A Little Bit o' Soul: It's the story of a band of rockers who banded together in suburban New Jersey simply for the love of music. Sticking together through high school, the band headed to the road, where it found fame and built a reputation for itself. It's the story of a little band that became not so little simply by being itself. It's a band that didn't just teach us to love punk rock, but to love ourselves as well.
OK, we'll cut the crap. Turn off the cheesy music. We're talking about The Bouncing Souls, anyway, so any fluff and pretense isn't just unnecessary, it's just plain out of place: Despite their years on the road and a considerable back catalog, the Souls are still as dedicated to the no-frills fun that inspired them to get together as students and play their friends' basement parties. The act's latest, Hopeless Romantic (Epitaph) is proof of that: While nearly all of its contemporaries bend over backward like Bill Clinton at a lonely intern convention to fit into post-hardcore, emo, pop-punk, mall-punk and oi! styles, the Souls (singer Greg Attonitoi, guitarist Pete Steinkept, bassist Bryan Kienlen and drummer Michael McDermott) don't need to screw around with chasing the latest fad: They simply play punk rock like it was meant to be played.
Of course, that means that you won't see the Souls making it into rotation on MTV's TRL or on Clear Channel airwaves -- even if the band didn't stick to a self-imposed ban on conglomerate media -- as Anchors Aweigh doesn't have the sort of flash that'd attract the ears of programmers. While it's pop, it lacks the syrupy melodies of Good Charlotte and other mall-punk juggernauts. It's got guts and anger, but not in the over-the-top nu-metal angry-at-the-world fashion. Heck, without the crazily dyed hair, funky haircuts, matching color-coded outfits or a sleeve of crappy flash tattoos, the Souls aren't the sort of band that screams for attention, except in its music. That's not really the road to stardom, these days.
"We've always been down with sitting just below the radar," Steinkept says. "I think some people can respect that, and can relate to it, too. Instead of having things be stuffed down your throat, they've got to go find it for themselves and find the good things in it that they like. That's the way I enjoy discovering music, too, not like having it run down my throat by hearing it on the radio three times a day."
So the Souls -- unlike label mates and punk icons Bad Religion and Rancid -- aren't comfortable with sitting in the mainstream spotlight. We've heard that line before -- from everyone from The Offspring to The Ataris -- only to be suffocated by an overplayed single. This time, however, it seems like it'll ring true with the Souls: They've put more than a decade into their career and show no signs of mainstream temptations: The band avoided the Warped Tour this year in addition to its ban on MTV play. If there's a record that shows how great classic punk-rock separatism can be, it's the Souls' latest.
Anchors Aweigh isn't just another pure-punk effort by the band, however. It's also its strongest, most personal record to date. Turn off the skepticism machine, cynics: Instead of the trashy, voyeuristic heartbreak of lonely emo boys, the Souls' brand of honesty is more, well, honest. Whether the band maturely recognizes that a breakup is the best thing for both parties, despite the heartache in "Night Train" or bemoans the loneliness of relationship fallout in "Better Days," the Souls' romantic streak doesn't regurgitate the pop clichés perpetuated by the radio for years: It's impossible not to recognize that, after all these years, the Souls have mastered soul.
Sure, it seems strange to hear that a band, especially a punk band that formed in 1987, can produce its best record in 2003, but the Souls do it. Steinkept once read that a band is only as good as its last record and took the advice to heart, and it shows with his band. Rather than letting things slide as the act slips into middle-aged complacency as do many of its contemporaries, the Souls have kept searching for the perfect album. It's enough to set the band apart from the legions of by-the-numbers punks who drop a record a year to keep royalty payments coming in on schedule.
"I see bands do that, and I get bummed out as a fan," Steinkept says. "Before being a band, I'm a fan of music. I love it. There are bands that are everything to me and when I see that happen, I get bummed out. I think about that when we're making records. I don't want to be that way to someone else," Steinkept says. "They're cheating themselves, and the fans get cheated in the process of that. If they're going to be that way, why bother being a band anymore? That's how I feel about it. When a band does that, it's totally obvious."
The Souls might surprise even fans with the power of their latest record, but the road they took to get there hasn't changed in the past 10 years. Anchors Aweigh mixes pop punk with traces of classic-era punk, oi!-fueled anthemic choruses and no-frills rock'n'roll. It may seem like a formula that's readily obvious to everyone, but, then again, there are few bands who can match the Souls' commitment to their sound. From the get-go, it seems, the band knew exactly what it needed to do, and pursued those ends.
Not only does that mentality give the band a lot more identity than the typical from-the-box pop-punk act, it ensures the band's been able to outlast the comings and goings of trends and fads. Yeah, The Bouncing Souls haven't made it into the Billboard charts using the readily available tools of the moment -- post-hardcore and mall punk -- but, chances are, they'll be around a lot longer than today's big stars.
"Next summer, who knows what the big thing in music will be," Steinkept laughs. "The past couple years, it's been pop punk and emo and stuff like that. The trends are always changing in music, as in any kind of pop culture. Who knows what's going to remain standing. I think there's some good bands out there. A lot of those bands are really good, and are going to be around for a long time. A lot of them are going to be like this year's model.
"I don't want to get huge then get forgotten about. I'd rather have longevity."
Lifespan shouldn't be an issue for the band. Already becoming one of the elder statesmen of the punk circuit, if Anchors Aweigh is any measure, the Souls' future should be a long, productive one. Some bands get old, jaded and crusty. The Souls, however, just keep getting better.
"I think we're learning every day. Every year, we've learned and become a better band," Steinkept gushes. "I think we've been learning and our parents were fanatics in high school. Every year you learn, you mature and you get better. I think people, new bands, I hate to say the word, mature, but you learn and you get better. You mature, sure. I'm not afraid to say it."
When you've got a record as hot as Anchors Aweigh under your belt, it's easy to grow up, isn't it?
By Matt Schild