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Local punks The Bad Genes reunite after 17 years

"We were antagonizing the punk audience, in the same way we as punks had antagonized what we had viewed as a ‘straight' audience."

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The Bad Genes in 1996: from left, Sean Whelan, Scott Quay, Dan Barnhill
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • The Bad Genes in 1996: from left, Sean Whelan, Scott Quay, Dan Barnhill

In the '90s, Pittsburgh music had its moments: In the mainstream "alt-rock" world, Rusted Root hit it big, and The Clarks and The Gathering Field flirted with national audiences. In the punk world, Aus-Rotten back-patches were on denim vests worldwide, and Anti-Flag slowly rose to become the global force it is today. Then there were The Bad Genes, who, early on, released a 7-inch split with Anti-Flag — surely they felt like they were next, right?

"I think it was a foregone conclusion that we would never have any success doing this," says singer Scott Quay. "We were just doing it for the love. When [the '90s wave of] ‘punk' broke and bands like Rancid started making it big, it did open doors for a lot of bands, but I don't think we were that kind of band."

The punk-meets-rock band went down in local legend, though it didn't reach the levels of fame some other bands of the era did. ("We did a split with Anti-Flag — that's how The Bad Genes come up on the Internet all the time," says Quay. "People searching for Anti-Flag. That's our most valuable record.") The group was operational from 1992 through 1996; after its breakup, the members split, some sooner and some later, ending up in far-flung places like California (Quay) and Germany (bassist Sean Whelan). The four-piece's first gig in over 17 years will happen this weekend, when the members reunite for a show at Belvedere's.

In the early '90s, the band rose from the ashes of Necracedia, the band Quay and Whelan had formed in Altoona. Necracedia had been a hardcore punk band; The Bad Genes changed it up. "[Sean and I] wanted to do more rock 'n' roll stuff," Quay says. "So we started The Bad Genes, originally with Curt Biondich and Steve Hill." Dan Barnhill soon became the permanent guitarist, and the band went through a slew of drummers.

"I think we were really feeling the limitations of the hardcore punk stuff we were doing with Necracedia," Quay says. "I was listening to lots of roots rock 'n' roll; I remember before the last Necracedia show in Pittsburgh, I was in my apartment listening to Elvis records. Then I had to go do this screaming in key for these people beating the crap out of each other like animals. ... I remember I was really down about it. I wore an Elvis T-shirt to that show; that was my little joke to myself."

The Bad Genes became a unique presence locally: more complex than much of the three-chord street punk that was big at the time, but louder and more abrasive than more middle-of-the-road rock. Quay's lyrics were political, but more abstract than the tack he'd taken in Necracedia.

"I tried to write lyrics that were sort of poetic and open for interpretation," Quay says. "With Necracedia, I got to where the lyrics got self-referential. About the punk scene and stuff. That's when you realize someone who's not part of your little world can't appreciate it; it's not universal. And in some ways we were antagonizing the punk audience, in the same way we as punks had antagonized what we had viewed as a ‘straight' audience."

"[Scott's] sale to me, when I first joined the band," interjects guitarist Barnhill, "was that we were going to make music that would challenge the punk kids as to their punkness, by not playing punk music — because at that time I think the punk scene had a really fashion element, at least in Pittsburgh, where you flew your colors in a very narrow lane, typically, fashion-wise. The idea, musically, was to reach back more — [Scott] had the Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran thing going on."

Early rock singer Gene Vincent — and not biology — is where The Bad Genes got their name, in fact. "What it refers to is, Gene Vincent basically had two images: This crooner image, for a song like "Woman Love" or "Be-Bop-a-Lula"; they'd have this image of him cradling a flathead mic, in a suit. Then for his rock 'n' roll record, they'd have him like Marlon Brando: leather jacket, on a motorcycle. So I was talking to Sean about how I just wanted to have the ‘bad' Gene Vincent image: We were just gonna be the bad Genes."

Through a few 7-inches and a full-length ("Falafel in Kreuzberg," out of print but available to stream on Bandcamp now), the band occupied its own unique space locally, a bit more serious than the drunk-punk bands, but drunker than the straight-edge political bands — and got out of town, as far as Europe on one tour. In 1996, The Bad Genes broke up, citing the general difficulty of keeping a band together as the members turn into grown-ups and find other pursuits. Toward the end, Barnhill was sidelined for a time with appendicitis, and when the band planned one last hurrah in 1997, it was drummer Ted Tarka who was in the hospital, cancelling the show.

Besides a few songs at Whelan's wedding, the band hasn't played together since — but Tarka (best known for his work with The Mud City Manglers) got the ball rolling for the reunion when Skull Fest organizer Dusty Hanna asked about it when planning this year's festival. "We couldn't get everyone in for that, but once I got it in my head, I kept working on it," says Tarka. "If Dusty hadn't asked me, we wouldn't be here doing this." The Belvedere's show also features Surrounded by Ignorance, an Altoona band that features The Bad Genes' old mates from the band The Insignificant, and The Sicks, featuring former members of Aus-Rotten. The band promises a couple of new songs, developed in recent years via filesharing.

A popular-demand reunion that crosses continents isn't bad for a band that, by its own accord, never made it big because it didn't quite fit any of the standard styles. Though maybe there was a little more to it.

"In Columbus, Ohio, someone from Atlantic Records handed one or two of us business cards and said to give him a call," recalls Barnhill. "And [Scott] said, ‘What do you think, I just fell off the turnip truck?' and threw the card back at him."

"Well, there you go," says Quay with a laugh. "That's why we didn't get a record deal!"

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