Touch me I’m sick
Punk-rock country b and The Touchers crawls out from under its Montana rock
Hearing Ben Brizini answer the phone from his Bozeman, Mont., residence with his laid-back, sleepy voice, it’s easy to forget the kind of screaming he’s capable of. The 32-year-old lead singer/guitarist of the punk-rock country explosion known as The Touchers is hours away from his midnight janitorial shift at the local Safeway, and just days away from kicking off a month-long tour. And though you might not know it based on his frequent pauses to calmly yawn and collect himself, the man is all business when it comes to music.
“If it were up to me, we’d go on tour for six months straight,” says Brizini, who pretty much is The Touchers, bringing in a revolving cast of players for albums and tours.
Chances are, Montana isn’t one of the first places that come to mind when thinking of prolific regions of rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, Brizini would be the first to agree. Yet, Bozeman, an average-sized college town of around 30,000 nestled right up to the Rocky Mountains, seems to be one of the few places in Montana where new musicians can thrive without the fear of pissing off bar patrons for playing original material rather than Johnny Cash covers.
“It’s definitely not the worst place to play,” Brizini says. “You find little patches of bands and music that wouldn’t exist anywhere else because we aren’t as influenced by as many things up here.”
This actually sums up the spirit of The Touchers pretty well. It’s a raucous mix of early punk, classic country influences and a love for the anything-goes rock of The Melvins and The Butthole Surfers. You’d be hard-pressed to find The Touchers taking cues from any band or artist that came after the mid-'90s.
“I grew up going to Fugazi shows,” Brizini says. “But I saw that whole scene kind of dissipate before I was even old enough to get involved.”
Enough of an impression was obviously made on Brizini, however, as he has strongly adapted many of the ethical codes of his heroes. The Touchers’ new album, The Underwater Fascist, for example, was recorded in just two days with Jack Endino, the now-legendary Seattle producer responsible for some early work by the likes of Nirvana, Mudhoney and the Screaming Trees. The band will also be playing about 27 shows in just over 30 days, all of which will most likely take a toll on Brizini’s jarring scream, which often reaches early Frank Black proportions.
“I drink a lot of tea or chew gum when I play,” he says, insisting that vocal-chord maintenance takes practice, like anything else. “Sometimes I’ll put a Pixies record on and just scream along to it.”
Brizini’s lyrics, full of dark imagery, are among the more interesting elements of his band’s music. Songs off the new record like “Not Right in the Head” and “Fire When Ready” keep the off-kilter consistency with older material like “Spirit of Poverty” and “Things Are Only Getting Worse” from The Touchers’ previous efforts, Pretty Baby and 2003’s The Shotgun.
The band’s original name was Bi-Polar Ben and the Touchers, which was more than just a hollow joke. A sufferer of bipolar disorder himself, Brizini has also seen mental illness torture others in his family, including his father, who committed suicide. Taking a regular prescription of lithium and bouncing around state hospitals has given him some intense subject matter to write about.
“The first [hospital] was kind of scary,” he says. “My roommate thought he was married to Stevie Nicks, and he kept calling me Jakob, because he thought I was Jakob Dylan.”
Even still, Brizini attempts to make light of his situation by finding some humor in it.
“The guy also thought the entire staff was made up of Nazi war criminals,” he says. “So I made out pretty well.”