By Melissa Fossum
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It's been a good year for Tempe spazz-funk weirdos Playboy Manbaby, which in that time has morphed from an art-punk joke into something more concrete.
"We're actually a band," singer Robbie Pfeffer says incredulously. "We practice and make new songs and show up to the shows relatively on time. Nobody's hospitalizingly drunk — it's neat."
These are impressive achievements are for a band premised on shameless performance spectacle and an outrageous underdog mentality. Musically, the band combines snidely screamed vocals, distorted garage guitar, and waist-loosening bass with onstage theatrics, making them one of the most cultishly appreciated live acts in the all-ages Valley circuit.
1639 E. Apache Blvd.
Tempe, AZ 85281
Category: Bars and Clubs
This tone of recklessness was set right away: The band was unable to play its scheduled debut performance two years ago, a house party swarming with hundreds of kids that was broken up by the cops. Their second gig, an outdoor First Friday affair at downtown leftist coffee bar Conspire, didn't go any better; it also was cut short by law enforcement.
"I had ice cream in my hair and was bleeding from the mouth," Pfeffer says, the bleeding the result of a cut tongue incured after a leap off a P.A. speaker. "They thought there was an incident. It wasn't bad, but it looked bad."
Onstage, Pfeffer is bitingly sarcastic, but invitingly so. People get lovingly shoved. Though there's been blood, it's nothing like the sexy self-destruction of Iggy Pop; it's more like the gross-out cartoon menace of Gwar scaling down to meet the dweeb sensibilities of Ween.
"We've had shows where we brought a microwave on stage and were throwing food at people, starting eating competitions," he says in reference to a gig opening for fellow sideshow pranksters The Aquabats during which they flung freshly nuked Hot Pockets at the crowd.
Still, Playboy Manbaby has been trying to get it together. The band has an EP of studio material, but Pfeffer says he and the band have begun hating it for being "too clean." The sing-along ska of "Broken Record" and the self-loathing funk of "Pulsating Cities of Geckos" are helpful, but the band's live show is a much better place to start exploring. Even better would be all the shaky YouTube footage from collegiate-looking living rooms, sweaty kids bopping in place.
He and his friends had neither the interest nor the required musical capability to wade in what they saw were the prevailing styles of the local scene: tender folk, '90s bar rock, serene indie pop. "We didn't want to play very cool music," Pfeffer says. "Everything we were inspired by and interested in was unbearably un-hip."
Pfeffer says his lyrics are Tom Waits-inspired narratives from the perspective of filthy, anxious people: bowling alley bartenders and people obsessed with conspiracy theories and the apocalypse. "Never anyone cool," he says.
He has the most fun assembling paranoid character sketches and conveying their warped stories in his songs. "To them, the most absurd thing is what everyone else is living in," he explains. "Lizard people running the government doesn't seem weird — people holding jobs and being a part of the world is."
Their unwavering commitment to whacked ideals is something to be admired, he argues. "I don't have strong convictions like that on anything," he says.
In keeping with this admiration, the band's name is a silly one-liner from a web cartoon by comedy writer and comic artist Brad Neely called "Babycakes," which extolls the bizarre wisdom of a portly 30-something man-child with a innocently skewed worldview. The surreal and crudely animated single-frame shorts, which were eventually adapted into the China, IL show on the Adult Swim late-night block, has Babycakes seeing magic in the quotidian: Blank-eyed bank tellers become cave nymphs, lowly middle managers are actually lesser gods in disguise. "Dad and his friends were discussing if the universe was ruled by a man, a woman, or something with all sorts of sex parts," narrates Babycakes. "They're wizards. I know it."
Playboy Manbaby's stage antics and irrepressible energy make the band an ideal house-show act.
Though he doesn't discriminate against venues, Pfeffer thinks of house shows as the best possible live music template, both as a performer and an audience member. "I'd much rather play a place where, if you put 30 people in it, it's packed," he says.
Playboy Manbaby played the only gig at downtown Phoenix show house Funny World that had ever been broken up by police. Perhaps it was the mess of kids jammed into the tiny living room. Maybe it was because a member of an Oakland touring band lit his pubic hair on fire, but only after pissing in a beer can and drinking from it. The delirious house-show environment is one in which anything can happen.
He should know: Pfeffer is a prominent local do-it-yourself music magnate. Tempe Starving Artist, the title of his monthly local art zine and umbrella moniker for his local show promotions, boosts numerous touring and local music shows at both bars and private residences. He had a large hand in organizing PHX FMLY Fest, which featured 80 bands performing in the downtown Roosevelt art cluster. In January, he hosted a double round-robin showcase where 22 bands in two separate circles encased the audiences and took turns each playing one song at a time. (Worth noting: He used to do a comic strip for New Times' music blog, Up on the Sun.)
Pfeffer argues that the typical bar setting often fails to facilitate unique performances and doesn't have the atmosphere to enable young people to let their guard down. "You never feel at home at that kind of place," he says.
That hasn't stopped him from trying, however: Tempe Starving Artist has hosted numerous shows at Tempe watering hole Long Wong's, and early in the band's existence, Playboy Manbaby was offered one of the bar's signature month-long residencies during which the headliner gets free rein over a consecutive stretch of Saturdays.
Pfeffer says the band showed up on its first week to a room half-full of strangers and middle-aged regulars. "I got mad," he says. Between songs, he called Long Wong's a glorified Chili's, pointed out people in the bar, and said an individual "fuck you" to each one. The outburst might have been inspired by the GG Allin documentary he watched that day, he says. The band returned the next week to a packed room and a forgiving shrug from management.
The band has returned to Long Wong's for a weekly residency this month, playing material from a forthcoming EP, as well as varying each show with performances conceptualized on the lowest rungs of bad television: home shopping, pyramid schemes, televangelists. Flimflam soliloquies and flying food should be expected.
TV preachers, in particular, struck Pfeffer as inspiration for his performances, and he began obsessively researching them. "I thought, 'This guy is like James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis, getting this reaction without a drum set or anything,'" he says.
Over-the-top performances, audience confrontation — some might call it contrived or forced, Pfeffer says, but he doesn't think of gimmickry as a four-letter word. "I love the idea of embracing that," he says. "My favorite thing is not open up shows with the typical, 'Thank you very much, we're happy to be here.'"
There's no real antagonism, anyway. Kids keep showing up. Some showgoing folks simply don't possess an appreciation for getting pelted with microwaved pizza sleeves. "Fuck you," they might say, wiping marinara lava from their collars. "Not cool."