The Naked Heroes’ sound has been described as hard, southern-styled rock played in a lo-fi, garage-punk mode. With more and more bands throwing in their lot with the avant-garde, the Naked Heroes simply write memorable songs in an effortless pastiche of rock idioms. There may be a hint of Dada in their tunes’ randomness, but this is mostly due to the group’s love for the instinctual savagery of rock ’n’ roll. The Heroes’ sound is big—all the more impressive considering that it’s produced by just two people: husband and wife George Michael Jackson (guitar and vocals) and Merica Lee (drums). Proving true to their DIY-punk roots, the duo recently released their debut album, 99 Diamond, on their own label and made it available as a free download on their website. The Rail sat down with George and Merica shortly after their recent record release party at Glasslands.
David Wilentz (Rail): Tell us the life story of the band.
Merica Lee: We started over Rod Stewart.
Rail: “Hot Legs”?
Lee: That was written by Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice. And his brother was the drummer for later-period Black Sabbath! I was arguing with a girlfriend how great Rod Stewart is. George was sitting on the other side of the bar and said, “I totally agree,” so we started talking.
George Michael Jackson: I said Rod Stewart is foxy, or something stupid, and then I was like, “You play drums?”
Lee: I said we should jam, so that’s where it all began.
Jackson: We would get chips and wine and go to a rehearsal space and fuck around, but usually she was so stressed out that it was like, “God, this is a nightmare.” Then the last ten minutes were really good.
Rail: Why were you stressed out?
Lee: Have you ever heard him play gee-tar? He was totally shredding and I was going plink, plonk, plink, plonk. Then I had a friend who worked at the Knitting Factory who said, “Do you want to play a show?”
Jackson: We had maybe three songs when she offered us a Tuesday-night slot a month away. I remember going home to write songs, one of which was “Black Dress.” It’s on the record, and I still have it on my computer. It sounds surprisingly the same. All our friends came just to see what the hell we were doing.
Rail: Where did the name come from?
Jackson: We were at the Bowery Ballroom watching some shitty band, I don’t recall who, and Merica yelled in my ear, “Blah, blah, blah!” and I was like, “What did you say? Naked Hero?” and she said, “No, I want another drink.” And I said, “Hey, that’s a cool name for a band.” Right there we got excited. “We can use the symbol of a centaur!” That became our sticker. It was the first imagery that popped into our heads.
Rail: What sort of sound were you going for when you started?
Jackson: Merica had more of a role in that. I had played in a bunch of bands, but right before this I was playing sensitive singer-songwriter acoustic stuff, like Elliott Smith. I grew up playing punk rock and rock ’n’ roll, and went through nine million different things. Then I moved to New York and got really into songwriting. I played her old bar at an open mic before we knew each other. I was really into [unusual] chord changes and lyrics that were very literate. And then basically I became the opposite. When we started jamming I was playing things that were more melodic—
Lee: I may have said a few times, “Why are you being such a pussy?”
Jackson: I remember her specifically saying, “I want to play music that makes people want to drink, and fuck, and get crazy.” I remember I was playing stuff that was a little more intricate and melodic.
Rail: That’s like the Sex Pistols making fun of Glen Matlock for playing “Beatles chords.”
Jackson: I was that guy, playing the weird chords like a flat-nine-seven or something. We started listening to early Black Sabbath. Then we tried to really strip it down. I was always playing guitar, and when I first started I was really attracted to the blues. I feel like I went back, in a way. I had started out like that and then got really into Jon Brion, this multi-instrumentalist producer—
Lee: It’s like Big Star and that sort of thing, but in the 90’s.
Jackson: I remember she said, “I want a lot of stop-starts and ‘Heys’ and clapping.” Some of our songs were just things I would say, whatever would fall out of my mouth. Scratch lyrics. I’d go back and change them and she’d be like “No.” Or shit that she thought I was saying, like that song “Sheila.” We were jamming and I was just screaming whatever. She was like, “Yo, it sounds like you’re saying ‘Sheila! My love is like lightning!’” and I wasn’t.
Rail: The White Stripes comparisons must really get under your skin.
Lee: It doesn’t happen as much as when we first started, but we still get that. The female drummer, male guitarist, kind of blues-inspired. I remember the first time we played with the Bamboo Kids, and their drummer Chris Orlando didn’t stick around to watch us play. He said, “Yeah, sorry, I don’t like two-person bands.”
Jackson: But we’ve become really good friends and now he watches us. They played our release party.
Rail: You’ve actually got a very full sound.
Jackson: 99 percent of the record is live. I was going through my amp, pretty low and fuzzy, and Dean, our producer, had me split out through a Fender Bassman—which is a lot cleaner than [what] I usually play through—behind me, blasting away with no headphones. Merica’s playing with the P.A. in the room, and I remember wanting to do it like that, like Fun House or something: two mics, one recording and the other going through the P.A. behind it.
Rail: Since the Knitting Factory, how have your shows been?
Jackson: I feel like every month after that we had a show. We were just hustling for gigs. We played with whoever was on the bill. We met this band Runny. Ken from Runny did our Powerload Records video, and we’ve become strong allies. I remember he came up to me after we played Trash Bar and said, “You guys are awesome! I hate guitar solos, but you guys are great.” We talked about growing up on punk rock and then he said, “You guys gotta stick around for my band because we’re awesome too.” At 12:30 this band comes on with this guy in a rainbow g-string, a gold chain, running sneakers, and white socks, a big guy with a gut, running around yelling at people, amazing and hilarious.
We just did our release show which was big and loud, and two weeks before we played on the street acoustically—that was through our friends who do Brooklyn By Hand. It was part of Williamsburg Walks on Bedford Avenue. Merica’s playing a tambourine and kick drum, I’m on acoustic guitar, no microphone, and we did Creedence covers, Bo Diddley songs, the Cramps, and some of our own songs.
Lee: The few times we’ve played outside of Brooklyn, which was like George’s cousin’s 18th birthday party in this restaurant hall in Connecticut—it was hilarious, because the guests didn’t know what was happening—and we played this place called the Mason-Dixon Bar. It’s a restaurant with a mechanical bull, but real quiet. No one cared.
Jackson: The best part was when I asked them how the corn was. We had to turn down. I played through a practice amp and Merica had no cymbals. It was like that scene in The Blues Brothers.
Rail: What about the Moog man?
Jackson: There’s this tiny video store in Greenpoint with Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Crass records on the wall. There are Morricone soundtracks playing when you walk in, and crazy Italian horror films on the shelves. The owner is this Polish guy obsessed with Bob Moog.
Lee: I remember going in there looking for 9 to 5 with Dolly Parton, and they didn’t have it.
Rail: So that represents what it’s like in Brooklyn?
Lee: Especially in Greenpoint. It’s Polish, kind of rockin’, and people don’t like normal things.
Jackson: At the same time we’re kind of floating on our own. As far as the music scene, I don’t necessarily feel a kinship with anyone. Maybe the Wild Yaks (who played our release party) were the first band that we felt connected with. But a lot of the hip shit that’s coming out makes us feel like rock ’n’ roll dinosaurs. We’re doing big riffs and these other bands,…I don’t know what they’re doing sometimes. We want to rock and kick ass.
Rail: What the hell is “99 Diamond”?
Lee: All of our songs are basically about being awesome.
Jackson: And thinly veiled sexual innuendos.
Lee: It’s our address. It’s such a cool rock ’n’ roll sound.
Jackson: Ninety-nine-cent stores, diamonds, it’s glitzy, it rolls off the tongue. We had the Bo Diddley beat and riff and I came to practice walking around with that “Everybody knows me, 99 Diamond” line in my head. A lot of this stuff just comes out in practice. For “Double Chin” we had this “Green Onions” riff. We don’t actually say “double chin” in the song. It’s about lusting after somebody and wanting to fuck. “Double chin” just sounded funny. A lot of our stuff is harkening back to “Wang Dang Doodle,” Wop-bop-a-lu-bop, going back to that rock ’n’ roll where you didn’t know what it meant but it didn’t matter. It’s more of a physical feeling.
Rail: What about the sideburns and long hair?
Jackson: When you’re a kid and you think of what you want rock ’n’ roll to be…
Lee: You don’t want some guy wearing laundry clothes.
Jackson: I remember seeing Built to Spill and hating it. We liked their records, but live it was so average and un-engaging. There was a period of time where I guess it was cool to not be rock ’n’ roll and just be normal guys up there.
Lee: If you watch some old Cramps videos and you hear them talk about rock ’n’ roll, you’ll hear them say the same thing. I don’t want to go to a show and see some guy wearing his khakis and some shirt his mom bought for him. I don’t want another day at school. I want it to be fucking awesome.
Jackson: The first stuff I really loved was glam rock, Poison and Motley Crue, when I was eight or nine. I remember watching MTV, and that shit blew my mind. That’s what I wanted to do because it looked like so much fun. The music could be hokey, but there’s that element that rock ’n’ roll is big, and dumb, and fun.
David Wilentz dreams in color.