It’s like giving a walking tour to a blind man. Girls Against Boys guitarist-vocalist Scott McCloud is trying to describe the brief jaunt from his Manhattan apartment to a nearby park where cell phone reception is supposed to be better. “There’s a lot of people. A car went by. Basically, it’s New York,” he chuckles. “This is kind of fun. I don’t get to do this very often.”
If anyone deserves to just sit back and laugh a bit, it’s McCloud. For the last four years, GVSB have been fighting just to stay together. “We basically got caught in a fucking worst-case scenario,” he says bluntly, “though some of my friends remind me it could have been worse.”
It’s hard to image how. The quartet got sucked into every band’s nightmare. Sure, it all started innocently enough. After eight years of skirting the mainstream and playing critical footsy, GVSB decided it was time to take a crack at the big leagues. But the band still wanted to play it safe, so in 1997, the quartet inked a deal with Geffen Records, then the most artist-friendly major label in the business. The band released their fifth album, Freakonica, in early ’98. The usual glob of critical praise soon followed.
But then things started going wrong. Five months after Freakonica hit shelves, Geffen and its parent company, Interscope Records, were bought out by Universal Music Group in the biggest merger in record-biz history. To cut costs, the new conglomerate released hundreds of bands from its roster. GVSB managed to not get the boot, though that would have made things easier. Instead, the group had to watch helplessly as all their friends and business contacts were fired and they themselves were shuffled off to a refocused Interscope. There was no more artistic freedom; all GVSB’s new keepers cared about were hits. And realizing the band wasn’t going to get within miles of the Top 40, Interscope decided not to finance any studio time for the band.
“It was such a demoralizing situation,” McCloud says. “We were on a label but we couldn’t make a record. For four years, we argued about what to do. One day I’d wake up and say, ‘Fuck this,’ and the next I would say, ‘No, this is too important.’ We [Interscope and GVSB] both tried at different times to reconcile, and I don’t think they actually wanted to see us go, but the lines of communication went down and never went up again. There was nothing we could do.”
Eventually, the band had to threaten legal action to finally break free of its contract. The day everything was finally settled, McCloud sent an e-mail to several labels asking who wanted to make a record. Within a few hours, GVSB was fielding phone calls from A&R execs, eventually settling on emo outpost Jade Tree. “They were so enthusiastic it was contagious,” McCloud says.
That exuberance shows up on the new You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See. Playing like they just got released from prison, the Boys go after each note like it’s the first girl they meet on the street. It doesn’t matter whether they get her; the fact that they can just make a play again is worth it. That raw freedom gives the whole disc a loose and flowing feeling. Songs like the funked chaos of “The Come Down” and the vaguely Sonic Youth-inspired “BFF” might not be perfect, but they hit you hard and quick, like taking a Mac truck to the gut.
McCloud’s pent-up frustration only gives the album more torque. He’s essentially turned You Can’t Fight into a brief overview of GVSB’s descent into hell. “Basstation” and “All the Rage” rip apart pop culture’s need for the latest thing and the hype machine that offered up Girls Against Boys as an offering. “Kicking the Lights” and “Miami Skyline” chronicle all the anger and disappointment that consumed the band when everything went wrong. Only closer “Let It Breathe” offers up any sort of hope, though it’s still unsure: “It’s a new world/Come inside/You can always force a smile.”
“Throughout the history of the band, the lyrics have always had something to do with the moment I’m living through, so there’s definitely a lot of frustration and anger in these songs,” McCloud says. “I had four years to think about all this stuff. I wanted to let some of that darkness be and not dwell on the issues too much, but in the end, it still came through. There was nothing I could do about it.”
And if there’s anything McCloud learned during this whole ordeal, though, it was not to worry so much. “I’m really proud of this record mostly because it’s there. We did it. We survived.” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re just a band and this is just music. It shouldn’t be that hard. You hope you make good music that people will like, but really, it’s not that big of a deal. That was the hard lesson we had to learn.”