Back to Metroland's Home Page!
 Columns & Opinions
   The Simple Life
   Comment
   Reckonings
   Opinion
   Letters
   Poetry
 News & Features
   Newsfront
   F.Y.I.
   Features
   Profile
 Dining
   This Week's Review
   The Dining Guide
   Leftovers
 Cinema & Video
   Weekly Reviews
   Picture This
   Clips
   The Movie Schedule
 Music
   Listen Here
   Live
   Recordings
   Noteworthy
   Clubs & Concerts
 Arts
   Theater
   Dance
   Art
   Classical
   Books
   Art Murmur
 Calendar
   Night & Day
   Event Listings
 Classifieds
   View Classified Ads
   Place a Classified Ad
 Personals
   Online Personals
   Place A Print Ad
 AccuWeather
 About Metroland
   Where We Are
   Who We Are
   What We Do
   Work For Us
   Place An Ad
Mach Three: (l-r) D.J. Miller, Thom Hall and Jimbo Burton of Small Axe. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen.

Let's Not Talk About It

Porch-sitting retro-rockers Small Axe speak to the masses in the language they know best—and the word is getting out

By J. Eric Smith

Most rock musicians talk way too much for their own good. As a music journalist, I’ve interviewed sneakergazers who have just barely made it out of the garage, but as soon as I shove a microphone into their faces, they turn into Bono. They’ve got theories, they’ve got manifestos, they’ve got explanations, and when all’s said and everything’s done, they’ve got hopes that I’ll validate their positions in print—because once it’s been written, it’s real, somehow, it seems. But it ain’t, and the self-important yammer boxes have long since ceased doing it for me. It’s the silent types, I’ve learned, who are almost invariably causing the most heat and friction in the places where it really matters. They’re the ones who let their art talk for them in ways that words can never capture. They’re the ones you want to talk to, even if they don’t talk back. And if you judge forward-looking retro-rockers Small Axe by that silence-equals-allure metric, then the Saratoga County-bred trio are definitely the most fascinating band in town.

But don’t expect them to tell you all about it.

“We probably should try to do better about self-promotion, get out of our own shells a little bit, but I dunno . . . we’re just not any good at stuff like that,” admits laconic singer-guitarist D.J. Miller during a recent visit to the band’s Ballston Lake headquarters, where he, bassist Jimbo Burton, drummer Thom Hall and I sit out the summer heat on a dark front porch, sippin’, smokin’, sweatin’.

That porch is a necessary summer adjunct to the simple, weather-beaten frame farmhouse that serves as the group’s home base. There’s usually a friendly dog or cat there to greet you when you arrive, and the whole compound exudes the true old blue-collar essence of Saratoga County in ways that most money-horsey summer people and Velveetavillians rarely encounter, and never grasp.

Hall lives there full-time, and Burton lived there until very recently, when he moved to West Sand Lake with his girlfriend, following the lead of Miller, who lives with his wife in Moreau. But the house has a sanctum that draws the full band back several times each week: Downstairs lies Black Cloud Studio, where the group’s four albums (one of which has yet to be released) were created, and where the band rehearse their live shows to an almost unbearable intensity.

When the band members are in the house, they’re rarely there on their own, and we always had other company the nights that I’ve visited there. In addition to the friendly cats and dogs—and the expected girlfriends and roommates and wives—Jimbo’s brother, Dave Burton, was there, as was Adam Lawrence, owner-operator of Hoex Records, on which Small Axe’s last two records, Speaker Eater and A Blow to the Head, were released. It always feels like a family operation there in the Small Axe house, which makes sense as you grow to understand how their principles have been not only making music, but living their lives together, for many, many years.

Childhood friends D.J. Miller and Jimbo Burton graduated from Saratoga High School together in 1985, with Dave Burton following them out of secondary education’s clutches a year later. Miller headed west on his own after high school, ultimately graduating from the University of Buffalo in 1990 with a degree in history. But for the purposes of this story, something more important happened while he studied history there in Buffalo: Miller found his instrument.

“I didn’t start playing guitar until I was out in Buffalo,” the now-deft SG wizard recalls. “I kinda came to music late. I mean, I didn’t discover Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced until I was in college, and that made me totally look at music differently than I ever had before. Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire, too, and the older stuff he did with Lee Perry. Some of my heaviest experiences ever came from listening to that music.”

While Miller was discovering his muse, Jimbo Burton was putting in time in the service of his country. “I was in the Army from ’87 to ’89, ended up in Germany when the wall came down,” he explains. “When I got out, I went to HVCC for a while, then I got accepted to the Buffalo Art School, but instead of doing that, we all decided to move out to Buffalo and start a band instead.”

That exodus westward included both of the brothers Burton and Adam Lawrence, who originally was envisioned as the as-yet-untitled group’s vocalist. He didn’t end up singing, but he did name the band (after an allegorical Bob Marley number, wherein the small ax takes down the big tree), and has since worked for over a decade to take Small Axe’s music beyond the Buffalo basements that birthed it.

“Our early stuff in Buffalo was a lot more minimalist,” says Miller. “We had a second guitarist for a while. I’d never been in a band before, and I’d only been singing for a very short time. So the stuff was experimental . . . but it was pretty simple, too. I hate listening to my voice on the old stuff, though, but I’d like to take some of those old ideas and record them the way we can now.”

“Problem is, though, that we’ve got so many ideas to work with and there’s just not enough time for all of the songs,” Jim Burton adds. “D.J.’s got this incredible stuff that he records acoustic and brings to the studio. We’ve got so much material that we just can’t do it all justice.”

Leif Zurmuhlen.

Small Axe’s first concert appearance in Buffalo was on the undercard for the then-equally-unknown moe. (“Al Schnier really liked us,” Miller notes.) After three years and not a lot of progress, however, Small Axe decided they needed a change of scenery—and lit out for Portland, Ore., with friend and percussionist (and later volunteer publicist) Chris O’Connor in tow. “We just wanted to go and do music full-time in a new place,” notes Jim Burton. “But it wasn’t as big a music scene as we thought it was, not as exciting as it could have been. There was one club where we could play, but it closed and we sorta realized that if we committed to being there, it was going to be a pretty major commitment. So we came back home to Saratoga instead.”

Throughout those early years, the band honed their skills and built their repertoire through a nearly obsessive dedication to home recordings, many of which are preserved on an early, eponymous cassette-only release, which has come to carry a legendary cachet among the band’s devotees. “Four-track recordings really made this band in the early years,” Miller explains. “We could play and do overdubs, experiment, figure out how to do things right, then take them out on stage. That’s how I learned to play leads. That’s how we learned to write songs.”

Small Axe made their formal recording debut in 1994 when “Holy Ways” appeared on a regional multiband EP issued by Shithouse Rat Records, who also then released Small Axe’s full-length CD debut, A Shot to the Body. Two years later, as Small Axe began preparing to record their second album, Dave Burton decided that his days behind the drum kit were done.

“I followed that dream until it wasn’t a dream anymore,” he explains. “I knew there was more to myself than what I was offering, so with the help of my sister Debbie, I built a strong enough customer base to support my own construction business. Later on, I started building the first Web page for Small Axe (www.small axemusic.com), and that extended into graphic design, video production and advertising, so I was happy to still have Small Axe as a point of reference for my creativity. And pooling all of those assets together, I eventually formed my new business, called Sleight of Hand Productions.”

While Dave Burton laid the foundations for his creative and construction empires, Jim Burton and Miller wrote songs for a year, then recruited Thom Hall to fill Small Axe’s drum stool. The Central New York native had played in a Buffalo band called Squid, and had been in New Orleans for several years before answering the Axe’s call. Since relocating to the Capital Region, Hall’s kept himself in drumsticks by working as a Hammond Organ repairman, and serving on the staff of Cancer Conspiracy publishing house Elsmere Press—as does Kelly Murphy, the other full-time resident at the Small Axe house and bassist for Hall’s other band, Kate Mosstika.

Hall made his recording debut with Small Axe on 1998’s A Blow to the Head (which also featured a few classic four-track numbers with Dave Burton on drums, as did 2000’s Speaker Eater), after which the group returned to the concert stage with a vengeance—although not necessarily for the same product- supporting reasons that most bands offer.

“Our live sound is really different from our records,” says Miller. “Maybe someday we’d like to get a good live recording done, but we’d have to have someone else do it for us, since we do all of our studio stuff ourselves, and we’re pretty particular about how our stuff sounds.”

“We’ve already got another 10 songs or so that are ready to be played live right now since we recorded the last album, which hasn’t even been released yet,” Jim Burton adds. “So the records just represent a point in time.”

“That’s why we don’t really think about our live shows supporting our records, since they just represent the best stuff we’re doing at that stage in our development,” Miller concludes. “And I think the band is better live than it’s ever been right now. We win people over in hard places. And we’ve been doing that for a while now.”

Which is due, of course, to the band’s prowess, and also to the yeoman efforts of Dave Burton and Adam Lawrence, who work hard to fill the public-relations gaps that the band members are loath to attack themselves. But there’s also a national network of devoted Small Axe fans that functions as an unofficial street team in ways that most record- label-sanctioned community marketing groups would envy. How many artists, for instance, can lay claim to an army of Silly Pink Bunnies working on their behalf?

‘Silly Pink Bunnies is a tag on a renegade group of skateboarders all over the country: San Francisco, Denver, the East Coast,” explains Bunny kingpin and Small Axe überfan Grier Mirling. “We first got involved with Small Axe at one of their Fourth of July parties at the house: There were fireworks and people jumping fires, keg-throwing contests, Jimbo had Roman candles strapped to his bass, shooting them over the crowd, bands from Buffalo and North Carolina and Small Axe playing outside, 30 people sleeping on the lawn in the morning. It was such an intense community scene, so the Bunnies really got on the wagon with that.

“Small Axe’s live shows offer such an amazing experience,” Mirling says. “The ebb and flow and building of what they create is epic, and it provides a good parallel to skating from a standpoint of cutting loose. So now I’m the guy who calls up everyone to come to every one of their shows. At first it was hard work; now I just make one call into the network and everyone’s there. I know that self promotion is not who Small Axe are . . . but it’s who I am, so that’s what I do. And as much as I know they’d like to be big, their focus is just on the music.

“How many bands do you know who have been around as long as they have who practice all the time?” he continues. “They love to play. They love the music. They’ve done nothing less than captivate any crowd that I’ve seen them play for. I saw them play at this family fun day up in Hague in the Adirondacks, for instance, and there were grandparents and children all over the place, and when it was over, every kid in the place was begging his mom or his dad to buy him a guitar.”

That childlike enthusiasm is infectious, which is why Dave Burton, Lawrence and Mirling aren’t the only devoted enthusiasts willing to work hard on Small Axe’s behalf. There’s poet Eric Smiarowski, too, who pens and performs works about the band, among other topics. There’s NoiseLab sound guru Dave Reynolds, who’s considering a move from New Orleans to Saratoga to facilitate his work with the band. Valentine’s proprietor and head Coal Palace King Howard Glassman, too, has long been a dedicated supporter—and when an influential A&R type from a major label called this summer to figure out what was what up here music-wise, Glassman pointed him in Small Axe’s direction. The label rep (whose identity Small Axe are loath to divulge while negotiations continue) liked what he saw and heard, and is working with the band to plan a showcase show in New York City this fall.

So is this the moment? Is this the big break? Are the band’s members finally rushing toward their date with destiny? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they’ve got to get wound up tight about this, any more than they ever get wound up tight about anything else.

“I think we all just need to be patient right now,” says Dave Burton (who is serving as primary band spokesperson during the corporate courting session). “It’s like it was with those trapped miners in Pennsylvania a little while ago, when the rescue crew slowed down drilling just 20 feet above the cavern. That confused a lot of people: ‘Why are they slowing down? They have to get them out as soon as possible!’ But there were too many variables involved, and if they rushed at the last minute all of their efforts could have been fatal. Small Axe has been playing their timeless music for a long time now. And I think their patience is a discipline that will be rewarded in the end.”

As the negotiations continue, the band members themselves remain . . . well, themselves. “I dunno, maybe we ought to get a manager or something,” Miller muses. “Know anyone who might be interested?”


Send A Letter to Our Editor
Back Home
   
Find Music on eBay!
What's the Point of paying MORE for your domain?
0106_113E
Top Hits at Tower!
Cheap Books, DVDs, Cds at eBay's Half.com
 
Copyright © 2002 Lou Communications, Inc., 4 Central Ave., Albany, NY 12210. All rights reserved.