Underground Kicks (1999, reissued 2002)
Dead End Dream (2002)
We caught the Riffs one night at the Paris Theater in downtown Portland. As far as punk bands go they seemed to have it all, attitude, studded belts, power-chords aplenty and an alarming large fan base. Somehow they manage to get under your skin - like some back alley disease and eat away at your brain. Two weeks later, I was up in Seattle hitting some of the underground punk shops and the buzz was all about The Riffs 180 miles north of their hometown. I was convinced to dig a little deeper.
Contacting Riff frontman Tony Mengis, we set up a meeting at a ruffian water hole in Portland’s seedy northwest neighborhood. Mengis tends bar like an orchestra conductor balancing payouts from lively Keno machines, pouring whiskey sours and beer refills to throwing out the occasional crack addict. His dark eyes don’t miss the two groupies positioned at the end of the counter, their black fishnet stockings ripped in all the right places. He takes it all in without missing a beat.
“We all stared in the underground punk scene,” says Mengis, “I was in Defiance, Colin and Gabe were in Deathcharge. We’ve had former members of the Champions and Resist. It used to be that the Punk scene and the Garage Rock scene were really separate. The bands would never play together. But that has changed lately.”
“When I was in Defiance, I had a real bad heroine problem. It got so band I eventually got kicked out of the band. Then I got busted and had a 24-month suspended sentence where I had to go to this detox program. I didn’t hangout with anybody for years cause I was just trying to stay off the heroine. A few years later I ran into the guys from the old scene. They were playing music and asked me to sing.”
“Our first couple of gigs we played with Defiance and some of the old guard. There was no animosity or gruff competition. We all got on great. In fact, we just finished an East coast swing with Defiance. We were one of the first punk bands in Portland to start playing with the Garage bands - bands like the Weaklings or Dead Moon. It helped to play everywhere house shows, garages, backyards all over. We became friends with all of them and they offered us different kinds of shows. That’s how we got a lot more exposure.”
In the late 1990’s, after several years of extensive touring, The Riff’s started recording. Two 7” singles surfaced titled ‘The Lucky Ones’ and ‘A Million Scars’ and followed with a snarling, in-your-face debut called “Underground Kicks” which paid tribute to both American and British punk bands of the late '70s and early '80s. The music was passionate, unapologetic and a throwback to old school punk and was released on the Pelado label in 1999. It boasts a cover depicting Mengis shooting-up in an alleyway with “The Riffs” in blood lettering. It is bold, brash and controversial like the music it contains.
“The first record was kind of doomed in away,” continues Mengis. “We only had three days to record and one of the guys showed up so drunk he couldn’t play. We didn’t know what we were doing and we all tried doing different things to get the sound the way we wanted. It was very disorganized but in the end sounded more punk because of it.”
“When we were signed to Pelado Records we did most of the distribution ourselves just by touring and touring. We’d sell at the merchandise table or out of the trunk of the car. We were the number one sellers of the record even more than the label. We would tour all over the US. We started doing one big US tour a year but lately we’ve been doing two a year. We split our last tour with the Belltones from Seattle. That helped with costs and it was cold last spring so we were doing less nights in the van and more in hotels or with people we met along the way. Our hot spots are Boston, Philly and Baltimore as well as out here.”
Live, The Riffs are a glorious trainwreck of balls-out feedback and gasoline spit. To best capture that vibe, the five-piece signed with TKO Records, a Richmond, VA-based indie that specializes in hardcore punk in 2001. The single ‘Such A Bore’ introduced the band to a wider audience and in March 2002, TKO released their second album, ‘Dead End Dream,’ on both CD and LP.
“The second record we recorded in San Francisco. We had a week in the studio with a producer, which really helped, and we had just wrapped up a big tour where we were playing the songs live every night. We wanted it to reflect more of our broader range of influences like T-Rex who I’m a big fan of. But there is stuff on there that sounds like the Pistols, Eddie & The Hot Rods, the Cockney Rejects.”
Highlights on the album include ‘White Line Kids’ the killer ‘Down The Street’ and the power-kick ‘In The City.’ Title-track ‘Dead End Dreams’ and ‘Kick Time Suicide’ make the most of a band coming together in a tight forceful tsunami. “We took our name from the 1979 Walter Hill movie The Warriors,” says Mengis. “We wanted something that symbolized a gang determined to make it. Plus the music is heavy and riff-oriented.” On their new release they manage to exploit their name and lock in as a gang of merciless players. The Riffs are now poised for world domination.
Web sites: theriffs.net or www.tkorecords.com