Garage rock was not about taking rock 'n' roll and handing it to creepy label guys with shaky checkbooks. Nor was it about having your parents, teachers, priests and rabbis giving it the thumbs up. It was none of that. It was all about your own, about breathing some kind of passion and art into some artless and raw form and making your soul scream. This during a time when radio actually played local records, when half your friends weren't yet shipped off to Vietnam. A time when rock 'n' roll had life and context and functionality.
Arizona in the 1960s had an untold number of great bands that blew the horns of garage punk. Bands that parents loathed. Bands that fancied themselves as experiments rich in colorful symbolism with many layered meanings, or out just to piss off adults and get the girls. The Dearly Beloved, the Spiders, the Grodes and Sot Weed Factor were a few Arizona bands that were considered great.
Sitting around a table at a dimly lighted midtown bar, downing round after round of Guinness Stout, the five men/boys who make up five-sixths of the Hypno-Twists (glaringly absent from the group is organist Tula Storm) explain how they went from back-up schleps for Marco Polo's Curse of the Pink Hearse to Phoenix's newest garage/kitsch hitmakers.
Billy Gordon's in Tempe
Scheduled to perform on Friday, September 29 with the Scones, and Zen Lunatics. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Heaping helpings of self-deprecation and piss-takes litter the conversation. The occasional rock-band cliché takes flight, hangs in the air momentarily, then is soon wrestled down. The members of Hypno-Twists have their tongues deeply planted in their cheeks.
Guitarist Jelly Roll Joel deconstructs the band's short stint with Curse of the Pink Hearse, which ended two months ago. "He [Marco Polo] pulled some things that we weren't happy about, basically. We went down to meet with him and he had complained to a couple people in the band [about band members] but never really said anything to other people in the band. He basically just decided we weren't gonna book any shows. We were gonna take three months off. And we all said, 'Forget it.'"
"It kind of worked out well for us because we just got bored doing straight rockabilly anyway," explains drummer Philthy Phil, Joel's brother.
Brothers Phil and Joel are droll and self-effacing. They look like Chocolate Watch Band expatriates caught in a vacuum -- Byrdsy mops, thick lips, good cheekbones. Having been bros for nearly 30 years, they often finish one another's sentences, jokes, anecdotes and personal histories.
On a night when the temperature is still hanging in the hundreds, Phil can be seen making the local scene in skintight yellow trousers, Beatle boots and a three-button jacket. Phil and Joel, it would appear, understand that proper rock 'n' roll stars -- past and present -- put vanity first.
Besides Curse of the Pink Hearse, the brothers shared the stage together in the Hemlocks and Cruel Daddy Doom.
When their association with Curse of the Pink Hearse comes up, others in the group just shake their heads. And they are polite, even after countless Guinnesses. None is willing to go on record saying anything disparaging about the long-in-the-tooth local rockabilly hepster Polo. Polo is, after all, the reason the Hypno-Twists exist. The Curse brought them all together. They are grateful for that, but you get the sense a few are biting their tongues.
"We're much happier now," says trumpeter/tambourine-smasher Jimmy Vespa, the group's resident mod. "So we replaced Marco with a television set!"
Onstage, Vespa's the one you'll see using the front mike, though the band claims no actual front man. He's a younger, good-looking Kramer from Seinfeld. Live, Vespa has Krameresque body humor, lithesome and gyratory. Like all retro campaigners, Vespa takes his mod shtick two steps further than would otherwise be expected from a genre-specific music fan. Here's a guy who adheres to a mod scene of yore when by most accounts no local mod scene ever really existed. To hear him talk, Phoenix in the early 1980s could have been Brighton circa 1965, with Camelback Mountain the battleground where the mods and the rockers went at it.
It's true the band does employ a TV set live. Off-putting at first, the set sits facing the crowd at the bow of the stage and loops everything kitschy and sweet -- a hip-swinging Ann-Margret, a Roddy McDowall grimace from Planet of the Apes, hypnotic 1950s tease-arama and band members themselves preening into the camera's lens. There's a junior Pink Floyd psychedelic slide show.
The Hypno-Twists' shtick transcends the retro-vaudevillian splash some might associate with the band upon first inspection. Guitar leads and organ grinds swirl menacingly, sliding purposely in and out of notes for heightened effect. Mewling lead vocals are traded among members (a few even crooned in Spanish). The songs themselves at this point are mostly instrumental, hum and twang along, heavy in Ventures nods, surf riffs that morph into mambos or platefuls of Ennio Morricone spaghetti. Vespa's trumpet furnishes the tunes with a soaring thickness, and lovely melodies.
"We're a variety of rock styles, though," Joel explains. "Sixties go-go to surf-type stuff to exotica to spaghetti Western. We try to mix it up."
"A little mind trip stuff, too," chimes in Phil. "We throw that in, too."
Hence the band's name. There's a perverse diet of instant imagery. If you're drunk or high at a Hypno-Twists show, it can be dizzying. The floor can suddenly rush toward you. I've seen more than one person get smacked in the face by club floorboards at a Hypno-Twists show. But nobody at a Hypno-Twists show gives a damn about the shine of his shoes.
Keyboardist Tula Storm is built like a swan. She moves like one, too. Long neck and fingers, sinewy, graceful. She plays a Vox Continental organ (rumored to have once belonged to Blondie's Jimmy Destri).When I saw her live, she wore black jeans hewed to hot pants. One of my friends leaned over to me and said, "I'll give all my beer money for 15 minutes alone with the keyboard player." He said this without any hint of irony. Storm inspires that kind of reaction. She's untouchable in that way.
"It's definitely a live thing," says bassist Dr. Epibular, the only donation he makes to the conversation all night. Onstage, Epibular hangs in the shadows, wearing a big, fat smile and laying bass lines in a conservative manner that belies his punk-rock demeanor. Epibular has done time in local hard-core god-heads Pay Neuter. Rumor has it that Epibular possesses the largest hard-core/punk record collection in the city, possibly the state. He's the latest addition to the group, playing bass in place of the Curse's Polo.
Hypno-Twists' covers run the tasteful gamut of Chuck Berry ("Beautiful Delilah"), the Ventures ("Dick Tracy," "Out of Limits") and the Cramps ("Can't Find My Mind"). "One of our covers is so obscure that I can't even remember the guy's name who sang it," chortles Joel.
The band's own songs cover themes of "broads and booze, mostly."
Sporting an orange forked beard, shorn locks and perpetually sweaty forehead, guitarist Bobby Lava Noxious onstage resembles a teenage Rasputin had he played a big, vintage hollow-body. Noxious came up doing seven years with the ska-ready Kongo Shock.
"We're not an angry band," understates Noxious. "We're a happy band that people enjoy to watch and get up and dance to."
"No, it's just to have a good time," chimes in Phil. "To turn ourselves on. We want to turn other people on."
What about covering songs of 1960s Phoenix bands?
"We're thinking about covering the Spiders [pre Alice Cooper]," Phil says.
"That would be right up our alley," adds Joel.
Any band with a foot in the 1960s gutter must have inside knowledge of psychedelics, of Rimbaud's theory of distorting all senses through drugs to find illumination.
"I've ingested many, many psychedelics," says Joel. "It's not a part of my regular routine anymore."
Vespa and Noxious nod in agreement.
"I'm high on life," adds Phil.
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The others nod again. The band members seem to agree on everything. When one person speaks, the other shuts up. How rare. How adult. This with all this Guinness Stout going down.
The Hypno-Twists say their plans include playing lots of shows, a forthcoming EP, a tour, some vinyl singles, and all the other well-worn rock band hopes/truths. They understand the futility.
"But one thing we do like," says Phil flatly. "Britney Spears we love."
The others nod.