The Talent Shows

Straight from the garage, the Figgs wear many influences on their sleeves

It may not have been an evil omen, or even anything so innocuous as a harmonic convergence. But the Figgs, without planning to, predicted their tour trouble in the very first verse of their new record.

The New York-based Figgs open Sucking in> Stereo (Hearbox), their latest guitar-driven garage-pop outing, with "Opening Night," greeting the listener by roaring, "We almost missed our flight! We almost missed our flight!" (Well, not exactly; the Figgs ride the bus, but it scanned better than "We almost missed our bus.") And then the band kicked off its current tour in the first week of March, with two shows in Boston and D.C.; you might have seen the footage of Massachusetts and the greater Northeast digging itself out from under 20 inches of snow that week. A day before the scheduled performance, nobody knew whether the opening show was going to come off at all.

If that particular coincidence comes tinged with a bit of self-deprecating irony, it's probably intentional; "Opening Night" is kind of like the Replacements' "Talent Show" turned inside out. Where the Mats poked ugly fun at (what was by that time) their arena-size stardom by casting themselves in the roles of pilled-up nervous amateurs, the somewhat less widely known Figgs, who don't have anything to lose, come on like arrogant cock-rockers with an anthemic "welcome to the tour" piece. But the hello-Boston histrionics are the joke in their entirety, paying off in the priceless squeal, "we're suckin' on opening night!"

The Figgs: From left, Pete Hayes, Pete Donnelley and Mike Gent.
The Figgs: From left, Pete Hayes, Pete Donnelley and Mike Gent.

But this time, the Figgs almost didn't get the chance to suck at all. "There were no buses running out of Boston," reports guitarist Mike Gent. "I finally got to take a train, but I didn't get in [to D.C.] until much later than I was supposed to." Even though the show encountered a few bumps, everyone made it on stage on time, and the crowd at D.C.'s Metro was solid.

"D.C. is always the first stop anyway, so that's the one where we're still working out the kinks. There was actually a good number of people there last night, but there was a band coming on after us, so we only played for about 40 minutes. The crowd liked it, but as soon as we were done, the sound guy ran us off, so we couldn't keep playing, even though everybody seemed to want us to. And then this other band came on after us and everybody went home."

So maybe they didn't suck? Anyway, the hell with it; the show came off in the end, which, thankfully, seems to be par for the course. Take the example of their tour supporting Graham Parker, a tour Capitol Records didn't want the Figgs to take, a tour later documented on Graham Parker's two-disc set The Last Rock 'n' Roll Tour on Razor & Tie, a tour on which the young, loud Figgs did their dead best to deliver like the Rumour, Parker's most accomplished band.

"I'd met [Parker] in Atlanta in 1996," says Gent, who'd been a fan since he was a kid. "He was doing a matinee show and I went up to talk to him. He'd heard of us because we'd both done some recording at the same studio. And right after that we did a song for the Parker tribute album, and four months later he called and asked us whether we'd want to tour with him."

The Figgs had released a full-length on Capitol, 1996's Banda Macho, after a slew of singles and cassette-only releases and a highly acclaimed album called Lo-Fi at Society High in 1994, all on a hodgepodge of labels. The band was doing yeoman's work, as subsequent releases would demonstrate; NY Press called 1998's Couldn't Get High one of the year's top albums, while the Onion and the Washington Post both gave props to the band's careerlong work and bemoaned its unfathomable lack of popular accolades. But in 1996, trouble was a-brewing at Capitol, and, as Gent remembers it, the label's response to the Parker opportunity constituted a wake-up call.

Though the eventual split seems to have been genuinely free from rancor -- Capitol supported the band for a small time, even after their parting of ways -- it appears obvious that the venerable major label wasn't the most appropriate place for a band like the Figgs. "Our Capitol record had been out for a couple of months, and they wanted us to go on tour opening for Nada Surf. And we told them no, we wanted to go out with Graham Parker. And they said either 'Isn't he dead?' or they were thinking Gram Parsons, or something, right? And it kind of showed us how together they were about where we were coming from. Capitol never knew what to do with us anyway, and they really didn't want us to do the tour. But there was no way I was going to pass that opportunity up. And then we did another [tour] with him in '97, which was when the album came out."

The Last Rock 'n' Roll Tour received mixed reviews, but the Figgs themselves caught a lot of favorable attention for their whisper-close approximation of the Rumour's energetic performances, which brings us to the single most prevalent element of Figgs-related press: that this band has an uncanny knack for sounding like damn near anybody.

Observing that "Opening Night" is reminiscent of "Talent Show," for example, doesn't quite do the similarity justice. From Gent's guitar to bassist Pete Donnelly's handclaps, and Pete Hayes' two-four drum beat that sounds like he's about to come crashing through the skins, the song doesn't just deliver a similar metaphorical conceit; it's almost like hearing what "Talent Show" would have sounded like if Paul Westerberg had gotten the idea a few years earlier, maybe around the time of Hootenanny. Ditto for the song "Dance Lesson"; if this ain't a rework of Elvis Costello's "Mystery Dance" . . . well, why go on? It is a rework, down to the faux-Elvis (the other Elvis) echo-saturated vocal delivery and the pregnant pauses where the entire band cuts out, then leaps back in for the chorus.

Now, you might rightly suggest that praising a band for what sounds only like a talent for mimicry constitutes fishy praise at best; but let it be stated -- firmly -- that the Figgs aren't rip-off artists in any formulation of the phrase. Hearing Sucking in> Stereo isn't at all like listening to febrile rewrite after facile deconstruction of other, more famous performers' songs. What it's more like is playing connect-the-dots with the band's record collection.

"I kind of like that quality about some records, where I can listen to it and think, 'Oh, yeah, I know exactly what this guy owns.' I don't mind us getting compared to Elvis Costello, for example. There are a lot worse people to get compared to. It's funny, this guy, a fan of ours, sent this huge e-mail to us after the new album came out. It was a song-by-song critique where he pointed out all those references, every single one that he heard. I couldn't believe it. He pointed out that the structure of 'The Wrong Chord' was 'Born in the U.S.A.' I listened to it again and I thought, 'Holy shit, he's right. How did I miss that?' I didn't catch any of that at first.

"Presswise, we always get compared to a lot of the same bands," continues Gent, and that's dead accurate. Rare is the Figgs interview or album review that doesn't name-check the Mats, the Jam, the Kinks and the Clash, often all in the same sentence (like this one, mea culpa). "We get compared to a lot of British bands, which is great; I love British rock," Gent says. "But we all love American bands, too. We've all got wide-open record collections. And like everybody, I'll go through phases where I'll listen to one person or group almost exclusively. Neil Young is the man right now.

"But I've never really felt that any of our records had gone somewhere cohesively from start to finish. So when we went in to record Sucking" -- a process that took all of two weeks -- "we were definitely thinking about the sequencing a little more, and what we should and shouldn't include. Whenever we start a record, I have a big vision about what it should sound like, and it never sounds that way. But I think this album is definitely a step forward in that direction. It takes a couple of years for me to really start to get distance on whether or not our albums work or not, though."

The Figgs are at the start of a 20-city tour that will close out at the Knitting Factory in New York in April. But along the way, Gent reports, they're going to take at least one more lesson from another musician's example.

In a move that recalls Neil Young's construction of Time Fades Away, an album of new material recorded live on the Harvest tour, the Figgs are going to commit some new songs to tape during this jaunt. "I think we're gonna try to record maybe 10 songs from different shows that aren't on any of the records. Ones that got left behind, with a couple of new ones. Maybe we can put it out as a limited release. Sell it through the Web site."

Gent is quiet for a moment. Then, as if it somehow sums up the Figgs' track record: "We've always been into putting out obscure records."

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