July 16 2013 09:06 PM

San Diego synth-punks balance their abrasive songs with humor

From left: Jimmy the Worm, Hadi Fever, and Davie Deathmetal
Photo by Ryan Bradford; treatment by Adam Vieyra

Four clicks: clk-clk-clk-clk

It's the sound that begins Stalins of Sound's "Pool of Piranha," equivalent to Dee Dee Ramone's signature "1-2-3-4!" that propelled The Ramones' already-breakneck tempo in the live arena. For Stalins, however, it's a prelude to pulverization.

Stalins of Sound don't have a Dee Dee; they have a machine—a Boss DR-670 drum machine, to be exact. It's their unofficial fourth member, an automaton that strips the jubilation from a punk-rock countdown and replaces it with four cold clicks before unleashing the unrelenting rhythms of their harshest songs.

It's that machine that frontman Hadi Fever believes is simultaneously one of the Stalins' defining characteristics and their major source of contempt.

"A lot of people don't like the drum machines. A lot of people like the natural, more free, loose type of band stuff," says Fever, who, along with keyboardist Jimmy the Worm and bassist Davie Deathmetal (stage names, obviously), is wearing his stage uniform at CityBeat's request: black shirt and pants with red undershirts. It's subtle yet effective, and nestled in the corner of Twiggs' patio, they have a dominating and vaguely threatening presence amid the regular coffeehouse crowd. "We have plenty of friends who don't like us as a band but they like us as people."

"That's the first time I've ever really experienced that," Worm adds. "People will flat-out go: 'We don't like it.' But you know, fair enough. It's not personal."

"Imagine how many of Al Jourgensen's friends don't like Ministry. That's a hard band to be into," Fever says.

"And, plus, we're friends with a lot of assholes," Worm laughs.

The banter between Fever and Worm—dialogue that alternates between intellectual name-dropping, self-awareness and sophomoric humor—illustrates the opposing forces that make Stalins of Sound so engaging. Their music is intentionally abrasive. One listen to their self-released album Tank Tracks and the Ministry comparison seems apt: The DR-670—which Fever chose because of its harshness and snare drums that sound "like a big burst of nasty white noise"—underscores a bulldozing wall of synth-punk.

But at the same time, the Stalins are funny, and any auditory offenses are quelled by the band's sense of humor. Yes, they have songs titled "Monkeys Attack," "Meatbag" and "Genocide Erection," but the real comedy lies in how straight-faced they approach their fascist image and the faux-totalitarian brutality of their songs.

"Most of the stuff that I like is very funny," Fever says. "Even if it's sarcastic or self-deprecating. Even with a song called 'Genocide Erection.' What does that mean? All it is was picturing some dude, watching Fox news in his underwear, eating cheeseburgers and jerking off to it."

"Quit spying on me," Worm jokes.

"But that totalitarian image, I guess that's just a byproduct of my personality because I'm just very neurotic, very uptight," Fever says.

It would be easy to apply a rudimentary understanding of psychology to the Stalins' personalities: The easy rapport between the calculated Fever and the brash Worm is classic ego/id, one that comes from nearly a decade of playing music together—dating back to 2004 when they were both in a band called The Dissimilars. After The Dissimilars broke up in 2008, Fever says he "meandered for a bit" until he met Deathmetal, who acts as the Stalins' stoic super-ego, tempering the difference between two extremes.

"I met Dave at a friend's house," Fever says. "They were sitting around playing, like, slow, doomy metal stuff, and I was, like, 'No, guys, fuck that. We're going to play fast, we're going to play heavy and we're going to play loud. Dave, no more using your fingers; you're going to use a pick.'"

If these initial bass-playing demands served as any indication, the finalized version of Stalins of Sound is dictated by Fever, who writes most of the songs by himself. 

"Dave and I are more like hired hands," Worm admits. "It was just Hadi by himself for a long time."

"Yeah, it was just me playing with a drum machine," Fever says.

"So, me and Dave are just kind of filling that out a little bit more, and I'm more than happy to do that because I'm lazy," Worm continues. "In other bands that I like, it seems that someone takes the lead and the other guys fall in. It's not like a dictatorship, but it is working toward one vision."

And that vision is a narrow one. The drum machines, the uniforms and musical harshness all serve as intentional obstacles that the Stalins have to maneuver to achieve their sound, which makes for a cohesive experience when it works, a difficult one when it doesn't.

"We have to write stuff for us. If we do a Ramones cover, we have to program it in the drum machine, we have to make up the keyboard part so it comes out sounding unrecognizable to some people—so it sounds more like us," Worm says. "I think that's the whole package: We can't do stuff that other bands can do."

He pauses. "But they can't do what we can do."

"That's true," Fever says.

"Which is not get laid," Worm adds. "Ever." 

Write to ryanb@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @theryanbradford