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.

By Pomerenke's estimation, every time he opened his mouth, a bass player would quit. "I didn't play drums all that well, and the bass players we had were so in the pocket. So they were always getting mad at me," he confesses. Crime Dog went through five such thwackers, including one Andres Jacques Barbet, who held the unique distinction of being a former member of Up With People. And still he lasted only two weeks!

At this point, a mysterious punker Deadhead bassist named Chad, who hitched a bus from Oklahoma to Phoenix for no apparent reason, entered Pomerenke and Karnes' life like Mary Poppins. Pomerenke and Karnes credit Chad with changing their perceptions about everything. Even though Chad thought the band members were suburban dorks who listened to too much radio, he began playing with them anyway, taking up living quarters in the band's utility room for the next six months.

"Chad was always telling us how clueless we were," Karnes recounts, "and we'd say, 'What are you talking about? Look at our parents out front. They're buying us pitchers of beer. They love us!' At the time, we didn't even know what the word 'indie' meant--we still don't, actually."

In addition to turning on the guys to artsy independent bands like the Flaming Lips and Barkmarket, Chad was Mr. Showmanship. "He'd wear a dress onstage, smash his bass, stage dive, it was almost Spinal Tap-ish the way the guy gave 200 percent at every performance. He'd literally bleed at every show," remarks Pomerenke with a mixture of disgust and pride. While Pomerenke and Karnes clicked with this new guy, guitarist Eric butted heads frequently with Chad. Eric quit to play funkier material elsewhere, and although the band and Eric remain friends, the split was hard on Karnes, who felt the burden of coming up with material for this new band, dubbed Lush Budget. The name had a lot to do with getting hammered with Chad and watching some Shirley MacLaine movie.

"It came on and I thought it said, 'Lush Budget Presents the Flaming Lips.' Chad really loved the Flaming Lips," Karnes says, "and we figured if that's where they got their name, we should one-up 'em and call ourselves Lush Budget. I wanted it to be Lush Budget Presents the Les Payne Trio. But the music at the time didn't have enough wit to bear that label."

They did play one show as the Les Payne Trio, and Pomerenke had his arm broken, which gave the trio a minimal sound. "It's kind of what we're back down to now," marvels Karnes, who says that show was the only Lush Budget show he didn't hate.

"I was just so angry and depressed," he continues. "Chad would always steal the show, he was such a maniac up there I felt like such a loser, having problems with my voice or guitar trying to get sounds. Nothing was working right. So it was such a huge relief when Chad left."

Chad, whose only reason to be in the band was to explode onstage and get all that attention, suddenly wanted a normal suburban life after all. After he moved back to Oklahoma, Pomerenke and Karnes spent a year practicing without a bass player. "We came up with an arrangement for 'We Are the Monster' without words, and a bunch of friends came over to listen to it," Karnes says. "The next day, our friend Jeff Buffano from Reuben's Accomplice called and said, 'I was just thinking about this, and I think you guys should be a two-piece.' I said, 'Okay,' and it just clicked in my head. That was all the motivation I needed."

It was around this time that EMO Camaro, a side project of Les Payne with Jeff and Chris Krojak of Reuben's Accomplice, was formed. "EMO Camaro is the largest influence on Lush Budget Presents because before that, me and Chris were just so hung up on what to do with this band--should we get a bass player, do we want a guitar player. Those two guys came in there, and they were always about having fun, sober energy. And we were just constantly thinking up scenarios for EMO Camaro shows after that."

To date there have only been three EMO Camaro shows. There was a White Trash night at the Mason Jar, where EMO Camaro brought up a rusty old water heater and an assortment of debris onstage. It's also employed a basketball-game theme at Nita's Hideaway, complete with the national anthem at the start of the show, coaches calling time out from the back of the stage and a sickening number of high fives.

"I just felt so free," says Karnes of the anything-goes attitude which has carried him and Pomerenke ever since. "We never say this is too stupid, nobody's gonna get this. If we're amused by it, we're just going to do it and it's going to be fun when we do it, even if there's cricket sounds in the audience. It'll be funnier if they don't get it because it'll show how stupid they are," he joshes.

Sometimes a videotape of a packed Les Payne or EMO Camaro show will reveal heckling, yet people stay for the entire show agitated, as if the uninhibited duo's mirth somehow threatens someone else's grim security. Once, when a musician friend told Pomerenke the chitter chatter between songs was taking away from the music, he turned belligerent toward the audience for a whole show, a display that everyone but he thought was amusing.

"Then we decided that neither of us was going to talk to the audience during the next show. We had bodyguards, and between each show we had taped Yolanda Bejarano doing all our witty banter on a tape recorder, and we had our friend Sy come up and press 'play,'" Pomerenke says.

"The show after that, we decided to be superhumble: 'We very humbly thank you. We're glad you're all here, we love you,' and we had flowers everywhere onstage. We're pretty reactionary. Each show will be a reaction to the last one."

Industry reaction to the band has mostly been favorable, except for an unnamed A&R man from Epic Records. "He talked to us for an hour, and he just hated us," Pomerenke says. "He said, 'Everybody in Phoenix is talking about you guys, and I don't see why. I don't get it. I listen to your tape and it's mediocre. I think the songs aren't that great, I think the vocals aren't that great, the recording and performances aren't that great. There's nothing here. And the wit is too overboard.'"

His advice to the duo?
"Don't make a good recording. You guys are totally an indie band--stay independent, stay lo-fi--but you'll never get arrested. Independent music's over, but stay there because that's what you are."

Buoyed by this vote of confidence, the band worked out its quandary of whether to stay totally minimalistic with its recordings or go full bore. It's chosen the latter, and this CD is proof that Les Payne could embellish and still capture the same energy and excitement of its live show. In April, Les Payne will take that show on the road for a western jaunt with friends in Trunk Federation. A split seven-inch between both bands has been momentarily postponed, according to Pomerenke, "because Trunk got nervous. They're such a turd band, they were afraid our track would steal their thunder."

Like a sick indie version of Wham!, Pomerenke and Karnes continue to Choose Life over loathing. Go to a Les Payne show, and you can actually hear people smiling with amusement, a rarity anywhere. That's entertainment, man.

"We could've been workers in a Third World country, we could've been born in another place where you don't have the opportunity to jump in a van, drive around and play, jump onstage and express your little feelings about piddly nothing," Pomerenke says. "When I see these guys onstage so bummed out, staring at their shoes or whatever, I feel like saying, 'What are you so bummed out about? That you were a latchkey kid?' You could've been alive in the Depression. You were born in a great place at a great time.

"Some of our newer stuff we got on piano is so joyous it's almost sappy. We're thinking of calling it sap-core!

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