What positions do you want us in?” Tuk Smith calls over to Classic Rock’s photographer as we begin our photoshoot outside Truck Store in Oxford. “What sexual positions?”
The Biters frontman/mastermind – a slim, tattooed hybrid of Stiv Bators and Noel Fielding – is no wallflower, even at the tail end of a mammoth tour supporting fellow southerners Blackberry Smoke. It’s been a successful, albeit exhausting run of packed shows in enormous venues. Tonight, however, Biters will go rogue and play in a pub deep in the Oxfordshire countryside. The band’s publicist and I don’t realise quite how deep until we’re all driving there in the van later. Smith points incredulously at thatched roofs, which clearly aren’t a ‘thing’ in Atlanta, Georgia. His bandmates look similarly curious. You can’t help wondering how the local audience will greet this whirlwind of leather, styled hair and 70s hooks.
But before all that we’re in Oxford vinyl haven Truck Store. It’s small and extremely inviting, with racks stuffed with eclectic, era-spanning classic rock, glam, metal and punk, along with recent releases. We find Smith swerving enthusiastically from a Status Quo ‘best of’ to records by Jellyfish and Queen. The shop’s friendly owners let him look through boxes behind the counter, and he disappears for a while. As he browses, his bejewelled hand remains curled around a coffee cup, purchased from the in-house cafe.
“I wanna have a record shop one day with a coffee shop,” he drawls, pulling out a copy of David Bowie’s Space Oddity.
For all their retro trappings, Biters are still millennials. They went through “the grunge phase”, soaking up the likes of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, as well as Green Day and NOFX along the way. It was during their latter high-school years that they embraced the icons whose style (musical and visual) inspires them today – purveyors of a specific, rather British kind of glam.
“For us it’s T.Rex, not Poison. Sweet, not Mötley Crüe,” Smith reasons. “And with Mott The Hoople, they’re called ‘glam’ but Ian Hunter was really working-class.”
Those guys paid attention to their looks, and wore outlandish clothes, but they appealed to the working man. Do you identify with that mindset?
“Oh hell yeah!” replies wiry, amicable guitarist Matt Gabs, holding Cab Calloway’s Jumpin’ Jive.
“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors on the internet,” Smith continues. “We’re good with social networking, trying to keep the mystery, but it’s really gruelling. It’s not glamorous, a lot of it’s just a lot of work. But nowadays that’s what it takes to play rock’n’roll. I hope that’s what it takes to get an edge above other bands.”
Over by racks of heavy metal, bassist Philip Anthony eagerly studies sleeves laden with skulls and blood. He stops at a couple of Magnum LPs.
“I’ve never heard ’em but the cover’s pretty cool,” he muses. “I think a lot of metal bands have cool album covers. They’re cheesy but they’re cool. When I was a kid I loved looking at heavy metal covers like Dio. They’re like horror-movie covers, all the stuff I’m not supposed to look at as a child.”
Tall and pretty – in a ‘goth girl’s crumpet’ sort of way – Anthony fronted his own hard rock band, Steadlür, before joining Biters. You can tell through his superior backing vocals and easy, friendly swagger.
A couple of aisles away guitarist Gabs chuckles as he finds a Devo record, wedged inconspicuously next to Dio. “People either love this or hate this.” He then finds a copy of Mott. “I think this one might be mine,” he says, grinning.
Growing up in the US south in the 90s, most of Biters’ formative listening experiences came from local radio in their parents’ trucks. “It was all FM radio and cassettes,” Anthony says.
“I think it was the same for all of us,” says Smith. “Your parents listen to classic rock radio in the south, and everybody drives – there’s no public transport like in a big city. So they drive and listen to Boston, Queen, the Eagles… We had a cassette player, and my mum bought me Back In Black. That was my first album. She grew up seeing AC/DC – she said she went to go see them when she was pregnant with me. And she loved Tom Petty.”
Back in Truck Store, drummer Joey O’Brien rifles through some old-school punk, settling on a record by 70s/80s New York punks Plasmatics. Formerly a dominatrix’s security guard back in Atlanta (“I have a girlfriend now so I don’t do that any more,” he says with a grin), he’s quieter than his bandmates, but pleasingly unpredictable. As talk turns to the first albums they all fell in love with, O’Brien veers sharply from the meaty material we’re expecting. “I think it was Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road,” he muses. “That was the first concert my parents took me to, and they got me the album at the merch booth. I’d have been about seven or eight. I still love it, and I have it on vinyl now, double disc.”
For Baltimore-based Gabs – who in the shop moves from Cab Calloway and Chuck Berry to the aforementioned Mott – his first LP was Appetite For Destruction.
“My mum fuckin’ shoplifted it for me,” he says with a chuckle. “I didn’t ask for it, she just said: ‘You’d like this, it’s got some skulls on the cover…’ Then we got the entire Guns N’ Roses back catalogue up to The Spaghetti Incident, and it was all I listened to until the following Christmas when I got Nirvana’s Nevermind, Metallica’s Black Album and Offspring’s Smash [laughs].”
His father, an “old Italian hard-ass man” who runs a cab company, served jail time for marijuana-related deeds when Gabs was a child. “He’s not full Sicilian, so it’s not like he was in the Mob,” he says as his bandmates collapse into laughter at their softly-spoken guitarist’s ‘mobster’ roots. “He just did some shit and went to jail for it.”
Biters’ native Atlanta is an interesting musical hub. The city’s scene is diverse, with a healthy punk contingent, but the place is also in close proximity to the southern Bible Belt and its religious, gospel‑fuelled associations. It’s the kind of influence that informed their countrymen Blackberry Smoke, but bypassed the Biters.
“That’s a calibre of family values I never experienced,” Smith says with a laugh.
Anthony, by contrast, had parents who tried to make a good churchgoing boy out of him. His mother was a hairdresser, his father was a cop who served as a Green Beret in the military. It was a conservative, sheltered upbringing. It didn’t work – by the 00s Anthony was fronting Steadlür and carving out a life as a rock star.
“Let me tell me you a story about his brother real quick,” Smith dives in, at breakneck speed but crystal clear. “They were in a band [Steadlür] when they got signed – we used to party a shit-tonne, brutal, unspeakable acts of craziness – and his brother was the drummer of the band. I was in a band too, and we started touring. But then his brother was the biggest party animal you ever met, and he did so much cocaine his heart about stopped, and Jesus talked to him. He had a ‘Jesus moment’. To this day he sings in church and thinks Phil is a degenerate, and he has a bunch of babies and they’re not allowed to read Harry Potter books, and all this weird, crazy shit.”
Smith’s own parents separated when he was young. His AC/DC-loving mother became a nurse and his father runs a gym, called Tuck’s Power Dome. A concrete ‘dive gym’ with only free weights, and the slightly imposing tagline Last Of The Real Gyms, it’s not for the faint-hearted – or anyone looking for a pilates class.
“It’s has shit spray-painted on the walls like ‘Go Heavy Or Go Home’,” Smith tells us. “This is not a social club. It’s all metal, and blue-collar dudes after work with work boots on and jeans, grunting.”
He puts his “aggressive” side down to a childhood spent within those walls.
“Can you imagine being a child in an atmosphere like that, having these fucking crazy, testosterone-induced weightlifters give you life lessons?” he says. “The shit that came out their mouths, that’s why I’m so foul. It was awesome though.”
The comparatively androgynous likes of Bolan, Bowie and Johnny Thunders didn’t reach Smith’s radar until “way into high school”. This gave Smith Snr time to try to press some more butch aspirations onto his son.
“My dad wanted me to be a professional baseball player,” he explains. “He didn’t want me to play guitar. Every time I’d get in trouble or go to jail he’d just say: ‘Leave him in there.’ And he’d want me to go into the military or work in the Caterpillar factory. But now he understands. He’s cool. He’s a man, not a pussy.”
A few hours later, as showtime approaches at the George & Dragon in picturesque Shutford, Biters’ own mettle looks set to be tested.
“It’s not that busy, boys,” their tour manager says as the band gather in the pub kitchen (tonight functioning as the unlikely Green Room).
“That’s okay, we’re gonna treat it like is,” says Gabs, unhesitatingly. And they do.
Amazingly, by the time Biters stride out into the restaurant room – the tables removed for tonight’s show – the place is packed. Diehard Biters fans mix with a curious clutch of locals.
The band play a superb set, brimming with gusto and revitalised nostalgia, with Smith channelling Marc Bolan-esque vibes on new songs such as Stone Cold Love.
So what is it about those glam legends that appeals to this young rock aficionado?
“They have that larger-than-life, otherworldly persona,” he says afterwards, catching his breath as fans squeeze past, grinning excitedly and offering congratulations. “They felt like cosmic beings. Marc Bolan felt like some weird fairy from another dimension, and Bowie felt like some weird alien. I think that’s lacking in rock’n’roll big-time right now; everybody wants to be very attainable and have videos of what they had for lunch. But you’d never see David Bowie eating a fucking sandwich.
“On this record [The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be] there’s some really good, catchy, badass songs – and that’s not me being cocky,” Smith adds, seriously. “I can turn it on and it makes you feel good. So hopefully it works out, because I don’t know how much harder I can push.”
The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be is out now on Earache Records
How Biters spent Their £50 Record Shop Budget
“We pretty much all picked British records, didn’t we?” Gabs observes. “And we weren’t even trying. We love the Stooges too, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick… But Britain has produced some of the best. It’s had everybody.”
Tuk Smith (vocals/guitar)
David Bowie – Space Oddity: “This is super-cool. It was in the back. I own a lot of David Bowie records but I don’t actually own this.”
Matt Gabs (lead guitar)
Mott The Hoople – Mott: “I bought the CD when I was eighteen but it had a different cover, same tracklisting, and it changed my life. I was well into David Bowie before I even discovered Mott The Hoople, so when I heard that Mick Ronson was on this record, I was like: ‘Okay, give it here!’ It’s start-to-finish perfect – no skippers.”
Philip Anthony (bass)
The Damned – The Anthology 1976-87: “Everyone else got vinyl so I got a CD. I’m the badass in the group… But yeah, The Damned, great band. The singer’s fucking awesome. He paved the way for a lot of goth-punk that came out in the eighties: 45 Grave, The Cramps, other bands…”
Joey O’Brien (drums)
Girlschool – Demolition: “I’m really pleased with this one. I found out about Girlschool when I was in high school, getting into Motörhead. I know they toured with Motörhead, so I checked them out and liked them. So that’s how I heard ’em – through Lemmy. Thanks, Lemmy.”