Little Fish, Big Pond
It's a late Friday night at Modified, the tiny art/performance space on Roosevelt Street in downtown Phoenix, and everything is going to hell.
Youthful noisemakers Thee Apologies, who come on like a bunch of hyperactive teenagers playing in the basement while their parents are on vacation, are forgetting words and dropping drumsticks and tripping over their own guitar cords. (This never really gets annoying, somehow; inexplicably, it becomes part of their sizable charm.) Maybe four out of five songs come off without incident. Flubbed lines, false starts and embarrassed grins plague the set, but they make it through with encouraging hoots and yelps from the sympathetic crowd. "We have tee shirts," they announce as they're unplugging. "They're $5."
Then Death Takes a Holiday steps up and the equipment goes stupid. Patch cords go dead, pedals lock up or otherwise refuse to cooperate, and guitars suddenly render themselves mute without any advance symptoms of trouble. One particularly recalcitrant effects box ends up being kicked off the stage entirely. Frustrations are mounting. Amplifiers are being threatened with physical violence.
The crowd, sitting in plain wooden chairs or cross-legged on the floor, shouts encouraging words and applauds enthusiastically at the end of every song. Most of the people here are musicians themselves; it's not like they don't empathize. But the unfolding of so much trouble in one night starts to cross the line from laughable coincidence to frustrating omen.
After a short break, the five members of . . . and guppies eat their young (just like that, with ellipses and lower-case letters) begin unpacking equipment and twiddling knobs. The lights -- all the lights in the joint -- go down. Somebody places a plastic jack-o'-lantern on an amp. The stage is suffused in a red glow that bounces off the backing scrim, silhouetting all the players. They look at each other, gauging readiness, and then begin, very, very softly, to play.
In contrast to what's come before, this final set of the night is a quiet one, with low drums and bass providing a constant, understated heartbeat. The guitars are soaked in echo, and the voices alternately murmur and wail and keen, as needed. The feel moves from sinister to playful and back again, with a slow-as-molasses version of "Git Along Little Doggies" grasping both ends at once. And, as if the muted volume and near-darkness somehow hide them from the music gremlins who've been causing havoc all evening, . . . and guppies eat their young's set unfolds without a single problem.
"Like the Feelies on Thorazine," says one audience member to his companion, hearing them for the first time. Other points of comparison are possible, too; there are traces of Galaxie 500 in the guppies' lo-fi performance, echoes of the Pixies in their sometimes inscrutable lyrical content, and elements of the Velvet Underground's willful highbrow in their reserved cool and in the visual impact of their live show.
But somehow none of that aesthetic hoodoo matters at the moment, and neither do the evening's earlier troubles. Calm, graceful, stunning things are happening as midnight approaches.
The last song in the guppies' arresting seven-song performance is a cover of Smog's "Bathysphere": "When I was 7, my father told me/'But you can't swim,'" sings the young man seated at the front of the stage. "And I never dreamed of the sea again."
We're all washed in red. And suddenly, there is nothing else in heaven or on Earth quite as much worth hearing.
In 1995, a young Valley guitar player named Roland Daum headed up a project called Six String Malfunction, which emerged from Phoenix's mid-'90s "beautiful noise" scene. Alongside Roland in that project was his friend Sonny Coccera, a classically trained guitarist. Brock Ruggles, an unattached guitarist and writer, caught Six String Malfunction at a godheadSilo show in Tempe that year, and introduced himself to Roland and Sonny afterward.
"Six String Malfunction, to me, was the most underground band in the whole scene at that time," says Ruggles, sitting with the rest of . . . and guppies eat their young in the Tempe house that Roland and Jason DiGiacomo are in the process of moving into. "I loved them. They were the hardest to find playing out, and their music was the hardest to get. They seemed to me like guys who'd never sell out."
Ruggles and Daum hit it off that night, and soon began collaborating as Manic Bastard, a.k.a. the Drazy Hoops. Also in attendance at that show -- though they didn't know the above three or each other at the time -- were Jason DiGiacomo and Lindsay Cates.
"I was amazed by Six String Malfunction, too," recalls DiGiacomo. "I was playing guitar by that time, but usually I'd only play in my room. I'd never play in front of anyone. Hearing those guys was really the first time I ever saw anyone make music like that. It really encouraged me."
Paths crossed. After the usual number of practice runs and interruptions -- Brock moved to North Carolina for a while and then moved back to Arizona, everybody else worked in a number of other projects, and an early drummer, Troy Stanley, came and left -- the current lineup of guppies coalesced in 1999, when Sonny Coccera -- the trained guitarist -- joined Roland (guitar), Lindsay (bass), Jason (guitar) and Brock (guitar, vocals), in order to play drums.
"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.
. . . and guppies eat their young's CDs are available to varying degrees of abundance in most record stores with a local music bin, but the lion's share of copies trade hands at their gigs. (Full-lengths run $7 at the shows, but they're thinking of going as high as $10 for the double disc.) Even so, the guppies play out only infrequently, generally rotating among Modified, Nita's Hideaway and Tempe's Lucky Dragon, and prefer shorter sets to longer. This is also, in its way, a calculated move, designed as it is to prevent both them and their audiences from burning out on a rewarding thing.
"Really, I think the shorter a band plays, in general, the better," Cates says. "Even if you really like them, if they cut it short and leave you while you want more, I think that's a lot better than going long."
The others nod and Coccera says, "I've gone to see bands that I love, and they've run it into the ground and ruined it. You just stand there thinking, 'Okay, this would be a good time to stop.'"
"It's not like anybody's driving 400 miles to see us, either," adds Ruggles. "Most of the people in our audiences are other musicians from in town. There have been nights when I've looked out into the audience and thought, 'Man, everybody I know here is in a band.' But when you only play in public rarely, people have a chance to get a little more excited about it. They don't get sick of you as quickly." Pause. "Personally, I don't think local bands should ever play longer than a half-hour."
"I used to hate playing in public," muses DiGiacomo suddenly. "Actually, I still do, a little. I get nervous. Especially on high stages."
The others, at first seemingly a little surprised at his admission, pick up on it.
"Maybe it's a thing about putting yourself above the audience," suggests Daum. We've been talking about Modified's low stage and close confines, which lend performances a rare sort of participatory quality, a proximity between players and audience.
"Maybe it's just that some stages are too high up," says someone else. "It's a longer fall down."
"You should do a performance on a diving board," offers Cates. "A real high one. Work it out that way."
"You could play a last song on the way down," Ruggles says. "You could time it so that you played the last note exactly when you hit the water."
DiGiacomo is silent for a moment, perhaps considering new opportunities for the production of Pure Art. "You think?" He smiles then, a fish contemplating distant water. "Nah. I'd freeze up. I wouldn't be able to play."
Which is such a silly notion -- imagine not playing -- that everybody laughs.
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