Some weeks ago, Modified owner and The Half Visconte front man Scott Tennent fired off a fax to Bash & Pop. Along with an announcement of upcoming concert dates for his downtown club, the mild-mannered singer/songwriter also jotted down his group's summer itinerary. There was none of the usual, "Hey, we'll be playing in March, then recording in April, and we hope to be signed by May!" promotional hype in which so many bands engage. This schedule was refreshing, and more than a tad surprising:
Tour in June.
Record in July.
Tour in August.
Break up in September.
Release album in October.
Few bands, even those who number themselves among local esoterics, would consider such a strange career arc. But there's always been something rather out-of-the-ordinary about this indie quartet. Whether it's their unconventional "pop" songs, the ones that frequently run 20-plus minutes, or the band's mercurial, almost jazzlike sense of improvisation, The Half Visconte has never been conventional.
Emerging from the ashes of the disturbingly monikered Manchowder, The Half Visconte -- front man Tennent, guitarist Rich Minardi, bassist Ben Taylor and drummer Dan Sylvester -- formed just over two years ago. Since then, the group has become a staple within the local indie rock community, just as Tennent and his Modified performance space have blossomed into a haven for local and national artists of all kinds.
This week, the band is expanding its modest discography (one that also includes a 1999 self-titled EP) through the release of a split seven-inch with Death of Marat. The single will be pressed on Tennent's own label, This Argonaut. In August, the imprint will also issue a compilation of Modified bands titled Not One Light Red and featuring tracks from Go Big Casino, Reuben's Accomplice and 5 Speed, among others.
The band's impending breakup is due to the planned departures of the group's rhythm players, Sylvester and Taylor, both of whom will relocate to the Chicago area in the fall. Tennent never considered continuing the band or replacing members. "No, no, nothing like that," he says emphatically. "It's really not that kind of band. Instead of dragging it out or keep it going, we're just going to end it."
But before calling it quits, the band will take on a whirlwind schedule, starting with a pair of national tours. The first, slated to begin in late June, will take the band through Texas and to the Midwest, ending with a series of Windy City performances. The group will then head back out on the road in August for a West Coast jaunt that will culminate with its local swan song.
Between road efforts, The Half Visconte will go into Living Head Studios to record its second and final disc, a proposed full-length affair. Producer Mike Hissong (who along with Clay Holley produced The Half Visconte's debut, as well as efforts from Chula and Suicide Nation) will once again man the board.
Although the group has only five songs ready to record, Tennent is confident that the album will not be lacking. "Regardless of the number of songs, it will still be a pretty good length, I'm sure," says Tennent with a chuckle, obviously alluding to the band's four-song EP, which clocked in at a very un-EP-like 40 minutes.
"The big thing with us is that we like to keep things loose, so we have several songs where there's a lot of open-endedness. I hate to use the term "jam band' because it makes us sound like we're the Grateful Dead or something. But definitely, there's a lot of improv happening. Since we play off each other, a lot of our songs tend to become pretty long because we don't know how to end them.
"We have some shorter songs, though," he adds. "The one that's on the new seven-inch ["Racked and Martyred"] is only two and half minutes long, which is kind of shocking for us."
As he noted in his fax, the disc won't be in stores until October, more than a month after the band plans to call it quits. "It's obviously kind of a weird scenario. But the guys are leaving and it will take a while to get everything together, so we just decided to . . . uh, put it out posthumously, I guess."
In the meantime, Tennent plans to continue performing his solo acoustic sets as well as playing with Sylvester in a loose-knit side project called All The Queen's Men. "I'm really into bands and projects that don't require too much time," says Tennent, laughing. "Basically [All The Queen's Men] is just me and Dan. The rest of the band is a revolving membership of whoever we can get to play."
Sylvester, a talented jazz drummer, recruits players similarly steeped in the genre, creating an amorphous and totally improvisational free-form quartet. "We just go out there and blow everything out for like a half-hour," notes Tennent. "I mean, I don't play jazz. I just get a shitload of feedback and make weird walls of sound. Since we don't rehearse, or even have a set lineup, it's all completely made up on the spot."
Despite the group's improvisational leanings, Tennent is loath to top off the instrumentals with any spur-of-the-moment scat vocalizing. "Yeah, we always bust out like Mel Tormé," he says sarcastically.
In marked contrast to the shambling noise of the Queen's Men is Tennent's own solo work. A frequent acoustic opening act about town, Tennent's simple, winsome pop songs have been winning praise among indie denizens. "That's kind of surprising. It's all really minimal and kind of depressing, very slow."
Tennent's muse is also a departure from the uncrafted song structures of The Half Visconte. "Part of that is because I don't even keep my electric guitar at home. I just play with my acoustic, which forces me to write these sort of normal pop songs. It also compels me to play very quietly, which I tend to enjoy."
Tennent has already completed work on a full-length album of solo material, also recorded at Living Head. The collection of songs is unfailingly spare ruminations featuring Tennent, his guitar and the work of multi-instrumentalist Caroline Maugeri, who contributes tasteful flourishes of piano, organ and violin. Unfortunately it's not clear when, or if, the work will ever be available. "Well, putting it out is the hard part," admits Tennent. "I'm hoping it will surface at some point."
And what of the band's final show? "We'll obviously try and do something special for the last one, something a little different than the normal thing," says Tennent.
But will they close the curtain on The Half Visconte with an all-star Last Waltz-type celebration?
"Oh yeah," he deadpans, "we're still trying to see if we can get Dylan and Neil Diamond to play."
Scott Tennent is scheduled to perform on Friday, June 16, at Stinkweeds in Tempe, with Julie Doiron. Showtime is 10 p.m. The Half Visconte is scheduled to perform on Sunday, June 18, at Modified, opening for Cross My Heart, Pollen, and The Waxwings. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Master Blasters: We had originally anticipated leading off this week's column with a piece about a pair of impending CD releases from rap/hip-hop group Ascended Masterz. Unfortunately, a last-minute delay has set the discs and the performance party back several weeks.
The group, which has been together in its current incarnation for more than a year, began making noise this past winter, hosting a weekly Thursday hip-hop night at Nita's Hideaway.
The troupe of pseudonymed rappers --front man Yosidicus Gigus and MCs Haas Nanotechnician, Smoke the Unwanted Stepchild, Octatongue and Many Pieces -- have yet to complete mastering on a trio of tracks for the currently untitled disc. Meanwhile, a second offering from the collective, a solo EP from MC Smoke titled Leprosy, is ready to go. Both efforts were self-recorded and produced at the band's Syrum Sydum home studios. It appears the records will be held up until late June or early July, with a rescheduled Nita's release party set for approximately the same time. Bash & Pop will keep you posted.
KISS Off: It seems that outraged teen pop fans (see this week's Letters) aren't the only ones reading this section with gnashing teeth. Our very own trailer-park music critic Bill "Trashman" Blake has managed to raise the hackles of several infamous rock 'n' rollers with his singular commentary. Notable among the aggrieved is the scion of insufferable rock recta, the ever unctuous Gene Simmons.
In his March 9 column ("Lick It Up"), Blake posed a number of legitimate questions regarding the life and work of the KISS bassist/merchandising shill. Most queries ranged from the relatively innocuous ("Would this current KISS tour be a "Farewell' one had the last record, Psycho Circus, not been a stiff of such colossal proportions?") to the obvious ("Why do you don such two-bit looking wigs?") to the downright penetrating ("Why is it that most every chick you bag on the road exceeds all boundaries of corpulence and what most would consider within the realm of desirable and good taste?").
The most shocking incident mentioned allegedly occurred during the nadir of KISS' early '90s career nosedive, when the stadium titans were forced to take a gig playing a wedding reception. It was at that same nuptial bash that Simmons, ever the ladies' man, reportedly knocked boots (black knee-highs, we assume) with the younger, though still no spring chicken, wife of geriatric comedy legend Milton Berle. Worse still, Simmons supposedly unloaded his Love Gun into Mrs. Berle while Uncle Miltie doddered about the party, scarfing down hors d'oeuvres in blissful ignorance.
We were quite eager to hear Simmons' version of the Berle-esque show (though we suspect his answer would have sounded suspiciously like an empty dial tone), but sadly, he never gave us the chance. Instead of scheduling a fixed interview time, he chose to play cable man, setting up an eight-hour window for the phoner, then making Blake wait several days for his call. Simmons eventually rang, found Blake was out and left the cryptic message that has graced our outgoing voice mail ever since -- "Uh . . . It's Gene . . . I called."
Knowing the public's lust for KISS info, and with the band's Desert Sky Pavilion performance looming, we ran the piece, including the entire list of questions Blake had readied and a recounting of the events leading up to the Simmons no-show.
It wasn't more than a few hours after the story hit newsstands and the Net that all hell broke loose: Angry calls from the promoter, hysterical messages from KISS flacks and angry missives from the group's management inundated New Times' offices.
Later that night, at a KISS fan convention held at Tempe's Club Rio, word quickly spread that Simmons himself had read the piece -- he reportedly scours every press item mentioning his name -- had become enraged and was soon out for the blood of one Trashman. Simmons went as far as telling erstwhile KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick, "That bastard Blake will never write another story again."
As much as we hate to disappoint this fading Kabuki clown, Mr. Blake continues to write for us -- safely ensconced in his aluminum fortress somewhere near Apache Junction and well out of the reach of those who would like to mount his head alongside their gold records.
In the course of his most recent work, Blake has managed to ruffle the feathers of yet another music industry cipher -- Poison guitarist C.C. DeVille.
As part of last week's column ("Liver Let Die," June 8), Blake penned a scathing review of the self-titled debut from Portrait records artist Samantha 7, a new combo fronted by the gravel-voiced DeVille. Blake noted the remarkable (and potentially actionable) similarities between a Samantha 7 track called "I Wanna Be Famous" and the Cheap Trick chestnut "He's a Whore."
The Trashman piece came out just as a Phoenix date was announced for an '80s retro tour featuring Poison, Cinderella, Dokken and Slaughter (a package which is being billed as the "Aqua Net Presents: The Rapidly Aging Buffoons in Leather Pants and Bandanas Tour 2000").
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A source close to the Poison camp tells us that DeVille's bandmates, Bret Michaels and Bobby Dahl, read the Trashman piece and nearly soiled themselves laughing at the characterization of DeVille as a wankish guitar institute poseur. The same source also spoke to DeVille, and reported that the guitarist was decidedly less jovial, though he did admit to a "passing" similarity between the Cheap Trick song and his Sam 7 rip-off.
Stay tuned to this unfolding drama. New Times plans to dispatch Blake to cover the August 2 Poison extravaganza armed with a backstage pass. With any luck, our intrepid reporter will have polished off the band's liquor supply well before their encore of "Unskinny Bop."
They Come From Garageland: There are few places that have a richer garage-rock heritage than the Lone Star State. From Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs and the Sir Douglas Quintet to the 13th Floor Elevators, Texas' musical history is rife with bands that knew how to make three chords go into 4/4 perfectly. Valley rock fans will get a taste of that fine legacy as San Antonio's The Sons of Hercules make a stop at Tempe's Cannery Row this Friday. The group furthers a Stones-by-way-of-Ramones sound on its latest release, Get Lost (Get Hip Records). Included among the 12 originals is a brilliant proto-punk take on the Byrds' jangle classic "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better." As with most garage-rock revivalists (The Chesterfield Kings, Makers, Demolition Doll Rods), expect a stage show filled with some table-hopping showmanship.
The Sons of Hercules are scheduled to perform on Friday, June 16, at Cannery Row in Tempe, with the Peeps and Thee Oh-No's. Showtime is 9 p.m.