Pete Townshend once had a theory about solo albums. Although solo projects are generally regarded as a threat to the sanctity of a band -- and bands as an impediment to a fully realized solo career -- Townshend didn't see it that way. He believed that a band could operate as a mother ship, allowing its members to venture to dangerous musical locales as solo artists, secure in the knowledge that they have the mother ship to return to, if things get scary.
According to this view, a band doesn't have to restrict your creative freedom, but can actually provide you with the security to explore all your wildest ideas.
Townshend's theory comes to mind when considering the case of Pie Gomez. The longtime Valley MC and artsy hip-hop visionary -- who now refers to himself as Sir Pie -- had spent nearly a decade at the forefront of the local scene, with the popular bands Brothers Grimm and Cousins of the Wize.
But even with his deep roots in local music and well-established musical sensibility, Gomez managed to surprise old followers with this year's solo debut, We Attended Different Schools (on Destroyed Public Records).
This was music that differed radically from the jazzy hip-hop base that Gomez had established for himself. Dark and emotionally revealing, it alternately recalled the ambient soundscapes of Talking Heads' Remain in Light, the goth drama of Bauhaus and the gloomy wailing of Joy Division's Ian Curtis.
Gomez entered into the solo project in a state of career limbo. He knew he had a band to fall back on, but he didn't know what kind of future that band had. A couple of key personnel departures and a general feeling of inertia led him to explore something new.
"I wasn't sure what was gonna happen with the band," Gomez says. "I just knew that the energy was dead. It was becoming too much of a burden to keep it together with seven or eight guys. I had some time on my hands, and [producer] Robbie [Watson] and I went in the studio and came up with that record. Some of the guys from Cousins participated song for song, but it was a lot easier to do because it was just he and I in the room, going in a different direction."
Different Schools was a departure, all right, but then again, Gomez has always tended to depart from hip-hop -- or any other musical -- orthodoxy. Cousins of the Wize mixed slow funky grooves with jazz touches, and Gomez's lyrics have always skewed much more to the cryptic and enigmatic than those of most rappers. But Different Schools allowed him to open up his emotional diary in a way that he would have been too uncomfortable to share with his bandmates.
"With Cousins, each person brings an element and it kinda fuses together, but I definitely had more personal freedom on [the solo record]," he says. "It was a record I'd always wanted to do. I had all these songs that I knew wouldn't work with the band.
"With some of the emotions that are displayed, it's more of a personal scrapbook that I wouldn't really want to indulge with Cousins, which is more of an upbeat party band. I have another facet to myself, so I figured I'd exploit it with that record."
In light of the critical approval that greeted Different Schools (Down Lo magazine called it "sad and tragic, the perfect concoction for alternative rock superheroes"), and the desultory state of Gomez's band, many assumed that he was finished with Cousins. But, true to Townshend's theory, the experience of flexing his solo-artist muscles has returned him to the group with a renewed energy.
Strongly abetting this revivified incarnation of the band is the addition of a new rhythm section: bassist Josh Prior and drummer Mike Hill, of the irreverent funk-rock trio Yoko Love (erstwhile recording artists on the now defunct local label Epiphany Records). Prior and Hill were free to join Cousins because Yoko Love has been on indefinite hold for the last several months.
The revamped Cousins -- which also includes new guitarist Rob Mawalt, formerly of I Am-Fm -- debuted last month at the Bash on Ash, a show that Gomez terms a "preview," with the new members fully taxed just to master the band's old material. But this week, as part of a two-night, 10th-anniversary showcase for local rap-rock pioneers the Phunk Junkeez, Cousins will unleash its new direction, with five or six new songs written in recent weeks.
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As a member of Brothers Grimm, Gomez shared the bill with Phunk Junkeez at their earliest gigs, so he was adamant about wanting to be a part of their anniversary bash. It's only one of the decade-old loose ends that he's in the process of tying up. In April 2002, he'll graduate with a communications degree from Arizona State University, a commitment to his parents -- and himself -- that has been repeatedly sidetracked by his musical endeavors. But to hear him talk about his new band lineup, it's obvious that his enthusiasm for music hasn't dimmed over the years.
"Those guys [from Yoko Love] bring a little bit more of a funk element, and the music's more upbeat and raw," he says. "It's a little bit more of a hip-hop feel. We were so stale before. The new energy is just incredible."
Cousins of the Wize are scheduled to perform on Friday, December 28, at the Bash on Ash in Tempe, with Phunk Junkeez, Golden Tung, Warsaw, Tolerance, and Cut Throat Freak Show. Showtime is 7 p.m. The show is all-ages.
With all due respect to the Fiesta Bowl Block Party blowout (after all, what's a New Year's Eve without Bryan Adams yowling "Cuts Like a Knife"?), the musical highlight of this week will be considerably lower on both the hype and decibel meters. Jimmy Eat World leader Jim Adkins, fresh off a fall tour with Weezer and Tenacious D, plays a rare solo set at Modified Arts on Thursday, December 27, to benefit Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. Showtime is 9 p.m., but it's likely to sell out, so you'd best get there early.