I meet Fifty on their Heels guitarist/vocalist Junior Metro and drummer Justin at Hamilton’s, a relatively new beer bar in South Park. Hunkered over pint glasses and chatting softly under the din of a Padres-cheering crowd, the two exude a calmness and modesty that’s immediately at odds with the frenetic swagger of their debut self-titled EP. With reverential nods to Brits like Wire, Stiff Little Fingers and Roxy Music (a consensus pick for Fifty’s favorite band), the record took home the 2006 San Diego Music Award for Best Punk Album.
Bassist Nicky Shingles emerges from the john moments later. An anomaly for bassists–he’s easily the band’s most talkative and excitable member–Shingles is getting over something fierce. Trying his best to be heard, his vocal chords emit noises that make it sound like they were recently used to mine coal. Junior and Justin chide him about his coarse delivery with the kind of caddish familiarity that suggests the if the three weren’t a band, they’d nevertheless be fast friends.
“We all played together as teenagers in a band called the First Wave Boys. I’ve known (Junior) all my life since he’s my cousin, and I’ve known (Nicky) since we were sixteen,” says Justin.
“Then we stopped playing–why did we stop?” asks Nicky. Consensus comes quickly, but comes in the form of the three not recalling. This is a recurring theme–many questions about their origins leave the band stroking their chins and scouring the mental archives only to find a dead letter. Names of former band members, lost to marriage, financial hardship and/or the sands of time, are collectively forgotten. Perhaps it was the inability to recall potential vocalists’ phone numbers that finally led Junior to take over vocal duties, solidifying Fifty on their Heels as a trio.
It’s nice to have a big supporter: a benefactor, a cheerleader, a Rasputin-like character who works behind the scenes to ensure your fame and popularity before being stabbed, poisoned, shot, hung, and left for dead in a Russian river–I may digress, but it’s nice to have a big supporter. For San Diego’s Fifty on their Heels, that supporter is Scott Pactor.
Pactor writes cat dirt sez (http://catdirtsez.blogspot.com) and co-owns cat dirt records, the imprint that’s releases Fifty’s music. cat dirt sez is without a doubt San Diego’s most influential music blog, with Pactor breaking the story that Scarlet Johannsen would be performing with a reunited Jesus and Mary Chain and some Lindsay Lohan-related hilarity (enough to nearly crash his server on a couple occasions). He’s a big fan–and principal engine–behind many of Fifty’s moves. The musical relationship developed out of a long friendship.
“We had been friends for a while,” says Nicky. “This was before we had a singer or anything, and I had a tape of our recordings. This was before he knew anything about my musical background. I gave him the tape, and he was like, ‘OK, I’ll listen to it.’ He really liked it, and really got excited about it. I even have some lyrics that he wrote down–”
“They didn’t make it,” Junior adds through a good-natured grin.
Accessing the archives again produces a dead end. “They weren’t bad,” counters Nicky, “I just can’t remember what I did with them. I think they’re on an envelope somewhere.”
Despite not making the cut as Bernie Taupin to Junior’s Elton John, Pactor was excited to help. “I was at a point in my life where I could do some of the stuff I’d always wanted to do–start a record label, work with a band. I felt like I could help them. I wanted them to be an example of the DIY ethic in action.”
Help he has. cat dirt sez receives thousands of hits per day (6000 today, as I write), and he’s been instrumental in helping Fifty to secure some high profile gigs, including the main stage at UCSD’s Sun God festival. The band is promoted constantly on the site, which is read by journalists and music industry types in the United States and Great Britain.
Still, Fifty on their Heels has yet to tour nationally, but they’ve been plenty busy grinding it out in the San Diego-Los Angeles-Las Vegas triangle–so much so that many mistake Fifty for locals in the City of Angels. “People have written that we’re an LA band. We just like it–it’s fun, and more bands have a sound that’s similar to ours,” says Justin. Their frequent trips north have earned the band some fast friend’s in Los Angeles’ infamously difficult-to-crack scene. “The bands we’ve played with we’ve become very good friends with: the New Collapse, New Motherfuckers, Teenage Talking Cars,” lists Nicky, searching for other names.
Turning to their hometown, the band see a somewhat more mixed bag. When asked to identify the best and worst aspects of the San Diego scene, the order in which they do is telling. “The worst thing I’ve found is that I always hear talk about the community, and how bands look out for each other…I’ve never really felt that. I’ve felt cold shoulders, weird vibes sometimes. But when you find those bands that you really get along with, that’s the best thing, because you really have each other’s back. Of course it’s competitive–”
“Which is alright,” Nicky interjects. “There’s a large concentration of good bands that may not be the type of music I’m in to, but there are quite a few really good bands playing, and lots of opportunity.”
Junior concedes. “For me, the Muslims are great. The Prayers EP was very good–I love that CD.”
Seeing the band for the first time a week later at the Beauty Bar, Junior’s words ring true. Outgoing, dancing unabashedly to The New Motherfuckers set, Junior half tackles/half hugs the New Motherfuckers vocalist. Fifty on their Heels may make “cool” music but are not too “cool” to enjoy the fruits of their (and others) labor. Though their sound is steeped in art rock, Fifty’s charm lies in their eminent approachability and sense of fun. “We like it, and we enjoy what we play.”