…stays in Vegas? Not this time. Classic Rock joins Monster Truck in the gamblers’ paradise and gets an eyeful of 24/7 drunkenness, debauchery and decadence on a spectacular scale...
Classic Rock joins the band in Vegas and gets an eyeful of 24/7 drunkenness, debauchery and decadence on a grand scale.
I’m staring at Elvis Presley’s karate outfit. It’s on display right outside the Paradise Towers elevators in the lobby of the Hard Rock casino in Las Vegas. The entire hotel is dedicated to the golden (let’s say 1957 to ’97) era of rock music. I’m not sure how to take any of it. What do I learn from this? Okay, I saw Morrissey’s suit jacket from an NME cover shoot. Now what? Do I get to heaven? What is any of this even about? I’m pondering this because I’m killing time before I interview Monster Truck. They have to finish watching a hockey game on TV first, which is the most Canadian thing I’ve ever heard in my life. And that’s fitting, because this band are the quintessential Canadian hard rock band, easily the best since Bachman Turner Overdrive were takin’ care of business.
Monster Truck formed in Hamilton, Ontario back in 2009. In the beginning it was just a gag, a house-party band with a dumb name. But it quickly took on a life of its own, and now here we are, 10 years and one hockey game later, awash with the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas and with a backstage rider that provides us with… well, plenty of tortilla chips and bottled water, at the very least.
“To me, we were carrying on in the tradition of Grand Funk Railroad,” explains Truck guitarist and co-founder Jeremy Wideman. “We just fell in love with that sixty-nine to seventy-two era, when they played this kinda powerful, primitive riff rock and were bigger than any other band in America.”
“And then we fucked it all up by throwing punk and metal in because that’s what we played,” says Jon Harvey, the band’s affable frontman.
“Well, we have a modern sound to our band, because we do have these other influences,” Widener explains, “but it’s basically Grand Funk with, like, Soundgarden and Metallica. People call us ‘meat and potatoes’ and I’m perfectly fine with that.
That is not an insult to me at all.”
Monster Truck’s meat-and-potatoes rock won them a Juno award (the Canadian version of the Grammys, basically) in 2013, and both of their albums – 2013’s Furiosity and 2016 follow-up Sittin’ Pretty – have been Top 20 hits in Canada. And they’ve toured the globe several times over, headlining and also opening for artists including GN’R, Alice In Chains, Buckcherry and yes, even the band that sing that goddamn ‘Look at this photograph’ song. In fact, the Truck are here in
Vegas for a week of shows opening for them.
Everybody hates Nickelback. It would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention that, sitting backstage at one of their shows. I personally don’t care either way. They just seem like grunge-lite to me, like Candlebox, or maybe the Canadian Seven Mary Three. They don’t seem evil, unless mediocrity is the devil. But Nickelback’s rep as ‘worst yet most inexplicably popular band in the world’ is so pervasive that my very reputation as rock’n’roll’s reigning king of sleaze is on the line just for being here. So I’ve gotta at least address it.
This is not the first time or the first place
Monster Truck have supported these fellow Canucks. They trundled around Europe with them a couple years back. So is this just an American thing, or does everybody hate them?
“Oh, it’s global,” shrugs Widerman. “And I don’t even know why. Maybe it’s just because they’re popular. But they’ve always been nice to us. And even though we have our own fans, there’s enough crossover with their crowd that it works.”
“It hasn’t been a big deal for our fans at all,” says frontman Jon Harvey. “They’re just like, ‘Fuckin A. Those are big shows. Cool!’ They don’t give a shit what anybody thinks about Nickelback.”
Not giving a shit what anybody thinks – about anything – is basically the Monster Truck story in a nutshell. They are populists in an elitist world, working-class heroes making simple, direct music for blue-collar rabble-rousers. And occasionally, on nights like this, for well-heeled middle-aged accountants and their escorts. It’s Vegas, baby.
Our mission this evening is a simple one: we’re supposed to lose our minds, wallets and souls. Spoiler alert: we’re not going to. Monster Truck are not Mötley Crüe, or even Monster Magnet. Jeremy’s dad and Harvey’s girlfriend are part of our roving crew, and most of them are more interested in a good night’s sleep than in snorting ants or chasing groupies around hotel rooms. Of course, the band are 10 years into their career at this point. Had I met them in 2009, would I have seen a different sort of rock’n’roll beast altogether?
“Not really,” says Widerman, laughing.
“I mean, well, sorta,” says Harvey.
“On our first tour,” Widerman continues, “when we were out with The Sheepdogs touring Canada, we ripped it up every night pretty good.
But even then, how hard can you rip it up when it’s December in Canada and you don’t have any money?”
Before our night out tonight, I witnessed the full-throttle fury of Monster Truck. Let loose on a curious audience that freely mixed aging hardcore rockers with indifferent tourists, the band tore through their ageless hits including
Why Are You Not Rocking?, Don’t Tell Me How To Live and The Lion, and introduced a few numbers from their latest album, including the ferocious crowd-pleaser (and almost-title track) True Rocker. There were no lasers, no costume changes, no fanfare, just four denim demons strutting their stuff. It was loud, wild and heavy. It was probably more than the largely anaemic Vegas audience deserved, but the Truck gave it their all, as they are wont to do. If this was 1976, they’d each own their own fucking castle.
Later on, while Nickelback tear through their long and winding headlining set of AOR megahits, Monster Truck and company hop in a few cabs. We leave the upscale strip behind and race towards the bigger and brighter lights of Fremont Street, the ragged glory of ‘Old Vegas’ beckoning us with its promises of cheap thrills and easy money. Twenty minutes later and lives are changed forever. Even for world-travelling rock’n’rollers, Fremont Street is fucking crazy.
“We’ve played so many shows with big bands like Guns N’ Roses because we don’t cause trouble, we just do our jobs.”
“The only word for what’s going on right now is ‘awe’,” mutters Truck’s slack-jawed organ grinder Brandon Bliss. “I am in awe right now.”
There is no sky here. The sky is a canopy of video screens selling God-knows what, while zip-liners zoom overhead, screaming in terror. Evel Knievel, the world’s greatest stuntman (RIP) has a pizza place here. What a motorcycle daredevil has to do with pizza is anybody’s guess, but it makes a warped kind of sense in the context of a street with a giant revolving high-heeled shoe in the middle of it. Down a block there’s a two-storey praying mantis spitting fire. Not sure if it’s gonna kill us or what. There are stages on each corner of the street, with live bands bashing out classic rock covers. We see an outfit called Zowie Bowie tear through White Wedding to rapturous applause from the crowd. There’s an all-meat restaurant called the Heart Attack Grille with a sign that screams: ‘Over 350 Pounds? Eat for free!’ You have to wear a hospital gown to eat there, and they weigh you on the way in.
As we wind our way through the crowd, a dominatrix in patriotic red, white and blue leather and a cowboy hat cracks her whip on my ass. A few steps down there’s a guy holding a sign that’s dares you to ‘Kick me in the nuts’, presumably for cash, but who really knows. Half-naked women, clad only in pasties and G-strings, wander through the throng, having their picture taken with country boys for tips. Go-go dancers in hot pants do double-duty as bartenders in outdoor bars, selling gigantic cocktails that you’re free to gulp down in public. At this point it’s after midnight and most people here have been drinking for hours. Everywhere I look, there are puking brides, still in their wedding dresses. Seriously. This is what Disneyland would have looked like if Caligula had designed it.
The most shocking thing about the entire evening, though, is this: it’s freezing outside. I’m not sure that anybody out here ever considered that it could be cold in the desert, but it’s a shivery 42 degrees Fahrenheit/six degrees Celsius, and the neon lights are doing nothing to warm us. I just came from Boston so I’ve got a coat. Monster Truck are Canadian, they were born cold, and they’ve got jackets as well. But most of the idiots out here are wandering around in shorts and T-shirts, determined to not have inclement weather ruin their vacation.
We’re not so willing, so we duck into a casino to warm up. Bliss pops a couple of dollars into an Elvis-themed slot machine and immediately wins 50. I’m blown away. Aren’t you supposed to lose money in Las Vegas?
“That’s nothing,” Bliss says. “Jeremy won, like, two hundred bucks yesterday.”
As if to prove their point the Monster Truck guys assemble and head over to a blackjack table, where Widerman very quickly triples his money. And then he very sensibly walks away.
“It’s not that hard to win money in Las Vegas,” reckons Harvey. “The hard part is not getting crazy. That’s what gets people: they go crazy and bet all their money and then lose it. We never do that. We don’t get crazy. We win some money and then go home.”
If more rock’n’roll bands followed this advice, we’d have fewer tragic tales to tell. If there’s one prevailing character trait that everyone in this band has, it’s reasonableness. Monster Truck have a nagging appetite for moderation.
“Dude, I think that’s why we’ve played so many shows with big bands like Guns N’ Roses,” Harvey explains. “We’re easy. We don’t cause trouble, we just do our jobs. And we don’t get crazy about it. It’s hard to keep a rock’n’roll band going if you’re paying yourself a ton of money, so we invest most of it back in the band.”
We decide it’s time to take the money and run, so we snag the first available vehicle we can find, which just happens to be a party bus. This would prove to be a nearly fatal mistake all round. The interior pulsates with flashing neon lights, and both ends of the bus are covered with video screens running
an endless loop of pop videos cranked up to earbleeding volume. The bus bobs and weaves through the Vegas streets like a drunken uncle stumbling home after a particularly long night on the tiles, and I, for one, am sure that I’ll be spraying the contents of my stomach all over the pink and green walls if it doesn’t end soon. After every autotuned synth-pop radio hit, a genuinely confused Harvey shouts from the back of the bus: “What is this music? Is this hip-hop?”
Eventually, and mercifully, our Rihanna-heavy rip ride through town comes to an end and we’re dumped back at the hotel. Most of the crew sensibly go to bed, but a few of us decide to creep back out into the cold, still searching for the elusive heart of Saturday night.
We end up where every self-respecting rocker in Vegas should: at the Double Down Saloon. It’s four am, but nobody seems to notice. The Double Down is a notorious punk club jutting out of the ass-end of a strip mall. There was a gig here earlier, but it was more than for hours ago and they’re just mopping up the blood at this point.
Every inch of the walls is plastered with band stickers. The booth Harvey and I are sitting at is lumpy and uneven and held up with cinder blocks. The floor is a sticky roller-rink of spilled booze and the jukebox is, like everything else in this town, permanently cranked to 11. The playlist is snarly and savage, mostly Iggy, MC5 and vintage LA hardcore.
I recount to Harvey how I was watching a couple of grey-haired retirees at Monster Truck’s show wildly air-guitaring and singing along to their
‘It’s obvious that the Truck haven’t got the ‘rock is dead’ memo yet. Hopefully they’ll never get it.’
songs, thoroughly lost in the moment. It struck me that the vast majority of Truck’s fans are twenty years older than the band members are, classicrock holdouts from the days of transistor radios and eight-track cassettes. I ask him if he’s worried that Monster Truck aren’t pulling in a younger crowd. He isn’t.
“We don’t worry about pleasing the kids,” he shrugs, pulling on his beer. “We make music that we like and that Monster Truck fans like. We don’t really give a shit if the kids like it or not.”
And that’s when it hits me. Nobody here gives a shit about the goddamn kids. Certainly not the Hard Rock Casino, a hotel that prominently features the pink satin jacket worn by the singer from REO Speedwagon in 1982, displayed behind glass in the lobby. Nickelback are just happy that their audience is middle-aged and middle-class enough to throw down 100 bucks for a ticket to their show. The Double Down is operating under the premise that people still wanna drink, puke and fight all night. The whole city is betting on twinkling lights and $10 prime rib to see it through. Everyone here, including Monster
Truck, is living in the perpetual now.
No one in Vegas chases trends. No one here cares about the fickle demands of the youth brigade. They go with what works right here, right now. Monster Truck deliver rock music to rock fans, and that’s good enough for everybody, including them. And that certainly extends to their new album. It’s called True Rockers.
“We thought of it because I recently bought a skull ring,” says Harvey, “and I realised that only true rockers wear skull rings.”
I’m wearing several, so guilty as charged.
Harvey rolls up the sleeve of his jacket to show me his latest tattoo, a fist with a skull ring. It’s the most perfectly Monster Truck thing I’ve ever seen.
As if on cue, the Stooges’ Search And Destroy blares to life on the blown-out speakers. We’ve done it. We’ve reached peak ‘rocker dudes’. Mission accomplished. We’ll leave the piles of cocaine for some other band.
Here’s the thing: Monster Truck are never gonna be critical darlings. They weren’t even hip young dudes when they were hip and young. But they are carrying on in a sacred tradition. Everybody wants to be the Velvet Underground, but somebody’s got to be Foghat. Monster Truck are the Foghat of the 21st century. They say that news travels slow in Canada, and it’s obvious that the Truck haven’t got the ‘rock is dead’ memo yet. Hopefully they’ll never get it.
True Rockers is out now on Mascot.
Fun and games, Elvis, nutty signs, drinking, partying… all of life is in Vegas.
Driving the Truck: (l-r) Jon Harvey, Brandon Bliss, Steve Kiely, Jeremy Widerman.“We make music that we like and that Monster Truck fans like. We don’t really give a shit if the kids like it or not.”Jon Harvey
Monster Truck live in Vegas: wild and heavy.