A band is a kinetic thing. It is motion. It is emotion. It is the sum of souls with something to say. You love them. You hate them. You see their picture before hearing the music, and that snap says something about them. It draws you in.
Low Ton is a heavy progressive rock outfit from Rochester whose sound hints at primered, lowered cool. It roars. It begs for twice pipes. Relatively cool allusions to the American psychosexual obsession with loud automotives and loud rock 'n' roll, right? Despite this convincing parallel, you won't see any pictures of Low Ton mugging in front of muscle cars or hot rods.
During a recent band meeting at Vesa's Automotive, the band guzzled ice-cold Blues and lounged around a bevy of Detroit beauties: a '34 Ford awaiting its flame job, a red '62 Chevy Biscayne, and others. It was a textbook rock 'n' roll photo op. But no.
"It's already been done too many times," says guitarist Evan Conklin. "Especially now. It's so 'stoner rock.'"
"And we're really, really not cool," adds front man and bassist Andy Schmitz.
Low Ton is a relatively new band with a brand new album.
The quartet is the bastard result of inbreeding within Rochester's hard-rock pedigree. Schmitz was in Bughouse; Drew Verstrate drummed in Big Hair, Gaylord, and Mungbeandemon; and guitarist Dave Fien played in Snaggletooth.
And there was one rookie, with a jones.
It all started for Low Ton when Conklin decided he wanted to play in a band: to draw blood onstage with a guitar as opposed to the tattoo ink he had vibrantly slung around town for 10 years.
"I wanted to know what it was like to rock onstage at least once in my life," he says. "I thought, 'That looks cool. I want to do that.' All my friends were in bands and everything. It looked like fun."
So Conklin got together with his roommate, Greg Herman, and Schmitz. Low Ton took its name from a dart term and thus was born.
"I had no idea how to write a song," says Conklin. "I barely knew how to play guitar. I had a couple ideas, some riffs. Andy really helped me put it together into a song."
The band initially fired up as a trio, playing out and immediately diving into the studio to self-release two CDs: the EP You Bet Your Ass I'm Off The Ground and the greatest hits compilation of sorts, Of Course. Schmitz feels the band was onto something but was approaching it "kinda half-heartedly." So Low Ton augmented their already beefy sound with the addition of two heavy vets. Verstrate replaced Herman, and Fien signed on when the trio felt the need to go quad.
This was all just a little over a year ago.
"Dave and I joined and we found our sound," says Verstrate. "We spent the last eight months pretty much perfecting the style." The fruit of this labor is the line-up's first release, Dead Words, recorded at Watchman Studios in Lockport.
The music on Dead Words swirls and throbs with energy and drill-press precision. It's heavy enough to crush, yet sleek enough to fly --- like a Panzer with wings. Low Ton's low end is kept ever present by Schmitz's tight bass tone and slick attack. The guitars are thick and crunchy but not overly distorted or harmonically freaked out like they are in so many other heavy outfits.
The fact that Low Ton drops their tuning down a step to D certainly doesn't hurt either. It's a stoner-rock stunt Conklin digs. "It's a menacing sound," he says. "And it's an easy tuning."
And then there are the dead words.
"Nobody knows the glass casket is cracked/It's something to get into," Schmitz wails on the opening track "Something To Get Into."
"Lyrically, I tend to be a little more cryptic," Schmitz says. "A lot of it had to do with death in a certain way. And through that death a kind of rebirth."
Death. Rebirth. Literally?
"It all lies in perception," he says. Even with lyrics that imply death's finality like "Swallow all those regrets/let them suffer in the ground" from the cut "When The Time," Schmitz says, "There is no closure. It's an open-ended book."
Schmitz attacks his lyrics with a restrained ferocity. Translation: He actually sings. The energy, anger, and passion are there but don't gum up the works. Because how can a listener empathize when he can't decipher?
"All of us collectively like great music and artistic bands and people who strive for something more than just playing a song," Schmitz says. "We try to evoke people's imaginations as well as get their asses moving on the floor."
"I tried to get into more of writing a story and kind of draw people in a little bit," he continues. "There're a lot of death references. I don't know, it's just on my mind. Getting older I guess."
In searching for the lowdown on Low Ton, some folks are confused by the band's lyrical intensity and sonic heft.
"People are kind of labeling us 'stoner rock,'" says Conklin. It's not completely off the mark, but still, this is a term that makes Schmitz's skin crawl.
Stoner rock is essentially a subgenre of heavy metal or hard rock. Though crowded, it is a welcome alternative to rock's paper tiger, nu-metal. Instead, stoner rock exhibits a loud, slow, grinding dirge --- like a slow death on peyote in the desert.
"I listen to a lot of the stoner-rock bands today and a lot of them are really starting to sound a lot alike," Conklin says. "They sound like they're trying to be 'stoner rock.'"
"We're pop-stoner rock," Fien suggests.
"I think all of us have a certain liking of the structure of pop songs and putting a song together so it's a pleasurable experience," Schmitz says.
"But our shit is always edgy," adds Verstrate. "No matter what."
Low Ton will grow on you.
"I think we're one of those bands you don't get at first," says Conklin, his winter beard and flannel attesting to the band's strict adherence to "no dress code." "Some of my favorite albums today are albums that, when I first heard them, I didn't like them. Some of the Monster Magnet stuff, a lot of the Faith No More stuff, I was like, 'What the hell's going on here?'"
Some Rochester fans seem somewhat baffled with Low Ton as well, but Conklin admits sometimes "it's hard to tell. The crowd's always the same."
As they try to crack the overcast ceiling at home and those in other cities throughout the Northeast, the band and their music remain focused and happy.
"Even if we didn't play out or go anywhere with it," says Verstrate, "We'd still be there doing it up in the practice spot. We're playing because we like to do it."
For Low Ton, the music's appeal is a two-way street.
"If our interest is piqued, then we're putting our full effort and imagination onto it," Schmitz says. "If we're interested and we're excited about it, it's going to show in the way it sounds, the way we play live. We're not going through the motions. We believe in what we're doing."
And, whether or not they admit it, they're cool.
Low Ton, Sulaco, and Bailey, Mason, Lickers, play Saturday, January 31, at The Bug Jar, 219 Monroe Avenue, at 10 p.m. Tix: $5. 454-2966