Stay Precious

The band formerly known as Slaves returns with a new moniker and an addictive platter of glam and gloom

You will, no doubt, think you know where this is going: Three guys, dressed in black, maybe a little eyeliner on just for effect, definitely some secondhand suits, hitting creepy chords on some old piano, peeling off a fuzzy guitar solo, the singer mewling like a sexed-up absinthe fan.

Simple, right? Youngsters ripping off their dad's record collections to impress their friends, the ones who saw and heard it all two years ago -- twentysomethings striking shallow Nick Cave poses as considered as George W.'s foreign policy.

"I'm interested in the things that we do as people to celebrate being alive," drummer David Clifford says, "to advocate indulgence instead of abstinence."

Pleasure Forever: Josh Hughes, Andrew Rothbard 
and Dave Clifford.
Marina Chavez
Pleasure Forever: Josh Hughes, Andrew Rothbard and Dave Clifford.

A little intriguing, you think, and perhaps not what you thought: Indie rockers chasing a concept, something bigger than the perfect haircut or the tightest pants or the least impressed scowl? Tell me more.

You've picked the right guys to do that with Pleasure Forever, three twentysomething indie rockers dressed in black, secondhand suits with perfect haircuts who've spent the last six years or so trying to expand said milieu. First there was the VSS, the underground sensation the trio -- Clifford, bassist Andrew Rothbard, guitarist Joshua Hughes -- started in 1995 with singer Sonny Kay as they packed up their lives in Colorado and moved to San Francisco.

That band was one of the first to do what's since become an entire subsect of disenfranchised underground rock: the crazed, manic fusion of early hard-core's righteous yowl, Japanese noise rock's amorphous squall and the dark, arty cool of the Velvet Underground and Joy Division. The music wasn't always mind-blowing, but the insistence on a certain set of aesthetic decisions, however vague (and that was a lot of the time), made hard-core seem a headache still worth pursuing, a forum useful for more than tired polemics. If you've heard any of the bands recording for California indie label Gold Standard Laboratories -- such acts as Arab on Radar, Le Shok, or the Locust, who with an absolutely vicious brand of death-disco nihilism are quickly becoming the microgeneration's poster band -- you've witnessed the effect the VSS and its peers had.

After the band broke up in mid-1997, Clifford, Rothbard and Hughes formed Slaves, a sort of gutter-goth take on the art-punk the VSS had coagulated. Slaves' dazed slo-mo crush took hold, and after two EPs, they found themselves turning their full attention to a band they hadn't started totally seriously, even scoring a spot on the New York Times' list of unheralded records for 2000. Which, to the three guys involved, made for a perfect time to change their name.

"The name 'Slaves' was easy to be misinterpreted, and didn't fit what we were doing [at that point],"Clifford explains. "We were addressed as 'The Slaves' a lot, like we were saying as a band, 'We are slaves,' like getting into some victim ideology. The real, actual impetus for the name was an interest in slavery as an idea, the different forms it can take -- as part of something that's human will, or an external force that guides someone's life. That was more involved and heady, and that was difficult to get across."

So when Seattle mega-indie Sub Pop came knocking last year, the three took the opportunity as a sign to change their name to Pleasure Forever, a moniker at least as susceptible to misinterpretation as Slaves.

"The main thing we've had is people thinking it has to do with hedonism," Clifford says.

And doesn't it? The cover of the band's new self-titled album, a three-ring bacchanalia with the band sitting at the center, clutching grapes and wine and other totems of self-serving pleasure, seems to say so. The music, too -- a sleazy refinement of Slaves' sneer, with more piano and more Rolling Stones influence and more nudity. Is Clifford saying this doesn't resemble hedonism? Clearly, you haven't been listening.

"We chose Pleasure Forever because it's kind of a utopian idea," he offers. "It's got lots of potential for meaning. We're interested in human rituals, what people do, just the way that we communicate about the central themes of what human beings are interested in -- being afraid of dying and wanting to survive. Those very basic ideas turn into some very big concepts as things go onward and upward."

So it's cool to indulge because we're all heading to the Great Detox in the Sky anyway?

"Well, the problem is people take that too far. And there's an interesting poetry to that."

There is, and Pleasure Forever is writing some of the best of it. In a tasty twist of form and function, the band's album is an addictive little thing, a devilish slab of cabaret-informed swagger as raunchy as you'd hope, but also as self-reflective as these guys obviously are. Rothbard, who became the band's singer after the demise of VSS, fronts the group much more precisely and subtly than you'd figure a guy who grew up screaming could. When on "Goodnight" he purrs, "Well, I passed the acid bath with a flying trash can crash/'Cause when you're learning to burn out fast might as well do it with smashing panache," he pretty much sums up the whole thing in two breaths.

"What we're doing exists within a certain canon of people who push the limits both in our lives outside of the band and in the creative process," the singer says. "The theme lyrically of this album was reaching for decadence and meeting a certain level of collapse in that process. It's showing two sides of a coin, what can happen."

Still, Clifford's quick to point out, interpretation, as in all the hedonistic arts, is the key.

"We're not too concerned with people really getting it," he says. "That's up to people's decisions. We certainly wouldn't want to be pretentious, or overanalyzing. We like having different layers that people can read into -- not giving everything away and having a little mystery involved."

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