Your practice space is burglarized. All your vintage equipment is gone. You've no secure place to rehearse your music. What will you do? What will you do?
If you're Haggis, you grit your teeth, get the story onto some local nightly news programs as quickly as possible, replace your gear, find somewhere new to play a song at 96 decibels where a cop isn't tapping on your door with a truncheon by the end of it and then you finish making an album. Then you have a CD listening party where you serve actual haggis to guests and take the whole teeth-gritting thing full circle.
Those kinds of stressful stimuli can rend any band apart hell, just the recording-an-album part can do that. After a December 14 Stolen Gear Benefit Show at Nita's Hideaway, the band the Arizona Republic dubbed "'the ubiquitous Haggis' because of its unceasing self-promotion" lay uncharacteristically low until the New Times Music Showcase in April, where it took best Modern Pop honors yet again, without the concentrated campaigning of years before.
"We were down for four months; that's the longest we've ever gone," says bassist Moon (no last name; hey! just like Flea!). "That's what got us to finish our record. Because we'd been playing out so much, it was hard to hit the pause button. It was go, go, go."
The jovial bassman settles down for a round of quiet beers with Haggis singer-songwriter Brian Talenti and his wife at the Bikini Lounge, also uncharacteristically tranquil except whenever the jukebox shanghais the conversation off to tangents about favorite records, boss movies and Shannen Doherty. Equally, the occasional weepie serves to remind the band about stolen guitars, transient drummers and Shannen Doherty.
"In a weird way, the theft brought us closer together," says Talenti. "Whenever your family gets messed with, you kind of go all Tony Montana on them." While togetherness has never been a problem for the group's constant core (Talenti, Moon and lead guitarist Tony Burns), Haggis drummers have always been the variable since the get-go. Tonight, they seem to enjoy taking the piss out of drummer Jack Obregon, who was not quite of a mind to learn "Ace of Spades" by Motörhead for the CD release party.
"We just did a show in L.A. with one of the bands we trade shows with, The Piper Downs, who are really connected out there and they have a lot of fun people, actors they run around with," drawls Moon. "Shannen Doherty ends up at one of our shows. So her and Jack and her people all take off to go to the Viper Room for cocktails and he's just been a little wacky ever since then. Like it was the great rock 'n' roll weekend and maybe it's hard for him to come back to Phoenix."
"I think Spinal Tap having the exploding drummer was for a reason. I say it's an industry standard," jokes Talenti.
As long as we're spouting Spinal Tap's truisms, Haggis blurs that fine line between stupid and clever so that what you're left with is neither highbrow tittering nor Neanderthal air-clubbing but rather just a hardworking band that peppers its shows with humor that doesn't get in the way of superchunk power chords. You won't see Brian Talenti squandering a rousing chorus with a title like "Dick Hertz," "Poopsie Does It" or "Let Go of the Noodle Man." Sure, the short-term novelty hit might ensue, but what then? Nah, Talenti gives Haggis fist-pumpin' songs buff handles BTO would put down their lunch to jot down, like "Turpentine," "Chemical Antifreeze," "Motor Roller" and, er, "Cha Cha Heels."
The band makes more overt gestures to jocularity in its stage patter, choice of album titles, its trademark mannequin head totem pole (which doubles as a mike stand) and its traditional Halloween shows, when the boys get in touch with the inner tramp and perform as Draggis. None of this stops either your local yokel or Ph.D. from pounding back MGDs at the bar and yelling out after every song.
"I know they get the rock end of it. I don't know if they get the humor," says Talenti. His previous band 100 Iced Animals was part of a triumvirate with Trunk Federation and Lush Budget Presents The Les Payne Product, bands that used to share bills and outdo each other with strange costumes and stage design. Among 100 Iced Animals' more memorable stunts was dressing up like the King of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland and having people playing poker onstage during their show.
"That was my mom's favorite 100 Iced Animals show," Talenti says with a smile. "We're always thinking of some caper to do and it fuels us having fun onstage. That's one comment we get from people a lot now: 'You guys look like you're having fun.' Well, that's 'cause we are."
"We have jokes we share we think everyone would think is funny, but it's way more amusing to us than to anybody else," Moon resumes. "Sometimes, people almost get angry because they don't get it and feel they're outside the joke."
Case in point: the Mannequin Heads Totem Pole, which has led some ladies to label them misogynists. For the record, these heads look pretty androgynous to most people without a lot of free time.
"A cosmetologist friend of mine had them from her school days," admits Talenti. "It kind of tied in with the first album What's Up Haircut so she just gave me a whole garbage bag full of heads. I got heads everywhere, stashed at home ready to go."
"They got a face-lift so now they're more feminine looking," beams Moon. "I think the reason people have been receptive to our humor is that some of the press we've gotten spelled out where our humor was coming from." Largely, the Haggis name and the Piper Downs EP were derived from So I Married an Axe Murderer, Mike Myers' least remembered movie, discounting 54. The wearing of the tartan and the shaggy mane on some of the mannequins has led others to believe Haggis is some secret Bay City Rollers preservation society.
Moon nods in the negatory. "The Piersons used to say they were too punk for pussies and too pussy for punks. I sorta feel we're too rock for pop purists and too poppy for hard rock aficionados."
"I think that goes away with this new record. It's more hard rock," adds Talenti. "I grew up listening to big guitars. Arena rock, that's what we're calling ourselves arena rock revivalists."
That CD, Karma Suits Ya!, is the first full-length effort from Haggis that dispenses with Scottish in-jokes of the earlier EPs while sonically expanding some previously recorded pop gems like "Turpentine," "Cool As You" and "Mood Ring." It's also the first recording to make the jump to a proper 16-track studio while maintaining the band's work-at-home ethic.
According to Talenti, "the first record was a drunken weekend. The next record was a drunken weekend with a month of mixing. This record was giving birth."
One listen to the opening track confirms the Journey-on-steroids sound the band jokingly says it's aspiring to. "I wanna be an ocean to you," sings Talenti, and "Ocean to You" sounds like the first confident strides away from Haggis' solid bar-band ranking.
"We definitely want the kind of songs you can wave your cigarette lighters in the air," says Moon. And the band has already had its taste of arena-size crowds, having played the Celebrity Theatre and the huge crowd at the 2001 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, opening for the Gas Giants and Hootie and the Blowfish, whose trailer they unwittingly raided for vittles and firewater.
That same year, Haggis was nearly one of the four bands chosen for VH1's Bands on the Run series' first season. "They had us go to the MTV studios out in California and apparently there just was not enough drama going on in the band," figures Talenti. "They actually pulled us apart from one another, put us in a room and interviewed us, asking us smoking-beehive questions like, 'Hey, if you had to kick one guy out of the band, who would it be?' They were looking for Survivor candidates, basically. And me, being this nice guy, said before I'd kick anyone out I'd quit. I was trying to be the path of least resistance." In retrospect, Haggis would've been a cross between the booze lazy Flickerstick and the hardworking, goody-two-shoes Soul Cracker.
While Haggis didn't make the show, the band did appear in two clips in a Bands on the Run behind-the-scenes special. On their way out from the MTV studios, the all-girl group Harlow, later chosen for the program, was in the lobby. They had the drama and they had a song called "Mike Hunt."
"That's the oldest joke in the book," cracks Moon, although I'm not sure if it was the song title or pretty girl groups that can't play their instruments that he was referring to.
Haggis should've waited a year to audition since it would've had drama to spare. The robbery of their cherished gear, the futile searches through pawnshops, the "Deep Throat" phone call from someone saying they knew who ripped off their gear.
"We got a call shortly after the theft. Somebody had a cell phone number of a guy that supposedly knew who stole our stuff. We played by the rules and turned the number over to the authorities," Talenti recalls. "It could've been a bogus lead to begin with. Moon wanted to just storm the gates, and I was like, 'No, we got to do this the right way.' I didn't want any trouble. A lot of people said, 'I would've just gone in with 20 guys and got my stuff.' But I'm just a peace-loving guy."
Tonight, neither man would have a problem coming up with the member they would vote off Haggis island. Drummer Jack Obregon seems to be on everyone's shit list. After learning last week that Obregon auditioned for the Gene Loves Jezebel tour, the band is preparing for a no-Jack swing anytime soon. And moods are not helped by the band's new rehearsal digs in an undisclosed location, lest someone want to pinch their new, improved gear. Having now left the swamp-cooled confines of Argo facilities where the band members used to rehearse, they are now holed up in a soundproofed sweatbox where the band runs through a battery of songs, then takes a break outside in a room the air conditioning can actually reach.
Someone slips on a Lynyrd Skynyrd CD and Moon and Talenti are suddenly upbeat again. These guys love to rock, and it shows, even when they're listening to other people do it on a jukebox.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Getting back to the tireless self-promotion, which sounds like a slam depending on who's doing the saying, both men are unapologetic.
"That's rock. Too fucking bad," snorts Moon.
"If you believe what you're doing, you should never be ashamed of promoting yourself," Talenti offers. "If you don't believe what you're doing and you're hawking it around town for all the wrong reasons, then you probably have an issue with yourself. We want this to be our full-time thing; if it ever comes off as overpromoting, it's just us with our zeal to make it to that level."
Moon seconds the motion. "But I think, in our heart of hearts, we wouldn't mind just being ubiquitous."