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By Brian Palmer
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"That's the irony. The best guitarist in the group is on drums," Ruggles says.
"Luckily," adds DiGiacomo, "he's also the best drummer."
Since forming their earliest lineup in 1998, . . . and guppies eat their young have produced roughly three times as much recorded music as your standard struggling local band, all self-released. Their current catalogue consists of one cassette, an EP, four album-length CDs, and a CD single. Their label, if that term can be applied to a loose collection of four-track machines, editing software and CD burners, is called Scapular Winging, and the releases have come at an average of two a year. Last year, however, saw the release of no fewer than three full-lengths (Burning Fucking Stupid, Anhedonia, and Where Happiness Lies).
This year promises equal abundance, beginning with the "Brighter Days"/"The Mottled Beauty of a Spiteful Seed" single in April, and continuing on the date of this publication with the band's first double-disc release of new material, titled Thom Fuckery. All this action without fanfare, and all of it astonishingly under the radar (several weeks ago, when I asked Cates whether there was a release party or any such event in the works, she looked at me like I'd sprouted a second head).
"We've got enough stuff on the shelf -- more than enough, really -- for another album's worth, even after Thom Fuckery," Ruggles says. "And someday we're gonna release a box set called Stems and Seeds," he continues, only half-joking, "full of the songs that we didn't put onto anything else."
"We're actually putting the double-disc out in order to catch up," offers Daum. "We've gotten to the point where we've recorded so much that we're getting behind schedule."
Behind schedule, the man says. Offhand, this writer can think of at least seven other bands who'd kill for the kind of productivity, not to mention quality, that Daum and his mates have achieved on their own terms.
The band draws its recorded material from weekly sessions -- "sporadic noise jams," as its press release puts it. The results are half homemade jam tapes, half surreal poetry, and utterly unique and enticing. There's not a single Valley group making the kind of loopy, hypnotic music this band is producing. But the jaded among us can't help but wonder if any band can release music this frequently and keep it consistently engaging.
Fair question. But look at it this way, they say with one voice: We're not rock stars. We don't want to be rock stars. None of us is remotely interested in whether there are any A&R men at the shows we play. We all already have jobs. (Most of the band members are in school and/or working full-time; Coccera, for example, works in software development, and Ruggles is a graduate student and teaches in ASU's history program.) We're all friends, and we were all friends before we started working together. If we sell 50 copies of anything, we're doing great. We don't make a lot of money off it, but the money's never run out, either.
Think about it (they continue) along these lines: It's like when you make mix tapes for your friends. We make mix tapes of our own music, and then we clean them up and put them together and make them available to our friends, and to people who come out to hear us, in case they want to take something home.
Considering how many Valley bands' stories are all about tragic schlepping after label recognition, this kind of talk is damn near insurrectionist. What's more -- irony abounds -- this is a band that absolutely deserves to be heard beyond its circle of acquaintances.
The band's artistic process is aggressively lo-fi. Every part of that process, from the four-track recording to the digital cleanup to the burning of the CDs to the cover art and booklet printing, is accomplished by the five members; the sole deviation from that model is this year's "Brighter Days" single, which was recorded under cleaner conditions by Mike Hissong at the Kenneth Room in Tempe. ("We don't have anything against fidelity," says Ruggles. "We just usually can't afford it.") They have no contract to fulfill, and they're not going to get kicked out of their apartments if they don't move 4,000 units of Thom Fuckery.
On that level, if no other, the guppies' music approaches the level of Pure Art -- an aesthetic creation that exists for no reason other than its own right to be -- and their freedom is absolute.
None of which signifies much, of course, if the music is pedestrian or masturbatory. Happily, it's not. Last year's Anhedonia, which compares favorably to slowcore classics such as Galaxie 500's Today, plays like the soundtrack to a half-recalled dream of childhood, dipped in reverb and gone sepia-tinted with time. It's a record that sounds a thousand years old. It's a record that sounds like it's read all your mail. It's a record to break your heart.
The upcoming Thom Fuckery plays much more experimentally, and tries a great many new things; Ruggles' vocals whip forward and backward in the mix, and the sheer amount of effects and surface noise on the album is more apparent. But in its swing from slow dirges like "There" to the ominous chimes of "Same Old Different" and the delightfully oddball "Flea" (named for DiGiacomo's wildly charismatic dog), it showcases a group of players who've grown remarkably confident and intuitive with one another, considering the brief time they've been together. All of which makes the guppies' music a consummate joy to discover; if you've never heard them before, in fact, Thom Fuckery might be the best release to start with, as it studiously highlights the band's improvisational and compositional talents.