Music News

Little Fish, Big Pond

It's a late Friday night at Modified, the tiny art/performance space on Roosevelt Street in downtown Phoenix, and everything is going to hell.

Youthful noisemakers Thee Apologies, who come on like a bunch of hyperactive teenagers playing in the basement while their parents are on vacation, are forgetting words and dropping drumsticks and tripping over their own guitar cords. (This never really gets annoying, somehow; inexplicably, it becomes part of their sizable charm.) Maybe four out of five songs come off without incident. Flubbed lines, false starts and embarrassed grins plague the set, but they make it through with encouraging hoots and yelps from the sympathetic crowd. "We have tee shirts," they announce as they're unplugging. "They're $5."

Then Death Takes a Holiday steps up and the equipment goes stupid. Patch cords go dead, pedals lock up or otherwise refuse to cooperate, and guitars suddenly render themselves mute without any advance symptoms of trouble. One particularly recalcitrant effects box ends up being kicked off the stage entirely. Frustrations are mounting. Amplifiers are being threatened with physical violence.

The crowd, sitting in plain wooden chairs or cross-legged on the floor, shouts encouraging words and applauds enthusiastically at the end of every song. Most of the people here are musicians themselves; it's not like they don't empathize. But the unfolding of so much trouble in one night starts to cross the line from laughable coincidence to frustrating omen.

After a short break, the five members of . . . and guppies eat their young (just like that, with ellipses and lower-case letters) begin unpacking equipment and twiddling knobs. The lights -- all the lights in the joint -- go down. Somebody places a plastic jack-o'-lantern on an amp. The stage is suffused in a red glow that bounces off the backing scrim, silhouetting all the players. They look at each other, gauging readiness, and then begin, very, very softly, to play.

In contrast to what's come before, this final set of the night is a quiet one, with low drums and bass providing a constant, understated heartbeat. The guitars are soaked in echo, and the voices alternately murmur and wail and keen, as needed. The feel moves from sinister to playful and back again, with a slow-as-molasses version of "Git Along Little Doggies" grasping both ends at once. And, as if the muted volume and near-darkness somehow hide them from the music gremlins who've been causing havoc all evening, . . . and guppies eat their young's set unfolds without a single problem.

"Like the Feelies on Thorazine," says one audience member to his companion, hearing them for the first time. Other points of comparison are possible, too; there are traces of Galaxie 500 in the guppies' lo-fi performance, echoes of the Pixies in their sometimes inscrutable lyrical content, and elements of the Velvet Underground's willful highbrow in their reserved cool and in the visual impact of their live show.

But somehow none of that aesthetic hoodoo matters at the moment, and neither do the evening's earlier troubles. Calm, graceful, stunning things are happening as midnight approaches.

The last song in the guppies' arresting seven-song performance is a cover of Smog's "Bathysphere": "When I was 7, my father told me/'But you can't swim,'" sings the young man seated at the front of the stage. "And I never dreamed of the sea again."

We're all washed in red. And suddenly, there is nothing else in heaven or on Earth quite as much worth hearing.

In 1995, a young Valley guitar player named Roland Daum headed up a project called Six String Malfunction, which emerged from Phoenix's mid-'90s "beautiful noise" scene. Alongside Roland in that project was his friend Sonny Coccera, a classically trained guitarist. Brock Ruggles, an unattached guitarist and writer, caught Six String Malfunction at a godheadSilo show in Tempe that year, and introduced himself to Roland and Sonny afterward.

"Six String Malfunction, to me, was the most underground band in the whole scene at that time," says Ruggles, sitting with the rest of . . . and guppies eat their young in the Tempe house that Roland and Jason DiGiacomo are in the process of moving into. "I loved them. They were the hardest to find playing out, and their music was the hardest to get. They seemed to me like guys who'd never sell out."

Ruggles and Daum hit it off that night, and soon began collaborating as Manic Bastard, a.k.a. the Drazy Hoops. Also in attendance at that show -- though they didn't know the above three or each other at the time -- were Jason DiGiacomo and Lindsay Cates.

"I was amazed by Six String Malfunction, too," recalls DiGiacomo. "I was playing guitar by that time, but usually I'd only play in my room. I'd never play in front of anyone. Hearing those guys was really the first time I ever saw anyone make music like that. It really encouraged me."

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Eric Waggoner