Notes From Middle America is contributor Danny R. Phillips’ monthly column. You can read past installments here.
Being a long jaded follower of many musical genres, it’s hard for me to be leveled by a new live band; rare is the evil smile on my face or the slow climb of a shiver up my crooked spinal column. Since I’ve become a “professional” music critic as opposed to just another wiseass amateur arguing about music with anyone within earshot, few acts have issued a response in my mind higher than “they’re ok.”
Within the first seconds of The Factory Workers opening slot for two bands that are now erased from my memory, the long absent grin glued itself to my face and the warm electric shock of a supercharged amp rattling across the concrete floor straight through the top of my skull…. Holy Skipping Moses! “Yes Virginia, rock ‘n’ roll does exist!”
The Factory Workers (Al Amador and Justin Brooks) were something explosive. Prior to our interview an hour before the show at Lawrence, Kansas’ The Replay Lounge, I honestly knew very little to nothing about them; just the home recorded songs on their MySpace page and a shared appreciation on the blues. Even in those songs I could hear the lingering beast, a wicked two headed monster ready to fry amplifiers and devour drum kits. During the course of their all too short thirty minute vaporizing set, I became thoroughly convinced that I, along with a decent size Friday night crowd at The Replay Lounge, had just witnessed a giant step forward in Blues Evolutionary Theory.
But the blues rock duo from Kansas City, Missouri are more than just a blues band; they incorporate the sounds of The Black Keys, Son House, the punk rock brutality of Mudhoney and sprinkle in the laid back slyness of Lightnin’ Hopkins. On top of that they add in moments of electric blues like those made famous by 1960’s groups Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer to create a rattle both wholly familiar and entirely their own. It is a music in lock step with their working class name. “I would drive by this factory everyday on my way to work or class and think, I bet those people are working really hard,” lead singer and guitarist Alheim “Al” Amador told me. “I want to work as hard at my music as those people in the factory are working at their job. I wanted to be respected like I respect them.”
The blues have been a part of American music culture for generations. Long before Robert Johnson had hellhounds on his trail, before Willie Dixon was your “Backdoor Man”, years before Leadbelly was singing of murder in the pines, hell, even before there was an America there was the blues. The blues are a human reaction to the hardships of life not a exclusively American reaction. The Factory Workers prove that.
What makes the band’s cohesiveness and blistering live set even more astonishing is the fact that they’ve only been playing for two years and this was to be their first show ever in a proper venue. As Amador tells it, “We started playing in the garage and the basement just having fun. We thought it sounded pretty solid for a two-piece, so we decided to play some shows just to try it out,” A exchange student from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Amador came to the states at 17. Justin Brooks, the group’s drummer is squarely Midwestern. “I was born in Springfield, Missouri, moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, graduated high school there, went to Kansas City for college, met Al and there you have The Factory Workers.”
I spoke to the duo shortly after they finished setting up their gear. It was the perfect Lawrence spring night for a show; nice temperature, nicer looking college girls in shorts strolling by, a Lyle Lovett-fashion-obsessed street musician playing for money nearby and pizza furnished by one of the guys’ girlfriends… It was the calm before the proverbial storm.
People usually work their way up to the blues. What did you listen to on your way there?
Al: When I was younger I listened to a lot of Credence, stuff like that; my dad was a big fan of rock music.
Justin: For me, it was Nirvana.
A: Yeah, Nirvana definitely. As I got older I started playing guitar to Nirvana, but that was back home in Mexico. When I came to the States, I started digging into different stuff; Junior Kimborough, Robert Lee Burnside… You know, all the people that were doing the rawer, Memphis style stuff. I just picked it up from there. I just try to make a collage of everything.
What about you? You’re being awfully quiet.
J: Oh, sorry. [laughs] I’d say some of my big inspirations as a drummer are probably Buddy Mills from Band of Gypsys, I kinda started listening to him when I started playing music with Al and really got into it. I really like Abe Cuddingham of the deftones a lot and Dave Grohl.
Al, Who’s your all-time favor guitar player? Remember, I’m looking for a “right answer.”
J: Steve Vai!
A: Yeah, right! [laughs] I couldn’t really tell. I don’t focus on one player, ya know.
J: Al, I’d probably say Burnside.
A: Yeah, Burnside is pretty awesome. I guess I’d have to go with that.
So, how do you feel about your first record? Is it an EP?
A: Yeah, it’s pretty much an EP.
J: It was our first time working with real recording equipment and not just a laptop.
What was the studio experience like for you guys?
J: It was good. We got to play at the same time together instead of laying down our parts at different times, which was great. Since it’s blues and pretty raw we just laid it down together; it turned out really well, Josh (Thomas, of High Diving Ponies) recorded and mixed it.
What was it like working with Josh?
J: Oh, it was great man.
A: He’s very relaxed and will tell you like it is; he’s straight forward but cool about it, ya know? No BS, really an awesome guy to work with. Josh has been around the scene for a long time so he knows what’s going on.
What’s the scene in K.C. like for a band like The Factory Workers? Are they on board or do you not really give a shit?
A: I don’t really care, I just really like playing live, we haven’t been doing it for too long but it’s definitely a lot of fun.
How long have you been playing together? Do you know the exact date?
J: It was April 16, two years ago.
How did you discover each other as musicians? Did you know some of the same people?
A: I would see Justin hanging with the hipsters at school and I thought “Man, I just wanna punch that guy.”
J: It’s true, He really did hate me.
A: But then we meet through a common friend at a birthday party and we hit it off from there. I was like, “Hey, you play drums? You wanna hang out and play music?”
J: Once we started jamming it just clicked. I had never played drums before but he stuck it out for 6 months or a year for me to pick it up. Now I think we have something really solid. I don’t have any formal training but I’d like to get some someday.
Who is the main songwriter in the band or do you share the work?
J: No, he writes them all. I don’t write a single thing. [laughs]
A: The songs are old ones I’ve had for a long time and some come on the spot. But yeah, I do most of the songwriting. He just beats the shit out of it.
What’s the EP going to be called?
A: I think we’re just going with The Factory Workers.
When is the album going to be “officially” released?
J: We just finished the final edit so it’s out now.
A: With some more time and a few more songs maybe we can add to it and release a full album.
How long have you two been playing together?
A: A couple years; We started to get some momentum going, had shows booked than I fell and broke my collarbone and we had to sit for like three months so that slowed us way down. It’s hard to play guitar with a broken collarbone, ya know.
Last question, you both play in High Diving Ponies with Josh Thomas. What’s it like splitting time between HDP and The Factory Workers?
J: It’s cool but it’s two completely different style.
A: I play bass in HDP. It’s taught me a lot because I do bass a lot when I’m strumming cords with The Factory Workers.
J: I’d say we’ve seen a lot of improvement in each others playing since we started doing both. There’s a bit more aggression in Josh’s songs so it give me an excuse to go crazy on the drums.
A: I’m pretty mellow when I play the bass, I stick to one bass line. With The Factory Workers it’s more freestyle. The main part of the song always remains the same but there is room to dance up and down the song.
Discussing music with Al and Justin and witnessing their annihilating set at The Replay Lounge further cemented in me the feeling that the blues, and rock for that matter, are part of the same universal language. It is not English, Spanish, Arabic or Pig Latin. It is language with no barrier. It’s words and an alphabet that we all can understand.
With the closing notes still bouncing off of the pinball machines, I gladly gave the guys $5 to replenish their thirsty gas tank. As I headed out the door, the smile returned to my face and a thought popped into my ringing head:
“If they are this great live after just a few shows, then how killer are they going to be a year from now?”