When we last encountered Less Pain Forever (previously known as Lush Budget Presents the Les Payne Product), the mercurial duo was going mobile, hitching its fate to a 1983 Chevy Southwind RV, and heading for the East Coast.
More than six months ago, the irreverent, jumpsuited musical pranksters (guitarist-singer James Karnes and drummer-keyboardist Chris Pomerenke) packed up their belongings and drove in the direction of New York, with no gigs booked, and no idea of when -- or if -- they'd be back to the Valley.
This week, Karnes and Pomerenke return triumphant, having played 60 shows, befriended the members of Ween, earned a plum gig at New York's Mercury Lounge, and filled German dance floors with the tapping toes of über-disaffecteds, who mistook the band's warped pop minimalism for some sort of Flock of Seagulls tribute.
The group's entire RV odyssey has been a series of fortuitous accidents, according to Pomerenke.
"We came up to New York without a show, without a tour, without anything," he says. "We got a string of shows at the Mercury Lounge. We just dropped off a pack, and the girl called us back and she was like, 'What is this pack? Someone dropped this off, and I love it.' And we said, 'We're living in a motor home in a parking lot in New Jersey.' And she said, 'I love this story. I want to have you guys every Saturday night in August.' So we just got a string of great shows in New York."
From there, LPF hooked up with a girl who coordinates shows for a massive underground punk circuit along the Eastern seaboard.
"Kids will get a PA and there'll be like 10 bands and they'll get a church or a YMCA or something," Pomerenke says. "On the East Coast, there's a string of those happening everywhere. She would e-mail people and get us on all these shows, so we've been doing that up and down the East Coast.
"She e-mailed a friend of hers in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and the guy booked us. He asked us what we sound like, and we're like, 'People say we sound something like Frank Zappa, or Devo, or Ween.' He said the guys in Ween are his best friends and they live in the same town we were going to."
New Hope is a sleepy hamlet along the Delaware River that tends to be a big tourist magnet for people blissfully unaware of the deranged musical alchemy that the Weensters are concocting within its city limits.
"It's a town about the size of Sedona," Pomerenke says of New Hope. "It's just a souvenir shop, basically. Just a boutique. It's real quaint and charming and postcardy, but it's the home of the fucking most obscene band in the world."
For Karnes and Pomerenke, unabashed disciples of the demented twosome that's brought us such heart-tugging classics as "Flies on My Dick" and "Spinal Meningitis," being introduced to Dean and Gene (and bassist Mean) was akin to getting a private audience with royalty.
"We met them [Ween] separately, and we were just trying to not piss our pants," Pomerenke says. "Dean was really nice and asking us about our band, and our RV, and what we were doing. Gene, we didn't really hang out with very much, we just kind of ran into him.
"We've met so many people in that area that were so cool to us that we stayed there for months, and we would hit Massachusetts and Philadelphia and Baltimore, and come back. You go to the video store and see Dean, and you go to the bathroom somewhere and you see Gene. It got to be really surreal."
So surreal that Less Pain Forever found themselves jamming at a party with Dean, and recording in the basement studio of Mean, with the bassist himself twiddling the knobs. Eventually, they even recorded at the home of Ween's drummer, the same locale that Ween uses for a rehearsal space.
During their stay in New Hope, Less Pain booked a brief tour in Germany, where they'd played nearly two years ago, along with the band Crowded Orifice. This time around, they crammed 11 shows into two weeks.
"It was weird," Pomerenke says. "This time we came, just the two of us, and we rented a car. We didn't go with another band, we just did it ourselves. But we played a lot of the same hard-core, punk-rock squat-houses. And they were booking us as an '80s dance-pop band.
"We'd get there, and they're like, 'Oh, yes, you're the '80s dance-pop band.' And we're like, 'Um, kind of.' And it'd be like these totally extreme, homeless, crusty hard-core kids. We'd start playing and they'd dance through the whole set. I don't even know if they really liked us, but they thought it was fun to dance to us."
Offering proof that the band's high-spirited performance approach can startle and bemuse neophytes, one German writer described the duo as "sexy, obsessed and a little bit violent" -- a worthy recommendation, to be sure, but one that might create the erroneous impression that whips and guillotines are part of the Less Pain experience.
On the night before the September 11 terrorist attack, Karnes and Pomerenke were trying to cross the Canadian border for a show they'd booked in Montreal. They were surprised to find the climate less than hospitable in the land of Lorne Greene and Gino Vannelli.
"All of our friends had told us when you go into Canada, don't tell them you're in a band or that you're going to play," Pomerenke says. "So we told them we'd met some girls in New York and we were going up to Canada for fun. They asked what we did for a living, and I said, 'musicians.' Wrong answer. So he asked us to go to the office.
"This French Canadian woman took our IDs and then said we'd been denied access, she doesn't believe us, we have no rights, we can go back to our country, she doesn't want us in her country. She said she believed we were there to take money from Canadian musicians. She interrogated us for another hour, searched the RV and sent us back to New York at about 2 a.m."
The band members drove to a rest stop in upstate New York, drank some beers, and crashed. When they woke up, they learned that the world had been turned upside down.
"It was a bizarre time to get that news," Pomerenke says, "'cause we were feeling very patriotic, after having been kicked out of another country."
The group's holiday return to Phoenix will be brief. As part of their plan to go where the best weather is, they'll spend the winter working the West Coast, before heading back East in May, with a tour of Spain and Italy squeezed in somewhere.
Their stay in the Valley will allow them just enough time to play a couple of shows, get their fix of Mexican food ("on the East Coast they have no idea," Pomerenke says), hang out with old friends, and spend New Year's Eve in Rocky Point.
It should also confirm that, contrary to the impression gained by Mean Ween, the members of Less Pain are not prophets without honor in their hometown. When Ween played the Cajun House in August, their bassist approached audience members after the show to find out if they were familiar with his new friends from the Valley.
"He told us, 'When we played in Phoenix, I was asking everybody if they'd heard of Less Pain Forever, and none of them had ever heard of you guys,'" Pomerenke says. "I thought, 'Oh great.' It was kind of embarrassing. I was like, 'Uh, actually . . . we do have friends there.'"
Less Pain Forever is scheduled to perform on Saturday, December 22, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with Down With Buildings, Reubens Accomplice, and Vic Masters.
Blooze Power: Local roots-music mecca the Rhythm Room has developed such a national reputation on the blues circuit that it's becoming a popular locale for live recordings. Ample evidence can be found on Hightone's new compilation Rhythm Room Blues, not to mention singer-harpist Kim Wilson's solo live record, Smokin' Joint.
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Now Wilson is bringing his other musical project, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, to town for two nights of live performance and live recording at the Rhythm Room. In keeping with the band's desire for an enthusiastic audience of dedicated T-Birds fans, tickets for the shows will not be available in advance, and can only be purchased at the door.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds are scheduled to perform on Friday, December 21, and Saturday, December 22, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 at the door.
Zine Angst: The November issue of Zia Records' free, in-store music monthly, ZiaZine, marked the end of an era for this endearingly smart-ass publication. Early this year, the Pennsylvania-based Red Flag Media convinced Zia's ownership to allow the company to publish the magazine. In the ensuing months, the cost of maintaining both the Red Flag staff and ZiaZine's local staff grew too costly, so in November, Zia dismissed the magazine's local crew and turned the editorial content of the magazine over to the Pennsylvania company and its stable of writers. The December ZiaZine is the debut of the new-look, Red Flag version of the magazine.