Route Rockin' Ghoulies

The road goads on forever with the Groovie Ghoulies' latest CD, Travels With My Amp

Back when Ricky Nelson sang about being a lonesome "Teenage Idol" playing one-night stands, road songs were still a novelty, something chain-smoking Brill Building songwriters cooked up in between gulps of coffee. Once rock stars began writing from their own personal experiences, hundreds of songs came down the pike lamenting the toll entertainers pay and pay to come to our hometowns and bring us some cheer. Boo friggin' hoo!

Bitching about the road never got haughtier than on the Kinks' Everybody's in Showbiz album, where Ray Davies complained about the beer-stained pillows, the lukewarm tea and not having time to change his underwear or take a poo. Really, wouldn't you rather hear him sing about "Waterloo Sunset" than "motorway loos"? Or the indigestible road food clogging them up?

On the other hand, Willie Nelson can't wait to get on the road again, and why would a man in braids who owes the IRS back taxes lie? Look inside the Groovie Ghoulies' van and you'll see Willie's smiling visage tacked up on a sideboard. That's because this band loves the road, having clocked in seven U.S. tours, two Canadian tours (yes, Canadian tours count) and three European tours since 1997! If anyone should be complaining about lack of sufficient poo time, it's this motor-vating bunch.

Road Warriors: The Groovie Ghoulies, from left, Roach, Kepi, B-Face, Amy.
Allyson Seconds
Road Warriors: The Groovie Ghoulies, from left, Roach, Kepi, B-Face, Amy.

But it's Album Number Six for this Sacramento foursome and the CD artwork to Travels With My Amp opens up to reveal a "fun-filled" cartoon map plastered with "points of interest" and holiday snaps like Groovie Ghoulie singer and founder Jeffrey "Kepi" Alexander posing by a 50-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant, early clues that there'll be no songs about lonesome hotel rooms and identical-looking towns. Songs about blue-skinned girls and Criswell, maybe . . . but not a single anti-road song outta 14!

If I might toot the GG van horn for a moment, Travels With My Amp is an album about and for the road, and should be sold at every highway minimart alongside wet naps and Tic Tacs. Nearly every road-related problem that can confound a traveling band is tackled handily on this here album, except van trouble, which is what we suspect has eighty-sixed our planned interview with the band.

Either that or they're busy posing next to the world's largest ball of belly lint in Mound, Minnesota, for the cover of the next album. Ah, well, maybe they'll make it here before the final run-through. For quicker comprehension of these rabid tourists, here's a track-by-track analysis of this road-tested CD:

"Boothill Express"

Don't believe the denials from soundmen that there is no "suck" button on their mixing boards employed to keep out-of-town bands in their place. I've seen that suck button hit numerous times. It's red, it's round and it's usually hidden underneath a half-eaten tuna salad sandwich. That's why the Ghoulies kick this set off with a sound-check-masquerading-as-a-riff-based-instrumental. It allows everybody in the band enough time to yell and kvetch at said sound man until guitar, bass and drums can be discerned -- and it's in the key of E for easy tuning. But if you're thinking "Boothill Express" is the name of some kick-ass takeout restaurant in Missouri, think again. It's actually the name of a funeral coach built in 1850. Audio school graduates, you don't wanna mess with this macabre crew!

"Bye Bye Brain"

This is a breakup song and a sad one since it involves Kepi's ex-girlfriend sticking pins in an unauthorized Kepi voodoo doll, which the band will make absolutely no money on. Instead, let's use this track as an excuse to talk about Kepi's singing style, since his are the only vocal cords that appear on the entire album. No harmonies, no double-tracking, just Kepi singing bop after blitzkrieging bop. How does he do it night after night without incurring irreparable throat damage? By singing only seven notes, all but the last two out of his left nostril! Unbelievable, yet true!

One of the best-kept secrets in indie rock is the astonishing eight-octave range Kepi possesses in private, but refuses to exploit in concert. And who can blame him? Look in the back of Flipside or Maximum Rock & Roll and see how many kids are trading rare Caruso tapes. Not a one! So why subject your audience and yourself to the rigorous demands of Rigoletto when you can sing "Bye Bye Brain" and 20 other brisk selections in the low key of G and still be loved the world over? Back to monotone, I say! Some may think that's a slam on Kepi, but many of the punk greats, from Joey Ramone to Lux Interior to Sonny Bono, all made incredible postnasal rock. If anything, Kepi frequently manages to sound like Joey Ramone passing through Lux Interior's left nostril.

"Daughter of Frankenstein"

More vocal-saving secrets! Kepi never screams his head off like the Muffs' Kim Shattuck or veteran wailer Roger Daltrey, who marches straight to bed after the last encore in order to be able to scream the following night. Instead, Kepi inserts an all-encompassing "awwlright" to bridge the gap to the next instrumental passage. This is an "awwlright" which never sounds like it has an exclamation point at the end of it, no matter what the lyric sheet says. This is an "awwlright" you use if someone offers you a stick of gum, and Kepi's using it to tell us about the daughter of Frankenstein. That's the big difference between the Ghoulies and their less poppy, more accessorized counterparts, the Misfits. If those guys were singing about a girl who's got it all sewn up in the looks department, there'd be revulsion, sure, and even more grappling with the "would I throw her out of bed" dilemma. The Ghoulies prefer to think of their "Daughter of Frankenstein" as a rarefied beauty: "She can charm and enchant, awwlright," yelps Kepi, and from the sounds of it, she sounds pretty well-adjusted for the child of a celebrity monster.

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