The Indiana punk rock band The Retreads are survivors. They’ve had to be. Having gone through eight lineup changes in seven and a half years, they’ve become quite adept at rolling with the changes. But they always seem to come out on top.
Despite losing half the band earlier this year, they’ve somehow managed to not only survive that cataclysmic shakeup, they find themselves in their best position ever. Their acclaimed 2002 album, Highway to Helsinki, is about to be released nationally, and they’ve added a great new drummer, Steve Pratt, to their lineup.
“It’s been tough for us,” says songwriter/bassist Mike Schull, “but we’re still hanging in there.”
Endurance has been one of the hallmarks of The Retreads. Well, that and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
In their song “Blue Ribbon Rock,” they sing the praises of the inexpensive beverage and use it as a metaphor for life. They call their sound Blue Ribbon rock as well, a testament to their working-class roots. “It’s good beer,” says songwriter/guitarist Scott Limbird. “It’s cheap. And it works.”
Much like The Retreads themselves.
In the past few years, they’ve established themselves as second only to their friends The Slurs as one of the premier punk bands in the region. Gulcher Records, the legendary Indiana punk label of the 1970s, recently signed The Retreads and will be re-releasing Helsinki later this summer, giving the band national distribution.
The Retreads take the music they grew up listening to — the Van Halens and Ramones of the world — and amalgamate them into a distinctive, trademark hard rock sound of their own. They’re not shy about admitting they draw heavily from their inspirations, either.
“We wear our influences on our sleeve, but so what?” Limbird says. “I think our influences are sometimes bands that audiences don’t recognize, so consequently we get passed off as more original than we are,” Schull says.
“Retreads. The name says it all,” Limbird says. “I think we’re a punk rock band with hard rock sensibilities.” Those party-animal sensibilities are apparent in Retreads classics such as “Boys Gone Wild” and “Doin’ It For the Dudes,” where the band states its preference to hanging out, listening to tunes and partying with the guys. One of the most-loved songs by The Retreads is “Too Much Junk (In That Trunk),” where the band sings the praises of big-bottomed women. “The Kids Wanna Rock” is a self-explanatory song about craving live music and not being able to hear it locally.
Other than that, there’s not a whole lot of sociological exposition in the music of The Retreads, just a commitment to the Holy Trinity of rock: loud guitars, beer and girls. “I’m dumbing my music down,” Limbird says. “I can’t read music. I don’t want to read music. And I don’t want to count to anything bigger than four.”
The Retreads came to life in late 1995 in Muncie, playing small gigs and parties. They picked up members, dropped them, added them back and soldiered on. All the while, Limbird and Schull have been the constants. “As long as there’s Limbird and myself in the band, it’s The Retreads,” Schull says. “We’ve always had that commitment to the band.”
The dueling lead vocalists and songwriting voices give the band an edge over others. They realize each of them could probably carry a band on their own, but like the strength that comes from their partnership. “Two songwriters and two singers will always spread the band in different directions, and that’s always kind of kept us afloat because it never sounds the same,” Schull says. Limbird jokes that they share lead vocals because their voices aren’t strong enough to carry an entire set on their own.
Still, there have been those frequent lineup changes to worry about. Eight personnel shifts in seven years would destabilize any band. The most recent change came this spring, when a guitarist and drummer left the band. Losing half the group would have spelled the end for many bands, and it almost killed The Retreads. “There was a point where I almost said, ‘You know what? I quit too,’” Schull says. The split was fairly acrimonious and led to a period of self-examination for the band.
Did they really want to continue?
Things were going well for the band otherwise and they were finally getting some recognition. But after a short time, Limbird and Schull decided to keep the band going. They added Pratt, a longtime friend known for his work with the Mighty John Waynes and Drunko, fairly quickly and are still auditioning for a replacement guitarist. (A friend, Jim Sizemore of the Common, has been filling in temporarily.)
Several well-known local musicians have tried out for the band, and Limbird expects a permanent replacement sometime this summer. (Interested persons can contact the band at www.theretreads.com.)
Meanwhile, they’ve been booking gigs like crazy. They’ll be playing this Thursday at the Melody Inn with The Fuglees and will be opening for the New Orleans lunatics Supagroup at the Patio next Tuesday. They’ll also play the next IndianapolisMusic.net showcase in July.
Maintaining a commitment to the band through adversity would be impossible if the band didn’t have a pretty solid belief in the merits of what they do. “I’m pretty standoffish and shy in most settings,” Limbird says. “I don’t like to hang out in big groups. But when it comes to our band and rock and roll, I want to be in the middle of the stage, saying, ‘Listen to this.’”
They exhibited their commitment last summer, when they embarked on a massive tour to promote the release of Helsinki. They played 25 shows in 29 days. “I think I wanted to prove to myself that we could do it,” Schull says. “When we finished the album we were really proud of it and I wanted as many people as possible to hear it.”
“We started the tour with a duct-taped dashboard and no radio and we were three hours late to the first show,” Limbird says.
Along the way, they encountered apathy from some audiences and a lack of promotional support in others. They also saw the club they and The Slurs were playing in St. Louis catch on fire. They returned from that tour nearly broke but re-energized, and see it as one of the band’s great accomplishments.
Their plans for the future include promoting Helsinki, and possibly touring with their good friends, the notable Texas band The Riverboat Gamblers.
“They’re one of the greatest live bands I’ve ever seen,” Schull says. “I think that, with the right promotion, they could really make it big.” As could The Retreads, they think.
The deal with Gulcher will allow a national audience to hear the band for the first time. Being the first new band signed to the label in 20-plus years is a source of pride for the band. Besides that, it will give new life to an album of which they’re quite proud.
With the reissue of their masterpiece and the addition of Pratt, the band sees itself as strengthened and ready to face the world. “I’d really like to make music my livelihood, but I don’t want to do it by being in a cover band, or playing weddings,” Schull says. “I’d like to do it without having to compromise. And I’d love to see The Retreads really go somewhere. We’d be really happy touring for a few months, not seeing each other for a couple of months and doing it again.”