother put on a hat, cowboy boots, and a kimono and drank Crown Royal 'til he couldn't stand."
Jay Phillips' guitar is at the heart of The Black Arrow sound. But it ain'tbluesy. It's as wiry as he is, and it stings and buzzes as if out of a rabid hive on fire. It is the direct opposite of the tone you'd expect from an SRV disciple.
"It's weird," he says, "because I don't hear a lot of my influences in my guitar playing. A lot of the stuff I listen to, I don't think I play like that."
"My favorite band is The Replacements," Walter says. "And I don't think we sound anything like them."
So with the influences sufficiently obscured, the band is left to its own creativity and the benefit of having identical twins in the outfit.
The Phillips brothers are identical. They sport matching chrome-dome do's, plenty of tattoos on their lanky frames, the same infectious smile, and a lot of the same mannerisms. It's spooky. They are in tune musically and rhythmically, as well... and just a little off from the rest of the band.
"The thing is," says Jay Phillips, "my brother and I work on a different rhythm than anybody else. Every time we write a guitar part or a bass part, it's in a signature that nobody knows. As weird as what one comes up with, the other one automatically gets it."
The other two Arrows capitalize on this.
"They have a different sense of rhythm than anyone I've ever met," says Walter. "And that's not bad or better, but sometimes it makes it more interesting. It's not a lack of rhythm. It's a different rhythm. I honestly think that's what makes us good as a band and different from anybody else."
Besides having a penchantfor atypical rhythms, the band submerges most of its tunes in minor keys --- kinda sad and kinda angry in a sort of veiled-disappointment kind of way.
"That's because we're really fuckin' bummed, man," Romeis says, half jokingly. And even though he may be right to some extent, there is still an upbeat glimmer to the Black Arrows' rock 'n' roll.
The band has cranked out a four-song demo and has pounded the pavement from here to Fredonia to Buffalo to Ithaca to Jamestown and beyond. They just wanna play. But being new is sobering at best, depressing at worst. It's hard to rock a crowd of eight people.
"We've rocked six," Jay says proudly. "We did play a show in Fredonia that was standing room only and there were people who had never heard us that were jumpin' and shakin' the whole time we played."
So it's clearly not a question of talent. It's simply The Black Arrows' rookie status.
"We're somewhat of an unknown band," Jay says. "So we're always put on first."
The band hopes to pile into the studio for real with Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev/Sleater-Kinney producer Dave Fridmann and have an LP out this time next year. In the meantime they'll hammer away in the basement, on the road, and in bars that tolerate rock bands trying something new.
"Like it or hate it," Jay says. "When you see us our songs have hooks."
There seems to be a growing number in the "like it" category.
"My wife loves us," Jay says.
The Black Arrows play with The Staggers and The Assault, Saturday, May 14, at the Bug Jar, 219 Monroe Avenue, at 9 p.m. Tix: $5. 454-2966
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