How the Late Stefan Pruett Influenced the Metro Phoenix Music Scene

The late Stefan Pruett in a Peachcake publicity photo.
The late Stefan Pruett in a Peachcake publicity photo. AJ Colores
Music scribes have dubbed Valley native Stefan Pruett a “gleeful dynamo” and “dance evangelist,” while his friends call him as a “magical human being” and “rare soul.”

There are two other words which describe the late musician and Valley native: influential and inspirational.

The late musician and vocalist, who was raised in Carefree and fronted now-defunct electro-pop group Peachcake, was a prominent part of the Valley’s music scene for more than a decade. Pruett's vibrantly goofy and wildly unpredictable performances with the band are the stuff of legend. Peachcake’s music and success paved the way for other local bands. And his positive attitude and personable nature are beloved by those who knew him.

Pruett’s friends and fans told Phoenix New Times recently how much he affected their lives with his music, performances, and interactions. Former Valley resident Katherine Amy Vega, who was friends with Pruett for more than a decade, says he “spread positivity and energy.”

“He was a bright light in the lives of others and his spirit was contagious,” Vega says. “[Many people] were permanently impacted … and through his music and the memories, he continues to influence.”

Vega and others who knew Pruett are mourning the musician after his death on June 14 from heart failure. He was 35.

According to music site Buzz Bands LA, Pruett, who had a congenital heart condition since childhood and endured three open-heart surgeries, was found unresponsive in his Southern California apartment. A procedure to have his pacemaker serviced had reportedly been delayed multiple times because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pruett was a music fanatic who started going to punk shows at Modified Arts and other venues in his teens. He later performed in bands like rock outfit Enemy of Society, but was best known for Peachcake, which he formed in 2003 with musician John O’Keefe. The act mixed indie and electronic elements with catchy hooks, introspective lyrics, and a fun vibe.

Their performances were equally lively, incorporating confetti, costumes, and other over-the-top elements. Longtime friend A Claire Slattery said they were joyful spectacles where the audience was free to have fun and be themselves, whether they were huddling under a parachute or dancing however they felt like.

“The crazy shit he did to get the crowd to trust him so they could trust themselves and their bodies to let go,” she says. “I don't know how he did it, but it worked every time.”

Other musicians joined Peachcake's goofy electro-pop circus over the years, including guitarist Mike McHale, drummer Henri Benard, and beat-maker David Jackman. The spotlight was on Pruett, who had a captivating stage presence and amiable personality.

Peachcake ended in 2013, but Pruett continued to create music. He moved to L.A. that same year and began performing as the solo electronica act The Guidance. He still kept in touch with friends in the Valley, though.

McHale says Pruett was a “caring individual” who always offered encouragement and support, even if he was more than 300 miles away.

“You could call him at any hour of the night and he’d listen and help,” McHale says. “He was just so generous as a person and a friend.”

Pruett’s other friends and collaborators offered similar memories of his generous nature, enigmatic spirit, and upbeat personality when asked by New Times about the influence he had in their lives and the local music community.

click to enlarge The late Stefan Pruett performs with Peachcake in 2009. - NEW TIMES ARCHIVES
The late Stefan Pruett performs with Peachcake in 2009.
New Times archives

Jeremiah Gratza

Owner of President Gator Records and former Peachcake manager (2002-2007)

Stefan was a wealth of music knowledge and introduced me to a bunch of bands and labels that I never heard of before. The first time I ever heard Saul Williams or [Three One G Records] was because of Stefan. Especially when touring, we'd always listen to new bands, fresh bands, punk bands, underground hip-hop ... it was always something new. My knowledge of music expanded greatly just by knowing him.

And even my musical career leading up to Stateside and everything else wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for Peachcake at that time. When it came to the end, I came home from tour and thought, "Okay, do I take the path of being a tour manager 24/7, or do I take the path of promoting concerts and staying in town?" And obviously, I chose the path of being the concert promoter. It was all the steps of being with Stefan and Peachcake that led me to where I am today.

Stefan was always positive, always encouraging people or always taking calls at midnight talking to people who were feeling down. He would listen, he would sit and let you talk and definitely be a good ear and a good friend. I bounced lots of stuff off of him with things I would do.

Mike McHale

Former Peachcake member and tour manager

Stefan was just an incredible person to be around. His energy was inspiring. The whole time I was with the band, he was so open to collaboration, hearing people's dreams and aspirations, and wanting to help that person make that a reality. Over the time I was with Peachcake, I was merch person, live show mascot, played guitar in the live band, became the tour manager, and had so many responsibilities. He eventually asked me to help write new music for their second record, Unbelievable Souls. I just loved his creativeness and willingness to create and collaborate with anyone.

I definitely wouldn't be the person I am today without meeting Stefan. Because I grew up listening to pop-punk and he showed me all these incredible bands: Talking Heads, LCD Sound System, and New Order. Stuff I never would've have heard if I'd stayed in my little bubble. And just being around him and being able to shoot off ideas, no matter how weird and dumb it sounded. It was just the best time.

A Claire Slattery

Local DJ, artist, and promoter

Stefan inspired me to literally do whatever the fuck I wanted to do. [He] had a dream and chased it with consistent effort until the very end of his life. Seeing him do that made me feel like I could do anything I wanted to, even if the odds were stacked against me.

click to enlarge A Claire Slattery (right) with the late Stefan Pruett (left) - A CLAIRE SLATTERY
A Claire Slattery (right) with the late Stefan Pruett (left)
A Claire Slattery
This started out small for me. In high school, I got sucked into MySpace life [and] the weight of that culture resonated with me, but I hated the way it was channeled. I eventually discovered hellogoodbye and in turn discovered Peachcake through a blog post Forest Cline made hyping up the band.

I grew up in Omaha, so the first four years of my friendship with Stefan were [before] me moving to Phoenix. The first time I saw Peachcake was on April 10, 2006, at a coffee shop in [South Omaha, Nebraska].

At the beginning, Stefan inspired me to be bright, to be colorful, to be weird, to be positive. Before I moved to Phoenix, I attended art school at Columbia College in Chicago. He was a huge inspiration for my creative drive during that point in time. When I moved to Phoenix, he introduced me to local haunts like The Trunk Space and Modified and inspired me to get involved in the local scene.

Later in life, Stefan would inspire me to pursue creative projects, like the "Make a Mix for Someone You Probably Don't Know" endeavor and even have the self-confidence and guts to join another band of misfits, Treasure MammaL. We actually played Peachcake's last show at Crescent together for the Vial of Sound record release [in 2013].

Stephen Chilton

Owner of Pskyo Steve Presents and The Rebel Lounge

Peachcake was definitely at that moment one of the most active and hard-working of that era. I always appreciated their work ethic and drive more than their music. I always liked that band, but their drive was what made them interesting. Stefan was just always a hard worker and putting something new out, releasing some project, or doing DIY tours. I think they were a positive influence on a lot of bands. They were weird and out there, and that was inspiring to people, doing their own thing, and not chasing anyone else.

click to enlarge A 2010 photo of the late Stefan Pruett by Katherine Amy Vega. - KATHERINE AMY VEGA/KATAKLIZMIC DESIGN
A 2010 photo of the late Stefan Pruett by Katherine Amy Vega.
Katherine Amy Vega/Kataklizmic Design

Katherine Amy Vega

Music photographer and former Valley resident

I met Stefan in my late teens, which is a time of life during which a lot of people struggle with their self-esteem. Growing up, I struggled with maintaining a healthy weight and was sometimes bullied. I was also often isolated from my peers because I was raised in a strict religion that separated me from them. When I reached my teenage years, I became determined to overhaul my image and wasted a lot of my brainpower on high self-monitoring.

But I went out to shows and didn’t let that get in the way of my passion for music and dance, and Stefan inspired radical self-acceptance. I was very overweight when we met, yet I always felt that he saw me as the person I am, and not a caricature. Not once did I feel judged by him, or the cathartic community he helped create.

In turn, I was inspired to open myself up to unify with others that on the surface didn’t seem like people I would have thought I would fit in with, or would be interested in befriending me. Stefan basically inspired me to shed my ego, let loose, be wholly myself, and completely indulge in the manic spirit of the moment.

Henri Benard

Drummer and former Peachcake member

I think if it wasn't for Stefan and Peachcake, I don't think I'd actually be playing music. I set these timelines and goals for myself early in life where I said, "If I don't do these things by this point, maybe I need to change my career path."

click to enlarge Peachcake in Norway in 2011. - MIKE MCHALE
Peachcake in Norway in 2011.
Mike McHale
Peachcake was definitely a big start of [helping figure that out], because I was always into the music and I was totally into playing drums because I enjoyed their shows and I enjoyed their songs.

So there was definitely an influence because I wanted to make music that sounded like that with a band. I've done other things like Dry River Yacht Club and all these other kinds of projects, but I was always into the electronic sound.

So it was pretty awesome to join the band and play with them with backing tracks, playing with drum triggers, play these cool shows. It inspired me and he inspired me as an artist because it pushed me to be a better drummer.

Zach Yoshioka

Owner of K&Z Entertainment and former Peachcake manager (2007-2009)

Stefan was someone that believed in the impossible. I remember our first meeting at our offices, he and [John O'Keeffe] came in about management and I remember Stefan walked in with the bunny ears and I was like, "Oh my goodness, this is really interesting. This guy is dressed up like it's Halloween." He was always in onesie pajamas and bunny ears. I thought he was really bizarre at first, but his intelligence level and his ability to be super-knowledgeable of everything was extraordinary.

He had this effect on people where he could make you believe in the impossible. Just a really deep and authentic person, someone who was really full of values and ethics and really good fundamentals deep down. He could see that creative vision in his mind that a lot of people couldn't see. Peachcake was very ahead of their time in terms of mixing indie music with electronica [and] he had such deep meaning behind every song that when they played live it didn't matter if you had the CD or heard them on the radio because they just connected with the audience. It was just undeniable.

He was one of those clients who could push you as hard as you pushed him. If ever there was a roadblock, Stefan would come up with a million ways to go around it. He was just a magical human being.

click to enlarge The late Stefan Pruett during Peachcake's final show in 2013. - KATHERINE AMY VEGA/KATAKLIZMIC DESIGN
The late Stefan Pruett during Peachcake's final show in 2013.
Katherine Amy Vega/Kataklizmic Design

Brodie Foster Hubbard

Local musician and former promoter

One of my greatest memories, not only of Stefan but of music in general, was a show he did at his house in Carefree in 2002 with his brother and a bunch of kids. I just remember everyone dancing in the living room or all over the place while [Pruett's band at the time] Enemy of Society played. I just liked that dancing and I hadn't seen dancing at a show like that for a long time. It used to be really cool then to stand there and stare at your shoes while musicians are playing. And that's not what it's supposed to be like. So he was one of the first people locally that I had seen outside of punk bands and hardcore bands that actually had energy and made shows fun.

That definitely inspired me and put me back on the right path. The following years in Phoenix, I just did fun shows with fun people. Regardless of whether the performances were good or bad, the draw at the end of the night, they were still fun. He always had that in mind. I don't think he did anything without that it in mind.

He definitely reminded me that [promoting shows] were supposed to be fun, because I really think that's easy to lose sight of when you're booking or hustling to get shows and you're dealing with egos, touring bands, difficult sound guys, and fickle audiences. I think that's really easy to let that all go to your head and make you forget the whole point is to have fun.

click to enlarge The late Stefan Pruett during a Peachcake show in 2009. - MIKE MCHALE
The late Stefan Pruett during a Peachcake show in 2009.
Mike McHale

Jason Kron

Guitarist with Hug of War

He was definitely an integral part of me learning about the idea of local musical community. Everything I was into up to that point was nationally well known, and I had no idea that a network of underground bands existed before I met him.

He was the first person that I remember knowing who had a band and was actively recording and playing shows. Even as a 15-year-old, he was so driven. His bands were his life, and he was doing everything possible to push them forward even then. He was also the first person I ever met who set up shows [and] communicated with touring bands that we liked.

Based on conversations I've had with others over the years [and] what I've seen people post the last couple days, it seems like he had that effect on a lot of people. He gave people rides to shows [and] told them about shows they would've never known existed. The way that subculture is stereotypically tied in with elitism did not apply to him at all, at least not when we really knew each other. He was extremely extroverted and willing to talk to anyone. Because of that, I think plenty of people like me learned about these kinds of things when we met him.

He put a ridiculous amount of energy and effort into those live performances, and he put absolutely everything into his music. I think the world would benefit greatly if everyone devoted themselves to something they loved as much as he devoted himself to music.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.