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Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

Nice Guys Finish Loud

After 20 years of dedicated headbanging, China White are still going strong—thank you very much

By John Rodat

It’s the music of Attention Deficit Disorder. It’s the theme song of the oppositional-defiant prom. It’s the cruising music of the Trenchcoat Mafia. It’s a soundtrack for the final snap of fraying parental nerves. You can almost hear the wrongful-death lawsuit brewing and Tipper Gore whimpering in her sleep.

The drums gallop headlong, the bass worries a figure obsessively, a simple punk-meets-death-metal progression is gussied up in Hollywood-sleaze distortion, and the vocalist goes postal:

“Through the shit I’ll get pushed around/Stand fast I will hold my ground/I won’t be put down by you/Nor anything you could fucking do./Wake in the morning, it’s another day/The clouds won’t push the sky away/Think you’re the king, think you’re on top/Today your reign will be put to a stop . . .”

Then the bottom drops out. Over a trail of whining sustain and the metallic tick of the high hat, the singer rasps a dire incantatory understatement:

“. . . and I will not be kind!”

Scrawled in a shaky hand on a fragment of composition-book notepaper, or rubber cemented to an index card—letters snipped methodically from supermarket tabloids and Kerrang!—the sentiment would have anchormen and the ATF all a-flutter. But as the lyrics to “Bow to No One,” it’s a different story.

See, the weird thing is, considering the adrenal force of the music and the almost worrisome antisocial stance of the lyrics, the guys in China White are actually quite kind. In fact, they’re downright likeable. And if they’re building to some cataclysmic act of anarchic defiance, they’re taking their time: Founding member, guitarist and primary songwriter Henry McFerran has been doing this for 20 years, after all, and, honestly, as long as he and his bandmates get their stage time, they don’t seem a likely threat. Their audio evil is just ostensible, and you can’t always judge metalheads by their covers—or, for that matter, by their names.

 

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

“Contrary to popular belief that the name is a drug thing, which we didn’t even know about, it’s a Scorpions song,” says McFerran. “In 1982, we were in this guy’s cellar, trying to think of band names. We found the Scorpions album Blackout, and there’s a song called China White. That was it. It was a choice between that and Hammerhead.”

So, from the first, McFerran’s attraction—even at the unconscious level—to the darker themes shaped the band’s experience:

“The way we found out exactly what it meant was, we were playing the Air Force base in Plattsburgh and we pulled up to the MP post, and the guy goes, ‘You guys better not even have aspirin on you.’ The Air Force base had a serious drug problem at the time, and they had had problems with bands before, you know, so they searched our whole truck.”

McFerran and his bandmates laugh as he relates the anecdote, and at his mention of the fact that despite being cleared for entry, later that night the band were busted—not for drugs, but because they were confused for women in the officers’ quarters. Their easygoing manner suggests that the members of China White view that kind of misunderstanding just par for the course. They began as self-identified misfits, and misfits they proudly remain.

“At the time when we started up, most of the bands were like Van Halen and Ratt, party-pop kinds of metal bands,” McFerran explains. “And we were more drawn to Thin Lizzy, Motörhead, that kind of thing, and the punk-type movement where punk and metal kind of merged. More of a Euro-metal thing: Raven, Accept, that kind of stuff.”

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

Which, stylistically, put them very much at odds with the other bands working Albany’s club circuit. McFerran says, “ ‘Panama’ was the song you heard in every bar, you know, and we’d be playing ‘Balls to the Wall.’ ”

Though China White’s dedication to the darker, heavier end of the musical spectrum made them a tough sell at times (“Bar owners didn’t really understand it,” he says. “People did, but the owners didn’t because no one else was playing it.”), McFerran believes it was always the right decision for them.

“It was a lot of fun, because people didn’t know what we were playing,” he says. “You had to be really aware of the underground to know the songs. So, in the long run, I think it paid off, because we know the fans are there to see us, because we played stuff that they had to go out of their way to know. We had a good following who weren’t coming out just to hear whatever was popular at the time.”

The choices of covers were telling, and China White took the same approach when composing their originals, an approach that was far from universally accepted. McFerran, as primary songwriter and the band’s first singer, wrote only what he was interested in singing; when he decided to ditch vocal responsibilities to concentrate on guitar performance, those themes proved slightly problematic.

“At the time, Iron Maiden was just hitting the scene,” McFerran says, “and they had all these songs about street killers and serial killers and stuff like that, and that really intrigued me. So I wrote this song, ‘Prowler.’ We were auditioning a singer after I stopped singing, and the guy just refused to sing the song, because it was too gory for him. And it really wasn’t all that gory, it was just what I was interested in at the time.”

Nonetheless, McFerran’s conviction that China White needed a simpatico frontman remained, and was reinforced by a review written in the middle ’80s by then-Metroland music critic Sarge Blotto.

“Sarge wrote an article that was like, ‘These guys will be the next big thing, if they’d just get a singer,’ ” McFerran remembers. “I was really frustrated. Back then, whether you had a really good singer or not, the prejudice was that if you didn’t have a frontman it meant you weren’t good enough to have a real singer be interested in your band.”

Fortunately for China White, the answer to their dilemma would be found right under their noses—almost literally.

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

Paul Rukwid says when he first saw the band perform, he was floored: “They were heavy and awesome and right away I was like, ‘Hey, do you need help carrying your amps?’ So I started lugging amps for them, and after that I said, ‘You guys need a roadie, just let me know when you’re playing and I’ll go.’ ”

“Still to this day, our roadies and our band are like a family,” McFerran adds. “We take care of our own. So our roadies would come to practice with us. They knew every song that the band played, and at the end of the night Paul would get up and sing ‘Louie, Louie’ and ‘Hang on, Sloopy,’ and stuff like that. And he was great. He was very entertaining. He had the charisma of a frontman, even without the band. So we just figured we’d provide the band.”

The transition from roadie to frontman was a natural and easy one for Rukwid, according to McFerran, and the positive feedback was almost immediate. Rukwid’s first official gig with the band was at a 1988 gig opening for Wrathchild, during which McFerran handled the mike for the first half of the show.

“Nobody knew we were introducing a new singer,” McFerran says. “The first half we did without Paul, and all of a sudden he came out. Lo and behold, the next Metroland article was like, ‘Oh, the light has come! China White is great! They went and got a great new frontman—just like I told them to!’ It was really great; it all just fit. It was like one of those stupid sitcoms where the guy and the girl hang out as best friends for a really long time, and only at the end they get together.”

It wasn’t all honeymoon from thereon in, however. As with most bands, there have been rocky periods: But through lineup changes (a “Spinal Tap progression of drummers,” says McFerran) and health and personal problems, McFerran and Rukwid have soldiered on with China White, and the band identity of China White has remained remarkably unchanged over time.

Current drummer Greg Jesco and bassist Matt Neal confirm that the reliability of China White’s sound is one of their great strengths. Jesco returned to the band for a second stint after taking some time off, knowing that he would find the same “real aggressive, super-heavy” band that he had left; and Neal, who was familiar with China White from his days on the scene in the mid-’90s with the band Severe, knew too exactly what to expect when recruited by McFerran.

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

McFerran admits, “He asked me, ‘What are you guys doing? You doing anything different?’ And I was like, ‘Nah, not really. Same kind of format.’

“I think you can tell, when you go out to watch a band, the people who have it in their hearts,” he continues. “That’s a reason why we’ve never felt the need to do anything different. The crowd can tell when you’re sincere about your music, when you really love it. And that’s why we’ve never changed.”

Rukwid seconds that emotion: “This is our band, here’s how we play. Come and see it, enjoy it if you like; if you don’t, there’s nothing we can do about it. And there’s nothing we can change about it either. We can’t make you—twist your arm—make you like what we’re playing. But we like what we’re playing, we love what we’re playing.”

When it’s mentioned that those feelings of peaceful self-acceptance seem at odds with the confrontational, combative nature of the music they’ve been banging out for two decades (not to mention the barbed-wire-impaled skull on the cover of their most recent CD), the members of China White are unrattled.

“It’s always been an effort in camaraderie, to try to get along with everybody,” McFerran says. “You get nowhere being a dick. You get absolutely nowhere. Just because your music is loud and aggressive, doesn’t mean you have to be loud and aggressive to everybody offstage. If you’re doing it well, you do it in that 45 minutes—that’s what it’s there for. Then, you get offstage and you can be a human again.

“We wouldn’t be here today if not for the friends we’ve made along the way,” he adds. “You know, that’s the key to keep us going. For us, we’re successful. We’ve got our music out there; the people who buy it, dig it. We keep plodding along, and we’ve got great people behind us. I just can’t say enough about how important that is. And because of that, I just can’t picture a day when I’m not playing with China White—they’ll be pushing me out in a wheelchair.”

China White will play Valentine’s (17 New Scotland Ave.) on Saturday (Oct. 12) with spineCar and Wolf. Tickets for the 8 PM show are $8. For more information, 432-6572.

 


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