The first notes played onstage in 15 years by the Fluid came from bassist Matt Bischoff, smiling wryly at his bandmates Sunday evening as he offered up the opening riff from Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My."
It was a playful, impromptu gesture, invoking Young's ode to the half-life of rock stars, but also one with a darker, probably unintentional subtext: After all, it was the band's friend and labelmate Kurt Cobain who borrowed a line from the same song "It's better to burn out than to fade away" for his suicide note.
What's certain is that the Fluid's first reunion show, as the "secret surprise guests" at Denver's Larimer Lounge, was very much alive and kicking.
Sure, most of the crowd-surfers didn't look much older than the songs themselves, but that just shows the timelessness of the band that went down in history as Sub Pop's first non-Seattle signing.
Pumping out a sludge-free set of favorites like "Static Cling," "Saccharine Rejection" and "Cold Outside," the Fluid reminded the hometown crowd just how much faster, louder and catchier they were than pretty much any of their old labelmates.
Glam and grit
"One of the nice things about the Fluid is that when we disappeared, we really disappeared," says frontman John Robinson, who's temporarily relocated from Austin to Denver to rehearse for Sub Pop's 20th anniversary festival next month. (A second local gig is slated for June 20 at the Bluebird Theater.)
Pointing to the relative absence of tribute sites and catalogue reissues, Robinson maintains that the band's legacy nevertheless had a "huge amount of relevance to what happened with rock 'n roll in the early '90s." In fact, it was the Fluid who turned Nirvana on to Nevermind producer Butch Vig.
Meanwhile, its own incendiary live gigs routinely earned comparisons to the Stooges, the MC5 and other proto-punk powerhouses. More glam than grunge ("He was the oldest son of a drag queen dope dealer," sings Robinson on the cheerful "Twisted and Pissed"), the Fluid fueled by the frenetic drumming of Garrett Shavlik and twin guitar attack of James Clower and Rick Kulwicki combined the swagger of the New York Dolls with the raw power of Motor City-era Iggy Pop.
"I don't know what it is about a loud, crunchy, distorted guitar, but it's almost as if some of us were born with that in our genes," says Robinson. "And I guess there's a lot of us out there, because all the members of the Fluid listened to basically the same music when we were kids, and we had that common thread. I mean, all of us really loved the Rolling Stones. We all really loved the Stooges. I think all of us were huge Alice Cooper fans, which is also a Detroit thing."
But not the MC5, even though the Fluid would go on to cover "Kick Out the Jams" in their live shows.
"It wasn't until the reviews started coming in of our first record, all of them mentioning the MC5, that we went and got those records. We sat and listened to them and just thought, "Holy shit, you know, we really do sound like this band!'"
According to the band's MySpace page (yes, it does have one now), the Fluid was "forged in the gritty, unforgiving depths of the Denver punk scene in 1985." So just how gritty, unforgiving and, um, deep was it?
"Gritty? Yeah. Unforgiving? I don't know why that adjective is there, but we didn't write it," Robinson says. "And it sounds good."
The Nirvana connection
In addition to releasing three of their albums, Sub Pop also put out a split single featuring the Fluid and Nirvana. Cobain would crash at Robinson's place when the band came through Denver, and the two at one point discussed doing a kinder, gentler side project with Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan.
But it was the Fluid's team-up with Vig that ultimately would have the most influence on the band's Sub Pop brethren.
"Sub Pop had gotten a compilation tape of things that he had produced, and there wasn't a single song or band on that tape that any of us cared for at all," recalls Robinson. "But if you listen to the drums and the guitar sounds, it's like, "OK, this guy clearly knows what he's doing.'"
The Fluid made the trek to Vig's Wisconsin studio and came back with Glue, arguably its best-sounding record.
"It had a clarity that none of the [other Sub Pop] bands had been able to achieve, and so it just created a small wave of people that were convinced that they should go use Butch. And that basically changed music history, you know, because Nirvana heard Glue and said, "We are definitely going to use that guy for our next record,' and then went straight away and made it. So yeah, the Fluid had a very definite part that we played in all that, but it didn't really translate into any success for us."
Life on Sub Pop had its downside.
"Pretty much all the way up until Nirvana broke, Sub Pop was just barely scraping by," says Robinson. "And because of our geographic position, we weren't able to go down there and pound on their desk every week or two."
So the Fluid was the last to get paid.
"Uh, pretty much never paid," says Robinson.
Would Robinson have wanted Nirvana's success?
"Of course, I wish that," he says without hesitation. "I decided I wanted to do a rock 'n roll band when I was 8 years old and pinning up Rolling Stones pictures next to my bed. When I was a little kid, I never pictured myself playing CBGBs. I pictured myself playing a giant arena."
Pushing a wave
Childhood ambitions notwithstanding, Robinson isn't bitter.
"The Fluid succeeded on so many levels that it's impossible to look at it as anything but a success," he says. "I think the real problem with Nirvana is that it went from nothing to millions of records sold in a matter of months. And so that can't really be a healthy thing to go through, and I can't even begin to imagine the stress level that would generate."
After leaving Sub Pop, the Fluid signed with Hollywood Records but turned down the opportunity to record with Bowie/T. Rex producer Tony Visconti. Robinson says it was Iggy Pop, with whom the band shared a manager, who warned them that Visconti had started a "how to be a rock star" school and was likely to offer unwanted advice.
"We were basically, like, "Screw that!'" says Robinson, who instead went with Suicidal Tendencies' producer on what would be their final album, 1993's Purplemetalflakemusic. "The Fluid, for better and often for worse, wouldn't take any advice like that about anything, you know? We were an extremely stubborn and headstrong bunch. And for the most part, that served us well."
As for whether the current reunion could be a new beginning, Robinson says the band isn't ruling anything in or out: "The way I see it, it's like we're pushing a wave out there here we are, this is what we were and just seeing what the tide brings back."