Sexy or scary? It's the Halloween costume dilemma of our time, but for Partman Parthorse frontman Gary Smith, it's no problem at all—when his band take the stage for their October 31 CD-release show at the High Dive, he'll inevitably be both.
Sexy because Gary gets naked or next to it at nearly every Partman Parthorse show, and he boasts a lean, muscular physique (he and wife/drummer Lisa Smith do yoga). Scary because once he gets down to his underwear (or less), Gary stalks through the crowd, lifts monitors with one arm, writhes around on the floor, and otherwise gets intimate with his audience on an anatomical level, all while the band beat out dark, churning blasts of punk rock and Gary sings almost impenetrably sarcastic, smart-ass lyrics with an all-encompassing sneer. It's trick and treat, in line with a hallowed tradition of confrontational punk-rock frontmen that runs from Iggy Pop and Darby Crash right up to Fucked Up and Les Savy Fav. It's both a shake-up of the old spectacle/spectator dynamic and established enough of an act as to only reinforce punk's own peculiar conventions (i.e., in the year of What We Do Is Secret, no one's shocked anymore when the cats come out into the audience).
Asked if Partman Parthorse have an agenda, Gary puts it more simply: "I just want to shake my dick in your face and see if you like it or not."
It's two weeks before Halloween, and the band have no idea what they're going to wear for their show—it's especially hard for Gary to come up with a costume that will still work once he strips off 95 percent of it (if nothing else, he could do the best Crash you're likely to see this season). Offstage, hanging out (fully clothed) in the band's trap-door basement practice space, the band's superficial menace and sarcasm evaporate to reveal a funny, smart, and smart-ass but genuinely nice bunch. (Asked what everybody does for their day jobs, Gary replies, "Rachel [Ratner, bass/synth] owns KEXP, I own Easy Street Records, Lisa's the marketing director of Microsoft, Marshall [Nall, guitar] owns Tavolàta"—except for Microsoft, these are their places of employ, but Gary's a clerk, Ratner's a DJ and educational outreach coordinator, and Nall's a pasta maker.)
"I want to take my clothes off in front of people and yell and throw shit," Gary continues. "And this is the only time you can do it without getting kicked out of a place. I took my shirt off at a bar recently, [and they] told me not to, because I wasn't playing."
"It was also a lesbian bar," adds Ratner.
"Yeah, it was the Wild Rose," Gary laughs.
Partman Parthorse have been unceremoniously ejected or barred from their share of shows. When the band unwittingly found themselves playing a Camel-sponsored event last year, Gary wrote "Camel Sucks" on his chest, and the band were subsequently denied another show opening for the same band at the same venue. A gig at the Columbia City Theater ended badly after Gary marked his height on a wall and signed it midset. "The place really sucks, and Chip, the sound guy there, is really stupid." (Gary, refreshingly for Seattle's too-polite indie-rock scene, isn't above talking some shit.) "He shut our sound off, and grabbed the Sharpie and started scraping it on my chest, totally flipping out. He grabbed my mic and put my mic in water, and he made me sand the wall," Gary laughs. "No, it's a beautiful place."
The all-ages scene has also proven a difficult hurdle for the 'Horse to clear: "Different types of people like us—[even] the yuppie people that like Audioslave—but not the kids that like Mika Miko, they think we're gross. Kids at house parties get it, but if it's not underground.... They yelled at me for my lyrics at the Old Fire House: 'It's inappropriate, you can't sing about drugs, can't say the n-word.'"
Still, the band are able to get away with some shock and mischief.
"I've been showing my penis lately," Gary boasts. "It's fun! I've smoked weed onstage, and they don't do anything; it's pretty cool."
"Last night, before we played, I started chanting 'John McCain,' and people started flipping me off and saying, 'Fuck you.' It was really funny—Lisa didn't think it was funny—but then I said, 'Hey, Tacoma doesn't smell bad, it just smells like pussy... hot, wet, middle-aged pussy.' That was funny, too."
Partman Parthorse have only been terrorizing Seattle venues for a few years, but the band's roots go all the way back to 1996 in Pensacola, Florida, where Gary and Nall first met and began playing music together. In 2001, Gary and Lisa eloped to Seattle, where they met Ratner, and shortly thereafter Nall moved out and joined them.
Of his and Nall's early efforts, Gary says, "They weren't songs. We couldn't finish a song until we met these two."
Still, it took the band some time to finish their follow-up to 2005's self-titled debut, the self-released sophomore album, Year of the Jerk.
"We had a lot of the stuff done this time last year," says Nall. "We just didn't start recording until January. We were done with it in March."
"From concept to finish—three years," Gary adds. Actual time spent recording? "Two days."
As a result of that slack schedule, Year of the Jerk does have some dated moments. On the growling, evil "Magik," Gary declares "2-0-0-7" the "year of the jerk." On the 8Ball & MJG–referencing "Can't Fade the P.M.P.H.," he scowls about "ghostrid[ing] the whip," "grapes," and getting "dumb, dumb, dumb" (remember hyphy?). That Partman Parthorse pull off even their more dubious lines is a testament to Gary's repertoire of self-parodistic monster snarls, stoned surfer drawls, stage whispers, and hardcore speak-singing cadences. For the most part, though, the album's subjects—sex, drugs, angst, and the many ways Partman Parthorse rock harder than all you losers—are timeless enough, and the 14-hour recording session seems to have only intensified their hazardous punk rush.
Inviting album opener "Disappear," lays bare Gary's MO: "I got the body/And I got the mind/No inhibitions of any kind... Let's get it on." Overdriven drone "At the Mall" confuses adolescent flirting with consumerism with nudist transgression; it also name-checks Egyptian Lover, Swatch, and the year 1980 (all of which suggest a So-Cal vintage that's equally apparent in the band's mix of surf, punk, and hardcore). Reverb and bile-dripping ballad "Mr. Frontman" pokes fun at the rock star as sex symbol. The tensely groovy "I'm a Book" satirizes sex-and-drugs burnouts, while synth and guitar wipeout "Significant Bummer" is just a bad-vibes punk anthem for the ages. "Stash" twists from a hazy ode to weed-smoking into what sounds like an age-inappropriate offer of mustache rides. The violent jerking back and forth of "Shit Hot" opens with a typically abrasive and hilarious line—"Losers, I hate you!/Die, die, and go to hell/You are so stupid/Jerks, does it hurt?"—and it only gets more uncomfortable and entertaining from there.
All the lyrical snark, combined with Lisa and Ratner's chugging, stop/start rhythms and Nall's distorted guitar buzz, reverby tics, and feedback-pierced riffs, would make Partman Parthorse ideal support for Sub Pop misfits Pissed Jeans. (Of Sub Pop's apparent indifference to Partman Parthorse, Gary readily quips: "Fuck it, they're jerks—but, you know, it's not like they have to like us or anything, it's just dumb that they don't.") The band would like to tour more, having never taken their horror show off the West Coast.
As the interview draws to a close, after all the shit-talk and wisecracks, Gary pauses to reconsider the question of Partman Parthorse's agenda, flashes a big grin and declares simply: "We just want people to like us."
Really, what's not to like?