Friday, February 3, 2006
Devoted fans follow Tiger Army
Despite zero airplay and little media exposure, the band's growing success has given rise to a cult following like few others.
By BEN WENER
The Orange County Register
Elizabeth Bouras vividly recalls how she stumbled upon the darkly romantic psychobilly trio Tiger Army. Like so many of the band's devotees, a passion for another group, AFI, had a lot to do with it.
Not that Tiger Army and AFI sound similar, mind you; both draw inspiration from hardcore punk and crib some style from Goth-rock of the '80s, but the former deals in post-screamo anthems while the latter, anchored by the slap of a stand-up bass, comes across more like a Goth-punk Chris Isaak covering Morrissey with Johnny Marr providing weeping country riffs.
Yet the two bands have been inextricably linked since both emerged from the Northern California hamlet of Ukiah at the end of the '90s. Nick 13, Tiger Army's frontman and creative force, once played with members of AFI in a group called Influence 13 (that's where he got his name). And since striking out on his own, Nick has enlisted just about every member of AFI to play on Tiger Army records.
"I discovered AFI by accident late one night on MTV," says Bouras, a 30-something fan long drawn to earlier influences like the Misfits, Danzig and Samhain. "I ran out and bought whatever I could find from them, and in every interview with them Tiger Army's name kept coming up.
"So I went to the store and found three CDs. And I'm like 'Oh, God, which one should I buy? Look, Adam Carson from AFI is on this one, but London May from Samhain is on this one - but on this one they do my absolute favorite Misfits song, "American Nightmare"!' So I bought all of them. It immediately struck a chord."
Three years later, Bouras has everything Tiger Army has issued, including limited- edition vinyl; she's launched the leading fan site about the band, GhostTigers.com; she's encircled her upper right arm with a tattoo of the TigerBat (the band's logo) surrounded by 13 black roses; and, though she lives in Maryland, she's flying out to see the entirety of Tiger Army's just-begun run of six sold-out shows, four at the House of Blues in Anaheim and two more in San Diego.
"She's definitely the biggest fan I've ever come across," says another Army soldier, Louie Bones, 18, of Orange. Bones is no slouch: He's seen the band more than a dozen times since 2001, and he'll add three more to his tally after the Mouse House stand.
"There was a period where they were off the road (after former drummer Fred Hell was shot four times during a robbery), so ever since they came back I've been determined to see them as many times as possible," he says.
"Listening to the records just doesn't do it for me any more. I have to see them live. The way they get the crowd to swarm to them, it's something that always impresses me."
But what is it that sets Tiger Army's rabid fans apart from all others?
Such fanaticism is nothing new, of course. Since the birth of rock 'n' roll even meager hitmakers have enjoyed large followings, while the phenomenon of people shadowing acts across the country dates back to at least the dawn of Deadheads. Our digital age has only made idolizing favorites and connecting with equally worshipful fans that much easier.
Even minor names have any number of routinely updated Internet sites devoted to detailing whereabouts and peccadilloes. And Tiger Army's loyalists have yet to coalesce into an official legion, the way AFI has gathered fans in one spot in cyberspace, dubbing them the Despair Faction.
"Certainly there are bands whose fans number more than ours," Nick 13 says. "But I would challenge anyone to come up with another band that's not on a major label, that has never had any significant radio airplay or media exposure, yet still has the sort of fans who sell out multiple shows months in advance."
They're also the sort of "intelligent, discerning, stylish" fans, as Nick describes them, who readily ink themselves with Tiger Army insignias.
"I've seen the TigerBat as chest pieces," he says. "There are two guys I've seen who have it across their throats."
That's gotta hurt.
"Yeah, I have my throat tattooed, and I can attest that it's a serious commitment."
Then there's the serviceman who had his done in a tent in Afghanistan - "by the light of a lighter. It had to have been put on using either a guitar string or a pen - basically a jailhouse method. As someone who has different band-related tattoos" - including the Misfits, the Meteors and assorted Morrissey lyrics - "I respect that kind of dedication."
Still, what is it that inspires such rare adulation?
More than the fevered pulse of the music, it's two things, Bouras believes, one spilling into the other. There's that Gothic element, a spooky romanticism coursing through all of Nick's lyrics. But, as with the Cure's Robert Smith, this isn't Goth posing merely for the sake of fashion.
"What immediately struck me when I heard Tiger Army," Bouras says, "was what Nick was referencing - really old- fashioned Gothic stuff like Poe and Lovecraft."
Indeed, Tiger Army's second album, "Power of Moonlite," includes a song called "Annabel Lee" (after the Poe poem), while literary touchstones litter all of the band's music, notably in titles like "Rose of the Devil's Garden" and "Swift Silent Deadly."
Historically that in itself is appealing, especially to young people searching for a sense of identity. Yet as they grow from that gloomy root, Nick's lyrics often adopt pain-in-my-heart, Morrissey-esque shades of anguish and alienation. (No wonder, then, that the Smiths singer, who first saw the band in Hollywood on his 46th birthday last May, has hand-picked Tiger Army to open for him on his coming British tour.)
"There are times," Bones says, "when the lyrics will just hit me like, 'Wow, that's exactly how I feel. I didn't think anyone else felt this way.'"
That's a sensation that harkens back to the '80s, when teenagers disenchanted with pretty-boy MTV offerings found solace in the sounds of the Smiths, the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen and others.
Those bands and their punkier counterparts, Nick says, "created music that gave you a heightened sense of being alive. There's something in the cathartic release of the music that's hard to articulate. I get the sense from fans I've met that my lyrics convey something similar - something they feel that they think no one else in the world is feeling."
But with that comes a potential pitfall. "It can lead people to think that I know them and they know me.
"I relate to their devotion. It was the same as my devotion to bands years ago (Joy Division and the Misfits, mainly). I don't think it's weird to think nothing of driving hundreds of miles to see bands. But I'm not a social person at all. And it can get surreal to see that sort of devotion applied to me."
So it becomes a balancing act - feeding the ever-growing beast when possible (a new album is due later this year and a Despair Faction-like fan club is in the works) while realizing that more and more fans have taken to Tiger Army as if it were a secret society.
"It almost seems like the band has become a concept for some people," Nick says. "It's an entity unto itself that exists above the music. It almost becomes an ideology."
"Is it a cult?" I asked Elizabeth Bouras.
That can be an ugly word, "but I think it's appropriate. There's a mentality the fans carry around with them, and though there are lots like me, who are introverted and don't make friends easily, we all get along well with each other. We have a shared love. It's unlike anything else out there now."