In a pop perfect world, there would be some deep, cosmic rationale behind every band name. In reality, knowing that Buffalo Springfield is a brand of lawn mower doesn't yield much in the way of brilliant insight. Since most of the really cool titles--like the Temptations and the Heartbreakers--have already been used at least once, modern musicians in need of a moniker often go into fits of desperation and come out with something so dumb no one else could possibly want it, like Weezer or the Osmonds.
Still, once in a while a group will land a name that suits it to a T. The Charthogs, for instance, or the Charlie Daniels Band. Other times, the hand of fate will simply nudge a good tag in the right band's direction.
Take Trunk Federation. Last summer, just as the band was getting started, there was a local news item about a well-respected Valley resident turning up dead in the locked trunk of an abandoned car. For three days, the corpse festered in triple-digit heat in the high-profile parking lot at Sky Harbor International Airport. The police couldn't determine whether it was one of the man's two wives, his burned business partners or his drug-dealing connections that put him in the hot seat, er, trunk.
So are we getting warm here? Might "Trunk Federation" have been inspired by the grisly crime? "Yeah, that's it exactly," says Federation lead singer and resident word man Jim Andreas, laughing. "It sounds plausible enough."
No doubt the band will file the boiled-businessman explanation into its collective memory bank for the next time someone asks. Fielding recent inquiries about the origin of the band's name, Andreas has said (among other things): a swimsuit manufacturer; a sophisticated car alarm system; Danny Glover's platoon in Operation Dumbo Drop; and a Road and Track handle along the lines of his heroes in Bachman-Turner Overdrive. As local politics has proven time and time again, if you're gonna lie, it's best to lie often.
Make no mistake--Trunk Federation is the name of a damn fine Phoenix rock band. And a morbid one at that. Andreas, along with guitarist Jason Sanford, bassist Mark Frostin and drummer Chris Kennedy, harbors an unhealthy fascination with gruesome trunk-murder folklore. "Young Cherry Trees," one of the band's earliest compositions, contains several oblique references to Phoenix's notorious trunk murderess Winnie Ruth Judd.
"I kind of skimmed over the book about her, so this is my version of the Winnie saga," Andreas explains. "In the Thirties, she murdered two women who I think were her lesbian lovers." "Butchered 'em and cut 'em up into little parts," Sanford nonchalantly adds.
Andreas continues: "She tried to take them to L.A. in a steamer trunk. She almost got there, but the body parts started stinking up, so they stopped the train." Perhaps Winnie's indomitable spirit appealed to the fledgling group--after all, she escaped from Arizona State Mental Hospital several times. Regardless, when the band released its first seven-inch single last fall, it adopted Judd as unofficial group spokesmodel. Neither "Beanie's Soft Toy Factory" nor "Jello" have any lyrical links to the infamous character, but the band dubbed the single Winnie anyway, as if it were a minialbum. Adorning the sleeve are old Phoenix Gazette clippings from her trial, as well as before-and-after prison mug shots of the she-devil "trunk slayer." Titling singles like they're a collection of songs is just one of Trunk Federation's abundant quirks. Another is staging each show as if it were a video shoot. For a recent Mason Jar extravaganza, the band opted for leisurely evening wear--pajamas! True, Johnny Fingers of the Boomtown Rats made a career out of sporting jammies, but even he never decorated the bandstand with 20 pounds of Christmas lights and four portable TVs set on static so that the stage resembles a pagan altar (or at least U2's Zoo TV tour on a shoestring budget).
Most Valley bands' concern for visual presentation maxes out at what color tee shirts to wear, but Trunk Federation's stage show is all the more appreciable. As for the pajamas, "We always try to have a cohesive look, like the Jackson Five and Menudo," says Andreas. "We have a friend that's going to make us matching gold lam suits." Yes, he's serious.
Overall, the sights and sounds of a Trunk Federation show are as unsettling as they are engaging, like a slumber party that could go dangerously wrong at any moment. Maybe it's Frostin's uncanny resemblance to David Berkowitz, the New York City serial killer who called himself "Son of Sam" and murderered on the orders of his neighbor's dog. Or maybe it's Andreas' somnambulant delivery on the slower numbers like "Saint Francis," or his impenetrable subject matter.
Like most songwriters, Andreas is loath to talk at length about the mysterious lyrics he pens, dismissing any aspirations to high art with "Our songs are all about mundane sort of things." Although titles like "Prefix," "Recipe for Mud" and "Jello" seem to bear out that assertion, not all is as it seems. "Jello" isn't about the wiggly, giggly gelatin that makes Cosby's eyes pop out of his head. With its exhortation to "stand up, you got two legs," could it, by chance, be about the thumping Dead Kennedy front man Jello Biafra received last year at the hands of a band of punk rockers chanting "Kill the rock star!"?
"It's not about Jello Biafra. It's about music snobs," says Andreas with a smile. "People who are easily swayed by things."
Being categorized is an abiding concern for Trunk Federation. Andreas and drummer Kennedy were once members of the Hoodwinks, a popular local band Andreas classifies as "a little more pop, more Mill Avenue-oriented. People figure you have a certain sound if you play at Long Wong's, rightly or not."
Currently, you can find Trunk Federation holding court at such un-Millish venues as Boston's, Hollywood Alley, Nita's Hideaway, Nile Theater and the Mason Jar. Apparently, there is life after Mill, since Trunk Federation has managed to open for such noteworthy national acts as Poster Children, the Dambuilders, April's Motel Room, Zu Zu's Petals, Ex-Idols, and Love Battery.
Nothing resembling a Mill Avenue sound--or, more specifically, the Hoodwinks' old stylings--has a place in the band's current repertoire. In fact, Andreas readily admits to being heavily influenced by less conventional fare as the Pixies. And like that late, lamented group, Trunk Federation is able to merge a major sinister guitar lick with a vocal hook in every song it does. A big chunk of its sound stems from Sanford's impact. Both sides of the band's latest single ("History of Dead Ends" and "Recipe for Mud," collectively titled Hi-Fi for Small Fry) contain rootless, almost Devo-ish guitar interjections that Sanford fashioned in a state of confusion when the band kept encouraging him to play "a little off-centered."
Dan Nelson, who recorded and produced Brick Chair's recent CD for his Primary Records label, is doing a Trunk Federation disc this summer. "He wants to record everything we've got, even all our shitty songs," marvels Sanford. The band members are still big fans of vinyl, but that preference is waning after pressing two of the little black beasts. Since most radio stations don't even have turntables anymore, Trunk put out a few promo CDs early this year just to get airplay and soon wished it hadn't. "The CDs were somehow defective, so it was a nightmare," groans Andreas. "On KUKQ, all their stuff is on computer and for some reason it cut out all these frequencies so you wouldn't hear any vocals. Just guitars. Like The Ventures!"
The band ran into similar problems trying to put a snippet of a single on the Internet. "We wound up recording a cassette of the actual single with pops and scratches, and that's what they're playing now." Truly Low-Fi for Small Fry.
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Speaking of small fries, last Sunday's Arizona Republic carried a front-page story about the city's latest campaign to eliminate all-ages shows, a prospect that troubles Andreas.
"We don't get to play as many all-ages shows as we'd like. It's the under-21 crowd that stands up in front and buys seven inches even if they don't have a turntable. They just hang it on the wall and figure that's what the hole's for. Not to say anything bad about anyone over 21, but sometimes they're just too cool to stand up and give that kind of feedback. They don't mosh. But they will yell 'nice pants!' occasionally."
As all ambitious groups must do, the Federation has recently been loading up its trunks and venturing out of state. "Anyplace we can drive to on a weekend," says Frostin. "If we can work it so we're out of Phoenix every summer like the Meat Puppets do, that'd be heaven." "Yeah," drawls Andreas. "We're no different from any other band. We want to make a lot of money. We want fame. We want to be lame. But we want to be lame for all the right reasons."
Trunk Federation's latest single, "Hi-Fi for Small Fry," is available at Zia Record Exchange, Eastside Records and other Valley record stores with enough guts to carry vinyl.