It's a hot August night, and although Neil Diamond is nowhere to be found, the cast of MTV's Real World is, in full color and surround sound in Chris Corak's south Tempe home.
Three quarters of Valley indie pop combo Reubens Accomplice -- guitarists/vocalists Corak and Jeff Bufano and bassist Andy Eames -- are sprawled out in the living room of the house, glued to the TV set as a marathon of the music channel's hoary reality show flickers across the screen.
The three, suffice it to say, are not fans. Flipping the dial, they happen to glimpse one of the cast members sporting a Jets to Brazil tee shirt. A game of "spot the indie band" quickly turns into rubbernecking, with the boys unable to tear themselves away from the human accident on the tube, as MTV's Gen Y poster kids reveal themselves as hopelessly vacuous, trend-trawling gits.
Nita's Hideaway in Tempe
Scheduled to perform on Friday, August 24, with Fightshy. Showtime is 9 p.m.
"Chris, did you hear what he said?" asks Bufano incredulously, after a one of the roommates -- a self-absorbed and thoroughly talentless female singer -- auditions for a band.
"The guitar player told her, 'Damn, girl, you were blowing me up something fierce.' Blowing me up something fierce," he repeats with a fair degree of horror. "Jesus," he spits venomously, "I hate when people say shit like that."
Bufano's furor is very real and very funny to his bandmates; Corak punctuates his laughter with an equine snort that sends Eames into a fit of giggles.
With his slender frame and mat of close-cropped black hair, Corak comes off like the adorably geeky older brother from some 1950s sitcom, a direct counterpoint to the misanthropic slacker cool that Bufano exudes. Eames, meanwhile, is an altogether different story. A charming man-child, he bounds around the room, pleased to be back with his friends after a long stretch in a self-inflicted purgatory.
As the band remains glued to the show, there is an element of subtle irony at work. Unlike the made-for-TV musicians of the Real World, the members of Reubens Accomplice have genuine talent, and they've also been knee-deep in actual drama for the past few months.
But right now, all that is of little concern, as Bufano focuses his ire on another of the cast members, a frat-boy mook who's just told a national television audience that he "was owning the pit" at a Linkin Park show.
"Christ," mutters Bufano again, marveling at the depths of humanity, "what a bunch of fucking idiots." Corak stifles another guffaw.
It's some three weeks earlier at Reubens' rehearsal pad, and this time it's drummer Jim Knapp who's laughing. The wiry trapsman -- newly married and a recent graduate of law school -- is doubled over and red-faced as he listens to an early Reubens demo tape playing over Corak's bedroom stereo.
Bufano has raided the band's archives for a bit of a nostalgia trip, pulling out old vinyl and dusty cassettes, as he and the rest of the group listen, bemused with -- if not slightly embarrassed by -- their younger selves.
Formed in 1994, Reubens Accomplice -- dubbed so during Paul "Pee-wee Herman" Reubens' porn-theater escapade -- has come a long way since its salad days.
Back then, Bufano was a budding little anarchist, just learning to play guitar from his junior high friend Eames -- an experienced vet of his uncle's blues band -- when he first found Corak.
"I walked into a class where I didn't know anyone," recalls Bufano of the pair's initial meeting, "so I decided to sit next to the skinny kid in the Suicidal Tendencies tee shirt." Meanwhile, Knapp, a year older than the others, was already well on his way to paradise city, manning the drum kit for a local Guns N' Roses cover band.
Talking about the early years sets the band off on a hilarious litany of high school high jinks: how the group fired Knapp before its first show because the drummer refused to cancel a snowboarding trip to play the gig, stories of talent-show appearances marred by pathetic pyrotechnics, and the like.
Inspired in equal measure by hardcore outfits like Bad Religion and melodic three-chord thrashers like Green Day, the band's embryonic pop-punk quickly yielded a huge batch of material.
"Once we figured out that with just a power chord you could write hundreds of songs, we were off," says Bufano.
With the recording and release of 1995's shambolic We Can Hold Our Own -- a 20-song cassette rife with titles like "Another Beer" and "Jedi Master" -- the members of Reubens scored an unexpected hit with their high school classmates. By the middle of their senior year, this group of misconstrued oddballs and outcasts had improbably become the toast of the Thunderbird High School campus.
"Sometimes, we'd come back from lunch and all the football players would be pulling up in their Jeeps and our tape would be blaring," says Bufano with a laugh. "And the songs were about how much we hated those kids."
"It was really weird," adds Corak. "We carried the tapes in our backpacks and we sold them all in the first month."
Their popularity carried over to the stage, where the band would regularly outdraw national acts at local clubs.
"We'd play a show at the Mason Jar at like 5 o'clock and we'd sell it out," recalls Bufano. "There'd be 200 people there and we'd only been a band for four months. We thought 'Damn, we must be amazing.'"
"But," chimes in Corak, "the real reason so many people were turning out for us wasn't because they were into the music -- it was just the cool thing to do. And as soon as high school was over, it became obvious because no one was there."
Drifting to the East Valley after graduation, the band found itself at the forefront of the burgeoning indie rock movement -- one spearheaded by the likes of future national acts Jimmy Eat World, Trunk Federation and Seven Storey Mountain.
With their second release, the double single Red Handed, the group's sound began a gradual shift. Heavily influenced at the time by a legion of early emo acts like Boilermaker and Boys Life, Reubens introduced an expanse of six-minute mini-epics, full of raging dynamics, into its repertoire.
The group quickly tired of the format, and by the time 1998's single If There Were No Borders We'd Still Live in the Same State appeared, the band had made yet another abrupt change in style. They stumbled on the open C tuning, and it immediately lent a twangy, almost country vibe to the band's guitar-based muse.
"Kind of overnight, that changed everything," notes Corak. So too would the skewed vocal interplay of Corak and Bufano, by then already defining the band's unique vision.
Though it would appear on a handful of compilations into the new millennium -- including the Emo Diaries and Not One Light Red -- and continue stockpiling material (some 200 songs) Reubens still hadn't released a long player, as they met industry resistance from all manner of independent record labels, most of them unsure how or where the group's odd sonic melange fit in.
"We were treading water for a long time," says Corak. "By last year, it seemed like forever since we'd released anything. So we just got really fed up and said, 'We can afford to at least make the record on our own. Let's just track it.'"
Produced and mixed by local sound supremo Jamal Ruhe, basic tracks for the band's debut disc, I Blame the Scenery, were recorded in April 2000 over a heavily fraught 10-day period at Mesa's Blue Sky studios.
"We had all kinds of machines breaking," says Bufano. "Then we tried to mix it at Blue Sky, and that didn't work. So eventually we had to go somewhere else. Just all kinds of shit happening."
By the time the album was finally completed in early 2001 -- a full year of fits and starts after they began -- the band was well in the midst of another, far more serious, crisis.
Perched on the edge of a bed in Jeff Bufano's apartment, Andy Eames nervously cradles a guitar.
As a collage of images clipped from magazine pages stares down from the wall, Eames' hands fidget with the strings.
"Hey, Andy," says Bufano, flipping through a stack of LPs, "play that song you wrote about Texas."
With a dexterity that belies his burly appearance, Eames picks his way through a pair of twang-pop originals. The first is a tongue-in-cheek tale about a couple's ill-fated escape to the Lone Star State. Later, he reels off a more earnest McCartney-esque ditty called "You Take Your Love (And You Give it Away)." Singing in a woozy mid-range tenor, Eames suffuses the lines with a variety of sharp emotions -- a whiff of jauntiness one moment, aching melancholy the next.
Wringing the last chord from the acoustic six-string, Eames raises his head to reveal a face bursting with the eager and hopeful expression of a kid who's just given a recital for his relatives.
Despite a grown-up frame and a shade of black stubble, there is something undeniably childlike in Eames; his fragile demeanor and goofy, toothy grin belie his recent reputation as a bacchanalian wild man.
The past year has been, to put it mildly, a difficult one for the scruffy, saucer-eyed musician. Eames has just returned to Phoenix after a forced exile in the Pacific Northwest, where he went to sober up after a six-month bender that nearly ruined his mind and broke his spirit.
It's mid-August and the previous evening marked the first time since the beginning of the year that Eames has played with the band -- and the friends -- he's been with since they were all in short pants.
When Bufano first met Eames in the seventh grade, he could've hardly guessed that the soft, chubby looking kid in the Gn'R tee shirt would grow up to be such a handful.
"At the time he had the most moral sense of anyone I knew," says Bufano. "He didn't curse -- he still doesn't -- never drank, never smoked, didn't chase girls -- he was a total mama's boy back then.
"But," he adds, "Andy's always been like a magnet for the weirdest people, just the strangest shit. People like that, they just find him."
After high school, while the rest of the band gravitated toward Tempe and the East Valley, Eames moved to West Phoenix. Working at a fast-food restaurant, the gregarious Eames fell in with a bad crowd, getting involved in a quickie marriage and divorce, before a rapidly advancing drug and alcohol habit took hold of his life.
"I'm a nice guy," says Eames in a pensive, slightly breathless voice. "I'll let anybody be my friend. And I let drugs be my friend. I went to work every day and tried to keep up a normal life for a while, but eventually [drugs] just tear it out of you."
Still, Reubens soldiered on through the late '90s, carving a niche and compiling a strong catalogue of material, even as hints of Eames' problems had begun to surface in the group's songs (on one Bufano cries out, "Andy/ I Love Andy!/Are you listening?/Ah hell, you never listen to me").
But by early 2001, Eames' erratic behavior -- which had bogged down part of the previous year's sessions for Scenery -- was now wreaking havoc on the band's live shows as well. With the bassist descending into the abyss of chemical addiction, the group was finally forced to act, making Eames sit out Reubens' featured slot at New Times' annual music showcase in April.
"It was the first time we put our foot down," says Bufano, "and just said, 'No, you can't play until you get your shit together.'"
The band performed its outdoor set at Fat Tuesday's aided by keyboardist Matt Maher, while a dejected Eames watched from the wings.
"That was horrible," says Eames softly, shaking his head. "That was the first time that I wasn't a part of it. I didn't even go inside the club. I just stood on the outside and there was an iron fence in between me and them. And it was like I was in prison watching this band play. It was total visual hell."
The disciplinary slap from his longtime friends wasn't quite enough to break Eames from his protracted slide. Though out of work and money, he continued down the road to excess.
"There was, like, drug parties and orgies," he admits, reciting myriad stories of chemical-fueled depravity. "It was just all going downhill."
"We still didn't know how messed up things were," recalls Bufano, "until this one stretch where we couldn't get a hold of him for like 10 days. His roommate told us he'd been in his room for the whole time with the door locked. So we go up to his house and Andy has always had this tendency -- like a nervous habit -- of laughing at everything, even if it's really serious. So we're up there trying to talk to him to see what's going on, and it was the first time he wasn't laughing. He looked really bad; he'd lost tons of weight -- like 40 pounds -- and was all quiet. He had nothing to say. He was dead to the world."
Eames had retreated from reality into a semi-catatonic state, broken only by frequent fits of paranoia. His worrisome mental and physical condition -- the result of a devastating intake, mixing acid and speed for days on end -- had reached a breaking point.
"I started to see all these visions and stuff," he says, with a slight shudder. "You can't really tell anybody about it either 'cause you sound crazy -- and I'm sure I looked pretty crazy at the time also. You get these images in your head and you can't control them. I would see black beings, like ghosts or whatever, following me around."
What, for Eames, had begun as a bit of recreational experimentation, had degenerated into a bizarre and frightening existence.
"[Toward the] end I was buying drugs from these guys that were Satan worshippers," he goes on. "They were asking me to worship Satan with them and giving me free drugs and all this crazy stuff.
"That's why I think it was God that saved me. I don't like to say that 'cause it makes me sound crazy, too," he says with a twinge of embarrassment. "I don't like to claim it, but it was almost like God stepped in and said, 'Go away for a while, clean up and you guys can rock again.'"
"At that point it was bigger than the band," says Bufano. "It was like we need to get this guy away from these people and out of this town. We didn't know what to do, and none of us could afford rehab. Plus, we were so in the dark about what was going on that we didn't even really know if that's what he needed. So the logical thing was to call his parents."
Bufano promptly phoned the bassist's family in Oregon to explain the situation. The following day, Eames' mother flew in, packed a U-Haul with her son's remaining belongings and drove him away.
"I woke up one day in [Oregon] and didn't remember what had happened for the last few months," says Eames.
The ensuing months provided Eames with the safe, sobering solace he needed. Living a quiet life at his family's home on the Oregon coast, he got clean and began to rediscover his passion for music. "Every day I'd take my guitar down to the beach and just sit down and write songs," he says. "It's pretty easy to write when you've got a clear head."
When he returned to town earlier this month, Eames brought along a cassette tape with demos of more than a dozen tunes -- material which Bufano says are among the best songs Eames has ever written. "I think we'll probably put at least two or three of them on the next album," he adds.
Today, Eames says he "feels great" -- though it's clear the experience has robbed him of much, including the ability view the world with the wide-eyed innocence of youth.
"It kind of sucks," he muses. "I can't see things as a kid anymore. I can't see anything nice anymore. All I see is people hurting themselves and crap like that. Now there's just two sides: You're either living or you're dying."
Even as Bufano chides Eames for his current listening tastes ("You like the Dixie Chicks? C'mon!"), it's clear that there is a profound bond between the two. Asked why he and the others stood by the wayward Eames instead of chucking him from the group, Bufano simply offers a friendship that dates back more than half their lives. Later, when Eames is out of the room, he sums up his loyalty in even more meaningful terms: "Andy's the guy who showed me how to play guitar."
"I was paying attention to all these other things, and here," says Eames, pointing to his bandmates, "are the ones that really care about me. Without them I wouldn't have anything left," he adds with a sigh, a warm smile begging to form at the corners of his mouth. "I had to give everything away to remember I had this."
While Eames was busy putting his life back in order, the band was pushing forward with the release of I Blame the Scenery. The record had been languishing in a near-finished state for close to a year when Reubens finally moved into high gear this past spring.
After a brief flirtation with Massachusetts' Big Wheel Recreation imprint, the foursome finally found a suitable home with longtime acquaintance Dave Brown's L.A.-based Better Looking Records (home to Boilermaker and the Album Leaf, among others). The label snapped up a chance to release the disc, a decidedly different-sounding effort than the bulk of the paint-by-numbers indie rock albums emerging from the underground these days.
The CD, which bows September 4 on Better Looking (Portland's Slowdance Records is handling the vinyl version), is a wonderfully organic affair. From the opening evocation of "Happy Mondays" to the atmospheric valedictory "Whales of the Desert," the album is dominated by softly spoken traumas and youthful ardor -- the bulk of it conveyed through delicate and fluid guitar work and the yearning, almost genetic harmonies of the two singers.
While Corak is technically the more gifted vocalist ("I consider him the real 'singer' of the band," says Bufano), it's the merger of both their voices -- the novelty and beauty of dueling falsettos -- that makes the whole so memorable.
It's a quality exemplified by the self-referential pop anthem "We're Waking Up Kings," Corak and Bufano trading lines about Saturday gigs, Dairy Queen sundaes and setting boys' and girls' bodies in motion with their music.
Elsewhere, the barrage of a cappella harmonies on the coda of "Oh My God" are as dizzyingly dense and complex as any of the Stack-O-Vocals tracks from the Beach Boys Pet Sounds box set.
Throughout, the band shows its stylistic range with a handful of genre twists. The thundering squall that opens "We're Not As Big As We Feel" gives way to the album's biggest surprise: a rootsy, hooky horn line that would, in some alternate universe, make the song a Top 40 smash. The candyfloss confection "Loop" -- with Corak's bubblegum pleas of "someone's got a crush on you" -- are enough to give the most dedicated pop aficionados a welcome toothache; in fact, the tambourine in the song is so prominent, you wonder if ex-Gin Blossom Robin Wilson didn't break into the sessions and commandeer the mixing board. That song dovetails nicely into the funky guitar workout "Mixing Memory With Desire" -- with Bufano's clever, cheeky wordplay ("California is falling in Yuma's ocean") pitted against the torrid riffage.
While neither man is bound to traditional song structures, there emerges a Lennon/McCartney dynamic to Corak and Bufano's partnership -- the former turning out immediately infectious, linear narratives, while the latter offers more caustic and abstract imagery, often with a Dadaist bent ("Cliches becoming the universal truth/Dark Monday theaters/Thank you John Wilkes Booth"). And then, of course, there are areas where the two intersect, such as on the see-sawing confessional "Losing Sleep."
Written in the midst of a difficult period during the Scenery sessions, Eames' contribution to the disc, "Down Again" is similarly notable as it finds him navigating a darkly hued lost love number that serves as a mid-album break from Corak and Bufano's high-pitched heroics.
Cast against the tug of guest player Jon Rauhouse's pedal steel lines, Eames wistful verses ("I don't have time for anyone/Who don't have time for me/And it was from you that I learned this philosophy") lope toward a tortured chorus bolstered by a halting vocal backing from Slowdown front woman Yolanda Bejarano.
With Knapp's rock-steady backbeat anchoring the whole affair, the four-man core is clearly responsible for the record's success -- even though the album credits read like a Who's Who of local music. Aside from the contributions of Rauhouse -- who colors the proceedings with tasteful splashes of various stringed instruments -- and Bejarano, the record benefits from appearances by Jimmy Eat World's Jim Adkins (extraneous percussion), Chicano Power Revival's Peter Green (trumpet), Truckers on Speed's Theron Wall (cello), Les Payne's James Karnes (vocals) and world renowned turntablist and former Valley resident DJ Radar, whose trademark scratching flirts alluringly with Bufano's guitar (as sampled from a previous Reubens single) in the mesmerizing intro to "Borders."
Now that the band is poised for a national release, it's likely the rest of the country will begin playing the game that local critics have been at for a long time: trying to come up with some multi-hyphenated hybrid definition for Reubens' signature sound. Being at the center of such semantic debates is something the band has gotten used to over the past few years. Ultimately, what genre the group is lumped in matters little, says Bufano, as long as people respond to the music's originality.
"Half the time if I put on a new record it sounds like something I've heard a million times, I'm already uninterested," says Bufano, "'Cause I've probably already heard the band that does that thing or that style the best. Sometimes I get that feeling when I hear our record -- and then other times I think, 'This is totally our own sound.'"
Bufano is spot on with the last point. The band's sonic elements -- lo-fi aesthetics, twangy guitars, falsetto harmonies -- aren't uncommon in and of themselves, but the way Reubens has cobbled these disparate devices together to create a singular and singularly strange hybrid is unique.
"What people consider traditional 'indie rock' -- bands like Sebadoh and Pavement -- I always thought that we were like a twangy, pop version of that," offers Bufano.
"The problem," he adds, playing devil's advocate, "is that what we're doing will probably be too pop for the indie kids and too indie for the pop kids."
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It's a theory the band will be able to test in earnest as it prepares to head out for a month-long national tour in September opening shows for longtime mates and current "It" band Jimmy Eat World.
"We went over well when we played with [Jimmy Eat World] at the Roxy in L.A.," says Bufano. "I'm really not expecting anything, but I'm hopeful. I think we can win a few of those people over."
Hmmm, playing for a couple thousand young, impressionable kids -- the kind of folks, jokes Bufano, who probably catch a lot of MTV, and definitely watch the Real World.
Sure enough, then, Reubens Accomplice will be blowing them up something fierce.