Featured Music: Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Though punk to the core, The Charismatics are no longer boys — their songwriting reflects the vicissitudes of adulthood.
New Blood

Though they’ve been together for six years, The Charismatics mine the blue-collar, punk life for newish outlooks.


It takes balls to cover a Fugazi song. Not just because most Fugazi songs demand honesty and power as well as musicianship from their players. But also because the legendary DIY outfit might be the most respected punkish rock ’n’ roll band in, oh, maybe the history of forever.

Yet while even daring to tackle a Fugazi track requires gargantuan gonads, recording one and then sending it to Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye — on his birthday? Now you’re talking King Kong-sized, uh, confidence.

But that’s just what locals The Charismatics did a while back. They recorded Fugazi’s “Public Witness Program,” from 1993’s In on the Kill Taker, and shipped it to Mr. MacKaye as if they were firing off an e-mail to an old pal. The result?

“Apparently, Ian thought it was one of the best Fugazi covers he’d heard,” said Charismatics bassist and vocalist Gabe Cespedes. “Which was cool, ’cause we really could have ruined his birthday.”

Almost as disheartening as the mental image of a punk-rock god crying into his double-chocolate cake is watching a supremely talented band like The Charismatics soldier on in a style of music whose gatekeepers favor retrograde slop rather than old-school jams like the kind these North Texans kick out. But don’t feel bad for ’em: Now going on six years, The Charismatics — true to punk’s blue-collar DNA — accept that the fight is part of the art.

“Anyone in a local band has to work somewhere and sink a lot of money into it,” said Cespedes. “It’s a struggle. The point of being in a band is to avoid the typical life, but you have to join the daily grind in order to afford to revolt against it.”

The Charismatics are more than aware of punk’s historic significance and proudly wear their influences on their torn shirt sleeves, especially on Bad Blood, the band’s latest e.p. A record that could have easily come from Fat Wreck Chords, a burgeoning punk label, Bad Blood is thematically more aggressive than previous Charismatics outings but also “more nuanced,” said Cespedes. “I think a lot of it is about personal politics,” he said, harking to the m.o. of greats like Fugazi, Gang of Four, and Bad Religion. “A family struggling, the pressure to go to school and get a career and work, and so on.”

“Two-faced” limns the album’s theme as well as any other track. The song’s about growing up in a small town, a place that could be Anytown, U.S.A., but that to the guys in The Charismatics is their home base of Arlington — not quite Fort Worth but not quite Dallas, either. “We are grown men,” said Cespedes, who recently got married. “And the songs are about growing up, not being men or children.”

Which may help explain “Damage Control,” a number about trying to keep a marriage together through hard times. Cespedes sings: “Sometimes we fight like cats and dogs / We mix like oil and water / Why do we even bother? / Love is always saying, ‘Sorry’ / Even when you’re right.”

The album’s opener is “Turn,” a blast that begins with a half-time riff that lasts exactly eight seconds before sending the band into skate-punk overdrive, following the blueprint laid down long ago by NOFX and Lagwagon — to a galloping 4/4 rhythm, add melodic octave-chord harmonies, a metal-inspired solo, and, yes, plenty of angsty lyrics.

“We’re getting back to our roots,” said drummer Chris Vecchio. “It’s not a regression from our previous record but going back to what we’re better at.”

Stop Rock and Roll, said previous effort, is a skillful collection of covers that includes the Fugazi track plus takes on The Who (“Baba O’Riley”), Blondie (“Rip Her to Shreds”), and The Ramones (“I Wanna Live”). By contrast, Bad Blood doesn’t cover songs specifically but mines the best attributes — tangible and intangible — of legendary punk music and moves.

While the task of arranging the music falls on the shoulders of guitarists Jules Gavia and James Hollar, with help from drummer Vecchio and Cespedes, the lyrics are the sole responsibility of Cespedes. “The songs usually have multiple meanings to me, sometimes very specific, but they’re not obvious,” he said. “I prefer an interpreter for my lyrics rather than just saying what they’re about.”

As the band shops Bad Blood around to various labels, Cespedes and company are mapping out an East Coast tour in addition to scheduling local shows.

In the past, the band has opened for major rising stars like The Donnas, Sahara Hotnights, and Rise Against, but the phenomenon of the package tour is making it harder for locals like The Charismatics to ride on industry darlings’ coattails. “Now when a well-known band tours, they decide on all the openers they will bring along,” said Hollar. “This package touring is killing local punk rock.”

In between playing shows here and out of state, The Charismatics already have enough material fleshed out to warrant a trip back to the studio, and they’re exploring non-traditional outlets, including soundtracks, video games, and commercials. The move may not seem punk, but if you leave your fate in the hands of the industry today, you probably won’t get far. In the words of Fugazi: “Autonomy is a world of difference.”

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