Locals Only: : Snake Punching Contest

Local Rock trio benefit from a three-cornered approach to songwriting and an uncornered sound

Michael Bailey

Snake Punching Contest

Fed up with the inexplicable predominance of local cover bands, uninterested in genre labels and only mildly amused at sonic comparisons, local Rock trio Snake Punching Contest (SPC) prefer to punch their own snakes. They're just not interested in fixing their sound to satisfy outside definitions.

Comprised of Donna Rubin (guitar/ vocals), Steve MacMurray (drums/vocal) and Scott Haggerty (bass/vocals), the three thirtysomethings only show their age in their disinterest in being trendy and in their lighthearted stage presence. No inter-band stage drama here — SPC get along and have fun, and they let the audience in on it.

Where they don't show their age is in their blistering live energy. With three contributing songwriters, and influences spanning Leonard Cohen to Built to Spill, Nick Cave to The Cars and traditional Jazz to early Punk, theirs isn't an easy sound to pin down. Haggerty sums it up as "kind-of a pre-Cold War Soviet Rap." (Need I point out that Haggerty is the sarcastic one?)

"You can't call it Power Pop 'cause we have a lot more Rock than that," he says. "And the Indie Rock label stinks.

We do a song that sounds kind-of Punk followed by a song that sounds more Classic Rock followed by a song that could very easily be called Power Pop."

At essence, SPC is all about dynamics. Tight rhythmic U-turns take you off-guard, guitar melodies and vocal harmonies pull you in and relentless percussion spits you out. They draw comparisons to Sonic Youth and The Pain Teens (though they find the Sonic Youth one laughably off the mark). Suffice to say, if you've heard one of their songs, you haven't heard them all. And if you've seen one of their shows, you haven't seen them all.

Originally called The Steve Merrit Band, SPC formed in San Francisco in 1998 out of the collaborations of Rubin and MacMurray, both active in the San Francisco Mission District music scene. Before joining forces, Rubin played drums in femme trio Rosemary's Babies and Punk Hip Hop crew Off Da Pigs (Probe). MacMurray drummed for noise heroes Tina Age 13 (Brokin Rekids/ Purple Turtle) and a Bluegrass ensemble called Family Scott. Moving to Cincinnati in 2001, they quickly recruited Haggerty, also of Sistern, after meeting him at a party.

Rubin recalls, "Scott asked 'What are you called?' I said 'Snake Punching Contest.' He said, 'I'm in.' "

SPC's sets are turn-taking endeavors, with Rubin taking frontstage most often. A modern dance teacher, she bounces around the stage, stopping only to hover earnestly over the mic on the tip-toes of her Chuck Taylors. Her stream-of-consciousness lyrics and whisper-to-scream vocals are sexy but not coquettish, dark but not scary. She's not one of the boys, but she's not just a girl thrown on stage to be girly either.

The three-piece are pleased with the band chemistry. All agree that the estrogen/testosterone balance works in their favor, though Rubin says another female presence would be nice at times.

"When Steve called me up to play, I was playing (drums) with two other girls, and they were totally into the girl thing. And I don't care what sex I'm playing with — the relationship you're going to have with someone musically is gonna happen. I'm not into the whole 'it has to be all girls' thing, but there is a difference."

"You just want to break down and cry," Haggerty grins.

"No, but girls just tend to be (better at) speaking their insecurities," Rubin retorts.

Of their songwriting collaborations, Rubin calls Steve the taskmaster. "He really likes to work things out," she says. "Scott — he's got attention deficit, he likes to go really fast with things."

Rubin complains about the lack of a supportive musical network as compared to San Francisco, but Haggerty is positive about the local scene. "I've been around for over 10 years now, and this'll be the third upswing I've seen," he says. "It's always around a place, like the last couple have been centered around Sudsy's. The bad thing about Cincinnati is it's the only city I've ever lived in where the most popular bands are the bands playing the songs you hear on the radio. It's a crying shame. In that regard, the town is full of sheep. But I just think there (are) so many different sounding bands. I mean, the Power Pop thing is pretty dominant, but — I remember the last upswing, all the label reps came here and said, 'We can't market it. There's no Cincinnati sound.' I think that's a good thing."

The trio isn't finicky about where they play. They've performed at Art's Billiards, Top Cat's, Overflow, York Street, The Comet, Southgate House, and during our conversation they throw around the possibility of playing at The Void to see what kind of reception they'd get from the Punk crowd centered around the all-ages Northside venue.

SPC plans to finish a recording in September, in hopes of getting more out-of-town shows and signed by a label. They've gotten a few calls (minus follow-ups) from label reps, which Haggerty eloquently refers to as "butt-sniffing tactics." ©

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