“This band sounds like AC/DC and ABBA having a bar fight,” explains Halfcocked drummer and founding member Charlee Johnsson. “Basically, we make music for people with Attention Deficit Disorder, and we’re eager to accept blame for attempting to resurrect the glory days of arena rock. I mean, if you’re going to bother getting onstage, you should make a conscious effort to thoroughly entertain whoever comes out to see you.”
Singer Sarah Reitkopp – who with guitarist Johnny Heatley, guitarist Jaime Richter and bassist Regina Zernay round out the lineup – concurs: “Half the fun is hitting the stage as if you’re going out in front of a million people who’ve paid good money to see you.”
That spirit permeates the 13 tracks on The Last Star, Halfcocked’s major label debut, released July 10, 2001, jointly by Megatronic Records, the imprint of Powerman 5000 frontman Spider One, and DreamWorks Records. Borrowing from metal and punk, with a heady melodic thrust, the album boasts a variety of spiky sentiments matched by muscular playing.
Halfcocked is the first signing to Megatronic. Says Spider of the Boston-bred outfit: “When I first heard their indie record, I was blown away. It sounded so refreshing to me. Their music incorporates all these elements no one else is doing right now – Blondie, Cheap Trick, early G ‘N R, big hooks and no rapping.”
He’s not alone in his admiration for the quintet, which formed in 1997 and was soon touring regionally, playing with bands like Queens Of The Stone Age and Nashville Pussy. By the time Spider signed Halfcocked, the band had released two records (with slightly different personnel) on the independent Curve Of The Earth label: 1998’s Sell Out and 2000’s Occupation: Rock Star. In 2001, Halfcocked’s prominence in their hometown garnered them three Boston Music Award nominations, for Rising Star; Outstanding Female Vocalist (Indie Label); and Outstanding Debut Album (Indie Label). They took home the prize in the latter category. The group’s DIY ethic – combined with what Johnsson calls their “manic rock aura” – had long before made them standouts in the largely conservative New England music scene.
The band lit out for Los Angeles in the summer of 2000 to begin recording The Last Star with producer Ulrich Wild (Powerman 5000, Static X) at Larabee Studios. First radio track “I Lied” emerged shortly thereafter (the video was directed by Spider). Johnsson describes Reitkopp’s lyrics for the song as “some of the most empowering truth I’ve ever heard,” adding, “Guys can talk about all the women they’ve nailed; it’s a rite of passage. Yet if a women exercises that right, she’s considered slutty. It’s that old double standard.”
Halfcocked flouts such standards and confounds expectations at every opportunity. “Our chemistry is healthy alcoholism, vindictiveness and conflict,” Johnsson states cheerfully. “The audience may be laughing, crying or just jumping up and down playing air guitar because a Halfcocked show is always a crap shoot, and that’s part of the fun. The idea is to go full-fucking tilt, the consequences be damned.”
Says bassist Jaime Richter: “We make sure to leave as much of an impression as possible – anyone who gets in the way of that should suffer!” Reitkopp confesses: “We’ve been yelled at a bunch of times after shows for knocking stuff down and wreaking havoc. One time we even had to give a club all the money we made at the show because we broke so much stuff. We’re doing our best to make sure that doesn’t happen again, but …”
The role of “healthy alcoholism” in that incident aside, this is one band that has perhaps earned their name. “Half cocked” is a Boston expression meaning slightly drunk, but it’s also an apt descriptor for the members’ spontaneous temperaments. Johnsson’s mother coined the moniker.
“Any semblance of musical taste I have is from her,” the drummer declares. “She’s a rock power-princess who used to go-go dance for bands.” Also a classically trained pianist, she gave birth to Johnsson in San Bernardino, Calif., but the family later moved to Utah, Virginia and finally Boston.
Along the way, Johnsson’s mom shared her love for music with him, an education made easier when she became a buyer for Tower Records. Johnsson proceeded to amass a record collection nearly as large as the store’s. Nonetheless, as a young teen, he says, “I couldn’t hit a note if I fell on it.” He honed his chops, however, by listening to The Germs, Danzig and Black Flag. This practice was first applied to the guitar, then the bass and finally to the instrument best suited to withstand his boundless energy.
Reitkopp was raised in Rochester, N.Y., and moved to Boston after attending college. “As a kid, I was shy,” she says, “but I’ve sung ever since I can remember, first to the ‘Annie’ soundtrack. Then, after I saw ‘Xanadu,’ I wanted to be Olivia Newton-John.” In high school, inspired by her first rock concert – Billy Squier and Nazareth – she formed a band. “We never made it out of my basement, though” she admits.
She went on to play with a Boston band called Plush and became a fixture on the local music scene. In that capacity, Reitkopp formed (with friend Kay Hanley of Letters To Cleo) the Safe And Sound organization to raise money for the victims of shootings at two family-planning clinics in Boston (one of whom Reitkopp knew). Reitkopp remained active in Boston, but she says she was never creatively satisfied until she hooked up with Halfcocked, all the members of which contribute to the songwriting process.
She says of one of her collaborators: “We call Johnny ‘Johnny Rock’ because, well, he rocks! Not only is he an incredible guitar player and a brilliant songwriter, but he can also down a Guinness in one gulp. He has this amazing ability to work drunkenness into our shows. One time he drank so much that he passed out onstage. We had to throw water on him to wake him up. He got up and started right where he left off – didn’t miss a note.”
Minnesota-born Richter was a sound-design student at Boston’s Museum Of Fine Arts when she met the Halfcocked crew. Weaned on The Replacements and Babes In Toyland, she is proficient in the use of ProTools, having independently written and recorded – and released – a solo CD, The Ignint Fucks, which she calls “pieces between music and noise.” She considers Halfcocked her first real band.
Bassist Regina Zernay joined up after The Last Star was recorded but immediately began writing with her new mates. “When we auditioned people in L.A., Regina was the first to try out,” recalls Reitkopp. “When Charlee and I met her, I said, ‘I bet she won’t be able to play because she’s just too nice and too cool.’ But no one who auditioned after her was a better match in playing or personality. She learned all our songs in two weeks and is super-solid.”
“One of the things Spider always liked about us was that each person in the band is very different – we each have our own vibe,” the singer continues. “He encourages that.”
And just as Spider has encouraged each member to be themselves, he’s afforded the band complete creative freedom to be who they are as a unit. This support may partly account for their zeal in tackling taboo subjects – from sexual freedom (“Devil Shoes”) to sex toys (“Thanks For The Ride”) to the universal battle for integrity (“Sell Out”).
Reitkopp often writes from a deeply personal point of view, but her songs are not bound by gender concerns. “The girls in this band are just as important as the guys,” she points out. “We’re not about making an issue of it. When we needed a bass player, we didn’t care if the people who tried out were men or women; we just wanted whoever fit best.” Echoes Johnsson: “Ultimately, we all have the same strengths and weaknesses, regardless of gender.”
Before Spider signed Halfcocked, he wanted to see just what those strengths and weaknesses were. So he decided to road-test the band on tour with Powerman 5000. “My fifth show ever in a band was playing for 3,000 people,” recalls a still-stunned Richter. “I was like, ‘What the hell did I step in?’” “No one knew who the fuck we were,” says Reitkopp, “but that’s so much what we’re about. We just want to play for people who love in-your-face rock whether they know who we are or not.”