At a recent gig at New York's Bowery Ballroom, four of the five members of British punk outfit Art Brut took the stage and launched into the opening riff of Metallica's "Enter Sandman." A few moments later, their frontman, Eddie Argos, emerged from the stage's wings. He raised one arm, prompted his mates -- "Are you ready, Art Brut?" -- and launched into "Formed a Band," their mission statement about, well, forming a band.
"Look at us/We formed a band," Argos sings on the high-octane rocker. "I want to be the boy, the man/Who writes the song/That makes Israel and Palestine/Get along."
It makes sense that, at first, Art Brut come across as another joke-rock group who've overdosed on irony -- like Spinal Tap or Ween -- even down to the band members' aliases. (They won't reveal their real names.) Then there are the lyrics, as on the Beach Boys-like surf-punk number, "Moving to L.A.": "I'm drinking Hennessy/ With Morrissey/ On a beach/ Out of reach." But don't be quick to judge. Argos sums it up best: "We've got a sense of humor but we're not jokes."
With his comedic sensibilities and preppy buttoned-downs, Argos has got none of that big-shot-rocker egoism. He sports a Seventies porn-star moustache and bushy eyebrows that nearly form a unibrow, and he stammers and stutters when he talks. (He's been diagnosed with dyspraxia, a learning disability that affects speech and coordination. "That's probably why I'm not so good at singing," he laughs.) And sometimes during a gig, Argos will wander into the crowd mid-song. But he's fronting one of the most exciting punk bands to emerge in recent years -- and he worked hard to get here.
In 2003, Argos was dead-set against going to college. "I intentionally failed my A Levels," he says. When the band he was in at the time, an improvisational goth-rock outfit named Art Goblins, fell apart, Argos headed to London, determined to pursue his dream of becoming a pop star. "I was there for about a year asking people to form a band, and everyone said, 'No,'" he recalls. "I was at a party and getting desperate. I got so drunk and frustrated that I started lying and saying that I could sing like Aretha Franklin."
The trick worked, and guitarist Chris Chinchilla signed up. "He wanted to meet girls," explains Argos. "And I wanted to be on Top of the Pops." (For the record, Art Brut haven't appeared on the U.K. version of the TRL-esque Top Forty countdown program -- only the German one.) The group slowly took shape, punk-rock pseudonyms and all: Freddy Feedback (a girl) took up bass duties, then lead guitarist Ian Catskilkin joined, followed by drummer Mikey B.
Chinchilla, who later left the band, scored them their first gig at the London club Kentish Town Verge before they were even ready -- and Argos was stoked. "I thought that was it, that was the pinnacle," he admits. The crowd numbered less than one hundred, most of whom were family and friends. "I was very shy," Argos says of that his first performance. "People would give us a big round of applause, and I'd say things like, 'Don't be sarcastic!'"
With their first single, "Formed a Band" (of course), charting in the U.K. by early 2005, buzz about the group spread. Stateside, the song became an Internet phenomenon and a fave in year-end critics' polls, snagging Art Brut a U.S. deal just this past March. "We were playing on our last two tours in America, and they were all kind of busy," Argos says of the packed venues. "I was surprised by how well we managed to do without having a record out. Everyone knew the words."
Art Brut embark on their third mini-tour of the U.S. this Thursday. For the outing, they've written a handful of new tunes -- and that cute Metallica cover might be replaced by a Guns 'N' Roses or AC/DC send-up. But for Argos, his ambitions have already been realized.
"When I was young, I would daydream about being a pop star." He's pretty close -- and all without the help of American Idol.