THE GREATEST BAND YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF: THE STORY OF BENDER
Bands who write powerful hook laden songs tend to usually reach commercial prominence, but one of the greatest bands to come out in the last 15 years has gone largely unnoticed by the general public. The band I’m referring to is Bender, who released the criminally underrated Jehovah’s Hitlist in May 2000. The album features classics like “Isolate” and “Passion Flower”. The album did not sell well, and the band split up a year and a half later. Bender’s songs were featured in movies like 3000 Miles to Graceland and Scary Movie, along with video games like ATV Offroad Fury for PS2. “Isolate” was also featured in a Laird Hamilton surfing video that has over 7 million views on YouTube. These soundtracks have largely been the only way for new fans to discover Bender, as the band completely disappeared from the public eye following their 2002 breakup. So little is known about the band that their only group photo available online until now was a low resolution black and white photo, leaving Bender as one of the more mysterious bands in recent memory, especially in today’s social media/internet obsessed society.
The origins of Bender begin with guitarist Matt Scerpella and bassist Tim Cook. Matt and Tim were part of Milwaukee’s metal scene and met in the late 80’s. The two bonded instantly and began playing together. They performed in cover bands initially but worked on honing their craft as songwriters. The pair heard a local singer named Kent Boyce on a local Sunday night radio show and immediately were impressed with his talent. They approached him at a benefit show in late 1994 for a recording studio that burned down and asked him to come to their studio to work on some material. Boyce subsequently quit his band and Bender was formed. The band immediately began writing material, which would become their self-recorded debut album Joe. The name ‘Bender’ was drawn from a shoe. Superfly, Blood Red Tongue, Queen Family Truckster, and Nana’s Wetsuit were other names considered. Original drummer Micah Havertape pushed hard for the Bender name. Bender actually played under name Blood Red Tongue for one of their first shows.
Mike Zirkel assisted the band with recording the album, and it was mixed at Butch Vig’s Smart Studios. Joe was released in 1995 and the band began performing live. Bender’s music melded the two styles of music predominant in Milwaukee: the west side’s metal scene and the east side’s alternative scene. “Headless Soldier” and “Lobster” were played on local radio. Joe featured an early version of “Superfly”. The band were hit and miss with some of their early shows, Boyce had an improvisational Jim Morrison vibe live. Bender were also known as a drinking band.
Micah Havertape was fired in 1997 and he was replaced by Jeff Holden. In 1998 Bender released their self-recorded version of Jehovah’s Hitlist, which slowly but surely generated label interest. Holden left the band after he stopped returning the band’s phone calls and Steve Adams replaced him. Matt Scerpella recalls the band’s first rehearsal with Adams, “As soon as we blasted [Isolate], Jeff was the guy we’d played that song with, and I had never heard the song sound that good. I literally turned to the wall because I didn’t want him to see me smiling. Tim had the exact same reaction.” He added, “I guess you could say he was kind of a Dave Grohl type guy. Immediately the band went back to where it was with our first drummer.”
In 1999 Bender’s manager informed the band that they had label interest, so they did a showcase performance at Mob Fest in Chicago for several labels. The labels weren’t impressed by the performance, as the band didn’t have much of an image and there were some problems with the PA system. A representative from TVT Records then attended a club show on Bender’s home turf at the Globe in Milwaukee and offered them a deal after a great performance. The band lacked leverage because of the ill received Mob Fest performance, so they accepted the deal. TVT told Bender’s A&R representative that the band would be their Stone Temple Pilots. After the deal was signed in 1999, Bender worked on remixing Jehovah’s Hitlist.
The tracklist remained largely the same as the self-released version, but the band re-recorded “Superfly” off of Joe for the album. Tim Cook describes the story behind the song lyrically, “Vocally, and I’m not going to mention the band, but there was a pretty landmark Wisconsin band that had come out 5 or 6 years before that. When we were looking for singers pre Kent, that singer came down to jam with us and it kind of turned into this train wreck. So we ended up unfortunately kind of turning the whole thing into a joke, because the guy is brilliant. It kind of became this joke, and that’s what that verse is. ‘You’re fucking wig was never shit’ and all of that is a direct literal rip on this guy that we thought could come down and be brilliant. It was a rip on his hair. So that line ‘you’re not superfly’ it’s like, well we thought you were a fucking rock star, you’re going to come down and this was going to be great, but it wasn’t.”
“Isolate” was written in a week’s time. On Monday Matt came up with the intro and Kent instantly had a melody. On Wednesday the song was written all the way up to a later part, and by Friday the song was completely demoed.
“Passion Flower” was the result of a night where the band were facing writer’s block. Tim quipped, “It’s a song about weed, clearly.” Matt elaborated, “Because we’d get together religiously on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday we may not even play music, we may just sit there and start talking. We’d all show up with our bags of food like Burger King, or some guy had Subway. We’d sit there and talk for awhile, it was one of those nights where nothing was happening and it was very frustrating. I can’t remember if Kent brought pot to write on, he did sometimes, but I started playing that figure and the drummer Jeff came in with the beat. Right away Kent, I remember he had his coat on, he stopped and turned around and he came back.”
He added, “I used to keep a boombox on my side and I would record our jams, and when I’d deliver my pizzas I would drive around with all our jam tapes and edit them together, or I would look for all the gems and I’d think hey this is a great part. I would listen to it so many times in a row over the course of a couple evenings of delivering pizzas I would come back to the guys and say ‘hey listen to this part listen to that part.’ I’m not saying it always worked that way but sometimes it did. When Tim tended to bring in an idea he basically had a lot of it by himself. But with Kent, I would cull together jams and cut them together. That’s how Passion Flower was. Right away he had the verse and he had the chorus, and I was very excited by it. I just drove around going this is great. Once again, it was hey what do we do now? Do we put a solo in it? I think that was a time where solos weren’t really that in vogue. Kent, I don’t know how he came up with the talking part, but that to me was so great.”
Bender- “Passion Flower”
Jehovah’s Hitlist was released on TVT Records on May 9, 2000. The lead single was “Superfly”. The band disagreed with the label’s choice to make it the first single, they wanted “Isolate” instead. Cook recalls, “I think they had this vision that we were more of a metal band than we were. So they kind of wanted to break into the nu metal and industrial sounding hard rock kind of thing, and that was Superfly.” TVT eventually released “Isolate” as the 2nd single, but they didn’t release it until 6 months after the album’s release and there was no music video.
Bender toured Jehovah’s Hitlist for a year, grinding it out in a van. One of the first runs on the tour was opening for Queenryche, a tour that Bender was kicked off of after 2 weeks. Bender toured with Nickelback and 3 Doors Down extensively, witnessing Nickelback’s rise to fame. There was one show in Ohio with only 80 fans in attendance. They also toured with Tonic, Disturbed, Papa Roach, Sugar Ray, and Union Underground. Matt looks band on the Jehovah’s Hitlist tour fondly, “It wasn’t lost on me what was going on. I had two parts to my life: basically getting to the music industry and life after the music industry. This was my time, I loved every minute of it. I loved playing the shows, I loved playing the big radio shows.”
In early 2001 TVT wanted to send Bender on tour with Chevelle to support “Passion Flower” as the 3rd single off of Jehovah’s Hitlist, but after “Isolate” flopped Bender were ready to start writing their next album. The band returned to Milwaukee and began writing new material. Scerpella recalls, “We cranked out in a short period of time, I thought by far our best stuff. I don’t know, maybe people would think Isolate is still the best song. I think we were starting to find ourselves. Our demos once again are all over the map, because we would entertain anything. I mean we were practicing every day, we would go to the studio every day.” There were 27 songs demoed, and overall 50 musical ideas. The songs included: Never Gonna Fly, Birds Are Away, This Love, Ordinary, Suffer, When You Open Your Eyes, and Every Little Step. “Never Gonna Fly” sounds like a surefire hit, featuring an infectious hard rock riff to kick off the song and a soaring a sing-a-long U2esque chorus. A brief part of the track can be heard in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder.
TVT were excited when they heard the demos and lined up Rick Parashar to produce. Parashar had produced Pearl Jam’s Ten, Temple of the Dog’s album, and Alice In Chains’ Jar of Flies. Bender’s A&R reps told Matt Scerpella that the band were going to go into the studio within a month to work on their next record with Parashar. It would have been Bender’s first time working with a producer. TVT then sought publishing rights for the band’s catalog, which Bender’s lawyer strongly advised against. The band had also heard horror stories about Nine Inch Nails’ dispute with the label. Scerpella explains, “We didn’t have a publishing deal, we turned a couple down on Jehovah’s Hitlist. Steve Gottlieb, the President of TVT, said ‘alright we will pay Parashar’s fee but you’ve got to do the publishing deal with me for your first record and this one’ and we weren’t going to do it. I don’t know if that was the death knell, but we squared off on that.” Bender didn’t want to put the fate of their band in the hands of a label that had mishandled their album. There was then a take it or leave it offer from TVT: hand over publishing and record their next album with Parashar, or no deal. The band were conflicted on what to do, and decided to walk on the deal. The band fired their representation and hired Jeff Castelaz, the future President of Elektra Records. Cook recalls, “He was getting all kinds of hits on the demos. I remember talking to him, it was major label stuff. They were talking big numbers, and then they started calling him and saying, ‘is this the Bender that just turned their back and walked on a deal with TVT?’” Walking away from the TVT deal had hurt Bender’s reputation in the music industry, as did the stigma of being a band that had already released an album that had not done well commercially. Castelaz stopped returning the band’s calls, and when he did speak to them he told them that the band’s future looked grim.
As the future of Bender was looking increasingly uncertain, one day Matt didn’t feel like going to practice, and Tim called him up and asked him if he wanted to go to a U2 show. The two had rarely ever skipped practice, but they decided to go to the show. They ended up with floor tickets, and spotted the opening band Garbage. Bender had mixed their albums at Butch Vig’s studio so they had a connection with him. Tim went over and talked to Garbage, and they congratulated him on Bender’s record deal. Tim came back and told Matt what they said, and as the two friends and bandmates of over a decade stood there watching U2’s performance, they realized they were finished. Matt remembers the sinking feeling he had, “It was really bittersweet man, it was actually pretty terrible. It was great to see U2 because we were standing pretty close to the front, but I knew we were finished. We were finished, out of the music business. It took me my whole life to get there, I didn’t know who I was. If I wasn’t Matt who played in a band trying to make it and trying to write songs, I didn’t know who I was. So then you had Butch Vig being very cordial to Tim going hey congratulations I’m so happy for you guys, and we were done. That was it, nobody wanted us anymore.” After nearly 15 years of pouring their hearts and souls in to writing and performing music together, the dream was over. While the story of Bender is a bittersweet one, their music will live on forever: ‘Burn the time you steal, hold the time that’s real.’ -Kent Boyce
You can check out Bender’s new official website at BenderOfficial.com and check the band out on Facebook. You can purchase Jehovah’s Hitlist on Amazon and iTunes. The band’s debut album from 1995 Joe will be released for the first time online on AlternativeNation.net in the coming weeks. Below is my full 2 hour and 12 minute interview with founding Bender members Matt Scerpella and Tim Cook.
AlternativeNation.net’s full 2 plus hour interview with founding Bender members Matt Scerpella & Tim Cook
Bender- “Body & Soul”