Judging by the malevolently eager look on his face, whatever Dale Fox of Phoenix band World Class Thugs has been keeping in his trunk for the past six months promises to be good. It is. It's three oversized masks of World Class Thugs singer Jocelyn Ruiz-Fox, blown up from a high-resolution, uncomfortably close-up photograph. It's far from flattering imagine a passport photo from hell that winds up looking like those kid-with-big-eyes paintings. When the group played a Halloween gig last year, Jocelyn turned around to find three guys in the band wearing the unsettlingly enlarged replicas of her head.
It was the perfect retaliation for the heinous gag Jocelyn perpetrated on Dale, when she convinced him that the Thugs were auditioning bagpipe players. For most on planet Earth, the idea of hearing those goose-like bleating sounds in close proximity indoors is a real stomach-churner, even for Dale.
Those are just two of the many shenanigans that came to light during a lazy Sunday afternoon conversation with Fox, Ruiz-Fox and guitarist Jim Dustan to discuss the first World Class Thugs CD, Ameripiranha. It could possibly be their last, with the way iPod listeners are rendering the full-length album obsolete on a song-by-song basis. That's a shame because you don't get the expansive eclecticism that way. It's like a box of truffles with a one-treat cutoff.
The Thugs' debut represents a symbolic clearing of the decks for the past six years of accumulated material. The group chose to record its repertoire live in a friend's home studio, with the band allowing itself only two takes per song. That meant that every musician had to be on his or her best behavior, as even a mild fart would leak onto the drum tracks and could not be silenced in the mix. And what a mix it is uptempo ska mixed with psychedelia, Kurt Weill-ish depressionism, swing music almost like Squirrel Nut Zippers with untreated ADD.
Amazingly, the sessions came off without a fracas. Almost as seamless as the band's nine-month transition from Rain Rose Alchemy to the Thugs, which was jump-started seven years ago by Dale and Jocelyn's divorce. Business as usual resumed nine months later, after Jocelyn and Jim had partnered personally in the interim and Dale asked if he could join the new group, which also included former RRA drummer Tony Juarez.
Despite Jocelyn's spontaneously breaking into a chorus of Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way," there's no saucy internecine blowup on a par with the Rumours-era Mac, whose saga of changing partners within the band left each member emotionally rudderless, drug-addled and unable to perform even a live cover of The Beach Boys' "Farmer's Daughter" without fans suspecting some new secret dirty laundry was being aired. The Thugs' honest truth will probably send our more sanguineous readership careening for drama elsewhere in the paper. What could've been a volatile, charged atmosphere turned out to be a rewarding one, Jim says. "At first, it was a little awkward, but after a while, it just became easier," he says matter-of-factly. "I don't think the level of creativity ever suffered, though."
"It worked that way for months: that it was better to be apart," Dale continues, while stroking a fat cat. "We stayed friends and we always liked working together musically. It would feel odd to just cut somebody out completely, see ya later. I could never understand that because we'd been together so long."
"Plus," Jocelyn adds, "We had cat kids together, Georgie and Jupiter, who we got from a shelter."
One of the aforementioned felines is suffering from a hernia, but before we can talk about what must've been an extremely heavy ball of yarn, we talk about the group's baby steps. What's most impressive about the Thugs is the way they use music as a thread for maintaining community in their lives. The group regularly hosts parties where people are invited to perform together, which is what will happen at its CD-release party, where guests will play shorter sets, each including a Thugs cover.
Not surprisingly, the musical paths of each of the primary songwriting Thugs began in school-sponsored music programs, the kind that "compassionate conservatism" has legislated nearly out of existence. Dale came to play mandolin expertly through the violin, an instrument he says he was terrible at playing. For Jocelyn, piano and clarinet were her first instruments, although not out of choice.
"The clarinet was a hand-me-down from my cousin. I hated it," she says with a grimace. "I wanted to play something flashy like the saxophone or the trumpet. But my parents said, 'This is the instrument we have, your cousin's clarinet, and if you do well with that, we can talk about those other instruments.'"
Having proved herself on clarinet, did she ever get a shot at brass?
"Nope," Jocelyn says with a laugh. She got the musical equivalent of the parental "we'll see."
"Yeah," Jim says. "Like, here's a kazoo, kid."
Dustan's musical childhood is colored with the dingiest Charlie Brown hue. "In the fourth grade, I chose baritone horn, 'cause it looked like a mini-tuba. I didn't have the Dizzy Gillespie cheeks for it, so it sounded like ass. When it came to the recital at the end of the year, my teacher took me aside and told me not to play. What an asshole, telling something like that to a fourth-grader."