Stuck in the middle
Middle Class Rut uses what they don’t have to full advantage
Cesar Chavez Park is packed with hundreds of people in various stages of overheating. It’s uncomfortable for everyone. The thermometer registers at more than 100 degrees, but nobody is going anywhere because it’s a free show—which means that probably less than a third of the audience is actually there to watch Middle Class Rut, another third is already drunk and the rest is homeless people.
MC Rut (as they’re also known) climbs onstage. Sean Stockham, the shirtless, lanky dirty-blond with a tattoo on his chest that reads “For Sale” gets behind the drums. Zack Lopez, a well-coifed Mexican, straps on a guitar and stands in front of the microphone.
A quick calculation determines that there are only two of them. And it’s hard not to notice the big guy standing near the stage who looks visibly disturbed by that minimalist number. “What? Two people? No bass? What kind of band has no bass?” he asks whoever is listening.
A few weeks prior to their concert in the park, Lopez and Stockham sat down with SN&R at their rural Elk Grove practice space to tell the story of MC Rut. And as it turns out, they know that reaction all too well. In fact, they’re quite used to it.
“I think until people start knowing who we are in Sacramento … they will give us that look like, ‘What’s happening?’ They don’t know what to make of us, I guess,” said Lopez, who, standing by his gargantuan guitar rig, looked tiny.
The main hang-up, really, is that MC Rut doesn’t have a bassist, which to some, is a sin. Dozens of musicians’ Web sites host heated arguments on their message boards regarding the practice of bassless bands (most end up saying something like, “It sounds way better live. Trust me, man.”), yet with MC Rut, their two-person status is simply a problem of aesthetics. While the lacking band member links them automatically to a group like the White Stripes or even Hella, their sound is actually quite different. MC Rut is intense, hard, loud, fuzzy and surprisingly … bass-heavy.
No, really. When they perform, one of the first things you hear is a low boom that reverberates in fuzzy static. When watching the duo onstage, it’s puzzling, but once your mind registers that it’s actually Lopez’s guitar making the low-end sounds, it’s mesmerizing.
“I don’t think any of us in this room are anti-bass,” Stockham explained as he sat back in his chair in the garage-turned-band room. “I think in a certain type of music, it’s one of the most important things, but I don’t think we ever felt like those lofty bass lines would work with something like what we do.”
That makes sense, considering Lopez has been known to ride one chord for the better part of five minutes with his guitar, which is a long time for a bassist to just, you know, stand there. “It wouldn’t add anything to our music except an ’Oooooom!’ We can fucking do that—and we did,” he said.
If that’s not enough, technically, MC Rut doesn’t have a lead singer either; instead, the duo takes turns with the vocals. Stockham’s and Lopez’s voices are nearly indistinguishable from one another because of their similarly high-pitched Perry Farrell-esque tones. In fact, with their echoey, effect-heavy vocals, the band has been compared to Jane’s Addiction more than once. “We live in delay,” said Lopez. “I don’t ever want to hear myself dry, because there’s no vibe to it.”
While many compare the band to the harder bands of yesteryear (à la Rage Against the Machine and Tool), their sound certainly stands out in this age of jovial alt-folk and dream-synth-pop; MC Rut is much heavier, more relentless than what we’re used to. Especially for a two-piece.
In fact, it’s hard not to imagine their sound if they had a couple extra band members. Would a bass and another guitarist be superfluous? Why are they a two-piece, anyway?
“We’re two people just because that’s how it’s supposed to be,” said Stockham, adding after a moment of pause, “And because we’re the only two people who are left.”
Stockham’s addendum is interesting, and it delves a bit into the band’s history. He and Lopez were once in a group called Leisure; they lived in Los Angeles and were signed by DreamWorks Records. While it sounds like a rock ’n’ roll plateau, they ended up like many “next big thing” bands: digging ditches.
“We never released anything,” Lopez said. “We got signed without a singer just because they liked how we played together, then we got a singer and we [were] bummed out, because the songs we loved as instrumentals were ruined with a vocalist. It took more than six singers to figure out that maybe we shouldn’t look for a new singer.”
When they were subsequently dropped from their label, Lopez and Stockham were back at square one—a couple of construction workers in Sacramento who really loved to play instruments with not much of anything to show for it.
Now, they’re living off the rest of their DreamWorks money and “milking it until it’s gone,” they say, which allows them to practice in their dank, dirty Elk Grove space for at least six hours each Monday through Friday.
“We are so productive that we can’t argue with what we do. Obviously, anybody would want to be in this room,” Lopez said, looking around the trash-strewn garage with chords and equipment cases scattered about. “Well, not everybody … ”
Watching Lopez and Stockham interact is like watching a set of twins. One begins where the other leaves off. And it’s their measured chemistry that completes the band—as if their synchronicity is actually the third member. “We like so much that we’re just two guys,” Stockham said. “And we’re two completely different people; we approach everything in two very different ways. Like, I’m really insecure and overly analytical, and I’ll overthink something into the ground. And [Lopez is] on the opposite of that: He’s fearless. The fact we’re able to take advantage of both our personalities and put it into music is awesome.
The theory explains Lopez and Stockham’s uncanny ability to read each other’s mind onstage, creating music that sounds wholly unified as a result. And it also might explain the band’s seemingly effortless transition from being unknown to having their single played constantly on the radio. You can’t turn the dial without hearing the hook to “New Low,” which possesses the power of etching itself into your brain after a single listen.
“It’s a huge thing because we got it there ourselves,” said Lopez. “It’s unbeatable. The response is crazy—especially knowing that we’re not even signed and we’re still … well, the songs are doing a lot of the work for us.”
The majority of the crowd is male. And they are mostly shirtless. And drunk. Yet everybody, even in the beer garden, is fully concentrating on the incredible noise emanating from the stage. A line of teenage girls is jammed in the front row against the railing, leaning into the stage as Lopez and Stockham, through buckets of sweat, belt out the British-Invasion-meets-Fugazi anthem “All Walks of Life.” Four of the girls are singing the song word-for-word, and a boy and his father near the back of the lawn wave a Middle Class Rut T-shirt like a victory flag.
Every bit of Stockham’s words about the days he spent in his old band Leisure—the record deal, the L.A. lifestyle, the struggle, the journey, the fun, the lack of control, the ultimate disappointment—ring out loud, and painfully, in his music: The distorted guitar, the explosive drums and the anger in Lopez’s voice are the farthest thing from false.
As Stockham hits the final beat and Lopez drags the last dizzying chord of “25 Years,” the crowd—probably oblivious to the duo’s history as industry dropouts—is swaying, chanting under the blazing sun to the anthem of a new beginning.