Ben Funke's the overachieving, gifted kid you've always hated and wished you were.
At 18, he's the driving force behind the electro synth-pop trio XOXOXO, touring the West Coast in style, and getting paid to play gigs he's booking himself. His band tours in a shiny new 2004 Honda Element, and he and his older brother/musical counterpart, Zack, share an '03 Mini Cooper that's parked in the driveway. He's sleeping with XO's lead singer and lyricist -- 20-year-old vixen Rachel Taylor -- while Zack, also 20, hears all the nasty details from his bedroom across the hall at their Tempe home.
Ben Funke makes life look easy. But just in case the party doesn't last, and one day he has to get a real job, he's on a full-ride academic scholarship at Arizona State University, where he'll walk with a bachelor's degree in humanities in December -- at the age of 19.
"I've worked my ass off for everything I've got. I'm proud of what I've done," Funke says. Men twice his age who've worked twice as hard have half the fun Funke's having.
If you don't already despise Ben Funke, give it time. In just eight months and after only a dozen gigs around the Valley, local fans no longer heap unconditional hugs and kisses on the XOs. Then again, Taylor and the Funkes aren't exactly fawning over the unappreciative locals they say are too conservative for the band's post-modern performances.
"I think we're just too big for this city," says Taylor, a Christina Ricci look-alike and sexpot onstage, and a feminist majoring in women's and integrated studies at ASU where she, too, is on a full-ride academic scholarship. "I think people here in Phoenix are very stuck in this mindset that the shittier the music is, the more they like it. They want stuff that's rough around the edges. They don't like the more refined acts."
The Funkes themselves have been dissed by local music fans for being spoiled rich kids. They both went to Brophy Prep, and their dad, Richard, a real estate mogul in Scottsdale, bought the sweet rides. But, they insist, they've paid for all their own gear themselves, investing nearly $20,000 (via a mound of credit card debt and profits from selling used clothes on eBay) on vintage keytars, analog synthesizers, MIDI sequencers, merchandise and promotion. Still, they've been accused of being pretentious rock stars who value their Marc Jacobs shoes and onstage light shows more than they care about making original music.
At a March 11 show at downtown's Modified Arts, many members of the all-ages crowd were rolling eyes at Taylor's avant-garde theatrics behind the mike and calling the group's sound a rip-off of electro-popsters Fischerspooner and '80s New Wave synth legends Kraftwerk and New Order.
And then the shit gets personal. The latest rumor about the trio -- according to the members themselves -- is that the Funke brothers and Taylor are a more intimate threesome after the gear is loaded back onto the trailer and late-night study sessions become a bit mundane. (And most of the gossip-mongers don't even know that Taylor had a short-lived fling with Zack Funke before she hooked up with his little bro more than three years ago.)
While the kids of XOXOXO dismiss all the chatter about the band's image -- and their sex lives -- the player haters are easier to tolerate, Taylor and the Funkes say, as the crowds get bigger, the tee shirts and CDs sell, their Web site and music video blow up on the Internet, and a big-name DJ has supposedly expressed interest in remixing some XO grooves.
"Overall, it's better to have people saying something about us than for them to not say anything at all. It's better than the fans being apathetic," says Zack Funke, dressed in a sleeveless Devo tee shirt, tight blue jeans, and slip-on checkered Vans. (And, oh yeah, he's a sociology major on a full-ride academic scholarship, too.)
The Funkes know the power of publicity. But, warns Modified promoter Leslie Barton -- one of XO's loudest cheerleaders before Ben Funke recently bagged on the venue's "constant feedback issues" and a clumsy Modified volunteer who accidentally knocked over the band's $2,500 Jupiter 8 synth at the March 11 show -- the old adage "any publicity is good publicity" doesn't fly if the negative pub is true.
"I know they'd like to think they can get away with their attitude, but they can't," Barton tells New Times. "The fact that they have a litany of bitches about my club and the city. . . . It's shit like that that people have a problem with.
"But they're still young. Maybe they need to go and explore a little -- do a little traveling."
All touring has done is reaffirm the band's confidence that its fan base extends far beyond the Grand Canyon State, where they've sold 800 copies of their self-titled, self-produced CD with songs about consumerism ("Consumer Culture") and the cycle of the disenfranchised in America ("Structure of Power").
On a recent seven-date tour from Tucson to Sacramento during ASU's spring break, Ben Funke says the crowds totaled nearly 2,000 paying fans, including 350 who came out to see XO headline at L.A.'s Club 82. "We were pretty surprised at how many people knew us and came out to see us on the tour," says Funke, adding, "We don't have any team working behind us. It's just me booking shows and us doing Internet promotion."
Funke says the band's Web site, www.xoxoxomusic.com, has averaged more than 6,000 hits a month since it went up in November. And, he adds, their video for the song "Fornicate" was the most downloaded video on Electrocore.com, an electronica/DJ site based out of Florida, when it was released in December.
Now, Funke says, Mount Sims -- a punk-electro DJ from L.A. who produced Madonna's "Nobody Knows Me" single on her recent Remixed and Revisited album -- wants to work on a remix of some XO grooves. Which is all mounting evidence to the Funkes and Taylor that good taste resides only across the state line.
"Arizona is conservative -- conservative politically, conservative socially, conservative artistically -- and if people don't want to break out of the box, that's their fucking problem," Taylor says, adding that she and the boys will likely move to L.A. once the three of them graduate from ASU in December.
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Leslie Barton would like nothing more.
"Let them go get big somewhere else," says Barton, who's considering telling Ben Funke to take XO's May 11 show at Modified opening for The Lovemakers somewhere else. "Actually, I wish they'd try to tackle New York City," she adds.
"I'd even pay for their [plane] tickets."
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