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Not too long ago, Tempe angst-rock quartet Brick Chair bought a van from an old guy in a Glendale trailer park. Big deal, you say. But wait a second, for you are about to find out how the grizzled gent became a metaphor for the Chair's from-the-heart approach to music.
Vocalist Fearn (as in "Cher" or "Sting," or even "Siouxsie," who she can sometimes sound like) is lounging in her narrow living room with CDs, copies of Anne Rice, Henry Miller, Camus and her three bandmates. She picks up the tale as the band entered the geezer's trailer: "He goes over to this little plywood cabinet, pulls out a gallon plastic jug of bourbon, pours it into a Dixie cup with one ice cube in it, and sits down at his little keyboard," she says. "He picked up this old, cool guitar and says, 'I'm gonna play some songs for you.' And he sat there and played the most perfect country love songs we ever heard until I felt like crying, it was so sincere."
Sincerity, minus Dixie cups filled with bourbon, is a big thing with Brick Chair. The band--Fearn, bassist Staci Twigg, drummer Jack Obregon and guitarist Guy Weigold--adheres strictly to the DIY school.
"We did everything ourselves," says Obregon, of BC's pummeling, emotional new CD, I Think We Can Be Friends. "We didn't hire a fancy artwork guy or anything like that."
In fact, Friends was recorded live, with no multitracking or multiple takes. "We just wanted to do this one like it was a really good practice," explains Weigold. "We'd had experiences in the studio doing 20 overdubs until the music finally lost all the stuff it should have had to make it good."
Between some well-recorded songs that grow more powerful with repeated listening, it's possible to hear Obregon completely miss a cymbal and fling a stick on the floor instead. Or catch Weigold snapping strings in the middle of a jam. But that's just fine with this bunch whose musical philosophy is right up there with the Velvet Underground, another band that never let technique stand in the way of riveting songs.
Not that Brick Chair is a VU clone, bashing away in a primal rage. Though Weigold admits to knowing virtually nothing about playing guitar when he and Fearn started the band in 1988, seven years of practicing four nights a week have turned the sloppy amateurs into veterans who know an arpeggio when they hear one.
"I definitely didn't know how to sing," says Fearn of the early days. "And Guy could barely even do a solo." Today, though, Weigold's capable of screaming through the occasional Hendrix or Pumpkins riff. The vocalist's range is also impressive, modulating between whispery little girl and grunge dominatrix until, at times, Brick Chair sounds like Pearl Jam with a female Eddie Vedder. But more frequently, Fearn "just belts it out" in a way that draws comparisons to Janis Joplin by way of Grace Slick.
The comparisons don't bother the singer. "I'd much rather have people say I remind them of Grace Slick than to have them say, 'You know, you remind me of Taylor Dayne.'" Finding a space to rehearse and work on those musical chops, though, has been an ordeal. "We were willing to spend $300 for a practice pad," says Fearn, "even in the worst parts of town. And we still couldn't get anybody to rent to us because we were a band and they had a problem with that."
The group shifted from space to space, taking advantage of whatever opportunities presented themselves, even when the situation was less than perfect. "We were practicing at 2 in the morning at Hollywood Alley [where Fearn works] during the weekdays," says Obregon. "And I had to get up at 5 for work." Now they've landed a permanent rehearsal space in Tempe.
Though all the Chairpeople claim to have been musically inclined since high school, Fearn's the one with punk credentials. She was 15 when she founded Creeping Senility, a band on the Phoenix circuit ten years ago. "We played quite a few reputable shows," she says, including gigs with the Vandals, GBH and Jodie Foster's Army. Things have changed in the Valley music scene since those days, though. In some ways for the worse, according to Twigg. "There's just a bunch of drinkin' and fuckin' here," she says, citing the presence of the notorious ASU. Obregon tends to agree, claiming that the local scene is structured not so much around bands, but around socializing in a context where music is often background noise.
Without mentioning any names, Obregon says, "It's only natural that a town renowned for being the college party town would grow a band that would be the happy party band. But I wouldn't want to dog 'em for doing it." He just doesn't care to listen.
By comparison, the quartet members want to do anything but churn out formula rock. One thing different about them, claims Weigold, is that their music "doesn't have a Southwestern flavor at all. Not one drop." But at times, the group's unwillingness to bend its sound to suit the locals has made life frustrating. Clubs book bands that sell liquor by appealing to the drinking crowd. And the drug of choice for Brick Chair fans isn't alcohol.
In fact, Fearn's favorite form of therapy is practically Janovian. The lady says she finds it hard to "imagine life without being able to scream 'FUCK YOU!' in front of a handful of people who're screaming, 'Go, girl, we understand you.' Man, I'd probably just kill myself because I don't think I could get any lower than wanting to break up the band and just be some loser cocktail waitress."
And until the Big Break finally happens, Weigold has at least one plan to generate a little income. Brick Chair's practice space is located conveniently close to Sun Devil Stadium, and should the city want to pave over the property for extra parking, that's fine with him. "While they're in the stadium," Weigold says, "we'll take the stereos out of all their cars. I'll just put on a suit and look like I know what I'm doing and charge people five bucks to park." Long live rock.
Brick Chair is scheduled to perform on Friday, June 30, at Boston's in Tempe. Showtime is 9 p.m.