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They're Rocked but Still Rolling

Bryan Small keeps the Hangmen going through personal travails and major-label abandonment

July 25, 2002|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The way some people have been talking recently about the return of good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll, you'd think it actually went away or something. But in truth, as veteran Hollywood rock band the Hangmen noted while touring the Midwest recently with Social Distortion, rock never really disappears.

"When you go to Middle America, rock 'n' roll is all that matters," says Hangmen guitarist Jimmy James. "People are just so stoked to hear it."

And, despite a checkered decade-plus history, the Hangmen are still stoked to play it. Just listen to the quartet rip on its forthcoming live album, "We've Got Blood on the Toes of Our Boots," due Aug. 6 on Santa Monica-based indie Acetate Records.

The band, which will play the Knitting Factory in Hollywood on Aug. 10, burns through its bluesy, punk-flavored, slide-guitar-drenched tales of street-level love and woe with a fire that offers no hint of the major-label travails and personal problems of leader Bryan Small, the only original member left.

Indeed, the band's story is often cited as a cautionary tale for starry-eyed wannabes seeking fame in Hollywood. Yet it's also a reminder that rock 'n' roll isn't just a route to renown or a soundtrack for selling stuff, but an irresistible life calling that can be, by turns, destructive and exhilarating.

"It's like I don't have a choice," Small says, laughing a little, sitting with other band members in his east Hollywood-area apartment. "Even if I tried to stop doing this, I would still be doing it in some way."

Inspired by the raw sounds of such L.A. idols as the Gun Club and X, Montana-born Small formed the Hangmen after moving here from Boise, Idaho, in 1984. The band released its debut album on Capitol Records in 1989, but its straightforward, Stones-and-Stooges-influenced sound (especially in the watered-down state rendered on the recording) wasn't an easy sell in the hair-metal era before grunge, and the Hangmen were soon dropped.

Small and a new lineup were signed to Geffen Records, but a second album was permanently shelved in 1992 and the singer-guitarist descended into a pit of addiction, family concerns and professional soul-searching. All the while, he tenaciously kept the band alive, or at least firmly on life support.

Eventually, Small cleaned up and refocused, recruiting yet another new lineup that was finalized early last year. It consists of James, bassist Angelique Congleton and drummer Todd Haney. Eleven years after the Hangmen's debut, Small exorcised many of his old demons on 2000's "Metallic I.O.U.," an Acetate release that garnered praise locally and around the world. An ensuing tour brought the band back into the underground spotlight, as younger acts such as the Supersuckers and Vancouver glam-punks the Black Halos related how the Hangmen had influenced them.

To Small's bandmates, such praise affirmed their own admiration for his songwriting. "The songs always rise above," says Haney. "That's why Tom Petty's been around this long, and Bob Dylan, because they keep writing great songs."

The live album often reflects an affinity for Petty's unpretentious, melodic blend of rock, blues, country and pop, and the players aren't joking when they say they'd love to open for Petty's tour this summer. "I read something about Petty saying that so much music today makes him want to drink light beer," says James with a laugh. "That was so on the money."

Indeed, rather than getting excited by any possibility that the current pop climate could bring the band commercial success at last, Small more relishes his own personal victories in bringing the Hangmen back to life. "I just want to see things progress like they've been progressing," he says. "Every time we turn around, more things are [happening]. It seems way more real this time," he adds. "But nothing's being handed to us. We've worked really hard, and we're gonna continue to do that."

Like so many sadder-but-wiser veterans of the major-label merry-go-round, he's happy with his indie status. "I've been through enough that I'm not gonna ignore the business end of it anymore, like I did," he says. "But I kind of know who to trust these days."

Yet Small hasn't closed the door on the better parts of his past. One reason the players followed up "Metallic I.O.U." with a live recording instead of another studio album was because they could revisit the Hangmen's fine older material, some of which was never recorded. So they invited a bunch of friends to hear a couple of sets at Swinghouse Studios in Hollywood, which has hosted such rock luminaries as X, Iggy Pop and the Breeders.

"We still like to play these songs live, but people didn't know where to get them," Small explains. "A lot of them have been out of print." Indeed, the Hangmen's debut album still pops up on EBay, where it usually sells for $25 to $40.

One can imagine a thirtysomething fan bidding on a favorite piece of nostalgia, but the players have learned from touring experiences that the Hangmen's music also resonates with a new generation. "I got the feeling sometimes that a lot of the young punk kids were surprised they liked us," says Congleton, who, at 31, was the only band member willing to reveal her age.

"That's what made it cool," adds James. "It made you think they were gonna run out and buy a guitar and start their own band. And it all kind of recycles from there."

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