Music News

Gut Check

Minimalism. The term has spawned more run-on sentences by pinheaded writers than any other movement. And yet no written word has ever allayed suspicion in this pinhead that there is little more than shuck involved in any minimal installation. In music, when the dread word minimalism rears its head, it generally means one of two things:

1. A pretentious piano player whose "keyboard treatments" involve repeating the same series of notes over and over so that the listener is too euthanised to notice that the sequence has changed by a semi-quiver.

2. Punk rockers who use The Ramones as an excuse to not learn any minor chords or guitar solos extending beyond two notes.

Somewhere between these polar opposites, you'll find the one-man band, who, by virtue of his solitude, is expected to reduce the bells and whistles but often feels compelled to overcompensate by placing some crash cymbals between his knees.

Christopher Pomerenke is the closest thing Phoenix has to a one-man band. In Less Pain Forever (formerly Lush Budget presents The Les Payne Product), Pomerenke sang and played drums and keyboards simultaneously. Two months ago, he suddenly found himself a limited company when the other half of Less Pain split to New Jersey to be with the girlfriend he met on the band's yearlong RV trek across the U.S. Guitarist James Karnes has been in bands with Pomerenke since the early '90s, so when you consider all the time they spent together, compounded by a year of close-quarters RV living, it isn't far-fetched to wonder if Pomerenke is gigging solo because the two hated each other's guts.

"Not at all. Never. Not even like a Fuck you, you're being a dick,'" says Pomerenke, as we settle into Chez Nous for a nightcap. Ironically, the band working onstage is Street Life, a great three-man band that does the work of a six-man R&B outfit.

"We never even raised our voices at each other," Pomerenke continues. "I wasn't thinking about it, but I realized that's exactly what we needed to do."

While the band continued to talk about regrouping, there didn't seem to be any deadline as to when Karnes was moving back to Phoenix with his girlfriend to restart Less Pain Forever. Faced with an empty calendar, Pomerenke immediately began booking shows as Lovers of Guts, a name bandied about as a Less Pain side project for years. The name stems from a phone miscommunication he had with Jim Andreas of Trunk Federation and Down With Buildings.

"We were talking about bands from the early '80s, and Jim said his favorite band from Phoenix was called Lovers of Guts," recalls Pomerenke. "I thought to myself, that's the best band name anyone could ever want. About a month later, I asked him what was that band like, that Lovers of Guts, and Jim said he never heard of them. . . . So James and I have been kicking that name around ever since. . . . It seemed to represent a lot of things to me. Not to be cheesy, but it kind of represented acceptance. Acceptance of your innards. And my great-grandma used to say, I hate your guts and your liver,' so it's a combination of that."

Pomerenke wasn't sure if he had the stomach for performing solo, which explains why he hides behind a group moniker and tells audiences, "We're Lovers of Guts, and we're gonna try another song for you."

"I really had no idea what I was gonna do when I booked the Lovers of Guts shows, if I was gonna do guitar or piano or get a drummer to sit in," he admits. "I didn't even have any songs written. I kind of had it in my head that was I gonna do a drums-and-piano thing, but I didn't leave much to time to practice. And I realized just having one free hand to play the keyboard is like cutting the song in half."

Instead, Pomerenke's choice of instrumentation is a simple Horner Pianet T, the same electric piano used by Rod Argent in the Zombies. And as for the ever-important beat, there is the business of his one tapping toe, which can sound like a well-placed pop on a vinyl record if the club is sufficiently hushed.

Chill-inducing quiet seemed to be the reaction to some of Lovers of Guts' earlier sets. Take his first gig opening for the Hypnotwists, the house band at the Emerald Lounge.

"It sounded like maybe three crickets rubbing their knees afterwards," he laughs. "It's really scary when I get done playing and it's quiet. I feel like I'm responsible for a little bit of the tense atmosphere. I just hope it doesn't leave the club and spill over into fender-benders and broken noses."

Pomerenke is a little too enamored of his underdog status to admit that, out of the dozen or so shows already under his belt, he's been able to reach people on an intimate level that Less Pain Forever's epic song structures never allowed. Take the sensitive emo audiences who never quite got Less Pain, because the band's songs were too carnivalesque and just plain happy for their moody palates. With Lovers of Guts, they hear a lone piano player and the sound of one toe tapping and connect with what they believe is the poignant content of Pomerenke's songs. Even if it is a sentiment as crass as "Some of these people really creep me out/I can't stop rolling my eyes" or "My words hang around like kids in the mall," it's not hard for listeners to exclaim, "Hey, he's singing about us!"

Those songs are "French Manicure" and "The Sun is Setting in MetroCenter," respectively, although people just latch onto the familiar refrains. The songs stick in your head because there's nothing else there to distract you and nothing else to remember, and that's where minimalism works to any new group's advantage. As if to demonstrate this dynamic, an acquaintance of Pomerenke's spots him at Chez Nous and tells him he can't get a particular Lovers of Guts song out of his head. "You know, the one that goes DOT! DOT! DOT!'" he offers.

Pomerenke's standing in the music community has led to opening slots with Mates of State ("My second favorite of the last 10 years," he says) and an upcoming Poster Children show. And his stripped-down setup has led to several replacement gigs for bands that canceled at the last minute, a frequent occurrence in Phoenix when temperatures exceed 110 degrees. In addition, the Emerald Lounge gave Pomerenke the whole of Sunday night to play every week.

There's just one problem: Pomerenke likes to play only four or five songs. Since Karnes' departure, he's written maybe seven songs, tops. Carrying an entire night with less than 20 minutes of music? To fill out the night, Pomerenke's 9-to-9:20 p.m. set is followed by a variety show, Jim Cherry's Gullabaloo. Yet another exercise in brevity, it crams 10 acts into 60 minutes. After that, there are still roughly two hours to fill — usually with movies or CDs. Why not perform the Lovers of Guts set a second time for the night owls?

Pomerenke dismisses the idea outright. "The whole Sunday-night thing confirms for me that people prefer a tiny set. I don't have any other choice, really. I just feel like presenting the songs as little blueprints, like black-and-white outlines. I don't even do a sound check, because it's got the potential of running longer than my show. When you leave a little less, it's like giving a kiss on the cheek for a first date, instead of someone trying to grope you."

Lovers of Guts' love of brevity runs deeper than even Pomerenke imagined. "The joke will be that [Less Pain] will be getting dressed in the RV before going on, and I'll say, I feel like doing a short set,' and James could easily play all night long. Me, I just want to play two songs. So we compromise and do seven or eight. By the time he's all loosened up, I'm saying, That's it. We're done.'"

The prospect of Less Pain recommencing doesn't spell an end to Lovers of Guts. The plan is for Karnes to return and take all of Pomerenke's voice and piano recordings, add vocals, guitar, bass and strings, and the pair would put it out as Lovers of Guts produced by James Karnes — with nominal (read: zero) further input from Pomerenke. Then the two plan to get a full back-up band and just sing up front for a few shows. Should Less Pain ride Pomerenke's minimalism jones out even further, the next logical stop would be blissful nothingness.

"My ideal thing would be to have a band that I don't play in, and I never meet them. We never even do lunch. They answer a classified ad, I mail them tapes of my songs, they learn the songs, and I monitor their progress and book their shows."

Would he be tempted to go to a club and see such a band? Ever?

"I could see standing in the back of the club, maybe," he ponders. "But I would probably only stick around for two or three songs."

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic