Nothing's more frustrating than interviewing a rock band en masse.
Everyone clusters around your tape recorder and blurts out stuff all at once, but rarely does anyone say anything revelatory. Generally too inhibited to criticize or too diplomatic to take all the credit for the sounds, musicians tend to respond like sports athletes: always deflecting glory back onto the other teammates. Some good-natured ribbing at the expense of the star player might ensue, but then it's quickly followed up with a sobering compliment to keep you focused on the idea that the team's the thing! No wonder Oasis never has trouble getting cover stories.
Some professional interrogators try circumventing the BMT (Boring Musicians Together) syndrome by plying their subjects with stimulants. This usually results in either tedious observations about belly lint, if they're lucky, or puke-encrusted shoes if they're not.
That hasn't stopped this hack from trying. Last year, tearing a page out of the Brian Wilson Pop Psychology handbook, I had the idea of immersing the Beat Angels up to their necks in pool water. According to Wilson, who used to conduct Beach Boy business meetings in his pool, people can't lie or bullshit when they're completely wet.
The net result of this watery experiment? Two Beat Angels dipped their toes for about a minute and a half. And oh, yeah, they left behind two fun-filled C-60 cassettes with neither a tear shed nor a confession made to a painkillers addiction.
So here I am with Jim Andreas, Chris Kennedy, Jason Sanford and Bob Smith of Trunk Federation trying yet another technique, interviewing the group in total darkness. Actually, it's not by design that we're sitting in the stage area of Jackson Street (better known as Jackson Hole) with only the exit signs to illuminate us. Jackson Street is where the March 27 release party for the group's second Alias Records CD, The Curse of Miss Kitty, will take place. Steve Naughton of Medical Presents is staging this event and needs to take his lighting board home with him.
But it's only fitting, reckons Andreas. "We are a dark band, after all."
Dark, yes. Team players? Certainly. But boy, are they ever interesting.
This CD is sure to put Trunk Federation on the same exalted playing field as indie darlings The Grifters and Flaming Lips. When you hear the trippy magnificence of this new record, replete as it is with everything from Oscar Mayer penny whistles, squiggly synths, compressed horns, fuzz bass, amateur fiddle playing and car-alarm guitar lines, you can hardly believe the band's from the Valley. "Naw," you wanna say to yourself, "surely these guys've gotta be from Michigan at the very least!"
But why let the music do the yakking? Just listen to this enthralling verbal exchange between Andreas and Kennedy:
Andreas: "You know what we fight about on the road more than anything is socks!"
Kennedy: "I start the tour with five pairs of socks and I leave with three. Where do they all go?"
Andreas: "You should see us at Laundromats. 'Those are my socks! Those are my socks. Well, fuck it, just take all the socks.' I bought some blue socks yesterday because I know no one's got any blue socks."
Kennedy: "I've got blue socks."
Andreas: "Great. Just great."
Want more? Sure you do. Here are other Trunk revelations revealed under the pitch-black security blanket:
1. Trunk Federation isn't angry anymore!
Gone is the homicidal rancor of last album's "Young Cherry Trees" ("Chop you into little parts! Chop you into little parts!"). Nope, if Andreas screams his head off at all this time around, it's about the neighborhood collecting "apples! Baskets full of apples!" Even then, it's with an "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream" exuberance the band never allowed for previously. Often Andreas delivers his cryptic word puzzles in a childlike whisper, as if a newborn infant has just been installed in his dysfunctional home and he doesn't want to disturb it just yet. Add in the calliope organs and glockenspiel keyboards that abound on many of the tracks, and you have the perfect soundtrack for a sinister kiddy party.
But doncha unruly little lynch mobbers worry that Trunk has gone soft around the middle. The Curse of Miss Kitty still meets the minimum daily requirement of violent acts demanded by alt-rock, but even on a cover of the ultimate "honey, where have we failed?" anthem, the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays," the violence is anesthetized to the point of catatonia. It ain't just nepotism at work when Andreas says, "My nieces love our new record." Sanford says, "I got an e-mail from this computer-literate 8-year-old kid that said, 'Your new CD is sooo coool.'" Indeed. With Miss Kitty, Trunk has come of age. Having stopped picking at the scabs of adult dementia, the band came up with something equally unsettling for the kids.
2. Trunk Federation can't get the hang of this "bandwagon-jumping thing."
"We put out a rock record right at the beginning of the electronica wave," says Andreas of the group's debut effort, last year's The Infamous Hamburger Transfer. "And obviously that's what you're supposed to put out now. So we jumped on that bandwagon, and here we are."
Once out on tour to support their debut, the Trunk Feds met some resistance from what Kennedy calls "all the little indie elitists." He adds that "anything that had a little distorted guitar was automatically dissed. They hated rock in general at that time."
"Let's not talk about rock," complains Andreas. "We're a techno band, y'know?" Alias, the band's label, likes to slap a "new psychedelic" tag on Trunk Federation, and that's fine by Andreas. "We listen to stuff that's almost exclusively slow and trippy. But you can still rock a crowd without playing something fast."
Old-school psychedeliacs will note that Trunk's head music owes more to the multilayered sound paintings of the British masters than the formless freakouts and jams that were once the chief export of California. No extraneous musical moments here, even on extended numbers like "The Reluctant Thief" and "Levitations and Disappearances," which pull out new instruments every 10 seconds like so many rabbits out of a hat. This album seems almost like Meddle-era Pink Floyd in its laconic passages, and recalls the Syd Barrett era at its most menacing. As proof of the band's allegiance to exploring trippier realms, Sanford offers as Exhibit A that he is up to 15 effects pedals. Smith's insistence that the increased background vocal harmonies means Trunk qualifies as a barbershop-punk band falls on deaf ears.
3. Most of this album was written in the span of a month.
"It was a stressful yet prolific time," says Sanford, proving true the old adage that a band has three years to write the first album and three weeks to write the follow-up. "We hated each other for a while, but we're all happy with the songs. Bob's addition to the band proved we could work together well. Before that it wasn't as easy to just shit songs. Well, we shit songs then, but these are better."
This severe crunch time called for quicker shitfests and more cunning song-borrowing measures. "Levitations and Disappearances," featuring the album's emotional high point--Jason's beautiful, slipped-a-mickey-and-getting-taken-down-the-scenic-route guitar solo--is rendered even more emotive when you realize its first six notes are identical to the State Farm Insurance jingle. "I never put that together," he says with a smile while cursing me under his breath. "That explains why we left the room during that State Farm commercial."
Furthermore, "Felicity's First Impression" owes more than a passing nod to "Pomp and Circumstance," and "Opposite Attractions" has the weird distinction of sounding like all the other songs on the album at the same time! Reluctant thieves--har-dee-har!
4. Trunk Feds would rather die before they tell you what their songs mean!
In the world of celebrity interviews, most welcome this forum for sneaking in their quasi-religious and personal beliefs. Queries of "tell me what this song's about" enable folks like Stevie Wonder to ramble undisturbed on spiritual bonding between people of all nations for 10 minutes minimum. But because Andreas is spiritually barren, his lyrics consist mostly of what syllables sound good together. Still, people often wonder what he's going on about. "I'm trying to develop more narrative, more stories in the lyrics," he says. "Before, it was mostly spitting out images, kinda vague. But I also like to keep it kinda loose."
So loose that the band would prefer you budding Charles Mansons out there to get it all wrong or right for yourselves. It's worth it not to include printed lyrics with every album, even if it means having the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms show up unannounced at Trunk's rehearsal space every once in a while.
"No, this one's not about a violent overthrow of the government, either," Andreas chides the agents before inviting them in for some orange juice. And if it meant that the director of the group's first video heard the band's catchy refrain of "Jello! Jello! Jello! You're Jello!" and concluded "Edible" was about being in an insane asylum, so be it. Everyone knows it's really about Bill Cosby's extortionist love child!
5. Miss Kitty ain't no kitty, she's a van!
By now you've probably heard that the Trunkers' blue-and-white road warrior once belonged to Amanda Blake, the late Miss Kitty from TV's longest-running Western series, Gunsmoke. Apparently, she didn't get much use out of it. "Amanda was very ill in her later days," Kennedy says. "That's why it's outfitted with oxygen. They probably spent 30 grand on it. It's got track lighting, even disco lights down the middle of it."
Miss Kitty the van had 20,000 miles on her when the band bought it from its second owner. It doesn't have the rock-band look unless you consider the seven months of touring damage on the inside and the dent that Andreas put on it in Washington while trying to parallel park. That oxygen sure came in handy that day.
6. Bob Smith is the Ringo of the group, but he doesn't want to be.
Sure, Smith's the bassist who brought a whole new spectrum to the band's sound with his extensive use of keyboards onstage and in the studio. But, face it, he's also the last guy to join, which qualifies him for endless derision and ribbing. Like the time in Kansas City when some drunk grabbed Smith's hair and it had so much grease in it that he recoiled in horror. Or that Smith's allergic reaction to felines inspired the red-eye album cover art.
As Andreas tells it, "Bob was sitting on the cat's stool at my girlfriend's house, and his eyes started swelling up when we took the photo."
"So it looks like I'm fucked up," adds Smith. "But that's as cool as Abbey Road when Paul McCartney's not wearing a shoe."
Well, not really. You can hardly detect his red-eye in the insert photo they chose, thus squashing any potential for a "Bob Is Dead" rumor. I didn't have the heart to tell Smith that, though, much in the same way the band still hasn't informed him that he didn't, in fact, join an electronica band.
7. Trunk Federation demands your respect and won't do shtick to get it!
At one time, the band wore matching uniforms and tacky polyester clothes onstage to grab attention, but as Sanford elucidates, "The wool count in our threads has gone up and the polyester count has gone way down.
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"There's the discomfort level with polyester, too. It feels like shit when it's wet and smells even worse. That's one of the things that has contributed to the downfall of Miss Kitty. It's the stink."
"We kinda changed our whole approach," says Andreas about the tapering-off of silly accouterments. "Just as some people were not too quick to embrace that, other people will be just heartbroken that we're not gonna be a cheesy band. That's just not what we wanna do right now. It's not about polyester or wool, it's about feeling like we've done it already."
This album and its accompanying shows officially end the band's "shtick" stage. "We're more into looking good," Andreas says. "We're evolving. We're in the Thin White Duke stage."
The band promises to keep the live shows highly visual, and will continue to pursue bigger and better props. But the "no shtick" decree also means a tapering-off of silly cover songs, like Right Said Fred's look-good manifesto "I'm Too Sexy" and Meredith Brooks' "Bitch." Says Andreas, "We don't want to be too much of a joke. We demand respect. And besides, who wants to perform a Grammy-losing song?