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What Would Plastic Jesus Do?
What makes these Waterford-based punk-rockers tick? Read on

By Bill Ketzer

Dropkick me Plastic Jesus: (l-r) Josh Welf, Frankie Levittown, Johnny Riott. Photo: Joe Putrock

During the 1950s, rock & roll became a force for integration, a commingling of race, of blues and gospel, of rich and poor. Since then the style has been oft-manipulated, its might fired in the country kiln, stuffed in flat alt-tires or shot up with Botox as it were, but remains sacred for those who understand the cans and can’ts of its simple, honest measures. Enter local punks Plastic Jesus with So You Think Rock & Roll’s a Sin, an infusion of ’50s-style guitar hooks into song structures either duly representative of that era or straight from the gullet of early American punk. Guitarist and founder Frankie Levittown explains how the band’s first full-length release is able to convey the spirit of rock’s golden era without falling too much into the confederacy of rockabilly, swing or any other complementary genre.

“I have always been a fan of old-school rock, particularly of the ’50s, ’60s, and Motown as well,” the Long Island native says. “A lot of that music is so simple, yet has so much energy and such a terrific feel to it. Incorporating it into some of our songs just seems to come naturally.”

Drummer Johnny Riott agrees. “I grew up on Buddy Holly, Elvis, all that,” he says. “Man, it just feels right.”

“We don’t fall into the rockabilly thing because I suck at bass and there is no way I could play stand-up,” says Josh Welf, a lifelong Waterford resident whose cohorts constantly remind him of that fact. “I think maybe we fall into the New York Dolls way of incorporating punk and old-school rock.”

“Waterford Dolls!” Levittown exclaims.

“Toothless and ruthless baby,” Welf replies.

One gets the sense that running with this crew is like being caught in a turf war between the Outsiders and the Young Ones. The entire history of the band is conveyed in a caustic barrage of sarcastic, good-natured banter that seems to have attracted them to each other in the first place. Welf and Levittown met on an upstate hunting trip. In addition to joining forces in Plastic Jesus, the two now work together at F.A. Levittown and Sons, the guitarist’s housecleaning service.

“[We] met in Utica, it was one of those days where they bring the kids up from Long Island and [New York] City and scare them with animals like deer and woods and shit,” says Welf.

“And people from Waterford,” Levittown adds.

“They tell them to get their shit together,” the bassist continues, “or they’ll become fat rednecks. And by the way, Frank doesn’t pay me for shit. I gotta get this out in the open. Frank is a horrible boss. Always cracking the whip.”

Riott, also from Long Island, had just been downsized out of an upstate programming gig when he answered an ad in Metroland for a skinsman.

“It said ‘F-You! No talent punk band seeks drummer,’ ” he recalls. “And then it said something like ‘F-Timmi is about as punk as your mother. Their fans need not apply. Their mothers, however, are welcome.’ I had to answer it because it was the funniest ad I ever saw.”

Weary of radio-formula punk and the latest batch of emo rockers that fill the concert halls these days, Plastic Jesus wanted to revisit not only rock’s roots and riffage, but also address their frustration with punk rock’s trajectory over the last 10 years. The idea was to put the roots of the Ramones and Black Flag back into the equation.

“And Rancid,” says Welf. “I love Rancid, sue me.”

Wasting no time, the band hammered out a three-track demo and got onstage, whether it was in someone’s basement, at small beer joints or opening for the likes of the Undead and Murphy’s Law in larger venues. Another EP and a single on Robot Racket Records’ A Far Away Place compilation followed, until enough chub was in the kitty to lay down a full-length missive at Long Island’s famed Sabella Studios—where rap legends Public Enemy and the surprise sensation Marcy Playground produced chart-topping albums. “So You Think . . .” was recorded with owner Jim Sabella’s unique blend of analog and digital equipment, giving the CD a consistent, vibrant, vinyl feel that the band believe only boosts their commitment to the days of yore. They celebrate the official release of the new disc this Sunday at Valentine’s in Albany, with tentative plans to hit the road in 2004.

“I think we’re gonna do a couple weeks in the spring followed by a more extensive summer tour,” says Welf. “The only thing about the road is that being relatively unknown, it’s hard to get people to book us, so if anyone can help, look us up and get in touch. It’s tough. We’re not Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi). We don’t have a reputation to fall back on to try and promote. We are relatively new to the business, so we have a limited budget and contacts, so we rely on the help of others.”

When asked how the Capital Region became the choice place to set up camp when one of the country’s largest industry meccas sits two hours downstate, Riott shrugs.

“Josh is from Waterford,” he says. “He can’t leave the PCBs.”

“PCBs are my drug of choice,” Welf responds.

“Plus there’s too many people [in New York City],” Riott adds. “I’m not a big fan of people.”

NYC is dead unless you’re some shitty Strokes-wannabe band,” Welf says.

“Waterford risin’ up!” Levittown cries.

“PCBs risin’ up!” Riott adds.

“Actually,” says Welf, “they are in the sediment and to dredge would make them rise up.”

Riott doesn’t want to get started on dredging.

“You guys are retards.”

The Plastic Jesus CD-release party will take place at Valentines (17 New Scotland Ave., Albany), with Rel-X and the Sleez, on Sunday (Dec. 7th). Admission for the 8 PM show is $5. For more information, call the club, 432-6572.

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