Aviary Interesting

Egged on by a soaring Tallahassee following, Zombie Birdhouse flies in your face with invention

In 1973 the DEA reclassified methaqualone to Schedule I, pretty much banning it from medical use in the United States. Sold as Quaalude, Sopor, and Mandrax, the sedative-hypnotic at one time had been the sixth-most prescribed drug in the nation. In 1975, 16.9 percent of high school seniors surveyed said they had tried one type of downer or another. (By 1989, that sampler sample dropped to 6.5 percent.) The combination of governmental interference and street-level desire led to a major bootlegging industry. Dealers began making up their own quays, usually using a large dose of Valium or a similar benzodiazepene, sometimes going further and duplicating Dexamyl by mixing 50 percent amobarbital with, say, five percent dextroamphetamine (an elixir known in some places as "happy pills"). And as happens with things black market, some shits simply bonded white-garbage-powder into pill form and made a killing selling them as 'ludes.

What all these had in common is that they were pressed into large, round white pills and, with Rorer or Lemmon branded on, were stamped with the number 714. Depending on the ingredients used, these little items would either make the user ecstatic, mellow, or dead -- perhaps even all three. Tallahassee's Zombie Birdhouse -- whose twentysomething members grew up in the Seventies -- were thinking of the numbing-and-tranquilizing version when they put down the eighth track on their debut album, St. Called Haight.

"That was from watching the news, watching TV, you know, seeing how everything is so mindless," says guitarist Michael Weisberg, who co-wrote "Stamped 714" with singer/percussionist Jon Preston. "Everybody seems like cattle. The song is real tongue in cheek. It's like `Hypnotized.' It's okay to go with trends as long as you realize they are trends. It's a little sarcastic." Both songs are, in fact, more than that. Like most of Zombie Birdhouse music, there's plenty going on, musically, lyrically, spiritually. And all of it without a milligram of pretension or bogusness. Theirs is the purity that rock and roll, at its best, aspires to. The pharmy, not the boot.

Take the Quaalude song for example. Preston sings part of the chorus happily, upbeat -- "But I don't mind, 'cause I feel fine/about the evening news, I said, `Why don't you.../Why don't you'" -- at which point the deeper voice of Matthew Cloutier cuts in with "take a Quaalude?" In no way do the tune's lyrics ever suggest a just-say-yes approach to tolerating the idiocy that goes on daily in this nation. The defining verse: "I'm sittin' here, in my White House/I've got my Congress and my wife/I'll let you have all your rock-n-roll/I give you your freedom and your strife." So the "take a Quaalude" bit engenders a double meaning: That Q's are what your World Leaders Pretend suggest as solution, and that numbing chemicals offer a cure needed by the dopes who run your life. Either way the greater meaning remains the listener's call. And that's the essential beauty.

Beyond a weight with words, and a straight-ahead musical dynamic, Zombie Birdhouse offers a shill a minute on behalf of their home base, Tallahassee. "This is one of the best music scenes," asserts vocalist/guitarist Cloutier. "It's really underrated. We're all working together. And if we can get just one band signed, it will be recognized, like Athens and Seattle. It would be nice if Tallahassee were recognized, because we have so many good bands here."

The Zombs are one of those, and everybody knew it early on -- like right after their second show. The first Birdhouse gig, on Halloween 1989, got grounded. "The `white house' is a big, big, old plantation," explains Cloutier. "The police showed up, told us to turn it down, then left. We continued playing, of course. They came back about twenty minutes later and said that's it. We weren't even through our first set, maybe half an hour into it." The band typically churns through four 45-minute sets per appearance.

Grand Finales is a classic peel-and-eat, pitchers dive. You step down into a woody, dark, smoky room with an upstairs concert annex, rickety tables, and enough atmosphere for five bars. On November 28, 1989, Zombie Birdhouse played their second show, their first without police interference. It was open-mike night, and acoustic guitarist John Copps was the host. "He invited us to play," Cloutier remembers, "but it was unorthodox because it was a full band rather than an acoustic set. We closed it out. He said fire it up, show 'em what you got. It was a nice time, a nice crowd." Cloutier's recollection is clouded by humility. One of the people in the audience that night puts it this way: "They smoked. The caught on like wildfire immediately. After that, they were the band to see in Tally."

Bassist Chris Carter is the only Tallahassee native in the band, and the only member who didn't attend FSU. Except for drummer David Whitehouse, the others -- Cloutier, Preston, and Weisberg -- quit school once the Birdhouse took flight. "I like the fact that this is a college town," says Cloutier, who went to high school in Fort Lauderdale. "I don't mind being labeled a `college band.' And the clubs don't mind you playing all original music. Your artistic view isn't restricted here. You can be in tune with what's going on. This is the capital, and there's always marches and things going on. I don't want to sound hokey, but we're not just some dumb rock and roll band, and the people here have never questioned our integrity or our intellect."

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