Rocket Science redux



Missoula punks find happiness back home

Sputniks unfazed by glamour of appearing in The New Yorker


It's Friday night, November 13, and the boys in the band are ready to rock and roll. The band in question is the Sputniks, a 3-year-old Missoula punk group with a small following in the Garden City, featuring guitarists Richie Rowe and Grady Gadbow, and the brothers Dundas, Zach and Chad on bass and drums, respectively.

These four fine young fellows have a reason to get amped up tonight, in fact, because it's merely their second rehearsal since the wave of fame washed over them in the form of a 10-page spread in the November 16 issue of The New Yorker. Already they've been interviewed by Sherry Jones of the Missoulian, and all their friends in Missoula's small but energetic rock scene are psyched for the band. Plus, it's Richie's birthday.

The Sputniks, who were featured in a New Yorker article titled "Rocket Science" last week, play their next gig at Jay's Upstairs on December 1.
Photo by Loren Moulton

Gathered in the basement of a house shared by Richie and Grady, these young turks seem ready to roar-except for a couple of minor details. Grady, who acts as the unofficial bandleader and frontman, can't seem to locate his guitar, and one of the amps is busted. Meanwhile, Zach-a staff reporter at the Independent-spent the day up the Bitterroot Valley. There he interviewed Hoyt Axton, the veteran singer-songwriter who penned the Three Dog Night hit "Joy to the World," for the feature in this week's paper. Once everybody gets plugged in, and Zach gives me some toilet paper for my ears (so they don't get blown out by the racket), I half expect them to start in with "Jeremiah was a bullfrog...." But no such luck. Still, I'm looking forward to a little thrash and strum from the Sputniks. After all, the last couple of times I tried to see them live they played too late for my aging 30-year-old bones.

As the Sputniks' rehearsal gets underway, my presence seems more or less forgotten. Grady struggles to get the melody worked out on the first number. Zach complains that the chord progression doesn't work for him. Then Richie loses track of what he's doing. As for Chad, well... "I'm just trying to maintain the media blitz" is what he tells me.

The media blitz, as it were, began about six months ago when William Finnegan, a contributor to The New Yorker for the last decade and author of A Cold New World, decided that these disaffected youth from America's heartland might make a good article. Bill, as the Sputniks now refer to him, knew Grady's parents from way back and was once a surfing companion of Bryan Di Salvatore, a Missoula writer related to Grady and the Dundas brothers by marriage.

"I had not come to Montana because the Sputniks were famous, or were even on the verge of fame," writes Finnegan in his article. "I had come because I knew, vaguely, that there is a world of American kids who love rock and roll, but scorn Rolling Stone and Spin and, above all, MTV."

Finnegan, it turns out, arrived in the right place at the right time, and traveled with the Sputniks on a knock-down, drag-out 3-week tour that carried the band from the bosom of the Northern Rockies to the punk epicenters of New York and Washington, D.C. Finnegan traveled as far as Chicago before heading back home to New York.

According to the band, he got most of his article right, despite the fact that the Sputniks would have perhaps preferred that he not make them quite as cartoonish as they occasionally seem. For instance, there's the author's description of the tenets of punk held dear by Grady Gadbow:

"Grady has a theory about why commercially successful bands get cheesy. 'I think it's just the easy, decadent life they end up leading,' he says. 'They have nothing to do all day but sit around and play music.' To the uninitiated, that might sound like a formula for improving one's music. But musicianship has never been an untrammeled value in rock and roll, and certainly not in hardcore punk."

In band lingo, "rock" is the end all be all for musicians, who must avoid being too "emo," or emotional, and also take steps to strip down the production of tunes to their bare essentials.

The main problem with Finnegan's take, however, may be that he wants to imbue his subjects with the earnestness of earlier punk warriors while not recognizing quite how melodic their post-punk stylings really are. Nonetheless, in an interview with the Independent this week, the writer talked a bit about the more serious reflections he came away from the experience of having been on a tour.

(For the record, although Finnegan notes in his article that no self-respecting punk would cover Lynyrd Skynyrd's classic "Free Bird," the Sputniks used to play a version of "Sweet Home Alabama.")

Finnegan talked a fair amount about the class issues faced by the young people he met along with the Sputniks. Although at one point in the article drummer Chad Dundas describes the band as "pathetically middle class," Finnegan argues in our conversation that middle class no longer referred those who can attain a certain level of creature comfort.

"That term, 'middle class, can be easily misunderstood," he says, "as meaning materially very comfortable and kids who can live off of their parents until they can get jobs. And that's not a very good description." For Finnegan, it's clear that economic insecurity gives the Sputniks as much right as anyone to rebel against the world by making some noise.

"Punk is really an enduring impulse or movement," he says. "It's migrated from urban bohemia to the suburbs and small towns, but those earlier punks were not necessarily poor kids but more art-school types."

Back in the basement, as the rehearsal rumbles to its close, the Sputniks begin rocking in earnest. The band is concentrating hard, although the physical and facial contortions described in Finnegan's article are nowhere to be seen. Chad then drops a drumstick, and bends to tie his shoe. "Fuck," says Zach, apropos of nothing. Richie complains about the dance class he's been taking, but when Chad suggests he quit, he says, "No way, when you can swing, you get all the chicks."

The band then breaks into "20 Minutes to the Year 2000," a song which made an impression on Finnegan. Sarvas, a third roommate in the house, comes down to the basement and sings along. Power chords dominate while the boys shout: "Dig it, baby, there's a red star rising/ Launch a rocket on diesel power/ The workers' state will be built in space/ From parts we stole down in Mexico."

As for what the future holds for the Sputniks, Zach says it's a little soon to tell. "I imagine that before too long, we'll try to do more recording. But it's a little early to talk about going on a 3-week whirlwind tour next summer."

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