Payne Relief

How good fortune turned a skinny duo into the Valley's most inventive and engaging heavyweight act

What separates truly gifted entertainers from (insert yawn) merely competent ones? It's the ability to wrench liabilities into assets, turn catastrophes into calling cards. It's the difference between merely recognizing chance and running chance down a dark street, then slapping it upside the head until chance screams for mercy.

Chance alone couldn't stop a determined 7-year-old New Jersey girl from one day becoming a star of the highest magnitude. While horsing around with her brother one summer's day, a coat hanger somehow got lodged in the middle of her throat, nearly robbing our little sparrow of her greatest desire. Doctors warned she might never sing again. Had that been chance's final word, this little brat no doubt would have overcome even that deficiency to become one of the world's greatest comediennes, so desperate was her yearning to entertain in bulk. But, as history tells us, that coat hanger dislodged and the little girl went on to score more than a dozen chart-topping hits. Who was this little pipsqueak? None other than America's Sweetheart of Song, Whitney Houston.

Chance could've also been the undoing of two more Sweethearts of Song: Chris Pomerenke and James Karnes, the only two card-carrying members of a band with the very unwieldy name of Lush Budget Presents the Les Payne Product. No, Pomerenke and Karnes haven't ingested closet accessories, at least not yet anyway. They have, however, always taken the hard route in everything they do. Most bands approach shows as a means to make rent, but Les Payne approaches its shows as shows, utilizing elaborate costume designs and themes each time out. And even fewer bands would attempt to slog it out as a duo. Yet to listen to the jovial pair's debut EP on Aviator Records, a six-song affair with the same aforementioned unwieldy name, it seems inconceivable that this band could have emerged from the womb fully formed in any other fashion.

Take a track like the bouncy and infectious "Five Minutes Ago," which manages the seemingly impossible union of Frank Zappa, Sparks and Focus. Another standout cut, "At the Rodeo (Fireball)," conveys the whimsy and danger of risking one's life and limb for someone else's amusement. With this song, Pomerenke and Karnes chew up and discard more melodic ideas in four minutes and 36 seconds than most bands entertain in a full month of rehearsals. But the kids won't notice that the Paynes screaming, "Fireball! Fireball!" is reminiscent of the Three Tenors screaming, "Figaro! Figaro!" The kids just know it tastes good.

None of this innovation was foreseeable five years ago when Pomerenke hooked up with Karnes at a bar one night by happenstance. Pomerenke, who didn't even own cymbals at this point and whose only prior drumming experience was playing with some stoner guitarist who thought he was Ace Frehley, bluffed his way into an audition for Karnes' band. For his part, Karnes and high school friend Eric Eklund (now in the group Soley Duncan) were basically just making four-track demos and had never even heard drums on any of their stuff.

"They weren't thinking it was any big deal, but I was so nervous," says Pomerenke, beaming, as we sit down in the group's Indian School Road rehearsal bunker. "I only knew one straight funk beat, so I thought I'd just pull that one out, they'll think that's so rad."

The threesome added a bassist and formed a band whose name still strikes terror in the hearts of some Valley residents. It was with no small amount of Perry Mason badgering that Pomerenke and Karnes revealed for the first time anywhere their involvement in a myopic grunge alternative quartet named Crime Dog. And now you know (insert long Paul Harvey pause) the rest of the story.

Once the nervous laughter and winces are dispensed with, one can see Pomerenke and Karnes' trepidation at being linked with a group that is a polar opposite of their current groovy selves. Glancing at an old press kit, one sees a young band trying to promote itself as a fun buncha guys, but whose recorded output, with few fleeting moments of hope, is the complete antithesis of fun. The minute levity seems likely, a big needle jumps into the red until a built-in limiter pulls it back into grouchy and serious.

Karnes, who writes the bulk of Les Payne's material, recalls, "As a band, we couldn't commit to actually having a wit. There were always people in the band going, 'What are we, a joke band? We can't have these silly lyrics, it's time for a bass solo, do something.' Not being as creative as possible. It was just a half-assed thing."

Even the name, which in hindsight seems like an inspired Les Payne incarnation, gave the wrong impression. People thought of a big angry patrol canine, but in actuality Karnes was thinking more in line with Officer McGruff.

"We'd constantly get people thinking Crime Dog was a metal band," says Pomerenke with a shrug. "Like, 'Are you guys Crime Dog as in you're bad, or Crime Dog that you're gonna save the planet?'" Many west-side metalheads, looking to jump on any "alternative/grunge" bandwagon, bought Crime Dog's tape just so they could learn the tunes for their endless parade of bass auditions.

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