Featured Music: Wednesday, July 2, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Rock ’n’ Roll Townies

If your band doesn’t have plans for world domination, look out for Voigt.

By KEN SHIMAMOTO

In an evening in late April, I was trying hard not to envy an East Coast bud who was on his way to see the reunited Iggy and the Stooges perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in the California desert. So it was a pleasant surprise when local up-and-comers Voigt chose to rock the Aardvark with a saber-toothed version of the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy.”

Audiophiles guitarist Derrick McDonald was in the crowd, and he was so transported by the music that he started banging a tambourine tossed aside by Voigt’s tall, gaunt, brooding frontman Burke (a one-namer like Prince or Bono). He wound up jumping onstage to sing impromptu backup vocals. Earlier, Burke’s baby-faced, Telecaster-slinging bandmate Joshua Loewen had won a small victory when he took to heart a fan’s suggestion that “the guitar needs to be louder” and managed to persuade the Aardvark’s soundman to crank up the guitar in the mix, despite the technician’s protests that “it’s really loud and in your face.”

Well, duh, Loewen might have responded. After all, it is rock ’n’ roll.

The members of Voigt are more enamored of the phrase “rock ’n’ roll” than any of their Cowtown contemporaries, and they’re strong on the fundamentals: Burke’s vocals drip with punk malice, Loewen’s guitar churns out raunchy chords and stinging solos, the rhythm section hammers out simple but irresistible beats. Fellow musicians have taken notice of the ever-increasing assurance of Voigt’s live shows. They’ve received shout-outs in the liner notes to three local c.d.’s by other bands, and have been joined on stage and in the studio by the ubiquitous John Price in his “have harp, will travel” role.

It wasn’t always so. When they started gigging in October 2001, said Burke’s younger brother, bassist Taylor Mills, “we were so bad it scared us.” But like other teams of terrible tyros from the Stooges to the Ramones, Voigt gradually matured into a confident, powerful stage unit. On their four-song, self-titled 2002 e.p.(which they might remix for inclusion in a projected full-length c.d.), the spark is clearly audible in songs like “Rock and Roll Town” and “My Sweet Soul.”

Voigt’s still-evolving music beguiles the ears not only of graybeards who compare it to that of old-school heavyweights like David Bowie and the now-fashionable Stooges, but also of younger listeners who never paid any attention to those old dudes.

“Kids our age and younger have been cheated,” said Mills. “They don’t know what real rock ’n’ roll sounds like.”

Like their role models U2 during their Rattle and Hum period, the Voigt boys have undertaken the daunting task of assimilating a musical tradition they’ve only just discovered, and remaking themselves in its image. “When we say rock ’n’ roll,” said Burke, “we’re talking about music with soul and feeling that has roots in blues and R&B. We don’t want to sound like the latest cool English band.” Nor do they sound like the current crop of by-the-numbers garage revivalists. Their sound evolved organically and has its origins in the connection shared by Burke, Mills, and Loewen.

Seeing them together, it’s impossible not to notice how close-knit the three are. (Eric Grubbs, who also plays with the 11:30’s, is the latest and, his Voigtmates say, best in a Spinal Tap-like succession of drummers.) All of them had peripatetic upbringings. Burke and Mills spent their formative years in New Mexico, Arizona, Grapevine, and San Antonio, while Loewen was born in Lawton, Okla., and grew up in Corpus Christi.

To combat the misery of high school, Loewen started playing guitar and writing songs, inspired by artists ranging from the Gin Blossoms and Superdrag to Dick Dale and Jimi Hendrix. He met Mills in 1998, when both were 16, in the unlikeliest of rock ’n’ roll locations: church camp. “We were hanging out, listening to music, and different people’s c.d. wallets were going around,” said Loewen. “The coolest one had Pearl Jam, U2, REM, and not just the regular c.d.’s, either — there were all these import singles and bootleg live things. When I asked who it belonged to, Taylor held up his hand.”

Meanwhile, Burke, who’s five years older, was attending TCU, writing song lyrics, and inspiring the two new friends with a steady stream of letters proposing the idea of a band which, at the time, existed only in his head. A defining experience in the singer’s life has been a nine-year struggle with Crohn’s disease, a painful, chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Over the years, the disease has caused his weight to drop from 180 to 115 pounds, required the removal of his gall bladder, and forced him to take all his nourishment intravenously for several months.

Burke says that during those months he spent trapped in a hospital bed, music helped him to cope with his suffering by providing a mental escape. He sees that kind of escape as being central to the appeal of rock ’n’ roll. “Our song called ‘A Little Revolution’ is about that,” he said. “The idea that you can escape the life you’re in, make your own choices.”

Mills and Loewen joined Burke at TCU in Y2K and devoted the year to intense discussions about what a rock ’n’ roll band should be. After that, they spent a summer in the garage, trying to write songs in the styles of U2, Counting Crows, and Bush, before they felt ready to take it to the stage. The earliest Voigt gigs, in places like 5th Street Junction (“to 50 people”) and the Red Goose (where “no one paid attention”) were admittedly less than inspired. But the experience only solidified the young band’s determination to improve.

Loewen left TCU after a year, and now Mills is taking time off from school to focus on the band. (Burke’s studies in history, religion, and English are ongoing.) They’re serious about it, too. In the Arlington Heights house where they rehearse, there’s a handmade chart detailing the band’s secret plan for world domination, focusing on music, promotion, design, web presence (www.voigtrock.com will be online soon), shows, and merchandising. Their avowed goal: “To destroy the music industry and be the quintessential American rock ’n’ roll band.”

Ambitious? Maybe. “Rock ’n’ roll has always been a bastard music,” said Burke. “There’ll be periods when it’s not cool to say you’re a rock ’n’ roll band, but then once in a while, it breaks through. Lately, though, it seems like people are willing to believe in something again.” As for the Voigt boys, they’ve been true believers for years.


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