Matt Francis is a filmmaker/media designer out of Virginia Beach and the drummer for Feral Conservatives, an indie rock band.

Snake vs. Pacman

Musical taste is like any other taste — it expands, changes and has the ability to acquire a palette that, with training, can absorb deeper appreciation through objective criticism. Or so I think. Or so I’ve heard. I’ve also heard that growth is an onward expansion of taste, while change is simply an ever-revolving door with no fixed basis. Like a balloon in a tornado. This is Snake versus Pacman, and the way to base progression against simple momentum is in the merits of the direction.

I think of musical tastes and how they are shaped as I look over Slick Shoes’ discography and my relationship with it.

Slick Shoes signed to Tooth & Nail records just a few weeks after adding then 14-year old Ryan Kepke to vocals. They released their debut EP in 1997. They played skate punk. Their music was straightforward in execution while technical in its rapid fire instrumentation — drummer Joe Nixon (once described as the fastest kick pedal in punk) drove the songs towards the brink of artillery while Kepke meandered over the squall with a forced verbosity and only secondary melody.

Ethan was my best friend for three years. One of four best friends I’ve ever truly had in my life. He looked like Tim Burton brought him to life in all his pasty whiteness — with a bit of the National Enquirer’s Bat Boy thrown in. His ears stuck out a good few inches from the norm, but sub-sonic hearing was not one of Ethan’s gifts — that would be the driest deadpan humor. He was also really good at demanding a laugh through loud shrieks and tantrums, and perfectly coined nonsense phrases. Those are the kind of humor commitments you can’t shy away from; it’s all in outbursts of sheer petrol and post-modern juvenilia.

This was during my junior high days, when a sort of “jerk comedy” prevailed. Sticking your head out the window and yelling at pedestrians could literally expand into a joke referenced for months. It was an exciting time to be alive for that simple fact: you felt like you were constantly living your best material with the other most quotable comics of the age. It was brashly mean-spirited and you didn’t want to miss a thing; even the mundane became snickering observations. This was grade school. We were once mildly nerdy, well-adjusted kids. This was survival of the fittest — instead of Darwin’s finches we evolved into classroom Statler and Waldorf.

Ethan affected my musical evolution, too. He first showed me Slick Shoes, and he was the catalyst for my purchasing Wake Up Screaming, their 2000 release. When you consider our musical leanings (Christian punk) and the single point of exploration being the Family Christian Bookstore (and their periodicals, like HM), it was inevitable. This was, however, not a cataclysmic shift in my listening habits as Slick Shoes, competent enough, did little to expand on their genre.

But maybe that’s where the shift happened. There I sat, on the floor of my room listening to Slick Shoes with their lyric booklet open on my lap, and I grasped something — these lyrics were embarrassing. Not awful in a sense — and even less so when you consider Ryan Kepke’s age. It’s not unlike opening your sister’s high school diary and deconstructing it for merit and meter. These were unguarded thoughts, not put on for mass approval or ranting against political caricatures or even spewing anger. This was real life at the intersection of adolescence and prose. “You are so special to me / You bring so much joy to my life / I can’t imagine what it would be like if you were not around” goes the song “Elise.” You’re not going to confuse Kepke for being a deep thinker, and his plain-speak actually makes me picture Elise to be a rather plain girl who couldn’t quite tip the lyrical bucket into deeper inspiration.

I make a connection there. Ryan Kepke is a kid and his parents are going to read his words. The girl(s) he sings about would, undoubtedly, listen to songs written about them and hear the comparisons — to angels, to being special — songs that could be love songs or an elementary report card. And then I thought about how the parents of these girls would read the lyrics when Kepke was brought home and introduced as the punk rock singer with the knee-high socks and heart of gold. It became all too human while being equally caricature-like and lackluster. Kepke stopped being a far-away, California punk musician and was a living, blood-pumping adolescent with a family tree. He passed a note in class and the teacher made him stand up and read it.

Now, I’m not trying to be overtly critical of Slick Shoes in particular, or say that their lyrical acuity was somehow beneath the zenith of literary punk prose wrought on us by the likes of their peers in MxPx, Value Pac, etc. It was a critical juncture for me simply because the smoke screen of having lyrics sung and published in a booklet no longer equated some critical status. It demystified the band in my head. Kepke was just given a platform. If anything, our interaction became more voluntary. We like art from our heroes, and not from people who do what we can — that’s lateral acknowledgment. With distance comes mystery, and with mystery, myth, and with myth, a sort of aspired-to appreciation.

I never got to see Slick Shoes live, and my interest eventually waned. Their 2002 self-titled album is the one I go back to the most. The album showcases catchy riffs and introspective lyrics alongside the now charmingly cheesy love songs. The CD came out right at the peak of the advanced CD phase that included a clunky flash menu just to play the video to “Alone” — certainly one of Slick Shoes more interesting songs, if only for its dalliance with a string section.

The other way Ethan shaped my musical taste was my high school graduation gift — he gave me his worn, scratched-to-hell copy of Taking Back Sunday’s seminal debut Tell All Your Friends. A looser take on the punk format (called “emo” at the time), TAYF and Taking Back Sunday injected mystery back into the genre.

I’ve moved beyond my junior high compulsory humor tactics and straight-punk diet. At least I don’t antagonize pedestrians anymore (well, unless they are tourists who can’t grasp the concept of a crosswalk). But there was something less sinister in the way we skewered authority and our peers — satire. We rejected our environment through pointed, cynical criticism while keeping our humor and wit. And with a deeper empathy, we can still communicate our disappointments as well as our goals and desires with a similar but appropriate edge. I, too, grow with my love of fast music, and it stays with me.

Slick Shoes made aggressive music with a simplistic view of spirituality and relationships in a way that was more perfunctory than profound. To that, and to Ethan, I’ll quote the band one last time: “I could not have picked a better person to be you.”