Seriously Joking

On a sweltering Friday night in mid-July, an experimental punk band called Janis Joplin Crap N Vomit takes the stage at Club Red in Tempe, looking like a trio of misfit superheroes. Singer and guitarist Dana Stern dons a sailor's cap and a red, white, and blue face mask that makes her look like a patriotic bank robber. Bassist and singer Pete Hinz sports white, knee-high socks and a T-shirt with boobs air-brushed on the front. The T-shirt is longer than Pete's shorts, so it looks as though he's wearing a dress. Drummer Jeff Barthold is dressed as Santa Claus; his long, curly, white cotton beard bounces with every beat of the drum.

When the band starts playing, the audience isn't quite sure what to make of the trio. Janis Joplin Crap N Vomit is bouncy and loud, screaming out lyrics about dead beavers and hormones over a wall of distorted guitar and thick bass lines. It's loosely structured noise with a heavy proto-punk aesthetic, sort of like pre-Daydream Nation Sonic Youth, or a more garage-rock version of Jon Spencer's old band, Pussy Galore.

Throughout the band's performance, audience members try to dance. But JJCNV thwarts the rhythms — as soon as a skinny punk girl with long, dark hair finally starts bouncing to the 4/4 beat, the band blasts into a feedback-laden bridge not conducive to any dance move except, perhaps, a simulated seizure.

By the time the group wraps up its 30-minute set, people in the bar are both cheering and scratching their heads. Such a mixed reaction is typical for JJCNV. This is a band that wears everything from brightly colored wigs to T-shirts over their heads when they perform, and sings short, semi-discordant, and oft-distorted songs with titles like "Hamsterdam" and "Bones Make Good Coals." And they made a moniker out of a dead blues-rock icon and two revolting body fluids. But the band (now formerly known as Janis Joplin Crap N Vomit), wants its music to be taken seriously. This has been a bit of a challenge.

First, they had to change their name. None of the band members is particularly a fan of late-'60s singer Janis Joplin (Pete says, "She bugs the shit out of me . . . she's part of that stupid hippie idea"), but they insist their original moniker wasn't meant to be insulting to her. That didn't matter to the attorney for the estate of Janis Joplin, who sent the band a letter demanding they cease using the name "Janis Joplin" immediately.

So Janis Joplin Crap N Vomit became JJCNV, and they want to leave the acronym open for conjecture. It could stand for "Juggling Juicy Coconuts Never Vexes," or "Just Jungle Curry, No Vitamins," or even "Jesus Jumps Canyon, Needs Vicodin" (one of the band's favorites). But for legal reasons, let's say that JJCNV most certainly does not stand for Janis Joplin Crap N Vomit anymore.

Though the band reverted to its acronym weeks ago, it still receives some vitriol from Joplin's fans on Internet message boards. Dana, who looks a lot like comedienne Janeane Garafolo, recounts one of the threads. "It was entitled 'Dickhead Alert.' And people were very serious about it," she says. "People were just like, 'How dare they!' and 'It's so offensive,' and 'They're just such crap.' We just laughed about it, because people actually felt passionately enough to sit there and talk about it. But the best part was, someone was like, 'Well, the singer's not bad,' because they'd posted a link to our video."

"Someone did say, 'Strangely enough, people actually like them,'" Jeff adds.

And strangely enough, some people actually do like JJCNV. Musically, the trio has its merits. The band's combination of noisy garage rock, juvenile punk rock, and experimental wackadelia isn't bad — it's just weird.

Songs like "Frankie the Beaver" incorporate surf-rock backing harmonies and lyrics about standing in line for government cheese, while others, like "Can Do Attitude," sound as if cheerleaders started banging their boobs against piano keys while a helium-sucking child espouses its existential angst into a vintage microphone. The band's "Theme" is all old-school Casio drumbeats and digital percussion conniptions with incoherent and deeply distorted vocal ramblings that sound like a drunken life coach's pep talk. The one unifying element is an insidiously intellectual bent toward the avant-garde. The members of JJCNV are all smart (ass) people and accomplished musicians. They could've just as easily named themselves Frank Zappa Bile N Cerebellum, but the FZBNC acronym isn't as catchy.

Like many independent musicians, the members of JJCNV don't make a living making music. Thus, they have the dreaded "day jobs." Dana works in behavioral health, Pete makes a living doing graphic design, and Jeff works as a systems analyst.

But all three members of JJCNV are veterans of the Valley music scene. Dana used to be in The Budget Sinatra with Donald Martinez, with whom she helped co-found a popular local music Web site called Jeff has drummed for countless bands, including a short-lived project called Naughty Women that once opened for late puke-punk legend G.G. Allin, who paid them with a half-eaten can of Boston baked beans. Pete's old band, Death Takes a Holiday, was named "Best Alternative Band" in the 1994 New Times Best of Phoenix® issue.

"We take our music seriously," Dana says. "We do practice. I know sometimes it seems like this disorganized mess, but we practice a lot."

"We work on the songs, and the songs we try to get good, but when we're playing, we wanna have a good time," Jeff adds. "We don't wanna get up there and be like, 'This is so serious. Everybody just sit there and listen.'"

For the band, "having a good time" entails Pete wearing things like T-shirts with big boobs airbrushed on the front and knee-high socks onstage while Dana bounces around in a bank-robber mask and Jeff bangs on the drums in a hot pink wig or whatever. But it's also about exploring new musical ground. "When we practice or when I'm coming up with a song, I try to think 'Okay, what haven't we done?'" Pete says.

"And that's a challenge because we've all pretty much played everything over the years," Dana adds. (The members are all in their mid-30s).

In addition to trying to play nothing they've ever done before, JJCNV also plays a little bit of everything they've done before. "We'll play anything, whether it's a '50s-sounding song or a new song," Jeff says. "It's not like it has to sound a certain way."

"I never know what to say when people ask what we sound like," Pete says. "It's kinda loud, noisy, fun. That's about it. With a little Broadway thrown in."

The band's eccentric sound is partly derived from the members' diverse tastes in music. The Mesa home of Dana and Pete (who've been married for three years) houses an impressive vinyl collection, with records by artists like British New Wave band Simple Minds and raucous analog noise band Big Black sitting side-by-side. But this genre-orgy doesn't extend to JJCNV's work ethic, which is decidedly punk rock, and do-it-yourself — they design all their own T-shirts and put out their music on their own label, Flab Fjord Records, including a just-released "double 7-inch, quadruple-band, split-vinyl" record with fellow locals Haunted Cologne, Skinwalkers, and Ray Reeves and the Phoenix $onz. The vinyl is available starting this week at Valley stores Stinkweeds, Eastside Records, and Revolver Records.

The band plans to play a show "at some gay bar" in October (local band The Complainiacs are organizing the show), but in the meantime, they're pushing the new record.

"We're taking a break from shows to focus on getting the record in local stores," Dana says. "And if people wanna e-mail us, they should — we're at [email protected]"

Sat., Feb. 28, 8 p.m., 2009
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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea