Last year, at a show in Los Angeles, Ben Tegel literally bled for his art.
The hour was late, the crowd was spirited and one concertgoer was heckling Tegel, the frontman for confrontational punk band the Vacation. After a few ugly words, the guy smashed a vodka bottle on the edge of the stage and waved it at Tegel. So the singer picked up some of the broken shards — and cut himself.
"It was my way of saying, 'You can't f--- me up any more than I can f--- myself up," Tegel said on a day off from the band's tour with Living Things (which ends March 29 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida). "I made a few choice slices, and they were very surface cuts but it served as a shock tactic. Blood all over the place gets people's attention."
Such dramatic gestures are highly reminiscent of Stooges-era Iggy Pop. And the way Tegel sometimes leaps into the crowd and swipes drinks from unsuspecting audience members is similar to a stunt Pop still pulls today. But Tegel is more inspired by the antics of Doors frontman Jim Morrison, a character largely ignored and even reviled by other modern punks.
"I don't understand why that is," said Tegel, whose banter is filled with spontaneous Morrison-style rambling. "To me, punk music goes right back to the Doors. People say Iggy Pop deserves credit and he does, but he was completely obsessed with Jim Morrison, who was the first person I can think of to break down the barrier between the band and the audience. The whole punk attitude began with that."
The Vacation revel in the primal, uninhibited subversion of classic punk, but their cerebral musings also point to a method behind the madness. "I like to take people by surprise, because it sets a tone for something unpredictable and says to them, 'Hey, pay attention. Maybe this isn't your typical rock show,' " Tegel said. "Just getting out into the crowd at some point is a very simple thing to do, but it works well to eliminate that fourth wall and makes performing a more communal experience."
Tegel's charisma is one factor that convinced American Records founder and musical guru Rick Rubin to sign the band and remaster its debut album, Band From World War Zero, which originally came out in April 2005 on a U.K. independent label; the disc is being re-released simply as The Vacation on March 21. Presumably, another reason Rubin snatched up the Vacation is because they rock. Combining the poetry of the Doors, the swagger of the Rolling Stones and the snottiness of the Stooges, the Vacation come off like a testosterone-addled gang of art-school students hell-bent on both creation and destruction.
"I like having some contradiction within the lyrics," Tegel explained. "Take a song like 'Make Up Your Mind,' which seems to be purely about sex. But there's also a sense of loneliness and longing for something else in there. Even a song like 'Destitute Prostitute' is sort of anthemic, but it's also filled with a sarcastic self-hate and a feeling of hopelessness about your role in society and culture."
The Vacation date back to the late '90s, when Tegel and his twin brother, guitarist Steve Tegel, played in various unknown groups around St. Louis while they were still in high school. But it wasn't until they moved to Los Angeles in 2002 that they were able to break out of the sub-underground and write gritty, celebratory songs that exemplify the glitz and grime that is their adopted hometown.
"I love L.A., man," Tegel said. "I can't figure out why anyone would want to live any place else. I mean, that's where the culture is at right now. American pop culture is very superficial, and if you want to put your fingers into it and understand it and say something about it, I think this is the place you have to be. I think L.A. is kind of a microcosm of America, and, for that matter, American culture sets the tone for world culture. So it's superficial, it's soul-numbing and alienating — but it's great."
The Tegels met bassist Eric "Dutch" Suoninen one night in the Kibitz Room of L.A.'s Canter's Delicatessen and brought him right into the fold, but went through several drummers before hiring Suoninen's friend and session player Denny Weston, Jr.
Following a number of low-profile gigs as the Sons, the band changed its name to avoid confusion with band the Sun. Then, as the Vacation, they secured a Thursday night residency at the Kibitz Room. The shows gave the band the support to play larger venues and the confidence to record a debut EP, They Were the Sons, which led to its British label deal and was followed by Band From World War Zero, which was recorded, mixed and mastered in just three weeks. But despite all the hard work, the Vacation have managed to live up to their name.
"There's definitely been situations where there's been a van of half-dressed girls and things like that," Tegel teased. "But that's part of what you get into this for. Let's be honest: You're a 13-year-old kid, and that's the kind of stuff you're dreaming about."