From the outside it looks like any other garage in a suburban neighborhood, but as you approach you hear the barely muffled sound of a raging post-punk band. The mattresses, carpet remnants and other sound baffling lining the walls inside the dark practice space barely contain the controlled chaos as Winston Smith prepares for a reunion show this coming Sunday.
Drummer Willoughby Arevalo kicks off a tune titled "Christ" beating on a raggedy drum kit covered with stickers, his machine-gun riff locking in with Ryan Emenaker's bass. Tim Miller joins in on an electric guitar that has the words "This Machine Kills Fascists" scrawled on the neck in homage to Woody Guthrie, but the music is loud and fast, far from folk. The rhythms are complex; the chords shift quickly, moving through minor progressions -- this ain't no classic three-chord punk rock either.
Winston Smith formed around 10 years ago, taking its name from the protagonist in George Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984. Back then all three members were involved in the effort to establish Placebo, an all-ages space that would accommodate loud music like theirs.
After a few years, when Tim and Ryan were finished with their college careers, they both found work out of the area and Winston Smith was done -- at least for a time. Ryan returned to Arcata after a not-too-pleasant sojourn in Alaska and got a job teaching political science at College of the Redwoods. (He is now the chair of CR's poli-sci department.) When Tim returned to the area too, they started talking about getting the band back together. The anniversary of 9/11 seemed like an appropriate time for a resurrection, so they booked a show at Empire Squared in Eureka.
"Sept. 11 fits into the themes of a lot our songs," said Ryan, as the band relaxed in his kitchen after practice. "We joke that we're a Patriot Act-era hardcore band."
The band was always more political than most on the local scene. "We were political in the terms of trying to get the Placebo going and the community building that involved," Ryan agreed. "Also political in the broader sense with themes around the Patriot Act, war and social upheaval."
Then there's the character who gave the band its name, a would-be rebel who joins a secret organization working against the irrational, draconian rule of Big Brother. "Lots of our themes came from science fiction, dystopia, utopia theories and ideas," said Ryan. Willoughby, noting that Tim wrote the lyrics, suggested that he'd actually distilled the works of Orwell and Bradbury down to song form.
"I didn't steal anything from Bradbury or Orwell," said Tim, correcting him, "just some of their titles."
Is there still a place for politi-post-punk in the modern scene?
"A friend sent me an article a little while ago; after the London riots this magazine had a cover with the Clash," said Tim. "It asked what bands have to say today. The gist of it was that not many bands have anything to say."
"The ideas about what type of society we live in and what kind of society we'd like to create, that's always relevant," said Ryan. "Some time ago I read this theory that said when there's an economic downturn, the music tends to get better. Music by people like Britney Spears is an outcrop of good times -- it's music that's easy to consume. When there's a downturn and times are hard, you tend to see music play a different role in people's lives.
"Hopefully we'll start to see a bunch of underground bands forming again, people who want to say things that aren't being said, and people who want to build community through music. When people don't have the economic ability to buy music, they have to make their own."
That's Winston Smith's plan anyway, this Sunday and with other as-yet-unscheduled shows.
"We're playing Sunday with our old friend Paris McClusky who used to live here and play at the Placebo," noted Willoughby. "He moved to Olympia a few years ago; he's bringing his current band, Anastatica. They describe themselves as 'melodic queer black metal.' There's a whole Cascadian black metal movement that's Earth-based and foresty, but still dark, fast and screamy. It should be good."
The all ages Winston Smith reunion show starts around 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11, at Empire Squared, 47B West Third St., Eureka (around the corner from the Co-op). Winston Smith will be joined by Anastatica plus two local punk bands, Terrorist and Killa Bandits. Admission is on a sliding scale: $3-$5. For more info call 826-1077.