So an actor and some acoustic musicians got together to make some music as an "experiment." What did they end up with? Coffeehouse pretension? Dramatic moodiness? Silly but incredibly ironic pop songs? All definite possibilities, but in the case of The Punching Contest, this combination yielded the kind of punishing, explosive post-punk that could only come from a group that had yet to be indoctrinated into the "right" way of doing things.
"We all had some solo projects going on before this band," says guitarist Phillip Siegenthaler, "but they were all kinda folky."
"We all listened to heavy music, but the only musical outlet any of us had was on the softer, more melodic side," concurs drummer James Halal. "We kinda did it on a whim. When we started, I don't think any of us thought it would be serious."
Though its origins may not have been typical for a punk band, that doesn't take away from the fact that The Punching Contest's debut CD (Is My Copilot, recently released on Post Records) is one of the most blistering slabs of visceral fury to come out of Orlando's punk scene in a long time. This, despite the fact that the band isn't really a part of the scene at all.
"We all like heavy music," says Siegenthaler, "but we don't like a lot of what that scene's about. We didn't want to just be another tough-guy band."
Don't be mistaken. Despite vocalist Nick Sprysenski's local cred as a none-too-shabby stage actor, the "folky" pasts of the other band members and their disinclination to play the tough guy, The Punching Contest is not the punk band to look at for emotional salvation or for a little introspective comfort. On disc and in concert, the quartet (which also includes bassist Doug Woods) is a furious attack of red-level guitars, frenetic tempo changes and scream-spazz vocals. That a hastily recorded demo captured this intensity is more surprising than the fact that the band members' mutual idol Kurt Ballou of metalcore legends Converge wanted to produce Is My Copilot after hearing said demo.
"Converge is a huge influence on all of us," says Sprysenski. "It was really hard not to hero-worship, but at the end of the four days [of recording], I was finally like, 'Can I have a picture?'"
Of course, this was after Ballou introduced himself to The Punching Contest by inquiring if they knew anything about a hotel full of "Christian girls who like to take it in the butt."
"We were all worried about meeting him," laughs Halal. "But then he started talking about that and we realized it was gonna be OK. I think that's going to be the title of our next album, in honor of Kurt Ballou … Christian Anal."
While Is My Copilot is no Christian Anal, it is nonetheless a seamless, chronological representation of the band's history to this point, starting with the very first song the band wrote ("The Ocean the Oceans") and ending with a song ("Unit 01") they finished writing on the way to Boston to record the disc. While the disc easily evokes the disorienting fury of post-hardcore at its most unhinged, it also finds a surprising balance between compositional complexity and pure energy.
"I think a lot of bands, with the distortion and the loudness and the cymbals and the yelling … I think they can hide behind it and they get away with mistakes," says Halal. "But our background as acoustic musicians where every little nuance matters I think that makes us work a little bit harder, where we don't want to just have a bunch of distortion and mayhem."
The Punching Contest, On Cassette, Yip-Yip
5 pm and 10 pm Saturday, April 8