Kick Out the Jams

Joaquin Poblete/Courtesy

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The debut record by Oakland four-piece the Splinters has a perfect title. Sure, Kick may have been named partially in honor of album engineer Jason Kick, and the band offers a number of other theories behind the title, including, "We like to kick ass." But it's also a full-length album that comes in at less than half an hour, hearkening back to the debuts of the Misfits and the Ramones, punk's masters of brevity. Kick blends vocal hooks with taut guitar work and occasionally bone-crushing drums. In the record's 26 minutes and change, the band runs the gamut from forlorn to sardonic to just plain joyously badass. It's a strike that might throw you off balance or simply wake you up, but it is a kick, no two ways about it.

Before their gig last Friday at the Uptown in Oakland, the band members recounted the origin of the Splinters, as guitarist Ashley Thomas, tambourine player Lauren Stern and drummer Courtney Gray gulped down street-vendor hotdogs (the band's other guitarist, former Daily Californian employee Caroline Partamian, abstained due to vegetarianism). All four ladies are UC Berkeley alumni, and they formed the band just before three of them graduated in 2008 (Partamian graduated a year earlier). "We were all friends, and one day (Caroline) and Lauren and I were hanging out," says Thomas. "We wrote a couple songs, it was really fun. They were just like acoustic, silly songs." They proceeded to recruit Gray, who had previously played with Thomas in a Misfits cover outfit called the Skullfuckers.

The four come from various musical backgrounds. Stern plays tambourine because it's "fun to bang along" and she doesn't play any other instruments, though she says preteen vocal lessons taught her to project. Partamian has played classical guitar since the age of eight, and picked up an electric guitar specifically for the Splinters; Thomas learned guitar in high school. Gray learned to play drums from her brothers, till she ultimately surpassed them in skill. "They were like, 'Whoa, you're getting better than us,'" she recalls, "so then they started playing guitar and we started a little punk band-played, like, Nirvana and blink-182, over and over again."

Some of the as-yet-unrecorded songs in their live set feature baritone guitar, which has a longer neck and is tuned lower than a standard guitar. It's an unusual instrumentation choice for a modern rock act. Partamian explains, "People were always telling us, 'Oh, you should really play a bass in your band,' you know, something like that. And we're just like, well, we're really comfortable with the guitar, we've been playing that for a long time, and we feel like it's a really versatile instrument. So the baritone kind of brings both of those two worlds perfectly together, the guitar and bass … it just has a much more lush, beautiful, deep tone to it." Thomas also suggested the group's shared love of folk duo the Evens, who utilize baritone guitar, as an inspiration for their choice.

Stern chafed at the admittedly pat girl-group classification-"Would you ask a boy band … are they going for a boy band thing?" She nevertheless acknowledged the influence of the Shangri-Las, the Breeders and Sonic Youth, who all feature women in their line-ups, as well as the Girls in the Garage compilations of '60s sides.

On their songwriting process, Thomas says, "A lot of times Caroline and I come to practice with an idea, and then everyone works on it together." They all sing on the record, too–"We just try to find the best combos for the recordings."

Their modest repertoire encompasses a tonal range from indie-pop snark on "Sorry," a hilariously unapologetic apology song, to unnerving sexual nightmare on "Oranges," which angrily details a tryst gone wrong. They attribute the different moods to different songwriters. "Oranges" was initially conceived by Partamian. "Caroline writes songs about situations that aren't real, that she thinks are funny," elaborates Gray. "Ashley writes songs about really real things that are emotional, and we turn them into pop songs." Indeed, Thomas says "Sorry" began as a heartfelt apology, only later morphing into the jab of a song it is now.

They recorded Kick in two days, working with Jason Kick of compatriots Maus Haus. "We did all the instruments on one day, and all the vocals the next day," recalls Partamian. "Recording in an official studio with someone that we knew already made it really comfortable. And he's amazing, he understands our sound completely, so it was a very comfortable, awesome, intense experience."

All four Splinters agree it's a great time to be a rising band in the Bay Area. "It's exploded, in Oakland and San Francisco-both cities have very different but also really cohesive scenes, so there's so much good mixing and matching with East Bay and San Francisco bands," observes Stern.

On the heels of their album release last Tuesday, the Splinters will be making their second trip to South by Southwest, followed by their first full tour, accompanied by JEFF The Brotherhood. Their thunderclap songs, infused with their intoxicating blend of sincerity and cool, translate wonderfully to the stage. Live or on record, the Splinters are sure to get under your skin.


Sam Stander is the lead music critic.Contact him at [email protected]

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