Phony War

Les Payne Product starts a joke, which starts the whole world crying

"It started out as a joke, then it got real, then it got resolved, then it got real again."
That's the way Chris Pomerenke, drummer for the Les Payne Product, defined the mercurial "feud" that developed over the past couple of weeks between his band and Trunk Federation. From the start, this pseudo-conflict had a faintly Andy Kaufman sense of intrigue surrounding it.

Consider that when Kaufman died in 1984, even some of his closest friends were convinced he had pulled a hoax. When he wigged out on a live broadcast of Fridays in 1981, even cast members were unsure whether it was a joke.

Similarly, a couple of weeks ago when word began spreading of a rift between the members of Trunk Federation and Les Payne Product, it had all the hallmarks of a ruse, a good, old-fashioned publicity stunt. After all, these bands were the best of friends, right? Hadn't Les Payne opened every local Trunk Federation show in recent memory? Didn't each band repeatedly express unqualified admiration for each other's music?

Well, the facts are hazy enough to invite a Kenneth Starr investigation, but this much seems clear. Les Payne's participation in Trunk's upcoming tour fell through, about the same time Trunk drummer Chris Kennedy started going out with Pomerenke's ex-girlfriend. Though the members of Les Payne held no grudges about either development (Les Payne guitarist James Karnes attributed the tour snafu to "flaky booking"), they decided to cook up a phony media war between the two bands, just for a laugh.

A few days later, however, a New Times feature on Trunk Federation apparently stirred up some real resentment. When Trunk Federation members said that they were giving up shtick, Pomerenke and Karnes perceived it as a shot at their own highly theatrical performance style. Trunk singer Jim Andreas assured the Les Payne members that no offense was intended, but as Trunk Federation's March 27 CD-release show (for its sophomore Alias release, The Curse of Miss Kitty) at Jackson Street approached, no one knew what kind of sparks might fly.

The result was undoubtedly one of the most surreal nights in recent Arizona music history. Vic Masters opened with a Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood theme, turning The Osmonds' "One Bad Apple" into a scary postal worker's diatribe. Les Payne joined Masters for a version of the Bee Gees' altogether fitting "I Started a Joke," with Masters repeatedly screaming "baskets full of apples" over the coda, in a transparent shot at Trunk Federation's song "Apples." Les Payne ripped through a strong set of originals, but when it began a sweet cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound," a "Trunk Federation roadie" forced the band members off the stage, telling them that their set had run too long. Pomerenke stomped offstage, mock-dramatically whining, "Trunk Federation are a bunch of dirty rats." The crowd booed, in on the joke, but not completely sure what the joke was.

Trunk hit the stage a few minutes later, played a typically tight show, and brought up Masters to duet on "Edible." At the end of the song, Pomerenke and Karnes stormed the stage, decked out in red feather boas. Pomerenke pulled a toy gun on the Trunksters, screaming incoherently about someone "stealing his Cha-Cha." Masters got in the middle of this raging powderkeg, and took a theatrical bullet for everyone's sins. At this point, Andreas pledged his love to the members of Les Payne, who reciprocated, and their friendship was sealed with a flamboyant duet version of David Bowie's "Fashion," punctuated by a male dancer who slinked across the stage with "Jello Bomb" painted on his bare torso. The whole time, Masters lay in the middle of the stage, covered in a white sheet, his clothes flecked with tomato sauce, passing for blood.

The bands left the stage awash in good vibrations, and after a few minutes, Masters rose again in fulfillment of the scriptures, his head bedecked in a halo, and his vocal cords primed to tackle "What's New Pussycat?," which ended the musical proceedings in appropriately bizarre fashion.

Outside the bar, even the hoax perpetrators seemed vaguely bemused by the dementia they had stirred up. Perhaps Pomerenke had put the whole ball of confusion into proper perspective a few days before the show.

"We're all about betrayal," he said. "We think it's really cute and great and fun. We're devout deceptionists. This tour that we were gonna go on with Trunk was gonna be a perfect opportunity for us to sabotage their career, but they kinda got the jump on us."

Royale Flush: If you haven't caught local jazz hipsters Phonoroyale recently, you might be stunned at the changes. A couple of months ago, the band lost a lead guitarist (Ben Edmonds) and bassist (Kevin Pate) and replaced them with the highly talented pianist Ben Scribner. Now, the band has sacked singer Mary Katherine Spencer and decided to carry on as a three-piece, with guitarist/songwriter Jack Randall assuming the vocal chores. Randall says the rest of the band members had become so frustrated with what he calls Spencer's "unprofessional behavior" that they refused to step onstage until she was canned. He adds that Spencer was more preoccupied with her wardrobe than the band's music.

At a recent Tuesday-night gig at Balboa Cafe, the band swung with authority, and Scribner showed himself to be a boogie wonder, basically assuming lead-instrument chores. Randall and Scribner are passable singers, but their grittiness is such a marked departure from the Betty Boop inflections and high-spirited campiness of Spencer that it might take some old fans a bit of getting used to. Spencer could not be reached for comment.

SXSW Hangover: All apologies to D-Liar, Sledville, and Clan/Destine for my glaring omission of their names in my SXSW preview piece two weeks ago. The rootsy D-Liar, a Tempe outgrowth of the band Flathead, played a Friday-night SXSW showcase at Iron Cactus. Sledville earned a slot on the sparse Sunday schedule, while Clan/Destine participated in the Native American showcase at State Theatre, a show headlined by veteran singer-songwriter Keith Secola.

Who's in town: The biggest show of the week, at least in terms of scale, has to be the arrival of the Ska Against Racism Tour. The brain child of former Skankin' Pickle singer Mike Park, this tour brings together many of the best-known Third Wave ska acts in support of organizations like Anti-Racist Action, Artists for a Hate Free America, and The Museum of Tolerance. The marathon show, which will be held at the ASU Practice Field on Saturday, April 4, includes Less Than Jake, The Toasters, Blue Meanies, Mustard Plug, Five Iron Frenzy and others, including the Valley's own Bombshelter DJs.

Also, Stinkweeds Record Exchange continues its tradition of bringing us the finest in indie-rock fare, with shows on three consecutive nights, from April 6-8: Blonde Redhead, Trans Am, and Neutral Milk Hotel.

--Gilbert Garcia

Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: ggarcia@newtimes.com

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