It's been a really weird year for Robbie Pfeffer.
As frontman and lyricist of scuzz-funk five-piece Playboy Manbaby, the guy is someone you'd expect to be a little weird. After all, this is a band that writes wacko songs called "Falafel Pantyhose" and sings about minivans, neck tattoos, and "Pulsating Cities of Geckos."
Regardless, Pfeffer's gone through several serious transitions in the past year, including scaling back his label, Rubber Brother Records, and shuttering the doors to his quasi-official underground venue, Parliament, after complaints from neighbors. Now, instead of focusing on several projects simultaneously, as Pfeffer usually does, he's focusing on one: Playboy Manbaby.
His band is doing incredibly well. PBMB's first extended tour took the band as far east as Vermont, hitting cities like Brooklyn, Denver, Chicago, and Detroit along the way. The group looks to take a similar route this fall as it gears up to release a new album, Don't Let It Be, the follow-up to last December's Electric Babyman.
We caught up with the band on the porch of drummer Chad Dennis' house to discuss the new directions Manbaby is taking. It's just three of the five so far — bassist Chris Hudson, guitarist TJ Friga, and Pfeffer, sporting cropped hair and hipster glasses — and we're discussing video games and trading tour stories. It's a humid August evening, complete with squawking tropical birds and buzzing cicadas, a severe contrast to the "Polar Vortex" the band found itself in last year while on tour.
"It was cool just to see some of the response we'd get in some of the other cities," Hudson recalls. "Obviously, in our hometown, we're gonna get a good crowd response . . . It felt reaffirming."
Manbaby's ability to rouse an audience is well known, thanks to the group's insane energy. Many local bands exemplify a particular form of mental illness: Fathers Day exhibits dementia, Meat Puppets are probably some kind of psychosomatic neurosis, and Treasure Mammal shows signs of borderline personality disorder. But no one projects paranoid schizophrenia quite like Playboy Manbaby.
Beneath Pfeffer's half-screamed, half-rapped nonsense lyrics is a tuna salad of DIY punk, garage rock, and spazzy funk, plus David Cosme's trumpet, equaling one pumped-up, frenzied act.
And they're a hit with the kids. Playboy Manbaby is one of the few local bands to regularly headline Arizona festivals, including Viva PHX, McDowell Mountain Music Festival, and Summer Ends Music Festival; plus, the band has shared the stage with Electric Six, FIDLAR, Andrew Jackson Jihad, and Thee Oh Sees.
In the near future, the band plans to do less performing, but in the process of reinventing itself, Playboy Manbaby hopes its performances will become more immersive, something the group hopes will be "just as much theater as it is a punk show."
"I really want things to come out of nowhere," Pfeffer says.
"We still want to give [our fans] a reason to drive out to a city they don't live in and somehow make it worth it," Hudson says. "Without going too much into it, it'll be more visual-type stuff. We don't just want to come off as another band on a stage playing songs."
"This is going to be our Ziggy Stardust stage," Friga says.
At 11 tracks, the new album, Don't Let It Be, is the longest record yet by Manbaby. With song titles like "Self Loathing in Bright Clothing" and "Don Knotts in a Wind Tunnel," the full-length promises to be as strange and sharply cynical as the band's early efforts. Pfeffer says he's always had a sense of humor about death, anxiety, and depression, and the weirdness keeps it from becoming too much of a bummer record.
"I always thought people who said they 'put all of themselves' into an album [were using] a cheap pretentious gimmick for emotionally shallow children," Pfeffer says. "But I feel I really did put myself into this album . . . [Don't Let It Be] is the beginning, middle, and end of a severe identity crisis. It's a person losing his mind and then finding it."
Pfeffer is upfront about his state of mind because, as he puts it, "People are fucked. They shouldn't pretend everything is fine."
Smack-dab in the middle of a business park in an industrial stretch of town, Parliament was one of the strangest venues to pop up in Tempe, but it disappeared as quickly as it came. Aside from serving as HQ for Rubber Brother Records, it was one of the only all-ages venues in the area, and it attracted a faithful collective of musicians, artists, and outsiders.
"Parliament was owned by the community it was created to serve, and the community is the reason it was able to survive and thrive," Pfeffer said on Facebook when the landlord insisted they part ways. The fallout wasn't pretty, but, Pfeffer says, it's all water under the bridge and he doesn't want to focus on it anymore.
"I got treated really badly by some people I had considered close friends for a long time," he says. "And [I] really had to come to terms with who I was, what I value, and what I wanted to spend my life doing. I was in debt, lost the two projects I cared most about, and the worst part was that I resented the community that I loved more than anything."
Pfeffer says focusing on the band is what kept him sane through it all.
Rubber Brother still exists and occasionally releases albums, but the label is far less industrious than it used to be. Pfeffer and co-founder Gage Olesen agreed they needed a break, as they don't have as much time to package tapes and book shows as much. But more important, both feel they accomplished what they wanted with the venue and the label.
"We wanted to have something where people could get excited about bands that were around here and we could motivate bands that are in our community," Pfeffer says. "I completely stand behind 90 percent of the shows we threw there. I think it provided something cool and something that was needed for the community. But when it went out, it wasn't like this big, 'Ah, shit, that sucks,' it was more 'Wow, I can't believe we got away with that for that long.'"
Olesen says the whole scenario reminds him of the time the Fixx, the now-defunct coffee shop that Pfeffer once ran like a DIY venue in 2011, closed.
"It's a really familiar thing . . . It felt a little bit more about the cost of doing business. Some things don't get to exist for forever," Olesen says. "It was easy to accept but hard to let go of."
"Robbie's life is moving in a couple of weird ways and he'd just like to focus on those things," Olesen adds, noting that he himself is returning to school and working. "I think that after we have some time to sit on it and put some stuff together, we might step back into [Rubber Brother]."