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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."

With St. Called Haight becoming known and a follow-up nearly ready, the Zombs are perched for...something. Already eager critics, perhaps distracted by the band's very occasional cover selections, are dropping comparisons to Led Zeppelin and R.E.M. and whatever else they can come up with. "This one cat compared us to Buffalo Springfield meets Soup Dragons," Cloutier admits. "That was pretty cool."

"I don't think comparisons are negative," offers Weisberg. "I like the guy in a band up here who told a writer that their influences are, like, the Beatles to Steve Martin, but `nowadays we're sounding more like ourselves.' That's the way I think of it, too. Essentially our strong point is that we have five different voices, four songwriters. Chris didn't write anything on the first album, but he's the true musician of the band. And we have four songwriters with a lot of different influences. It's not just one guy and his vision."

If anything, they'll likely remind you of the Canadian Invasion bands of late -- Blue Rodeo, the Tragically Hip, even Crash Test Dummies -- with their used-not-abused guitar rushes, solid-as-Quayle's-head and double tight rhythms, easily flowing arrangements, unforced hooks, multi-voice harmonies, and brainy lyric structures. Rock and roll, remember?

And lots of it, too, though the Birdhouse rarely feathers its nest with cover tunes these days. "We have 45 originals or something," Cloutier says. "And more every day, it seems. We play live so often that we rarely have time to practice. So we don't waste that time learning somebody else's songs." Instead they use it to collaboratively write new material. "We believe strongly in our music," the singer-guitarist continues. "And in our lyrics and our ability to arrange. Dave and Chris are the best rhythm section, just incredible. Mike's a great guitarist and writer. We just keep turning out our stuff."

A day after running sound for a seven-band celebration of Grand Finales' eighth anniversary, guitarist Michael Weisberg explains that his group's flight includes a plan to spread out. "We're trying to play out of town as much as possible," he says, "because people are telling us that's the right thing to do. We've being doing all our own booking, keeping it small, playing out, doing our thing. Some bands move too quickly. We're very stable. We've got one guy -- Bruce Barkwill -- who started managing us as a hobby, he wanted to get into the music business. We're working at the big picture, but at the same time trying to keep our shit together."

Under Barkwill's efficient guidance, and with high-grade production by John Kurzweg on St. Called Haight and the next album, the Birdhouse is drawing the label interest Cloutier believes Tallahassee deserves. An A&R rep from Sony wrote the band to say she was impressed, loved the lyrics and phrasing, loved the hooks, loved the vocals, and to ask for a live intinerary. And the band was filmed in action months ago, performing the lead track, "Anyway," which seems a logical hit, from Haight. "That wasn't a real video," Weisberg says. "It was just, a guy at Epic wanted something visual. Something to show his partners up there to help us get signed."

Those concerns don't seem to interfere with the music. "Hypnotized," for example, is a driving tune suited to radio play, except that it includes lyrics such as "this ain't no fucking pleasure cruise" that automatically prohibit mainstream exposure. "We're pretty headstrong," says Cloutier. "We've been waiting so long and working so hard, there's no reason to change our way of thinking. Bruce sets down the strategy. But, hell, what it basically comes down to is we'll have two CDs, all our own. That's good for labels, because they think, All we have to do is offer these guys a deal, and we already have two CDs of good quality, not just a two-song demo. Come on."

The band has clearly come a long way since those early shows at Grand Finales. "When we first started," says Weisberg, "we used to do `Communication Breakdown.' We don't sound like Zeppelin or look like them or anything weird like that, although Matthew wears his Les Paul down low. But in a sweaty nightclub, jamming...we would destroy `Misty Mountain Hop' when we were drunk. Not in a good way, but it's fun, real aggressive."

If ever there was a band that linked itself to the Quaalude mentality, it was Zep. Zombie Birdhouse is better suited to smart pills.

ZOMBIE BIRDHOUSE performs at 11:00 p.m. Friday at the Reunion Room, 2660 E Commercial Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 776-4081. Admission costs $5.

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