Lift the veil
The adventurous Smog Veil Records came from Ohio, planted roots in Reno and cranks out the choicest rock and punk albums.
A smog veil is a low hanging fog that casts an eerie glow when illuminated by city lights at night. It’s also a kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll record label based here in Reno.
Frank Mauceri was a law-school graduate with a great love for rock ‘n’ roll when he started the label in Cleveland in 1991. When Mauceri and his wife, Lisa, relocated to Reno in 1998, they brought the label with them. Since then, Smog Veil Records has boomed with about 60 releases, many of which have had quite a high profile.
For some music fans, the label is synonymous with classic Ohio punk, garage and prog rock.
“Many bands from Ohio share a certain smart-ass, cynical attitude,” says Mauceri. “It comes with coming from the dying rust belt.” Despite the association with Ohio and avant-garage rock, Mauceri says that the label isn’t genre or locale-specific. “My only criteria,” he says, “is for good rock ‘n’ roll, quality songwriting and an ability to tour.”
The mighty Rocket From The Tombs (not to be confused with San Diego’s Rocket From The Crypt—whose name, obviously, is either a “reference” or a “steal") is a genuine, legendary Cleveland proto-punk rock band dating all the way back to 1975. RFTT split off into two groups, The Dead Boys and Pere Ubu, both of which went on to be very, very influential.
The Dead Boys, featuring RFTT guitarist Cheetah Chrome, moved from Cleveland to New York City in the late ‘70s and became one of the leading acts of the CBGB’s scene that gave birth to punk rock. The Dead Boys’ first album was called Young Loud and Snotty, an apt description of their sound.
Some of their songs were later covered by an odd assortment of bands, including Guns ‘N’ Roses and Pearl Jam.
“It was all dumb luck,” says Chrome of The Dead Boys’ success. “There was no master plan.”
RFTT vocalist David Thomas (not to be confused with Dave Thomas of Wendy’s fame) has led Pere Ubu down a long, eclectic career path that began shortly after the demise of RFTT in 1975. Pere Ubu’s quirky, experimental sound anticipated post-punk even before punk. Thomas is easily one of rock’s most innovative singers. His vocals range from a gruff howl to a soulful falsetto to a histrionic yelp, sometimes all in a single breath. He’s a first-rate lyricist, one of the great songwriters of madness and road travel.
In 2002, Smog Veil released The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs, a collection of demos and live recordings that revealed Rocket From The Tombs to be a near-perfect mix of some of the best parts of both splinter bands. Critical reception was reverential, and sales were quite respectable for an independent release. The album was number one on Rolling Stone’s On The Edge Chart, May 9, 2002.
RFTT did a reunion tour with Television guitarist Richard Lloyd, filling in for deceased RFTT guitarist Peter Laughner. They recorded Rocket Redux, essentially a studio version of The Day The Earth Met The Rocket From The Tombs.
“It took us a bit of time to reconnect,” says Chrome, now a new father at age 50. “I was used to doing The Dead Boys versions of those songs, which is like three times the speed, banged-out rock ‘n’ roll. With Rocket, there’s more atmosphere. I’m glad to play both.”
Thomas and Chrome are working intermittently on new material. “We want to go back on the road, but it wouldn’t be interesting to just be an oldies band,” says Thomas. “It’s a weird situation, because, in a way, we’re as manufactured as a boy band. But it’s so good, we wouldn’t want to give it up.”
The ultra-prolific Thomas has another new Smog Veil release, 18 Monkeys on a Dead Man’s Chest, with one of his many other bands, David Thomas and Two Pale Boys. The Two Pale Boys are an improvisational guitar and trumpet duo, and Thomas uses their startling and hypnotic playing to build densely layered, sonically mesmerizing songs.
Other releases on Smog Veil include albums by The New Christs, fronted by garage-rock hero Rob Younger of Radio Birdman, and the aptly named Amps II Eleven, a teeth-kicking Cleveland band. There’s also the influential Akron, Ohio, band, Rubber City Rebels, whose “Pierce My Brain” is a key song on the soundtrack to Actavision’s Tony Hawk Underground video game and its accompanying television commercial.
Forthcoming releases include a new album by The Unknown Instructors, an improvisational prog-rock band featuring members of The Minutemen and Saccharine Trust, and a retrospective of Rocket From The Tomb’s Laughner’s home recordings.
Also coming up is a career retrospective DVD from Jon Mikl Thor, The Rock Warrior, titled Anthorlogy.76-86. His recent Thor Against the World is one of Smog Veil’s newest releases.
Thor, a former bodybuilding champion—who’s held titles including Mr. North America, Mr. Canada and Mr. Teenage USA—was so inspired by the heavy rock music he would listen to while working out that he decided to “combine muscle and rock” as a “rock ‘n’ roll gladiator.” For the last four decades, Thor has been performing incredible feats of both strength and rock ‘n’ roll.
The DVD will include Thor’s career-launching appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. There’s also footage of Thor having a pile of bricks laid on his chest and smashed with a sledge hammer. Unfortunately, the sledge hammer misses its mark, and Thor is left with his ribs sticking out of his chest.
One surprise, considering Thor’s reputation as a theatrical performer, is how good the music on his record is. It’s rad—a combination of the best parts of garage rock and power metal, catchy and hard rocking.
“I’m really proud of the new album,” he says. “Even though there are all the theatrics, the songs have to be at the point that they’d be good even if I was performing them in jeans and a T-shirt.”
While his acts are sledgehammering, rocking and recording, Smog Veil’s Mauceri is back in the office multitasking. He describes his role as “attorney, booking agent, salesman, A&R rep and circus sideshow barker.”
“Frank’s very supportive of bands on the road,” says Chrome. “We say we need somebody to sell T-shirts, and Frank’s right on it.”
Of Smog Veil’s 60-odd releases, some are vinyl-only, some CD-only and some digital-only. The label appeals to audiophiles but is progressive rather than purist, adapting to new formats and technologies, exploring DVDs and digital technology.
“Frank’s really open to new ideas,” says Thor. “If I say, ‘I feel like fighting a giant snake!’ He doesn’t just say, ‘Hey, you’re crazy.'”