Sophomore High Jinks

Trunk Federation returns from the road armed with a bold new album

Near the back of Pita Jungle, there's a modest wall of fame. Here you can find a photo montage of local celebs and favorite customers of the trendy Tempe eatery. Prominently displayed right now among the festive Polaroids is a publicity shot of The Pistoleros.

Trunk Federation used to be on that wall, or so the members say. While preparing to order dinner, they half-seriously discuss why their photo is no longer on display here. Some band members suggest that they're just not "hip" enough anymore. Finally, guitarist and all-around nice guy Jason Sanford finds a more positive--if sarcastic--answer: "Some rabid fans must have taken it with them."

Make no mistake, Trunk Federation is back in town, after six grueling months on the road, touring and recording. The members' excursions allowed them to share back-alley joints with a very bitter Pete Best in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and narrowly avoid getting their butts kicked by a couple of drunk cowboys in Kansas City, Missouri. They're glad to be back, too, but you sense that it must be a little strange for them to readjust to the snail's pace of home life, and confront that inevitable uncertainty over how the locals feel about you now that you're a certified national act.

They know their wildly exuberant, unabashedly theatrical style rubs a few morose alterna-kids the wrong way. In San Diego, a bartender saw them setting up and branded them a "shtick-rock" band. Basically, some narrow-minded types still can't reconcile the idea that you can be silly and sincere at the same time. But any doubts about this band's artistry could be swept away by its forthcoming sophomore album for Alias Records, The Curse of Miss Kitty, which hits record stores on March 10. As often happens with second albums, songwriting--which had previously been a matter of casually stockpiling material--became a somewhat pressurized process for the band.

"Mainly, we did the bulk of it in a month and a half right before we went into the studio," says singer Jim Andreas. Sanford chimes in: "The last one was kind of a conglomeration of two years; there wasn't a lot of continuity on the last record. This one's not really thematic, but it's a little more cohesive than the last one."

Andreas describes the new material as "a little darker," adding that the lyrics are "a lot more about traveling and touring and band-related things." Sure enough, the four songs I sampled last week are darker, and richer in their use of musical textures than anything on the band's powerful debut album, The Infamous Hamburger Transfer.

The new album includes an unsettling cover of the Boomtown Rats' classic ballad "I Don't Like Mondays." Building on the alienation inherent in this ode to a teenager's schoolground killing spree, the band members deconstruct the song and make it their own. What sounds like a heavily overdriven guitar plays a demented two-note pattern over and over, and Andreas' vocal sounds as haunted as the band's notorious touring van.

Among the tracks I've heard, "Apples" is particularly impressive, opening with an amphetamine-lounge organ, and kicking into one of those infectious, tortured-time-signature rockers the band can pull off like no one else.

Much as the group resists taking itself too seriously, it has an uncommon dedication to self-improvement. None of the members eats dairy on gig days, to preserve their voices. Even though The Curse of Miss Kitty won't be released for more than three months, they're already beginning to write material for a third album. Meanwhile, Andreas and Sanford are developing their skills on keyboards, while drummer Chris Kennedy is working on the trumpet. As part of their Flaming Lips-inspired search for a universe of cool sounds, they don't want to rest on their guitar-rock laurels.

"We want to do anything to differentiate things," says new bassist Bob Smith, who joined the band in May when Mark Fronstin pulled out shortly before a scheduled Canadian tour. "I think everyone really likes guitar rock, but they also want to do something that's different than that, just to break the monotony for everyone else. I mean, how many guitar-rock albums can you write?"

The band's Friday, November 28, show at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe will be its first in the Valley in more than two months, and will highlight new material, as well as some old tunes the band rarely plays. The group will also unveil a new mystery cover, sure to arouse the same car-crash fascination that its shout-along version of "I'm Too Sexy" has in the past. I won't reveal the name of the song, but here's a hint: It was one of the most annoying hits of this year, and it's not by the Verve Pipe.

A special attraction at the show will be a mutant hybrid ensemble called Emo Camaro, which will meld the Les Payne Product with two members of Reuben's Accomplice. Who says there are no supergroups in the '90s?

As Trunk Federation continues to grow artistically, the musicians seem increasingly willing to accept their outcast status on the local music scene as a long-term asset.

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