Reno, NV 89501
“You can’t judge a book by the cover,” is one of my least favorite clichés. Of course you can. You can judge a book by whatever criteria you like: the cover, the title, the number of pages. And the cover is the first impression a book makes.
The musical equivalent of the book cover is the band name. Most rock bands, even the good ones, have lousy names, especially since most of the decent band names were taken by, like, 1980.
So it was refreshing to get an email a few weeks ago from the guitarist of a band with a name so catchy that I immediately agreed to meet them, despite not having heard them or seen them. All I knew was the name Unhappy Virgin, and the only musical description mentioned, “punk,” which doesn’t really mean anything anymore.
Unhappy Virgin is really a great band name. It evokes a definite image without pinpointing a specific genre. It’s funny without being jokey. And there are no unnecessary parts of speech, like verbs or prepositions, it’s just adjective-noun. Unhappy Virgin.
The guitarist and vocalist, Jeff “Sickboy” Karl, invited me to a recent rehearsal. One of the many thrills of music journalism is showing up to strangers’ houses and witnessing the many bizarre rituals of practicing musicians. It’s always different, and expectations are always crushed. Luckily, since I knew next to nothing about this band, my expectations were nil.
Unhappy Virgin’s practice space is at their friend’s house in southeastern Reno. I showed up on time for the 8 p.m. rehearsal. Unhappy Virgin wasn’t there yet, but there were a couple of dudes sitting out front, sipping 40s and forgoing shirts.
They introduced themselves as Tony Stephens and “Just fuckin’ Bobby, man … Bobby EPOD.”
Bobby is the proprietor of EPOD, a cunnilingus-centric clothing company. The name of the company stands for “Eat Pussy Or Die.” (You can’t make this stuff up.) It was his house. He was a hospitable host, clearly the kind of guy most comfortable near the center of a lot of action.
Stephens and Bobby kept me entertained for the 45 minutes it took Unhappy Virgin to show up. (They had to run some unexpected errands and were appropriately apologetic.)
The rehearsal started off with extensive technical and tuning difficulties, which gave me time to admire the phrase “This Machine Kills the Fascist” scrawled on Karl’s amp. That’s a paraphrase of something Woody Guthrie wrote on his guitar, but Karl said he borrowed it from the band Anti-Flag.
Then, finally, Unhappy Virgin began to play.
So does the band live up to the incredible promise of its name? Of course not. But they’re certainly worth the time if you’re interested in fast-paced, melodic punk rock in the vein of ’90s skate bands like NOFX and Pennywise.
The band—Karl, bassist and backing vocalist Nick “Doubledown” Marino and drummer Eric “Wet Dawg” Garcia—formed more than 10 years ago in Las Vegas when the band members were all around 14 years old. None of them knew how to play before they started the band, and, today, they play with the intrinsic tightness of good friends who learned to play together and have been doing so for a long time.
Bad Religion jumps out as the biggest influence, in the speed and energy of the playing, the melodicism of Karl’s vocals, and the political orientation of the lyrics.
The band plays a punked up version of the Billie Holiday classic “Strange Fruit.”
“It’s a very important song,” says Karl of the anti-lynch mob lament. His stepfather knew that Karl was interested in political music. “He said, ‘Listen to this. It’s one of the first political songs to get played on the radio.’”
Lately, Karl says his songwriting has veered more toward the personal.
“Actually, it’s kind of hard to write a political song now that Bush ain’t president,” he says.