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Mike Coatney is smiling, but it's a smile that betrays frustration. He's temporarily fulfilling the drum-kit duties for local rock quartet Haggis while the band's usual timekeeper, Scott McDonald, plans for his October wedding. It is only Coatney's second rehearsal with Haggis, and in two days he has to play an important KEDJ "Locals Only" gig with the band at Gibson's.
Coatney--who plays with the band Blueshift--is generally handling his assignment admirably, but when he has to kick off the band's raucous anthem "Life of the Party," he keeps struggling to find the right tempo. After a few false starts, he looks slightly sheepish about the whole thing, but the rest of the band remains perfectly calm and patient. Eventually, singer-guitarist Brian Talenti politely suggests that he'll kick off the song to make Coatney's job easier. The whole thing is handled quickly, smoothly and painlessly, which is what you'd expect from a band that makes much of its strong personal chemistry and determination to have fun after suffering with other groups over the years.
The band is ensconced in its hideaway, a heavily insulated room in the back of guitarist Tony Burns' Tempe house. Haggis not only rehearses here, but actually used this cramped space to record its powerhouse debut CD, What's Up Haircut?, on Talenti's eight-track cassette recorder.
The guys in Haggis are both music and comedy connoisseurs, and both obsessions play a considerable role in the band's sound. Talenti and one-named bassist Moon have both worked at Tower Records, and they have tons of war stories (such as the times they consciously emptied out the store at midnight by playing the Live Peace in Toronto version of Yoko Ono's "Don't Worry Kyoko"). The entire band is a reservoir of information about every strain of pop music, from late '80s SST bands to '70s prog-rock to obscure early hip-hop.
But it's the band's sense of humor that makes Talenti's driving, tuneful rock songs seem even more potent and appealing. Haggis' sense of the absurd pops up everywhere you turn. You can see it in Talenti's mike stand, which is really a totem pole of wigged female mannequin heads. You see it in the "Waylon Rules" tee-shirt Talenti wears to practice, or the way the group's CD cover apes the design of A Hard Day's Night, or in a band photo that imposes members' faces on the Bay City Rollers. You hear it in the brief instrumental version of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" that Haggis uses to open its shows.
The group's love of Mike Myers' cult film So I Married an Axe Murderer has fueled a frightening appreciation of all things Scottish. In fact, the band's not-yet-recorded second CD will be titled Piper Down, which will lend a bagpipe-and-kilt twist to the old Van Halen album title Diver Down.
In a way, Haggis is reminiscent of Urge Overkill at its peak. Like that campy Chicago band, it takes a timeworn, even cliched rock sensibility and invests it with enough cartoonish wit, energy and melodicism to make it work.
The miracle is how fast the whole enterprise has come together. The band formed less than a year ago, but in a sense it's actually been a decade in the making. Talenti and Moon first met in the late '80s when Talenti worked at Tower Video and Moon used to come in regularly and rent tapes. Though Talenti's coif is now fairly short--he looks a bit like a darker-haired Glenn Tilbrook--he says at the time they were both "hair farmers," which gave them reason enough to bond.
Along with McDonald, they formed the proto-grunge band 100 Iced Animals. After five years of diminishing returns, Talenti moved to Austin three years ago. He soon found that Austin, while a haven for roots music, doesn't cater so readily to the sound of screaming Marshall stacks. So a year ago he returned to the Valley armed with a clutch of new songs and a new commitment to get a band together. When Talenti decided to return to Phoenix, Moon was the first person he called.
Moon's soon-to-be-immortal response: "Are we gonna start some shit up?"
The band had its first practice in November and played its debut gig on New Year's Eve at Livinghead Studio. Within a few months it had released a CD, and developed a growing, intense fan base. Talenti says Haggis' identity formed out of what he learned from the 100 Iced Animals experience. That band became trapped in its initial grunge image even after its music started moving in a more pop-friendly direction.
"What I like now is we've got shorter pop songs," Talenti says. "We're not even trying to stick to a formula or anything, it's just what comes natural. It's easier to keep someone's attention for two-and-a-half minutes than it is for seven minutes. So we like to get up there, pump out 30 minutes of good pop music and get out of there. No one's there to see ELP."
When it came time to record, Talenti's command of his recording equipment allowed the band to achieve a sonic density that many expensive studio recordings can't match. It's all there on What's Up Haircut?: Burns' squealing solos, the hard-as-nails assault of Moon and McDonald, and Talenti's confident vocals. As one of the band's lyrics puts it, this feels like the sound of the "suburban middle class on magic mushrooms."