The title of Tempe trip-funk collective Polliwog's debut release, More Soul Than a Rabbit Factory, begs the query: "Fine, but just how much soul does a rabbit factory have?" Considering how much money the band poured into making the album, though, the better question is, "And how much money can it take to give a rabbit factory soul?"
Titled for local blues legend Chico Chism's puzzling description of his band's harmonica player at the Payson Blues Festival two years ago, More Soul Than a Rabbit Factory was recorded sporadically over 18 months at Phase Four Studios in Tempe, for a total cost exceeding $20,000.
"It turned into a monster," says Polliwog's waifish guitarist Travis Brinster. "It got to the point where people were like, 'Oh, yeah, the CD, uh-huh, this fictitious CD you're working on.' The joke at the studio was we were the house band, we were there for so long."
Raising the capital to finish Rabbit Factory took focus. "We played our asses off," Brinster says. "We raised the money by playing for a long time. We spent about ten grand, then we got a business loan. It just so happens that [trombonist Don] Ekes has great credit, and we got a $10,000 loan. You're looking at Polliwog the corporation."
Rabbit Factory cost so much largely because the band switched studios midproduction. There are two studios in Phase Four. Studio B is a small, 24-track studio. Studio A is big and comes with all the goodies. Polliwog started out in Studio B, then decided to upgrade.
"We wanted a better sound, so we went to the big one," says Brinster. "We had to scrap some stuff and start over again in the middle, but it was worth it."
By "we," Brinster means the nine core members of Polliwog, not counting the handful of horn players who drift in and out of action. Explaining the history of how the band gradually morphed into its present state is sort of like explaining planetary evolution. And the spring of 1994--when the popularity of local funk band Wise Monkey Orchestra reached its peak--was the big bang.
During that summer, percussionist Dann Williams, a fellow traveler on Wise Monkey's party circuit, decided to form his own funk band. He asked ex-Mumbo Jumbo singer Tiffany Sullivan, another scene regular, to join him. Brinster and drummer Mike Swenson, former members of Medicine Wheel and Skinny Jim, respectively, were also in from the start. Brinster and Swenson picked the name while watching a PBS documentary on frogs one night. They liked the way "polliwog" rolled off the tongue.
The band gradually took on members--bassist R.J. Hoffman, saxophonists Greg Liko and Jake Gabow, trombonist Don Ekes and keyboard/trumpet player Eric "Catfish" Ogden. That's the core nine. More Soul Than a Rabbit Factory also features frequent Polliwog collaborators Paul Folkert and John Sanford on sax, and Jackson Longeley on trumpet.
The flush live sound of all the players is crisply reproduced on the CD, and the band experimented with effects to embellish otherwise straightforward deep-groove jams from its live repertoire. "Cosmo," a wah-funk song about an alienated iguana, takes on an eerie, P-Funk-meets-Ministry feel. Regardless of whether Polliwog got its full money's worth, the band achieved a high production value.
The band also wound up not partying so damn much. Bankrolling a good debut meant a cutback on brain pickling. Polliwog's practice garage, located in the backyard of Brinster's matchbook house in Tempe and dubbed "The Compound," was famous as a spot for raging afterparties. Now it's a recording studio.
"An old-school Polliwog party was when we'd have a keg waiting for us after the show and we'd invite everyone in the bar back, and afterwards we'd pick through our instruments and hope nothing was stolen," says Brinster. "We don't want big parties here anymore. This is our work space, we have a lot of equipment to watch out for. This is becoming a more creation-oriented space."
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The band's taste for excess took its toll on Polliwog's live performances as well. Until recently, a Polliwog show was unpredictable. Figuring out who was the worst load onstage was half the fun. "If we were having a shitty show and no one seemed to care, I would just get wrecked, and I think everybody went the same way," Swenson says. "We were fuck-ups for a long time onstage."
One night Sullivan passed out, midset, in the rest room at Craig's Place. Now she's more professional, but still vamps. At her band's CD-release party in December, the whiskey-voiced singer carried off a feathered boa with such aplomb one imagined she crawled from the womb in fishnets.
Despite the recent decline in Polliwog's postshow debauchery, the band has a healthy, and still-growing, contingent of thrift-store runway models that follows it regularly to Flagstaff and Tucson. "It's to the point where I'll call people on a show night and they're all together primping, getting ready to go," Swenson says. "It's like we have a show going on in front of us when we're onstage."
Polliwog is scheduled to perform on Sunday, April 20, inside Valley Art Theatre in Tempe at the New Times Music Awards Showcase, at 6:40 p.m.