As Salem and I sat at a table in the Garage about an hour before Red Collar’s concert, Mike Jackson came over to show us his beat-up guitar. The body was stickered with duct tape, bruises from last night’s guitar-smashing climax.
“We don’t always do that, but the band that played with us last night, American Aquarium, we said their lead singer sounded like the singer from Superchunk. They hadn’t heard of Superchunk, so we played a cover of ‘Slack Motherfucker,’” Jackson said. To Red Collar, an honest cover involved smashing guitars and screaming. In fact, a lot of situations involve going hardcore.
“We’re going to start buying cheaper guitars,” Jackson said. If Red Collar plays legit post-punk covers, they also play damn good Bruce Springsteen. That’s the line on all the music blogs: “Red Collar plays like Bruce Springsteen fronting Fugazi.” Well, they also sound in patches like Talking Heads, Sex Pistols, REM and Modest Mouse. It is by a sincere and fearless willingness to be influenced that Red Collar can play any song and make it their own. Backstage before the show, lead singer Jay Kutchma denied the Springsteen association. “I think we get that by nature of my voice, which is deep and husky. There aren’t a lot of guys in indie music who sing that way,” Kutchma said. Or it’s the tone of his lyrics: “People say that because I write songs about the working class.” But he certainly doesn’t hinder the comparison by leading off the set with a cover of “Dancing in the Dark.” Previously a romantic hipster, dressed like an ironic gay cowboy, in gold spurred boots and a sheriff’s badge, when Kutchma steps before the microphone he has transformed into a hulking, black-muscle-shirt, backpocket-bandana ghost of the Boss. Kutchma spreads his legs like a rock star and holds his electric guitar way down at his knees. His voice is deep and American, like Springsteen, which is to say he sings like a man. On stage Red Collar is a four-part animal. Kutchma is the center of gravity at the front corner. He rocks, paces like a melancholy giant and smiles. Beside him, Jackson — who wears a tight black buttoned shirt, and looks much skinnier and more vulnerable than he did in his scarf and jacket before the show — beats his bandaged guitar. He spins like an overcharged molecule, bouncing between the other musicians and honing in on each emphatic chord and back-up vocal scream. Next to him is Kutchma’s wife, a little blond rocker named Beth. The bass player matches the enthusiasm of her band mates, though she screams less and smiles the most. While the three guitarists riff and shout, drummer Jonathan Truesdale reins them in with strong and active percussion. The quartet sounds egoless and organic, without playing like a jam band. Best of all, they play every moment with exuberant sincerity.
A difference between Red Collar and some indie bands is age. They are a three-year-old garage band with roots in 20 years of indie music, back to the early ’90s DC punk scene. Those influences fermented during the long years of growing up. Jay and Beth got to know each other playing in a small acoustic band fronted by Beth in Pennsylvania. In time the band folded and Jay and Beth got married. Jay shifted between jobs, from low-level office work to middleschool teaching, tried screenwriting and finally university administration.
His jobs were always red collar — a term which refers to the class of workers between blue and white collar, who carry neither shovels nor silver spoons.
After moving to Durham, where they both eventually took jobs at UNC, Jay and Beth felt their lives slipping into suburban malaise.
“When Jay and I moved, we stopped going to live shows,” Beth said. “We didn’t have time. And it seemed like at most shows people just stood around having conversation.”
That’s when the couple started Red Collar. Jackson, a Chicago emigr, joined the band when Beth responded to his post on Craigslist, which advertized him as a guitarist with punk influences like Fugazi. Truesdale joined the band after a year of cheering in the front row at Red Collar shows.
Jay Kutchma’s songs tell stories about American disillusionment. “Hands Up” begins with a Johnny Rotten laugh and the snarling lyrics: “I got my bachelor’s/ Got my master’s/ I got my doctorate/ Yes, I’m a real go-getter.” Other songs
talk about failure: “We were made to failevery day/ Maybe what we want, well it’s just too much to ask/ I once
reached for stars/ But now I sell these used guitars/ And I wish you
all the luck that I never had.” Red Collar is too punk, too loud to
ever be a songwriter’s band. Still, although Kutchma’s voice can be
obscured by noise, the basic meaning of his songs comes through as a
feeling. From their first song and speeding through to the last, Red
Collar is determined to find catharsis, redemption and joy for
themselves and everyone in the room, in 50 minutes on stage.
After over 250 shows, an EP and an upcoming album, the members of Red Collar have paid some dues. But they aren’t ready to give up. Instead, the four members recently agreed to tour with the band full-time beginning in March. “Most people say, ‘It’s too hard. We’re quitting the band.’ But we said ‘No, we’re quitting our jobs.’” Kutchma said.