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Timbuk-ing The System

Timbuk 3's lead singer Pat MacDonald is unfazed that his band might have one of the most misunderstood hit singles of the decade. Although his 1985 hit "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" probably ranks right up there with R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" and Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy." for major-league misinterpretation, MacDonald insists the song was "successful." Even if some mistook its sarcasm for optimism, he says, at least it made them think about the future and hopefully voice an angry opinion.

"It's important if you're pissed off to say something," MacDonald says. "I'd rather see someone burn a flag than assassinate the President. If you outlaw every expression of anger then you are just going have a lot of people bottled up inside and going around covertly sabotaging the system. Either they are going to express it in a positive way or they are going to go out and shoot a bunch of kids."

Which is a strange social observation on mass murder, but in a way, Timbuk 3--which also includes MacDonald's wife, Barbara--specializes in American sociology. The duo's songs are crisp but understated snapshots of Americana in the 1980's. Sometimes cynical, more often compassionate, Timbuk 3's tunes are easily misunderstood by the careless listener.

"I don't think we try to write obliquely," MacDonald says during a recent phone interview from his home in Austin, Texas. "What we have to say is out in the open. On one level you know what the words are saying and yet you can hopefully read more into it. I do give people credit for having imagination. Part of the experience of music is to fill in the blanks, to have the imagery lead to other imagery."

There's certainly nothing oblique about Timbuk 3's latest success. The band is currently touring behind one of the strongest lyrical releases of the year, Edge of Allegiance. Coming after last year's Eden Alley, the duo's eclectic second effort, the new work reflects a more pronounced folk influence. The lyrics speak of everyday, common-man situations--there's no Suzanne Vegas and Tracy Chapmans breastbeating about ghetto life and child abuse for guilt-ridden yuppies. If anything, Edge of Allegiance targets those baby boomers, with their Visas maxed-out by the Reagan-era spending spree. "I think maybe the newer stuff is more direct," says MacDonald. The album is peppered with characters from a broke middle class who tell stories such as: "I buy my dinner at the 7-Eleven/Eat it in the kitchen while I watch TV/I like my free time and I love my wife/You'll find my number on the B-Side of Life."

Aside from their social sting, the tunes are also laden with Timbuk 3's trademark harmonica-laced, syncopated beat. Their unique sound developed out of necessity when the poverty-stricken duo moved from Wisconsin to Austin, performing on the street with a poor man's backup band--prerecorded drum machine tracks played on a portable cassette deck. Once in Austin, the group put that distinctive sound onto their first LP, 1985's Greetings from Timbuk 3, and went on to reap critical acclaim and raise eyebrows with their synthesized drum beats. On Edge of Allegiance, the harmonies are sung together instead of overdubbed and the rhythm was laid down with the help of reknowned drummer Denardo Coleman. The overdubbing of instruments was also curtailed a bit for a more refined sound. The result is music with a folkish quality set to a catchy, danceable beat.

"I believe the rhythm part--the part that makes you feel like moving--is an important aspect of the music," MacDonald says.

Timbuk 3 will try to keep the crowds moving when it tours for the first time without prerecorded drum tracks. "It's not like Barbara and I will be up on stage with just an acoustic guitar. We hope to stretch the boundaries of that," MacDonald says, adding that Barbara will be playing kick drum and electric guitar. "We plan to put a band together, but we want to do this with just the two of us."

Being bandless this time around may work to the duo's advantage, better showcasing their moody harmonies and angular rhythms, while making MacDonald's political sentiments more accessible. Actually, MacDonald never pounds the listener over the head with Bono-esque slogans. His lyrics rarely wax purely political, and when they do what comes across is often sardonic. For example, "Grand Old Party" has the narrator waking up with the "Reagan hangover." MacDonald muses in "Standard White Jesus," "Everyone wants to be on a postage stamp/but nobody wants to die" and then later sheds light on what the title might allude to: "The sensation, the temptations/Our forefathers have succumbed to/And the bittersweet fragrance/Our noses have been numbed, too."

But such overtly political tunes aren't as strong as MacDonald's songs from a more ground-level, populist point of view.

"I only really write from my own background and my own perspective, though some songs are sung through a character because it's more interesting." For example, he creates a transient who unruefully rummages through the garbage behind a Popeye's looking for food in "Dirty, Dirty Rice."

In ways, MacDonald has come full circle. In his much "misunderstood" hit, MacDonald depicted a college student with dreams of big bucks, chiding: "Forty-thou a year/That'll buy a lotta beer." On Edge of Allegiance, MacDonald sings of a more mature student who has learned that his future happiness could be found in his girlfriend's eyes instead of his pocketbook. He sings: " . . . one more semester/And I'll have my degree/Oh, babe don't give up on me."

MacDonald says he hopes this message is not misunderstood by those he is singing about and singing to on the album. "I've come not to expect anything to come from the President on down," he says. "It's going to have to come from the people on up.