"Shoeshine" Joe House, guitarist for Tempe funk-rockers Polliwog, looks like a cross between Medusa and a billy goat.
He's got enough shocking red hair in all the right places to make the comparison stick. He says exactly one word--"vagina"--during a 90-minute interview, and even that doesn't come easy. Slumped against the wall of the band's recording studio, he radiates exhaustion, like he's been visited by the same malevolent force that's done a number on Keith Richards' face. Not that Shoeshine isn't trying to stay awake: He's ingesting black coffee, exactly 250 ml worth. At least that's what it says on the Pyrex measuring cup he's using as a mug. Casual inspection reveals it may be the only clean thing left in the Polliwog Compound's kitchen.
Let's just say the band's a lot better at kicking out the jams than cleaning up the pans.
Fortunately for the sake of conversation, Polliwog is composed of more than Shoeshine. There are seven current core members, with guests providing support at the group's frequent Sail Inn gigs. In addition to bass/drums/guitar, the four-year-old "groove-oriented" band employs a percussionist and brass section, crowding its stages with equipment and up to a dozen bodies.
"When people walk into a bar and see all that shit set up," vocalist Tiffany Sullivan says, "it's a lot different from walking into Long Wong's and seeing two amplifiers and a drum. You walk in going, 'Wow, this is gonna be cool.'"
Maybe a little soft-core even. At a recent performance, Sullivan suffered a containment breach when her dress strap wouldn't cooperate, leaving her to continue with one hand strategically placed to prevent Tempe's Finest from shutting down the show because of nudity. Despite Sullivan's mishap, it was hard to ignore the rest of the band, especially Shoeshine flailing about the stage, incomprehensibly flipping off the audience or regaling them with the universal symbol for "Rock On" (forefinger and pinky raised in defiance, tongue extended a la Gene Simmons).
At one point, the former gymnast executed a complete standing flip. Even Sullivan's breasts couldn't keep up with the spectacle. Neither could trombonist Don Ekes or tenor saxophonist Heidi Albert, both of whom lend swing to the band with their choreographed moves.
When things cook, Polliwog grinds out some nasty funk. Sullivan comes on like Janis Joplin cut with Bootsy Collins. Shoeshine throws down monstrous riffs, lighting up the fretboard with Buckethead-esque pyrotechnics while percussionist Dann "E." Williams, drummer Mike Swenson and bassist R.J. Hoffmann kick the rhythm that sticks it all.
Watching Polliwog perform, you get the feeling the members could fill a basketball court with their (sometimes unfocused) energy. Most local venues, according to Hoffmann, are too small to contain the musicians safely. "You get your head cracked," Hoffmann says, "if you wander into the 'bone zone' in front of the trombone player. Everyone's caught the sting of that."
To understand Polliwog, it helps to know its name refers to a tadpole. The word's appropriate for a band whose music squirms here and there, undulating forcefully through freeform solos. Then too, a tadpole is an evolutionary in-between: not a fish, not a frog. Similarly, there are lots of influences locked into Polliwog's collective DNA that make it hard to peg the band simply as funk. Most broadly, the band plays dance music. That might mean trip-hop, acid jazz, even a little rap in addition to the Sly and the Family Stone vibe that burbles to the surface during extended jams. All these elements emerge in concert as well as on the band's gutsy 1996 debut More Soul Than a Rabbit Factory.
"I've always gotten off more on Sly or Tower of Power than any rock band, even Led Zeppelin," Hoffmann confesses. "Okay, let the lightning come down on me for saying that."
"We're mixing a lot of stuff together," Sullivan says, "but it's all shake-your-ass-drink-a-fucking-beer music. We're not pounding people with social images or politics, singing about war or people getting murdered. I think mixing heavy social messages with alcohol is a bad idea. We're serious about playing, though. We're not just some party band."
In the past, Polliwog's been accused of being too involved in the Sex and Drugs portion of the curriculum at the Sid Vicious School of Rock 'n' Roll. Critics charged the music came as an afterthought. Polliwog members don't deny a taste for controlled substances, but today they stress their work ethic more than their last mushroom trip. The band recently toured California and plays regularly in Arizona. It's mixing a new CD for release later this year. With producer/manager Eric Long, it's built a recording studio whose mission, says Long, is to cultivate the "hottest, most entertaining bands" and "make the musician powerful" by educating artists about music publishing.
"Musicians need to be educated in business, otherwise they'll just get bent over," Long asserts.
Nevertheless, Hoffmann is quick to disabuse anyone of the idea that Polliwog's all buttoned-down these days. "I want to do coke off Mariah Carey's stomach!" he shouts, laughing maniacally. "I want to party with all the Spice Girls at once! I haven't thrown a TV out a hotel room--yet. As soon as I can afford it, I'm gonna tear the shit up."
Despite the disconcerting tendency to use "party" as a verb, Hoffmann and Sullivan get serious when discussing the Valley art scene. Together with Long, the self-appointed "Admiral of the Compound," they express concern about local club owners and municipal authorities.
"Tempe's getting better, but it's still really lacking," Sullivan says. "Music and the arts get shoved aside in this state. People care more about the fucking baseball stadium [BOB] than the arts. There's so much undeveloped talent floating around here."
The disparity in funding between athletics and the arts annoys Sullivan, who traces the problem back to childhood, a time when "little boys are supposed to be on the football field killing people for dad." Hoffmann agrees, noting that while many high school music programs have been shut down, administrators somehow always find money for football jerseys.
"No wonder you got guys like John Tesh making these contributions to band programs," Hoffman says. "That's great, but it's sad that he has to. I have more respect for the guy now. If you're the star football player, you get your parents' respect, but if you're playing second violin, you're a band dork. It's the reason why you can't be an artist without having a 'real job.'"
Besides a lack of funding, Polliwog feels it and other local musicians must deal with political stumbling blocks like MAMA, the influential Mill Avenue Merchants Association, which the band says goes overboard to maintain Tempe's squeaky-clean image in hopes of attracting more tourist dollars.
"Instead of [MAMA] supporting the arts," Sullivan says, "you get notices you're gonna be ticketed for putting up fliers on street poles. But the government is the first one to take credit if something good happens."
Long cites another example of petty bureaucrats mucking up the Valley's culture club: When The Artist Formerly Known As Prince performed at a charity after-hours show hosted by the now-defunct Electric Ballroom, the cops shut off the power two songs into the set.
"Does that make any sense?" Long sputters. "People paid $20 to get in. The money Prince could have generated that night for his charity alone and the publicity it would have brought Tempe . . . it's ridiculous. He certainly won't come back. I called the City about it afterwards, and they said, 'He needed permits, blah blah blah.' It's Prince, for Chrissake! The politics of Tempe are turning it into another Scottsdale."
I suggest that maybe the cops would have backed off if Prince had peddled a few folk songs celebrating Jerry Colangelo. No one laughs.
Instead, Long laments another aspect of the Tempe music world. "How can you get a scene going when you have bars putting the Boogie Knights and DJs into their clubs every Friday and Saturday?"
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Polliwog hopes to counteract the blandness of cover bands by giving audiences something compelling to listen to, and watch. "Look at Prodigy," Sullivan offers. "The guy who writes all the shit is back there on the turntable, so he hired that freaky guy who drools and all these people dance out front so people have something to look at. [Even] incredible music's got to have a stage show."
As much as it's financially able, Polliwog plans on using multimedia presentations to create "visual walls" that artists like U2 and the Rolling Stones have already exploited. The band believes technology itself doesn't create new music, but it provides the means for dressing up old ideas in fresh ways. For instance, Marilyn Manson is Alice Cooper gone cyber-goth.
It comes down to this, says Hoffmann, poking Shoeshine, who has nodded off despite the coffee: "You can't get up there and be dead."
"You can't be the Beatles anymore," adds Long. "Bottom line: Four cute lads in suits aren't going to get signed. Some crazy motherfucker spitting blood, he'll get noticed. Play the game: image and cash. Get some power, then say anything you want.