Political writers and historians often use the phrase "bully pulpit" as a reference to the president's prestige and ability to inspire or influence others The term stems from President Theodore Roosevelt's use of the word "bully" as an adjective meaning superb or wonderful. Teddy regularly referred to the White House as his bully pulpit.
Punk/garage quartet Bully Pulpit aren't so interested in presidential politics, and their raw and riffy music might not conjure thoughts of the nation's capitol or refined statesmanship, but the hard-rockin' action on their debut album Goldmine could easily inspire and influence listeners.
"The band name is actually in reference to a golf course not far from my hometown in North Dakota," says Bully Pulpit guitarist Rex Stickel. "I liked the phrase. It jumped out at me. I like the idea of having 'bully' in a band name. It works."
The irony behind the moniker is that Stickel and his bandmates — singer Danny Kavanaugh, drummer David Bair, and bassist Kelly Burt — are anything but mean-spirited antagonizers. If they've bullied anyone since forming in 2010, it might have simply been themselves. Five years ago, they were immersed in contemporary metal and punk, but today, their sound has more in common with the screeching, acid-rock longhairs of the late '60s and early '70s, from Sabbath and Blue Cheer to the MC5 and the Stooges.
Stickel and Kavanaugh have been friends since their years together at Summerville High School in the early 2000s. Now both are 27 with plenty of band experience.
"I had already been taking guitar lessons in town when I overheard Danny and some guys talking in the halls that they needed a bass player," Stickel remembers. "I didn't play bass at all, but it sounded like fun, so I tapped him on the shoulder. That's where it started."
The first collaboration between Stickel and Kavanaugh was in a punk band called the Heathens, which included former Charlestonian Sadler Vaden (Leslie, Drivin N' Cryin') on guitar. Kavanaugh previously sang and played with several punk bands, including the Radioactive Erections, Atomic Vomit, and the Lunchladies. The Heathens had a brief run before morphing into a metal-punk project called the Holy City Devils.
"The Holy City Devils was fun, but it sounded like shit," Kavanaugh says plainly. "We weren't really a traditional punk thing."
As they tightened up and progressed as songwriters, Kavanaugh and his bandmates grew tired of sharing bills with rip-off acts and amateur head-bangers who could barely play their instruments. The faux-punk elements of the scene bugs them. "I see kids my age these days blatantly ripping off the Misfits," Kavanaugh says. "We'd rather not do that kind of thing."
Stickel remembers when hardcore punk and metal dominated the Summerville band scene in the mid 2000s. "What's really weird about the scene is that a lot of musicians started out in original bands, writing their own songs, but they now play covers in bars," he says. "It's pretty backwards."
Stickel switched to bass for their next project, a thrashy metal group called Here Comes Death. Drummer Lawrence John, a propulsive timekeeper with great precision, joined the Kavanaugh/Stickel team at that point.
"You know, the first moment we caught Lawrence play drums, which was when he was 15, we thought he was one of the best drummers we'd ever seen," Stickel says.
With guitarist Travis Hall on board, Here Comes Death turned into Donner Party of Five in 2009. Burt came into the picture as the band's keyboardist. "Kelly brought in this organ sound, so we started to write different types of songs as a five-piece band," Stickel says. "I was playing bass at first, but then we made another change, and I switched back to guitar. We started putting a big blues influence into the music, and we moved forward from there."
In early 2010, the group officially settled on the name Bully Pulpit and took a big step away from the metallic tones and tempos of their previous fare.
"Danny and I always worked well together on song ideas, so we were in solid shape when Bully Pulpit started up," Stickel says. "We're on the same wavelength, so most of the time, we come up with stuff that seems to fit."
The band tracked Goldmine at the now defunct Collective Recording in several brief sessions over the course of the last year. Local musicians/engineers Jamey Rogers (ex-Shaniqua Brown) and Alan Price (currently of Shinedown, Call Me No One) handled the engineering and basic production duties.
The new album rages about life's aggravations with plenty of distinctive power-chord riffs and swingin' rhythms. There's a bit of Kiss-style guitar (think "Detroit Rock City") from song to song, and Kavanaugh sounds like he's hollering into a microphone while staggering from one watering hole to another.
"Goldmine captures what we wanted to do really well," Stickel says. "We'd written songs like this before, but this was really a new direction. We realized that we didn't really want to be metal, like the kids who do the guttural screaming, all of that stuff. Luckily, we'd found a great drummer in Lawrence, and we all liked to practice and record a lot, so it developed pretty easily."
Shortly after the band mixed the final songs on the album this spring, John decided to move away from Charleston. It was an amicable parting. Fortunately, Bully Pulpit didn't have to look far for a quick replacement. In June, they enlisted David Bair, formerly of the Shaniqua Brown, as the new timekeeper.
Bair and Bully Pulpit were well acquainted through the Shaniqua Brown last year. Both bands shared a downtown rehearsal space, and they regularly booked shows together and toured the Southeast.
"We became pretty close during to whole Shaniqua stint," Bair says. "They were coming out to a lot of shows, so we eventually started to put them on local bills and ended up touring with them a lot. I remember actually seeing them play for the first time in Columbia at the Whig. They blew me away. It was super-heavy punkish blues with a classic-rock tinge. The energy was there, the song structures were there, and the performance was right-on. From there, they were basically on every bill we played in Charleston, and a lot of out-of-town gigs as well."
Bair remembers when the Bully Pulpit guys approached him about joining the band as John's permanent replacement.
"They were in quite a pickle," he says. "It was about to be CD release time, and they didn't have a drummer. I thought to myself, 'These guys are my friends. I like where they're going, so why the hell not?'"
Stickel says the he and his bandmates are impressed with how well Bair learned the songs and settled into the drum chair. "We just dropped this on David's head, so we're still kind of in the getting-to-know-you phase, but it's going really well."
Armed with a new drummer (and a new van), Bully Pulpit plans to hit the road in September. Their high-energy, slightly disgruntled rock could easily inspire audiences and colleagues along the way.
"There are good things on the horizon for Bully Pulpit," Bair says. "And we hope to share it with a lot of people. It's rock 'n' roll and an undying love for music in general."
Bully Pulpit also performs at 9 p.m. on Tues. July 31 at the Tattooed Moose. Admission is free.