"With low expectations it's very easy to surprise people."
You'll never guess who said that. No, not Norman Vincent Peale — Pamela Anderson said that! See how this low expectations thing works?
On a night when loathing everything came easy and liking anything new seemed doubtful, I caught The Prowling Kind — which turned out to be a pretty great discovery. This despite sporting a cutesy band name and two instruments that have a lot to answer for these days: the banjo, for obvious reasons that don't even address minstrel shows and Deliverance, and the glockenspiel, which has supplied more forced sensitivity than emo records even needed.
Yet The Prowling Kind overcame all that within seconds of Mickey Louise Pangburn hammering the strings of her Les Paul goldtop with her fingertips as if she were Steve Howe or Bert Jansch.
Then she previewed "Babycakes" thusly: "This song is about running from state to state for 15 years hiding out from my ex-convict dad." Not even Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison had an intro so, well, fulsome.
It was a smart move to tease it like a local newscast and promise to offer more details later, and the upshot was that her intense first pitch informed every song that followed. Most of it was selections from The Prowling Kind's debut album Tennessee, a song cycle spanning her 15-year ordeal. "Melt Together" captures the moment her parents were once in love, while the title song is the GPS pinpoint to where all the troubles began, and "Wiser for the Wear" an itemization of the complete breakdown of trust between the stalker and the stalkees.
And did I mention heavy? Don't be fooled by their self-identification as blues-folk when they started a Kickstarter campaign to solicit album funds last December. Sure, there's blues-folk in there, but it's blues-folk as though it were being played by The Kills or Big Brother and the Holding Company with Bonzo on drums and with atmospherics seeping through its quieter moments.
The album, as formidable as it is, doesn't approach how ferocious the band's attack can be in concert, although "Vertigo" comes the closest. And even that track lacks the sense, at their live shows, that things could spiral out of control at any moment. Against the solid rhythm pummeling of Jesse Pangburn (drums) and David Maddox (bass) comes a smoking solo from guitarist Zach Tullis and a totally unexpected siren scream from keyboardist and second vocalist Erin Beal.
Mostly, Mickey Louise Pangburn's lyrics express a repressed anxiety and dread that the often-upbeat musical accompaniment masks, almost as a protective shield. According to Jesse, Mickey's husband of four years, it's by design.
"Mickey and I think it's great when a band is talking about something heavy but the music is played in a lighthearted way. Or a lighthearted subject is played intensely. It's fun to see people pull that off."
Sitting down at Giant Coffee with four-fifths of The Prowling Kind (Erin Beal is off doing whatever a keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist does on her day off), the closest thing to heavy at the moment would be a nearby cast-iron pot with an alarm attached to let you know it's safe to steep the tea bag.
It soon becomes evident that Mickey Louise Pangburn is a coffee connoisseur. Twice during the interview, a barista comes to ask her what she thinks of some blend, as if she were the second coming of Juan Valdez.
"We are all big coffee and tea drinkers," says Jesse. "Several of us actually work for Cartel Coffee Lab. Between that and needing some coffee to keep up with our schedule, it lends itself to a bit of barista snobbery."
Caffeine snobbery filters through the way they talk about their music, too, when Jesse announces his pleasure with the completed debut CD. "It covers our unique flavors very well," he says before everyone breaks into guffaws.
For such a young band, The Prowling Kind covers a lot of musical ground in a short playing time. They have some jazz and classical training, which sits not too uncomfortably with the band's metal skeletons in the closet.
"I went to school for jazz," says Mickey. "I studied guitar with Pete Pancrazi for a number of years and took jazz courses at Mesa Community College. And Jesse went there as well, for about two years."
So was that string hammering a result of her jazz training?
"No," laughs Mickey. "Hammering strings — that was my attempt to fit in with the metal guys."
"Yeah, I played prog rock and metal," Jesse says. "My goal was to experience as many styles as I could. Zach feels the same. Metal can get a little monotonous after a while; I still love it, but I wanted to branch out."
Zach Tullis, whose aforementioned face-melting solo on the live version of "Vertigo" probably wouldn't have been possible without some metal mooring, a very narrowly escaped indoctrination in a black metal band with a one-word name.
"Yeah, I was in a metal band that didn't go anywhere and started to splinter off," says Tullis with some trepidation. "They're a local black metal band now called Sovereign and they wear face paint. We had almost a solid set together and then someone brought up face paint and a light bulb went off."
Tullis' fiancée is next to him, trying to book their honeymoon flight to Sweden, and there's no talk of checking out any Children of Bodom show.
"I'm probably gonna come back all Björk and Sigur Rós'd out."
The band that originally put up the Kickstarter page, which raised the funds for Tennessee, only consisted of the Pangburns and Beal. The addition of Tullis and Maddox has made it a different band, a fact that Mickey acknowledges when follow-up material is mentioned.
"I'm really excited with the direction it's going. I'm still doing all the lyrics," says Mickey. "It seems more mature. When one person writes the majority of the content, you're just adding depth to it, but when everyone's playing off each other you can create a good sound. We have two new songs we're getting solidified, one of which is blues rock all the way, the other one a little more ambient, and then it goes into some rock 'n' roll — it's got a surfer rockabilly vibe."
"I think we're staying in the Americana vein; we're influenced by different eras, simple chord structures," says Jesse. "We're not trying to be far out and abstract in what we do. We have a very Americana sound, to me."
For now, the subject matter of writing about fleeing from a homicidal dad would seem to be exhausted, with Mickey seemingly wiser for the wear, to quote the album's closing track.
"Made for some good depressed music," she muses philosophically. As for her dad, he just got out of prison two years ago. "I'm not concerned about it. He's getting pretty old, and I haven't heard anything. And I don't live with my mom anymore, so . . . He used to threaten to kill her and say, 'I want my daughter.' Anytime he'd find us at a location, we'd leave."
The Prowling Kind doesn't plan to stay in one place, either. A run from Arizona to Nashville is planned for November, along with return trips to L.A., where they just got offered a spot at the Roxy and did a gig at the Hotel Café, where Katy Perry got her start.
"We didn't want to just be a good band in Phoenix," says Mickey. "We wanted to play outside the market." The Prowling Kind is moving along like a band that knows what it is, where it's going, and what will put it there.
"Someone recently told us, 'You guys are like a folk band with teeth'," smiled Mickey. "I like that. That's a pretty good description."