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— by Brandee J. Tecson, with reporting by Matt Paco

You would think most aspiring punk bands would be flattered to be dubbed "the next Clash" by critics, but the disaffected British quartet Hard-Fi know other things are more important.

"We do love the Clash and we're not ashamed to say that. They're a real big influence on us, but there's 20 years of music after them that are just as vital and important," said frontman Richard Archer, citing the likes of trailblazers such as New Order, Public Enemy and Run-DMC. "People have been saying great things about us, but at the end of the day, until they buy the record or come see you live, it doesn't mean too much."

And while the Clash label may cause them to bristle a bit, Hard-Fi — Archer, drummer Steve Kemp, guitarist Ross Phillips and bassist Kai Stephens — seem to have no problem dealing with the expectations routinely heaped upon up-and-coming British rockers.

"Some of the best bands ever have been from Britain: the Rolling Stones, Clash, the Specials, New Order, Smiths. They've all been people who have taken a sound and mixed it with their own to create something new. It's kind of a British tradition and all we are doing is continuing that tradition," the brash lead singer explained.

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Hard-Fi employ a melting pot of musical styles, meshing hip-hop, reggae, soul, house and basically, Archer said, "whatever rocks." Hailing from the urban wasteland of Staines, England, Hard-Fi were born in 2002 after the death of Archer's father, when the singer found himself dead broke and sucked back into the rut of his dreaded hometown.

"There is nothing there," Archer said. "There are no rehearsal rooms, no music venues. There wasn't even a good record shop. So it's kind of like you have to do things yourself."

After recruiting fellow desolates Kemp, Phillips and Stephens, the four young men headed to London to record their first EP in a run-down taxi office. Although disgusting, the location would prove critical to the record's success.

"It didn't sound like anyone else because of that particular room. It just had a sort of freshness and soul to it," Archer said. "It's exactly like it was. You can hear the radio rattling when they turn the central heating on. You can hear the planes going over Heathrow Airport. It's sort of living that moment with the band in the room. It's a real magical moment."

Diving headfirst into the studio with no real musical direction, the quartet, whose name comes from a Lee "Scratch" Perry record, simply relied on its raw talent and producer Wolsey White to carry the band through the arduous recording process.

"We seriously thought that when we made the album that when it came out, we would get a kicking," Archer recalled. "We didn't think anyone was going to be into it, because we weren't playing hard rock or whatever was hip at the time. We just did what we were doing, and I think people just appreciate good songs at the end of the day."

Hard-Fi's innovative sound eventually landed them a home on Atlantic Records, who released their debut full-length LP, Stars of CCTV, in July. Already the group has snagged three hit singles in the U.K. — the satirical tracks "Cash Machine" and "Hard to Beat" and the more melancholy "Tied Up Too Tight," which Archer wrote about the exhilaration he felt from finally escaping his hometown.

Hard-Fi may have plenty of groupies in the U.K., where they sell out their own shows when they're not opening for bands like the Bravery, Kaiser Chiefs or Green Day, but they're not stopping there.

"There are a lot of bands in Britain [that] just want to be the big fish in a small pond, but what's the point in that?" Archer said. "You've got to aim high. Part of the reason we did this is because we wanted to see the world.

"Even if we fail and someone says to us, 'Oh, you thought you were going to be as big as Eminem,' I don't care. I've failed plenty of times in my life. I'm used to it. And we aren't worried about not being seen as cool. We know we're cool."


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   Photo: Atlantic