TJ Friga feels like Howard Dean. Yes, 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate Howard Dean.
Dean is best known for his meme-worthy rant, topped by an iconic voice-cracking scream, after finishing in third place at the 2004 Iowa caucus. The stuttering and passionate moment took Dean off the brain of most serious voters at the time, but cemented him into 2000s internet lore.
Friga is best known for being the lead guitarist for beloved Phoenix punk group Playboy Manbaby, but he understands Dean’s energy.
“I get very ‘mad scientist’ about things I'm excited about,” the 30-year-old Friga said in a recent interview with Phoenix New Times.
His voice accelerated and crescendoed.
“Once I start talking about something, I'm like, ‘We're gonna do this, and then once we do that, then it can be morphed into this, and, and …’
“I'll go down the hole real fast.”
Friga’s new band, hhharpies, were born from a sudden creative songwriting outburst. Contrary to Playboy Manbaby’s blunt, external songwriting, hhharpies are more introspective.
The new band is Friga’s way of delaying a certain fork in the road. Earlier this year, he considered applying to graduate school and making music a secondary ambition. But first, Friga wanted to get these songs off his chest.
He took the backseat for nearly a decade with Playboy Manbaby, a band that Friga jokes was “a machine made to make [lead singer Robbie Pfeiffer] look good.” Once, he remembered, a fan at a music festival wanted a picture with the band, and she asked Friga to take it.
“I've been a side person most of my musical career, and it's pretty easy to hide behind somebody who's that charismatic,” he said. “Now, I’m having to fill out that persona for myself.”
The band’s alias, stylized in all lowercase as hhharpies, is a nod to the Holyhead Harpies, the all-girls Quidditch team from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. (The first two H’s are used to avoid “litigious action.”)
While Friga is hhharpies’ chief songwriter, he isn’t working alone. In fact, he’s called upon some of Phoenix’s best and brightest to back him. The group assembled just three months ago, and each member is a multi-instrumentalist who can trade off roles as keyboardist, guitarist, bassist, and vocalist. They’ve all got impressive resumés in the Phoenix music scene, too.
New band hhharpies have used Polaroid pictures to promote their band, as a way to express the softness and subtlety of their songwriting.
Mickey Pangburn is the lead vocalist for local synthpop duo Mrch; Torri Ross has drummed and played guitar on tour with Doll Skin; Johl Driscoll played with Friga in their other band called Instructions; and Joshua Medina is a drummer and freelance audio engineer who has worked with bands like Ultraviolet Communication and Celebration Guns.
“With each one of [the members], I feel like there's been some experience in my past where I needed to count on them, and they came through,” Friga said about picking a group with which he can share his most personal writing.
Sonically, the band pulls from cross-generational influences, seeking to find itself somewhere between Weezer and The Beach Boys.
Friga, a teacher at Scottsdale Music Academy, also has had creativity sparked by the pop music favored by his students. He admires the lyrical simplicity of artists like Olivia Rodrigo, Beach Bunny and even 20th century painter Mark Rothko, whose abstract minimalist pieces have moved viewers to tears.
“There’s something about these simplistic, fundamental pieces of art that you can make that just tap into that really primal part of your brain attached to your emotions,” he said. “Sometimes the lyrics don't have to hit you in a particular way, [but] they just give you this really deep feeling that you can't really explain.”
Friga used that blunt songwriting style during the creation of the band’s first single, “learn to breathe,” which was released on August 19. Like many of his songs, “learn to breathe” came together as a series of voice memos recorded on the fly on Friga’s iPhone.
The track’s thematic concept was sparked by Diana Ross’ version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and manga series Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. In the latter, protagonist Tanjiro Kamado uses elaborate breathing techniques to develop new powers.
“These are kind of those feelings put into a song without any wrapping on it,” Friga said. “I wasn't trying to be cryptic — I was just responding to things I was watching or listening to.”
With “learn to breathe” now out for a week, the next step in what Friga describes as a “soft” band rollout is releasing the single’s accompanying music video.
In the video, released today, hhharpies perform “learn to breathe” in slow motion (think Weezer’s “Undone — The Sweater Song”) at their Tempe practice space. The entire video was shot in a half hour.
“We recorded our song twice as fast and played it like a punk band,” Friga said. “Then we synced it lightly to the actual song, and so now it's got this moon gravity kind of feel to it.”
Looking forward, Friga said he’s sitting on at least 30 more songs, and plans to release the band’s first few tracks as singles, rather than as part of a full-length project. Ultimately, his goal for hhharpies isn’t fame or a nationwide tour.
“A lot of my favorite bands have day jobs,” he said, specifically alluding to Pavement’s Mark Ibold and Joan of Arc’s Tim Kinsella. “[The goal is] to have a lasting body of work that someone besides me cares about, too.”
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