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The Operators

Or, the brains behind the Brain Surgeons.

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In these halcyon days of garage rock throwbacks and 1980s retreads, a bona fide hard-rock band seems like a real anomaly. Shaggy hair cuts and tight black Levis have given way to perfectly coiffed heads and matching suits, while epic sci-fi lyrics are passed over for forgettable ditties about love and boredom. Meanwhile, the music itself sounds choreographed and more than a little self-conscious - hardly the inspired mayhem of '70s rock songs like, say, Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper."

Even the cowbell, once a staple of rock drummers everywhere, has been relegated to comedy status: Mention the instrument to most folks, and they'll bring up Will Ferrell's Saturday Night Live coup de grace, a parody of BOC's "Reaper" sessions on VH-1's Behind the Music. "More cowbell," Christopher Walken insists to Ferrell, who portrays the band's drummer, Albert Bouchard. "I gotta have more cowbell!"

Today, Bouchard laughs good-naturedly about the skit. "The amazing thing is that Will Ferrell could actually hear the cowbell, because it's mixed so low," he marvels. "On the song, the cowbell symbolized the ticking of the time machine. When I originally played it in the studio, I was like, Oh yeah, this track isn't so steady. Let's see if I can straighten it out a little bit. Its deeper meaning grew over time. Now it stands for mortality," he says.

"I've even been thinking about new cowbell designs. As a drummer, I've got an endorsement with Rhythm Tech, so I've put out a few feelers to see if they want to work with me on it," he says.

Clearly, Bouchard isn't one to rest on his hard-rock laurels - and he refuses to let his career fizzle out as the butt of Ferrell's joke. Instead of retiring his drumsticks, he's packing up his kit and heading out on the road with his latest group, the Brain Surgeons, for a monthlong U.S. tour.

He started the band with his wife, renowned music critic Deborah Frost, in the early 1990s, after quitting BOC. While a pair of guitarists and a saxophonist came and went, the Brain Surgeons are currently a trio, anchored by former Manowar/Dictators guitarist Ross "the Boss" Funicello.

"We decided to go out this summer and play our asses off," Bouchard says of the impending 21-city tour. "With Blue Oyster Cult, I did 70 dates a year, playing all the same songs. The Brain Surgeons do about 40 gigs a year, so it doesn't feel like [we're on] autopilot. We're doing between six and 10 new songs every show, plus material from all eight Brain Surgeons albums. We also do a few BOC songs, the ones you expect us to play, with one or two oddballs in there."

Admittedly, Bouchard's biggest adjustment comes from sharing the stage with his wife. "When I was in BOC, I always thought my problems could be solved if I could have her on the road with me," he says. "I saw Ozzy and Sharon [Osbourne] and thought, That's fucking brilliant. But the reality of it is hard. Sometimes we get on each other's case. I'll say, 'How could you forget that chord change? We've played it 1,000 times!' She'll reply, 'Well, how could you forget so-and-so's name?'"

"She's great with names and numbers," he acknowledges, "but sometimes she spaces out on the guitar thing."

"Albert can be a very demanding taskmaster," Frost divulges. "If I play a wrong note, he's merciless. And Ross is another unbelievable musician with very high standards. On our last European tour, I got sick, and it was all I could do to stand up, let alone play."

Yet Frost - who drummed with New York's all-girl rock band Flaming Youth before embarking on her career as a journalist, logging hours of interview time with Motley Crue and Motorhead for magazines such as Creem, Spin, and Rolling Stone - manages to hold her own with the men.

"I kinda detoured into being a rock writer," she says. "I took so much abuse. There was such incredible sexism back then, and there was no such thing as politically incorrect. A lot of people would be particularly nasty. I'd sit in the Village Voice office and hear my editor slam the phone down on people."

Frost toiled as a journalist for decades before going on an "endless sabbatical" in the mid-1990s. "I was burnt out, but the phone was ringing all the time, and it was so hard to say no to an exclusive story," she says, declaring that finally, "there just wasn't that much stuff that interested me enough to write about it."

Now she channels her full-time energy into the Brain Surgeons. "I don't care where we're playing. I want to be perfect," she notes. "As a critic, I've seen people like Bruce Springsteen play to nobody. But those nights when it does click, I'm thinking, This is so much fun." n

The Brain Surgeons - with cowbell, of course - will be playing at the Hi-Tone Café with the Joint Chiefs on Sunday, August 7th. The show starts at 9 p.m. $8 cover. For more information, go to HiToneMemphis.com or CellSum.com/TBS.

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