Munificent Seven

Tempe's other funk junkies have ambition, groove, and yeah, they've got drugs, too

"Shoeshine" Joe House, guitarist for Tempe funk-rockers Polliwog, looks like a cross between Medusa and a billy goat.

He's got enough shocking red hair in all the right places to make the comparison stick. He says exactly one word--"vagina"--during a 90-minute interview, and even that doesn't come easy. Slumped against the wall of the band's recording studio, he radiates exhaustion, like he's been visited by the same malevolent force that's done a number on Keith Richards' face. Not that Shoeshine isn't trying to stay awake: He's ingesting black coffee, exactly 250 ml worth. At least that's what it says on the Pyrex measuring cup he's using as a mug. Casual inspection reveals it may be the only clean thing left in the Polliwog Compound's kitchen.

Let's just say the band's a lot better at kicking out the jams than cleaning up the pans.

Fortunately for the sake of conversation, Polliwog is composed of more than Shoeshine. There are seven current core members, with guests providing support at the group's frequent Sail Inn gigs. In addition to bass/drums/guitar, the four-year-old "groove-oriented" band employs a percussionist and brass section, crowding its stages with equipment and up to a dozen bodies.

"When people walk into a bar and see all that shit set up," vocalist Tiffany Sullivan says, "it's a lot different from walking into Long Wong's and seeing two amplifiers and a drum. You walk in going, 'Wow, this is gonna be cool.'"

Maybe a little soft-core even. At a recent performance, Sullivan suffered a containment breach when her dress strap wouldn't cooperate, leaving her to continue with one hand strategically placed to prevent Tempe's Finest from shutting down the show because of nudity. Despite Sullivan's mishap, it was hard to ignore the rest of the band, especially Shoeshine flailing about the stage, incomprehensibly flipping off the audience or regaling them with the universal symbol for "Rock On" (forefinger and pinky raised in defiance, tongue extended a la Gene Simmons).

At one point, the former gymnast executed a complete standing flip. Even Sullivan's breasts couldn't keep up with the spectacle. Neither could trombonist Don Ekes or tenor saxophonist Heidi Albert, both of whom lend swing to the band with their choreographed moves.

When things cook, Polliwog grinds out some nasty funk. Sullivan comes on like Janis Joplin cut with Bootsy Collins. Shoeshine throws down monstrous riffs, lighting up the fretboard with Buckethead-esque pyrotechnics while percussionist Dann "E." Williams, drummer Mike Swenson and bassist R.J. Hoffmann kick the rhythm that sticks it all.

Watching Polliwog perform, you get the feeling the members could fill a basketball court with their (sometimes unfocused) energy. Most local venues, according to Hoffmann, are too small to contain the musicians safely. "You get your head cracked," Hoffmann says, "if you wander into the 'bone zone' in front of the trombone player. Everyone's caught the sting of that."

To understand Polliwog, it helps to know its name refers to a tadpole. The word's appropriate for a band whose music squirms here and there, undulating forcefully through freeform solos. Then too, a tadpole is an evolutionary in-between: not a fish, not a frog. Similarly, there are lots of influences locked into Polliwog's collective DNA that make it hard to peg the band simply as funk. Most broadly, the band plays dance music. That might mean trip-hop, acid jazz, even a little rap in addition to the Sly and the Family Stone vibe that burbles to the surface during extended jams. All these elements emerge in concert as well as on the band's gutsy 1996 debut More Soul Than a Rabbit Factory.

"I've always gotten off more on Sly or Tower of Power than any rock band, even Led Zeppelin," Hoffmann confesses. "Okay, let the lightning come down on me for saying that."

"We're mixing a lot of stuff together," Sullivan says, "but it's all shake-your-ass-drink-a-fucking-beer music. We're not pounding people with social images or politics, singing about war or people getting murdered. I think mixing heavy social messages with alcohol is a bad idea. We're serious about playing, though. We're not just some party band."

In the past, Polliwog's been accused of being too involved in the Sex and Drugs portion of the curriculum at the Sid Vicious School of Rock 'n' Roll. Critics charged the music came as an afterthought. Polliwog members don't deny a taste for controlled substances, but today they stress their work ethic more than their last mushroom trip. The band recently toured California and plays regularly in Arizona. It's mixing a new CD for release later this year. With producer/manager Eric Long, it's built a recording studio whose mission, says Long, is to cultivate the "hottest, most entertaining bands" and "make the musician powerful" by educating artists about music publishing.

"Musicians need to be educated in business, otherwise they'll just get bent over," Long asserts.

Nevertheless, Hoffmann is quick to disabuse anyone of the idea that Polliwog's all buttoned-down these days. "I want to do coke off Mariah Carey's stomach!" he shouts, laughing maniacally. "I want to party with all the Spice Girls at once! I haven't thrown a TV out a hotel room--yet. As soon as I can afford it, I'm gonna tear the shit up."

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