For much of 1999, word was that the seeming demise of pop eclectics Trunk Federation had been the result of two main factors, the first being lead singer and de facto leader Jim Andreas' relapse into substance abuse after eight years of sobriety. Sensing that things were taking a dark turn, bassist Bob Smith decided to take up friend A.J. Croce on his standing offer to be a sideman in his touring band. What followed was some intense intraband squabbling, Smith's departure, a stint in rehab, and a false start as a three-piece.
After a year full of turmoil, the group has somehow managed to return with its old lineup intact, a forthcoming album and its first show in more than eight months.
Despite the subsequent difficulties with Andreas and Smith, the group's trouble really began after its parting with Los Angeles-based Alias Records last year. Alias, which boasts a label full of idiosyncratic music makers like the Loud Family and Caustic Resin, had been experiencing a financial crunch that hamstrung the group's plans for a follow-up to 1998's The Curse of Miss Kitty.
"They said they couldn't afford our contract at the time. We were kind of pressing them, we wanted to get in the studio and start working on the next record. We said, 'We really want to do this.' But that's when things were really falling apart [at Alias]. The money just wasn't there," says Andreas.
Eventually, the band and the label parted ways, signaling the start of the band's downward slide. "Everything started going to shit when we stopped working with Alias," says guitarist Jason Sanford. "I think that's pretty obvious. It kind of made things happen in each of our lives. I mean, especially with no more Alias, it's like, 'Where is the money coming from?'"
Despite the lack of support, the band scraped together enough money to record a six-song demo. The tracks were produced by Jim Waters at his Waterworks Studio in Tucson. Waters has also worked with Sonic Youth and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, among others.
The band spent much of last year shopping the demo to various labels without success. "None of that really bore fruit," says Sanford. "Our attitudes kept getting worse and worse and worse. We had a couple pretty rough shows in the fall and then right after Christmas is when it really started to go downhill."
The worst moment for the band came during a local show opening for former label mates the Archers of Loaf. During the performance, it became obvious that Andreas had drifted back into addiction.
"Jim has always been like our rock. He's been the center point of the band, the one that's the most stable. But when he relapsed, he just became the worst, least responsible one," says drummer Chris Kennedy.
With Andreas fading and without a label or any immediate prospects, Smith decided to leave the group to join Croce's outfit.
"I was the first to realize what was going on in the band," says Smith. "I had my own personal problems, too, and we learned a lot from it, but I realized that nothing was happening [with Trunk Federation]." The prospect of a day job was not an appealing one to Smith and so he made what seemed to be an obvious choice. Though he signed on with Croce, Smith figured he would still be able to split time between both groups.
While Smith saw the two as manageable, Andreas took his defection as a personal affront. Having worked tirelessly over the past five years to realize Trunk Federation, Andreas was admittedly angry to see Smith skip out during the band's low point. "He got this offer, and I took it really personally at the time," Andreas explains. "I wanted it to be cut and dry, you know, 'You do ours or nothing.' Which, looking back, was really stupid. It was just a jealousy thing. When Bob joined the band, he really fit in, and I thought everything was hunky-dory. Bob was like, 'Let's just work [the Trunk and Croce conflict] out' and I took the wrong approach. I felt like, 'Let's just end it now.'"
Kennedy is less generous when it comes to Smith's exit. "It really peeved us all when Bob was like, 'Well, I just got to do this thing,' after we've been making all these sacrifices for all these years and he came in at the last minute and he's like, 'Okay, see ya.'"
After a considerable amount of bickering, Smith and the band parted ways. After Smith's departure, Andreas sought help, checking into rehab for a 30-day stint. When he got out, the band tried to make a go of it as a three-piece with Andreas taking over bass duties. The trio began writing material to add to the demo they'd already completed.
While on tour, the group managed to generate some interest from Plastique, a North Carolina-based indie label with ties to Red Eye Distribution -- the company that works with a number of other well-known labels like Merge and Matador.
With Plastique's support, Trunk Federation returned to Tucson to continue work with Waters. Andreas says it was the producer who prodded the band into settling its differences with Smith. "He really was the person who was a catalyst in that sense. He said, 'You guys are being childish because the last stuff you did with Bob came out good. If you don't have any problems with him, you should just do this record with him,'" says Andreas.
With the door open to put out a new product, it was merely a question of logic and some measure of pride to bring Smith back into the fold. "My initial response was this is going to conflict with everything we do, which it does still. It's a scheduling nightmare with this band. I won't deny that at all. But, you make it work," adds Andreas.
The forthcoming album, tentatively titled Lay the Hip, is the product of two six-song sessions nearly a year apart. The record is scheduled for a January 2000 release, and the material is a testament to the potential benefits of adversity. The album represents a genuine creative departure for the band.
Although the songs from the first session bear a faint resemblance to The Curse of Miss Kitty, the remainder of the tracks find the group leaving behind the cut and paste, aural experiments of the past in favor of more mellow, subtly textured songs with traditional structures. The group has also branched out sonically, adding strings to a number of tracks.
For Smith, the challenges of the past year have been essential in shaping the direction of the new material. "These songs wouldn't have existed back in August of last year. So in a sense, what happened to us then may have seemed bad, but I think the reality of things is we wrote our best music ever." -- Jonathan Bond
Trunk Federation is scheduled to perform on Saturday, October 23, at the Green Room in Tempe, with Les Payne Product, and Treeclimber. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Mob Front: Local punks the Mob 40's have been tapped by hard-core giants Agnostic Front to open a trio of shows for the band on its current West Coast tour.
The group got the nod after opening for the New York legends at the Nile Theater in Mesa last week. Mob 40's front man Myke Augustat says AF singer Roger Miret came up after the show and complimented the group on its performance.
The next day Miret called the 40's manager requesting the band join them on the remainder of their Western dates including stops in Flagstaff, Denver and Salt Lake City.
The tour is a big coup for the Mob 40's, who have established a growing local and national reputation while drawing favorable comparisons to Agnostic Front's riff and howl-heavy style.
Augustat says the group is almost ready with enough material to begin work on a follow-up to 1998's Three Chords and the Truth. The band is also in the process of manufacturing a second run of Three Chords, which has sold out its initial pressing. The Mob 40's will return to town after the tour for a pair of shows at Boston's in Tempe. The band will be part of the club's Ghoul's Night Out Festival on October 29 as well as headlining a performance there on November 13.
Head! Haggis! Now! On Saturday, October 23, Mesa's Hollywood Alley will host a CD-release party for Haggis. The Scot-o-philes' new record, Piper Down, was produced and engineered by front man Brian Talenti at the group's studio, The Meadows. The album is a follow-up to last year's What's Up Haircut?. The band will be giving away free tee shirts to the first 50 paying patrons through the door. However, the real treat waits inside as the band will be serving two pounds of authentic haggis to any willing (or daring) gourmands.
The show will also feature a set from power-poppers Sugar High. Recently, the group's song "Turbo Teen" made it into the opening credits of the Melissa Joan Hart comedy Drive Me Crazy. Although the song isn't included on the film's Jive Records soundtrack, Sugar High did beat out a number of other high-profile Jive artists, including Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, to get the coveted opening-credit spot. The band also recently completed work on some new material produced by Pollen drummer/whiz kid Bob Hoag.
Haggis is scheduled to perform on Saturday, October 23, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with Sugar High. Showtime is 9 p.m. Fat Grey Cat and Smee are also scheduled to perform.
Trippy Benefit: A bit of sad news as longtime local music vet Dave Trippy, vocalist and harmonica player for the Hoodoo Kings, has been diagnosed with cancer. Rhythm Room honcho Bob Corritore and a number of other friends and peers have organized a benefit show for Trippy scheduled for Wednesday, October 27. The blues and roots community has come out in force to support Trippy. Performers at the show will include Big Pete Pearson, Chico Chism, Sistah Blue, Ruth Wilson and a host of others. Doors open at 6 p.m. and music will go from 7 p.m. until close. There is a $5 minimum donation. For additional information, call the Rhythm Room at 602-265-4842. -- Bob Mehr
Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.