By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
By Derek Askey
Being a Big Blue Couch fan has been both a source of pride and frustration for a great many local music aficionados. Giving the group props on its musical merits is easy enough. There are few bands anywhere -- much less the Valley -- with the attitude and chops to leap confidently from the raw power of the Stooges to the druggy droopiness of early Pink Floyd at the drop of a plectrum. Combining a space cadet guitar hero with a Jaggeresque front man, and backed by a killer rhythm section, the quartet managed to house punk-rock toughness and prog-rock pretensions all under one roof.
Unfortunately, under that same roof came a fair share of Big Blue baggage. Tons of it, actually, schlepped all the way from Lansing, Michigan, where guitarist Chris Doyle, bassist Jon Demrick and drummer Jayson Gilbert have been operating some incarnation of Big Blue Couch for the past nine years. In that time, each has quit in high drama more than once, dated another member's sister, ex-girlfriend and, worst of all, dared to tell one another how to play their instruments. Couple that with a tendency to play gigs haphazardly, a general lack of direction and some intense personal conflicts, and you have Big Blue Couch, a talented but rudderless four-headed monster going around in circles.
Recently, at least one head ceased to be a factor. Last December, lead singer Michael Brandon -- an Arizona native who joined the band in 1998 -- called Demrick and Doyle from Tent City and informed their answering machines that he'd be sporting Arpaio stripes for six months, just as the band was preparing to release its debut CD. For the band, Brandon's incarceration -- the result of DUI-related charges -- was the proverbial final straw. For everyone else, that straw might have been the group's disastrous (and, by now, legendary) September 2000 gig at Long Wong's where, in the midst of an onstage tussle, Demrick and Gilbert managed to shove each other through the club's plate glass window a few songs into the set.
What's more rock 'n' roll than that, you say? No argument there, but on the other hand, staging an episode of Behind the Music before your tunes ever get heard is a little more than self-defeating. That the group seemed to be losing all the momentum it had built up from its triumphant New Times Music Showcase gig a mere four months earlier points to how chaotic the band's dynamic had become.
"Long Wong's was the breaking point," says Doyle, not strictly referring to the window. "Everybody lost their minds that night. We'd started opening gigs with 'Waiting for the Man' because Brandon was always late, jumping onstage when we were a minute and a half into our first song. He'd begun distancing himself from the band, and I remember thinking at that gig, 'I'm gonna kick his ass in.'"
Doyle never got the chance, as Demrick and Gilbert (who live together in the house Big Blue Couch uses to rehearse) beat him to the punch. "The window thing culminated with Jay because I was just tired of his nit-picking at home and onstage," says Demrick. "Jay knows what buttons to push to get me riled up, and if he's frustrated he'll push them. I had anger problems I had to seek treatment for. I just lost my temper and I ran through his drum set. There was a lot of testosterone in that bar. It was football season at ASU, so when we started fighting, all the jock types started cheering. I stayed in bed for two days after that."
For passersby wondering "how much was that dogfight in the window," the band had to pony up 750 dollars that night to avoid charges being pressed by the club. Although it wouldn't be the group's final show with Brandon (an anticlimactic Hollywood Alley gig in December closed that book for good), the end was clearly looming.
For his part, Brandon -- released two weeks ago after serving a four-month sentence -- says his own actions were symptomatic of a bigger problem within the group. "Nobody was listening to each other or giving each other respect," he says. "I loved collaborating with those guys, but it was getting to the point where the egos were coming back. Instead of forgiving one another and moving on after a dispute, there was this constant snowball of emotions and tension. Maybe that contributed to the energy onstage, but it was also very stressful. Maybe that's why I showed up late. I hated being around that stress. I wanted to quit and form my own thing because they weren't interested in doing fliers or working on songs together. But I loved the music we were doing and I was hoping things would change."
As to his firing/departure from the group, Brandon adds, "It's better that they did it than me because I felt I couldn't do that to them. I don't have any deep-seated issues with any of them. I wish them all the best and hope they find what they're looking for."
"I don't think any of them wanted to break up, but that smell was in the air," says Matt Strangeways, former lead singer of Valley alt-metal outfit Windigo and one of Big Blue Couch's earliest local supporters. "I think they were frustrated, and not strictly with Brandon. They needed management, and not just anger management. They were a great band, but where was their direction?"
Strangeways was all too familiar with inter-band conflicts, having disassembled his own long-running outfit less than a year before. "After Windigo played the [Desert Sky Pavilion] show with Mötley Crüe, we took time off to look for a new guitarist," he says. "And it just seemed like the time to wrap it up. We wanted to tour on our record, but [Pavement, the band's record label] didn't want to put any money into that. Things were dead there. After not getting to where we'd hoped, I didn't want to burn it out past the point where people were sick of us. We hadn't been doing that much original writing as a band, not as much as I would have liked, so rather than flog a dead horse, we ended it."
Strangeways' break from the public spotlight lasted nearly two years. In the interim, he started up four separate projects, none of which made it past the early rehearsal stage. During that period, a gig hosting an open mike night at the Green Room was his only link to the local scene. It was there that he and the Couch first connected. "I did some acoustic stuff, singing with Christopher and with Brandon, and there were some jams where Jay was sitting in," recalls Strangeways, "so there was some dabbling going round."
Strangeways' earliest link to Big Blue Couch was Gilbert, who was silk-screening Windigo tee shirts in early '98. "One day he brought me a two-track recording of his band -- looped, tripped-out versions of some of the songs -- and I loved it. There were some vocals, mostly Christopher and Jay, lots of jamming, but you could get the gist of the material. Anything they did, Jay gave me a copy of. So I had been singing along to their tapes for years, whether it was in my head or in my car. I had a pretty good idea of all their stuff."
Originally, when it appeared Brandon's prison stay might only be a matter of a few weeks, the Couch approached Strangeways about filling in on some already booked live dates, performing songs from the still-unreleased CD. "I don't think anyone expected it to end up the way it did," says Strangeways of Brandon's departure from the group. "I was a fan of theirs, aside from being a friend. I didn't want to fuck up the Couch or try to push my agenda. I know that I like what Brandon did and that I like him as a person. So I didn't want to rock the boat. But the boat started rocking on its own."
After a few rehearsals, it was obvious that Strangeways was the man to lead the "new" Big Blue Couch. What the band would lose in an androgynous hip-shaking lead singer, it'd more than gain in a front man with road warrior experience, "look-me-in-the-eye, boy" confidence and a wicked sense of humor to match the Couch's own. Strangeways' noted flights of whimsy in Windigo included printing "opening for Foghat" on handbills for a weeknight gig at the Big Fish Pub, knowing full well that an army of mulleted Foghat fans would turn up. In local metal circles, where most front men are hyper-serious hair farmers, Strangeways is a rarity, a Diamond Dave in a sea of Gary Cherones.
Although Strangeways and the rest of the Couch would appear to come from wildly divergent musical backgrounds, the British sounds of the early '70s proved to be the band's common ground. Right off the bat, the band worked up a version of David Bowie's "Moonage Daydream," and one of the Couch's new compositions, "My Get Up and Go," is a T. Rex-ish boogie that would've been unthinkable in Windigo's militant trip-core. And with the new combo, Strangeways is actually singing, leaving behind the shaman wails that were his former band's signature.
"It's more of a mindset. I'm doing higher pitches and expanding the range. With these guys, I knew I would be singing better. It wasn't immediately perfect, but it wasn't unnatural, either. It was," adds Strangeways, "surprisingly comfortable."
"It's a departure for us as well," says Demrick, noting that Brandon tended to street talk his way through Doyle's lyrics, making it harder for Doyle or Gilbert to work in harmony parts. "Having never heard Windigo, I had no preconceptions, which freed Matt up, too," he adds. "His voice was powerful and loud enough to keep up with us because we are deafening at times. We didn't have to turn everything down."
In terms of chemistry, it seems that Strangeways' presence has brought a needed bit of stability to the band. Even Demrick and Gilbert are getting along, still cohabiting months after their very public falling-out.
Despite this peaceful new wrinkle, Doyle -- whose interstellar guitar playing has been the Couch's chief calling card -- maintains that "the band's mentality is more aggressive and confident. We're ripping the songs as tight and hard as we can play it. We're a lot angrier now than we were a couple of years ago."
One subject that can turn Doyle's usual goofiness sour is the band's still-unreleased CD 1969 -- named in honor of the year Big Blue Couch claims its members were cryogenically frozen.
Freezing a band's development onto a piece of plastic is a make-or-break proposition which many groups don't survive. Perhaps part of the reason the Couch has stuck it out is that the disc hasn't seen the light of day -- despite having been remixed twice and in the can for more than a year.
"The band on that CD," says Doyle, stubbing out his cigarette like a bad memory, "is the sound of four guys scared to death because the clock is running in the studio. We didn't have the luxury of fading this song out or putting that thing there. All we did was fill up the tapes as quickly as possible."
Still, it's quite a good record of the band, albeit the version from a year and a half ago. Almost as a matter of closure, the Couch has elected to press 250 copies to give away to fans and friends. And the group has not ruled out reusing the basic tracks somewhere down the line with Strangeways' vocals on top. However, adds Doyle, if he had his druthers, the band would be jamming a lot more to come up with fresh material.
But for now the Couch's focus is on getting the current catalogue rehearsed with its new singer. Marshaling the group's rampant eclecticism -- something that has allowed it to dip so successfully into a variety of styles -- has always proved to be a challenge. To aid in channeling all the group's creative energies, Strangeways posted up a helpful rehearsal aid.
"Welcome to 'The Wall o' Rock,'" he announces, pointing to the inside of the group's practice space. Each wall contains small strips of paper with song titles, posted under a larger sign designating which stage of development a particular song is at.
"Stage one," he explains, "is Hawkwind. Any song idea we can build on, a drum beat or a guitar riff, falls under Hawkwind. Stage two is Black Oak Arkansas. This denotes any song that has some semblance of order. Stage three is when songs are ready to be played live -- the Stooges!"
Old Couch chestnuts, particularly rockers like "Sweet Little Sister," "Volcano" and "Road Map," have rapidly fallen into Stage Three mode, as have newer songs including "You've Got to Be Sure," a vaguely Radiohead-esque number which proved to be quite a crowd-pleaser at the first of the band's two secret warm-up gigs (before its official return to duty on April 12 at the Bash on Ash).
"From the time Matt did the sound check, I knew it was going to be a good show," says Doyle of their anonymous stint at Chasers Lounge. "Before, I always had a trepidation about shows. Having played at the club's dreaded eight o'clock slot, we didn't even tell the soundman who we were until after the show." By set's end, plenty of patrons were asking "who are these guys?" in a virtual replay of the New Times showcase almost a year ago.
"We kept our attitude casual, and there weren't any major wrecks," says Strangeways. "I got food poisoning the night before, but aside from that near-death experience, it felt great."
For the Couch's second warm-up show this past weekend, the band played Tempe's Billy Gordon's under the moniker "Scent of a Demrick." And as bassist Demrick theorizes, there must be some greater power that has helped the group weather every conceivable storm over its tumultuous decadelong history to remain together.
"When I left Michigan, it was hard because I knew that Jay was the drummer I was supposed to play with and Chris was the guitarist I was supposed to play with," he says. "After Jay called to say he was coming out here, we knew Chris would be here soon, too. It's kind of like, 'If you build it, they will come.' Adding Matt seems like the ingredient that's been missing all along. Who knows what's vested in the power of the Couch?"