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."
So did Dustan wind up playing? "Oh, I played!" he says. Spite is as good a musical motive as any. I think Christine McVie said that.
Dustan once more enacted universal revenge on music teachers in high school, when he switched instruments. "Me and my friends would always be smoking pot and breaking strings on purpose."
"See?" Dale says with a laugh. "You probably drove that teacher crazy. After you graduated, he probably said, 'Maybe I should teach kids in the fourth grade and tell them they can't play!'"
When Fox and Dale teamed up during grunge's infancy, clarinet and mandolin were hardly the stuff of rock bands. Factor in Fox's kewpie-doll voice, which sometimes takes liberties with pitch for comic effect, and the only place where they could play their sardonic songs was the dreaded open mic night.
"I used to have to get up early in the morning 'cause I was a land surveyor at the time," Dale says. "The two or three places we'd go, we'd try to get high on the sign-up list, but eventually, we'd get bumped further and further down. And at some point during the night, the MC would say, 'We're going to let so-and-so go up now 'cause they've got to get up at eight in the morning. And I'm fuming because I have to get up at three in the morning."
"When Rose Rain Alchemy first began gigging," Fox says, "we would book a show, and it'd be us and three heavy metal bands, and the audience would be pissed. Once, we played in between a radio-friendly modern country band and a Journey cover band. Then we played a gig with Andrew Lockwood [now of Dolphins Kill for Love and then the host of a monthly songwriter showcase]. Through him, we met Fatigo and through them, we met The Shizz."
Although the name sounds like some space-age mystic, The Shizz is an informal conglomeration of bands joined through a Web site (www.theshizz.org), a compilation CD, and a few scattered gigs. "The joint idea was to have a central community with less bands competing with shows at the same time. But everybody actually just books shows when they get them," Fox says.
Given the group's diverse lineup, it's a rarity to find a Thugs show where every Thugs member is in attendance. At a recent gig at Carly's, everyone but Jeff Dobberpuhl (the accordionist and keyboard player) was on deck. The following gig, trombomist Phillip Juarez (who plays with a swing band) was missing, "If Phil or Jeff can't make it, no big deal," Fox says. "You kind of want them to be there all the time, because you miss that one element. But we can adjust the set accordingly."
It's a good time to be thuggin', though. "Right now, we are at an all-time high point and I don't think that we, as a whole band, have even scratched the surface of what we might be able to do," says Dustan, whose side project, Psycho Square Dance, has been further sidelined because of WCT's stepped-up activities.
Fox agrees. "Lately, when people come up to us after shows, it's usually, 'You guys are great. How come I've never heard of you?'"
It's not for lack of trying. These guys even did the Channel 3 morning show, Good Morning Arizona.
"It was fun doing that, watching the stage managers running around and everything," Fox says with a smile. "The anchorwoman was looking for something to latch onto, so she asked Dale to tell the viewers about the history of the mandolin. Like, how are you going to answer something like that in 30 seconds?"
Once more, without missing a beat, Dale begins, "Well, it's from the family of the lute, and they originally made it to resemble the violin . . ."
Sat., April 3, 2010