By Jacob Katel
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The Meanies are currently locked into a grueling tour schedule to honor an oath they made to Fuse Records. Earlier this year, the Chicago-based label rescued the "skunk" (ska meets punk) band from the clutches of a dying St. Louis-based indie and released the group's third album, Kiss Your Ass Goodbye! on the condition that the Meanies, as Spunke puts it, "promise to work our asses off." That was nine months ago, and the band has been chewing up asphalt ever since.
Spunke says the band actually thrives on the chaos of a never-ending road trip. That twisted mentality shows in the band's music, which is as rich and fragmented as a Robin Williams monologue. Although they draw primarily from ska and punk, the Meanies also toss in strains of metal ("Vote No"), klezmer ("Grandma Shampoo"), polka ("Polka in the Eye"), and jazz ("Sunday Afternoon at My House") -- all at dangerously high speeds. "There's too much clutter in our seven heads to be able to create a song that dawdles on a single path," says Spunke.
Which raises a question: How could a band that makes even Primus seem staid create a listener-friendly product? After a few spins of Kiss Your Ass Goodbye!, the answer becomes readily apparent: by arousing morbid curiosity. Just as a passerby would be tempted to stare at a lunatic raging in a dozen self-invented languages, one is drawn to the Meanies' deranged sonic outpouring. The band happily resides on the fringes of what's deemed musically acceptable -- or even classifiable. Pressed to describe his band's style, Spunke notes he prefers the terms "carnival punk" and "skunk core."
Added to the songs' instrumental freneticism are blue-collar themes. "Tread," "An Average American Superhero," and "Johnny Mortgage" -- all from Kiss Your Ass Goodbye! -- present Spunke's take on the quiet desperation of a working-class nine-to-fiver. Alternating between angry hardcore and lilting reggae, "Tread" is about not letting the daily grind kill your soul. "Ain't gonna let you bring me down on the ground and bury me to my knees," Spunke sings, "pissed in a cup for minimum wage."
Spunke grew up in what he calls "a middle-class, Archie Bunker-type family" in Chicago. His father worked for the local gas company digging holes for 30 years, and his mother never held a job until after she gave birth to Spunke's younger sister. Now she's a secretary. The self-described "meathead of the family," Spunke was the only one of his siblings to go to college. "Spunke" isn't the Meanies' singer's "real" last name. He changed it after two groupies on the run tracked him down.
"They were waiting in my house," he recalls. "I had just come off the road, and there were these two girls talking to my roommates. It turned out I had met them at a show and I'd said, 'If you're ever in Chicago, look me up.' They were actually two runaways. I ended up taking them in for a week A did their laundry for them, cooked them dinner. After the week was over, they went home."
Lately groupies have been the least of the Meanies' fan-related problems. Because the band dabbles in a wild variety of sounds, its music tends to anger ska purists, known for their feverish devotion to tradition. The consequences can get ugly. "People into punk are generally more open to whatever," Spunke contends. "They don't care. But a lot of times ska crowds get militant if you mix a style. Or if you're not playing just ska, they'll walk out on you.
"I don't agree with pigeonholing," continues Spunke. "If people come to our shows expecting a mix of styles, they're in for a treat. If they think we're a traditional ska band, then that's the wrong idea. It's a loud and fast experience."
Spunke, who's performed with the Meanies for five years, is the only remaining original member of a band whose history is as convoluted as a Tolstoy novel. The Blue Meanies were born at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where Spunke and a group of other musicians got together in 1990 and named themselves after the villainous animated characters in the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine. Weary of the Carbondale scene, they soon packed up their amps and moved to Chicago, where they added a horn section and guitar player to their rock lineup.
Thus began the rocky road to minor success, which proved too rocky for all the initial Meanies except Spunke. At one point about two years ago, the band splintered, with Spunke relocating to New Orleans. Keyboardist Chaz Linde, trumpet player Jimmy Flame, and saxman John Paul Camp III kept the gears grinding by luring away drummer Bobby Taco and bassist Dave Lump from a ska group in Madison, Wisconsin. Guitarist Mike Pearson, a friend of Camp from college, also joined the fold. Two weeks before the new Meanies hit the road, Spunke returned to Chicago for a cram session with the new group.