Tara Hitchcock, host of Channel 3's Good Morning Arizona, probably had no idea what she was getting into. It was just supposed to be another band doing another in-studio promotion. But the group in question was the Zen Lunatics. Members of the always eccentric power-pop quartet decided to turn their recent appearance with the perky morning hostess into an artistically challenging version of 1980s lip-synch show Puttin' On the Hits. The broadcast high jinks began when the Lunatics were asked to appear on the program to promote the New Times Music Showcase. Chief Lunatic Terry Garvin was eager to use the opportunity to perform some new material augmented by a host of extraneous flourishes (piano, horns, organ, vibes, flutes) that would be too complex to re-create during their usual sets. So Garvin asked GMA's producers if the group could mime to prerecorded tracks.
The Channel 3 staff insisted that at least the vocals be delivered live, so the enigmatic Garvin, taking them at their word, promptly gathered the rest of the band -- singer/guitarist Chris Hansen Orf, bassist Gilbert Padilla and drummer Ric Napoli -- to record backing for a pair of new compositions, "With You" and "She's Everything," and a drastically altered rearrangement of an older piece, "Lonely Love Song."
Since Bash & Pop's rigorous regimen of beauty sleep precludes rising before noon, we missed the original broadcast, but last week Garvin was thoughtful enough to drop off a tape of the appearance. He also left a hand-written note, which suggests the few minutes of footage have been as carefully scrutinized as the Zapruder film:
THINGS TO WATCH FOR:
-- Ric's fake drumming.
-- Terry's cardboard keyboard.
-- Absence of any guitars on backing track despite Chris' faithful miming.
-- Guitar and bass both plugged into tiny prop amp.
-- Cardboard keyboard is leaned upon by and withstands (barely) the weight of affable host Tara Hitchcock.
-- Puffs of smoke from grassy knoll.
-- On fatal headshot, Gilbert's head snaps backward and to the left.
All the above, save for the last two items, are quite noticeable and fairly hilarious. (From our vantage point, it looked as though the shooter actually fired from inside the manhole.) Especially Napoli's backbeat; his drumsticks don't seem to come within four feet of his snare or cymbals. However, watching a helpless Hitchcock chat up Garvin, with his Fred Rogers/Hannibal Lecter deadpan, has to rate a close second for sheer entertainment value.
Beyond the amusing bit of guerrilla theater lies serious music. The three songs, while a departure from the Lunatics' normal noise, are actually accomplished pieces of sunny brass-fueled pop, crafted in the vein of the Buckinghams and the Association.
That sort of spur-of-the-moment brilliance only serves to illustrate the point that the Lunatics are, and have been for the better part of their decade-long run, one of the most underappreciated bands in the Valley. You can count on one hand the number of local rock bands that have endured for so long. But the Lunatics' career ambitions have been subdued compared to some of their peers. If they had made the "right" career decision and relocated to say, L.A., in the early '90s, they might have had a career similar to the Wondermints or other retro pop combos that have carved respectable indie niches.
But that was never an option for Garvin, a onetime SoCal resident.
"I went to high school in Orange County," he says. "If you can imagine being in Orange County during the early Reagan era, you know, think about it. Think if you'd ever want to go back. It was hellish then, never mind later on."
Most of the blame for the Lunatics' anonymity can be placed at their own door, mainly because there has never been a quality-sounding representation of their top-drawer material. This, despite a recently released multidisc collection, Live at the BBC. The three-record set includes more than 50 originals and covers interspersed with interviews and commentary from a "BBC interviewer" (actually Garvin doing a spot-on impersonation of Beeb DJ Brian Matthew).
While the BBC stuff has distinct charm, the music is rough-sounding, a result of recording live to four-track. Conversely, Dang!, a disc recorded by the Lunatics' country alter ego, the Cartwheels, on a borrowed eight-track, sounds as good as or better than most major studio efforts.
So why not afford the Lunatics' material the same bit of sonic respectability? The songs -- Garvin estimates the group's catalogue, which dates to his junior high days with Hansen Orf, has reached into the hundreds -- are certainly worthy.
Still, nothing has surfaced, despite repeated attempts by the band to produce a "proper" studio disc, including a 24-track nightmare in 1997.
"That was the one experience that has soured me on ever entering a recording studio again," says Garvin. "I finally realized the reason I don't like working with engineers in a studio is they cannot read my mind. If they could, everything would be great. It's tedious and a waste of my energy when I could turn a knob, without having to say, 'Gee, don't you think we should turn this knob?' or 'Don't you think we should go for this sort of result?' It's an absolute waste, to my mind."
If Garvin is disillusioned with conventional methods, he is at least optimistic when discussing efforts to rectify the sad state of the Lunatics' discography -- as the Lunatics prepare to record what the band hopes will be their definitive album.
"But," adds Garvin, "I won't touch anything with more than 16 tracks, probably wouldn't go any higher than eight, given a choice."
Garvin's dedication to single-digit tracking isn't born of some romance for the trappings of "indie rock."
"See, I don't even know what that means. That terminology is completely irrelevant in my mind," says Garvin, only half-joking.
It's clear to Garvin that mixing software, pro-tools and million-dollar boards aren't the essential ingredients of pop perfection. But, he adds, sonic minimalism isn't a necessary by-product of smaller-scale recording, either, especially when you consider the Beatles recorded their early material on four-track, and even something as challenging as the White Album was but a mere eight-track job.
"To me, that's all hi-fi," says Garvin. "That's as hi-fi as you can get."
Norman Conquerors: Continuing the TV personality theme is an offering from Tempe quartet the Royal Normans. The group is led by local gee-tar hero and singer/songwriter Greg Simmons and features the Dialectrics' erstwhile rhythm section, drummer Andy Mendoza and bassist Steve Flores, as well as second guitarist Tom Post, sometime trapsman for Dave Insley's Nitpickers.
A veteran of the Mill Avenue grind for the better part of a decade, Simmons is widely regarded as one of the finest, if not the finest, rock guitarists in the Valley. Notoriously shy, the bespectacled recluse easily could have bolted the desert and found success as a studio hand or hired gun for any number of big-name acts. In fact, he considered doing just that for tepid pseudo-funksters the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and decided against it -- an act of integrity that alone earns our undying respect.
Instead, Simmons has insisted on remaining in Phoenix, fronting a band playing his own material. It's been a difficult process of trial and error -- he's labored in the studio and onstage for years -- but he seems to have finally found the right bit of personnel and personal maturity with this latest project.
In an effort to drum up interest, and as an appetizer for an expected September full-length release, the Normans are giving away a three-song promotional disc. The tracks on the freebie show Simmons' vocals making leaps and bounds from his days as a member of his last (admittedly ramshackle) combo, the Regulars.
Simmons and company conjure up the melodic post-grunge alt-rock that seems to have fallen out of favor with both local and national audiences, who have either elected to get strident and stupid via rap-metal or retreat into the relative safety of retro revivalism. The Normans do neither, preferring to milk a sonic milieu that produced a string of mid-'90s one-hit wonders such as Superdrag and Nada Surf.
Surprisingly, Simmons' burnished midrange tenor actually proves to be a bigger asset to the songs than his much-lauded fretwork. From the evocative "Speak Easy" to the updated Stonesy swagger of "Gypsy," Simmons proves himself a capable songsmith in an Elvis Costello/Marshall Crenshaw mold. Still, the writing is not without its flaws. Simmons' formula is more successful when he errs on the side of cheeky cleverness -- the word play of "Speak Easy," for example -- than on more rudimentary lyrical efforts like "Her Girl."
Musically, the Normans aren't breaking any new ground, either, though their multitextured meld is a refreshing respite from most of the Johnny-one-note pop combos around town. The songs also benefit from the able rhythm backing of Flores and Mendoza, the latter providing some crucial high harmonies.
All in all, it's a better-than-expected first effort and one that should have local aficionados looking froward to the full platter this fall.
For those currently craving a bigger piece of the band, the Normans also make an appearance on the just-released Uranus Presents: New & Used Vol. 1, with a pair of equally sprite originals, "Now" and "Oxygen and Tonic."
The Royal Normans are scheduled to perform on Friday, May 19, at Long Wong's in Tempe, with Ghetto Cowgirl. Showtime is 9 p.m.
All Mod Comps: This week, downtown's Modified hosts the first in a series of preview shows from bands that will be appearing on a forthcoming compilation sponsored by the venerable art/performance venue. The disc is tentatively slated to come out in late summer and will feature contributions from top local indie acts like Reuben's Accomplice, Half Visconte, and Jimmy Adkins' orchestral pop project Go Big Casino. The Modified Compilation Series will commence this Friday with a show featuring Five Speed, Before Braille, and Fightshy. The second installment of the program will happen next Friday, May 26, with sets from Sea of Cortez, Harcuvar, and Pinewood Derby. A third showcase is scheduled for June 10.
Modified should also be the choice destination for experimental enthusiasts on Tuesday, May 23, as ENEMYMINE -- the multi-bass brain child of ex-Godheadsilo member Mike Kunka, Danny Sasaki, and Low's Zak Sally -- makes a return visit to Phoenix along with Golden (featuring Phil Manley of D.C. post-rockers Trans Am) and the Automaton Adventure Series.
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Bangin in Phoenix: Windy City and hard-house DJ Bad Boy Bill makes a rare visit to the Valley for a special CD-release performance at Tempe's Pompeii. The turntablist and entrepreneur (Bill heads International House Records and its Mix Connection Multimedia Inc. subdivision) has been busy with a multivolume turntable battle series with Richard "Humpty" Vission titled The House Connection. Bill is also responsible for the ongoing Bangin the Box mix collection, the most recent of which, Vol. 4, bowed last August. This week's show will celebrate the release of the Bangin offshoot Bangin in London.
Bad Boy Bill is scheduled to perform on Friday, May 19, at Pompeii in Tempe, with Pete Salaz, Alex Ruiz, and Plotz. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Pixie Sticks: Former Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago makes a stop in town this week with his latest band, the Martinis. A collaboration with singer/songwriter Linda Mallari -- who, judging by her photo, is better-looking than Black Francis and likely easier to deal with than Kim Deal -- the group is about to release its indie debut, Fast Forward. A CD-R of the album that reached Bash & Pop's desk proved to be a pretty engaging listen. Santiago's trademark guitar squeals remain intact, and the songs definitely have enough of that UMass angst/pop sweetness to win over Pixies acolytes.
The Martinis are scheduled to perform on Friday, May 19, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Showtime is 9 p.m.