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Breath metal: (l-r) Dan Neet and Jason Novak of Iron Lung Corp. Photo byLeif Zurmuhlen.

An Iron in the Fire

With the Clay People defunct, Albany vocalist Dan Neet ressurects a one-off collaboration and rejoins the industrial revolution in Chicago

By Ann Morrow

In 1996, Albany’s Clay People and Chicago’s Acumen Nation went on tour together, which led to a collaboration called Iron Lung Corp, an in-joke project based on one cover song. According to Clay People vocalist Dan Neet, doing a cover was a way to get both bands onstage at the same time, and to show camaraderie. “We were two guitar-driven electronic bands at a time when the electronic elitists of the world did not want guitars in their music,” says Neet. “I felt we should do a cover song from a band that had no guitars, and interpret their music with guitars while staying true to the industrial ethos. Nitzer Ebb were completely and totally electronic, so we took “Murderous” and made it a harsh metal song. It went over great and showed that we were not just keyboard tweakers.”

Improbably enough, “the corporation” was signed almost immediately, to techno-industrial label du jour, Reconstriction. “We went into the studio right after the tour,” recalls Neet. “It was just a bunch of ragtag songs from both bands thrown together—we made it to put money in our pockets.” He adds cheerfully: “That was the one time when we took advantage of a label instead of it being the other way around.”

The jackhammering amalgam of techno breakbeats and aggressive metal riffs is now a platinum-selling formula, but at the time, it was a brave new sound, and for all its hastily conceived faults, the Iron Lung debut, Big Shiny Spears, found some fans. “There’s a few gems,” says Neet of the debut. “I made a comment to [Acumen Nation frontman] Jason [Novak] years ago, like, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if Iron Lung became more popular than both our bands. Here we think this album is a joke, but the joke could be on us.’ And then this compilation came out, Industrial War, and it was supposed to be the best of the best industrial out there. And Iron Lung is on it [as well as on Reconstriction’s 10th-anniversary compilation]. No Clay People, no Acumen, just Iron Lung. It kind of made us think.”

And think about it they did. Neet and Novak kept in touch, but an Iron Lung follow-up was delayed by the success of both their bands: Clay People were signed to Slipdisc, and Acumen Nation to Conscience. Last November, however, Clay People broke up. Neet called Novak shortly before the band’s final show, and flew out to Chicago last January. The result is Ditch the Attitude, Pally, due in stores next month. “It’s a more serious effort than the first one,” says Neet. Along with Neet and Novak, the band includes Acumen guitarist Jamie Duffy and a roster of affiliated musicians.

“I thought I was going to go out there and just do what I wanted to do, to just start writing and have those guys help me produce my ideas,” says Neet of the recording session. “It turned out we all had ideas, and they all came together. All the knowledge we have from Clay People and Acumen was focused on this record. And not on purpose— it’s just that we had evolved. We had 10 days, and in 10 days we had 10 songs down.”

“It was a really intense time,” says Novak by phone from Chicago, “because we were doing all the final mixes for the new Acumen album [The Fifth Column], which had to be in by Valentine’s Day. And here’s Dan showing up the week before, and we had to put everything on hold. But we were really excited to be doing Iron Lung again, and all these ideas just burst forth, and the riffs just flowed.”

“I knew it was clicking when this one song was coming together,” says Neet, “a song that wasn’t going to have any lyrics. We were playing it back, and me, Jason, and Jamie were just standing there with our arms crossed in front of us, thinking, ‘This is it.’ And Jason said aloud: ‘This is how we rock it.’ And we sampled him saying that, and distorted it, and made it sound nasally [Neet briefly bursts into laughter], and that was the turning point. This album wasn’t meant to be as dense as Acumen’s More Human Heart or The Clay People. We knew there was a lighter side to be hit, and that it could be hit with assurance, which most of us had lost, after years of being manipulated by the music industry.”

“Dan wanted it to be more serious and I wanted it to be a tongue-in-cheek fuck-you to the industry,” says Novak of the new disc. “I made Dan promise not to get bit by the radio-single bug. But I think we started cutting corners on that, and I have to admit, it intentionally has radio potential. I had been playing around with this riff, for ‘Superstar,’ and then four days before the final mix, I wrote this extremely catchy chorus for it, and it felt good.” Subsequent to Novak’s phone conversation, “Superstar” was added to the rotation of Capital Region radio station WQBK (103.5/103.9 FM).

“The catchiness just comes from being able to write a song,” Novak continues. “Over the years, before this style of music broke, so many people had advised me, ‘Why don’t you get rid of the noisy drum loops and just make a rock record, because the songs are catchy.’ And that’s what all the reviews [of Acumen] would say: ‘If you listen closely, you’ll hear the pop hooks.’ And that was cool, but we never wanted to give up on making it different. I think this Iron Lung record straddles that perfectly: It’s got all the noisy percussion, but also a lot of heartfelt songwriting, and a lot of laughs. It goes from complete middle finger to really sensitive.”

“Jason lyrically is excellent,” says Neet. “Much as I thought we were similar songwriters, we’re not. But we complement each other.”

The partnership between Neet and Novak began in 1995 when Neet first heard Acumen Nation’s “Gun Lover.” Impressed, he called Novak while the Clay People were recording The Iron Icon in Chicago, and invited Acumen to tour with them.

“I had this romantic notion that if we all worked together we could bring this scene to the forefront—which I feel we did,” says Neet. “We just weren’t in the forefront when it came about. It was these no-name bands that popped up, who eventually became the big-name bands. And now we’re the no-name bands. But we helped incubate it. All of us—Godflesh, Acumen, Chemlab, 16 Volt, Virus 23—got solicited by the majors. We just didn’t have the industry behind us like what’s been there for the last three years. And the other thing is, are you going to sign the indie band that’s been around for five records? Or are you going to sign the brand-new band who can be manipulated?”

In a solid case of being ahead of their time, both bands watched as their sound was commercialized all the way to the bank by latecomers such as Disturbed and Linkin Park. “But what’s cool is that we’re still here,” says Novak, “and we’re still cranking out what we think is a really unique sound in this genre, and not some prostituted major-label product.”

Iron Lung aren’t worried about the Titanic-style label snafus that derailed both Clay People and Acumen Nation: They’re signed to Novak’s own label, Crack Nation, which has a distribution deal with industrial-impresario Martin Atkin’s Underground Inc.

But what local fans really want to know is, who’s the onstage showboat? “Me, of course,” says Neet with mock immodesty, and then continues: “We share the stage equally. There’s really no spotlight to grab, because we’re all so active onstage there’s not just one person to watch.” Unable to play it straight, he adds, “Although I do think that Jason tries to move into my space too much, because he’s taller. I might have to go for the huge Van Halen-style staircase with neon lights.”

When told of Neet’s jesting threat to get his own staircase, Novak deadpans: “I’m a half-inch taller physically, but Dan’s ego is taller than me.”

In addition to singer-songwriter- samplers Neet and Novak, and guitarist Duffy, Pally features Acumen members on bass and drums, as well as Clay People drummer Dan Dinsmore, whose tracks were recorded at Scarlet East studio in Albany and mixed at Novak’s Crack Nation studio in Chicago. And how was the non-electro Dinsmore brought on board?

“I bribed him,” answers Neet. “I promised him I’d stop calling him every day.” More seriously, he adds, “Danny’s always been supportive.” Additional percussion was provided by Novak’s brother Ethan. “We’re fortunate to know three drummers who are excellent,” says Neet. “Whatever adds to the song power. We’re utilizing our resources.”

After the writing blitz in January, the band went on a brief tour during the spring to break in the songs, and then finished them in the studio during the summer. “Jason is very easy to work with,” says Neet. “He’s a little more grounded while I’m a little more ‘reaching for the stars.’ It’s a great working balance.”

Both Neet and Novak say they are fully “concentrating on the Lung” (as Novak puts it), and are looking forward to the band’s first real tour, which will bring them to cities with Clay People and Acumen fans in residence. “The most important thing is to play as a band in front of an audience,” says Neet definitively. “As much as this album is cold and digital and electronic, we’re still organic. Interpreting the songs as a live band is how you invite people into your world.”

Iron Lung Corp, Acumen Nation, F-Timmi, and Arrow Down Project will play Northern Lights on Saturday (Oct. 26). Tickets for the 16-and-over show are $10, and doors open at 7:30 PM. Call the club, 371-0012, for more information.

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