Is America ready for Harry Pussy?
Kurt Cobain thought so. Several Miamians who attended Nirvana's November 27, 1993, concert in Bayfront Park verify that Cobain urged the amphitheater crowd to catch Harry Pussy's set later that night at Churchill's Hideaway in Little Haiti. Of course, Cobain didn't actually go to Churchill's, but why quibble?
Lou Barlow thinks so. The Sebadoh singer-songwriter-bassist and one-time Dinosaur Jr member who, legend has it, was so true to his indie-rock roots that he parted company with J Mascis and friends when the band inked a deal with Sire/Warner Brothers, stroked Pussy in Pop Watch, a Boston alternative music magazine. "It's amazing," Barlow labels the band's recent recorded output. "Total guitar noodling, screaming, jagged improv which, for no other reason than sheer will and charisma, works for me more than 99 percent of that usual mock improv noise shit. One of the 'songs' features some genuinely horrific female screaming that could've been taped off a snuff film, 'til said female says 'thank you' and the live audience of maybe ten gives up some sporadic applause. It gets me every time."
Thurston Moore thinks so. In the "Raves" section of the June 16, 1994, issue of Rolling Stone, the Sonic Youth feedback king labeled Pussy's latest discharge "anarchistic noise freak-out stuff that I think is really cool." A week later Moore, while hosting an episode of MTV's 120 Minutes alternative-rock show, exhibited a few seconds from a video of the band recorded live at the Alliance Cinema on Miami Beach, then held up a copy of its latest seven-inch single and urged viewers to go out and buy it. In indie-rock circles this is tantamount to a papal benediction.
Kurt Cobain. Lou Barlow. Thurston Moore. These men have all earned spots in the alternative-rock pantheon. They love (in Cobain's case, loved) Harry Pussy. The band's recorded product -- three seven-inch singles (two of which were distributed by indie-scene tastemaker Matador Records) and a full-length, eponymously titled album -- always has sold out initial pressings, and its music has garnered glowing notices in the 'zines (the primary mode of information dissemination in the indie-rock world remains underground magazines, referred to as 'zines by anyone who actually reads them). Yet here in Miami, Harry Pussy's hometown, it's strictly Rodney Dangerfield time. No respect at all.
"I love Guided by Voices," says Harry Pussy guitarist-vocalist Bill Orcutt between drags on a Camel. "The idea of this small-town Ohio band, together for more than a decade, no national exposure. Suddenly they're playing Lollapalooza."
Except that no one familiar with Harry Pussy's modus operandi would give you much better than even-money odds that the band even would accept a spot on the annual summer megatour if it were offered. This is a band that does everything unconventionally. Orcutt, for example, uses only four strings on his guitar A low E, G, B, and high E. He says the bizarre stringing enables him to play two lines at once. Mark Feehan, the band's other guitarist, uses only three. There always have been bands and musicians whose anti-establishment ethos was at odds with their popular success (the late Cobain comes immediately to mind). But few seem quite so determined to dodge celebrity as Orcutt's group.
By way of demonstration, most bands planning a big tour up and down the East Coast who had just been anointed by Thurston Moore in the most widely circulated rock magazine in the land would plaster the quote over every piece of promotional literature they could afford to print up. They'd use the recognition like a calling card to wangle interviews or to try to land more gigs. No flyer, handbill, or poster would roll off the press without the words really cool followed by Moore's name. But that's not Harry Pussy's style. When they leave Miami for three weeks in late July, with stops in Gainesville, Columbia (South Carolina), Chapel Hill, Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City, none of its publicity will include the quote.
"Rolling Stone doesn't really reach our target audience," explains Orcutt halfheartedly. But there's more to it than that. Like, maybe being written up in a publication as mainstream as Rolling Stone (or New Times, for that matter) embarrasses Harry Pussy.
For a band that San Francisco 'zine Insensato describes as "propelled by guitars that scrub into open wound," or that Minneapolis's Your Flesh terms "an out-and-out screamer...a potent brew of free-falling improvisation within a loose rock format...vocals with the mike down the throat," the members of Harry Pussy are preternaturally subdued when they're away from their instruments. Neither Feehan nor drummer Adris Hoyos (who happens to be married to Orcutt) is given to small talk. (Especially not with an impertinent writer who thinks Sun City Girls is the name of a sit-com that resulted from the Golden Girls relocating to Phoenix.) Hoyos, who recently completed her master's degree in English lit. at Florida Atlantic University, responds to most queries with cursory one- or two-word answers. Feehan goes her one better by reducing his communication to an occasional smirk. Orcutt, by default, assumes the mantle of band spokesperson. And his favorite word is whatever.
Harry Pussy is one of a handful of local bands playing a style of music that can best be described as noise. As with many musical genres, noise is hard to define. Guitar feedback, dissonance, and vocals that are screamed rather than sung (assuming there are any vocals) are common elements, but not prerequisites. Live shows are often where the bands earn their reputations, and the word flail is not uncommon to reviews of their performances. Noise music fits no other easy classification; then again, maybe it's one of those impossibly abstruse labels like "alternative" that have been used so widely they no longer serve any practical purpose.
However you define it, noise bands have been steadily gaining popularity. In this country Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, and Sun City Girls play -- each in its own distinctive way -- noise. The Knitting Factory, a New York City nightclub-concert venue, is to the noise scene what CBGB was to late-Seventies, early Eighties punk-new wave. But to develop a real appreciation for the full potential of the noise aesthetic, one must look outside of the U.S. to cutting-edge Japanese bands such as self-described "ultra shit band" the Gerogerigegege and especially the Boredoms. The latter band's live shows are all the rage among the indie- and alternative-rock cognoscenti; it was at a Boredoms concert that Hoyos met Thurston Moore and initiated the correspondence that eventually would lead to his endorsement of her band. Even the king of soothing new-age guitar, Pat Metheny, took the plunge with his recent (and appropriately titled) Zero Tolerance for Silence album.
Most noise bands, whether local, regional, national, or international, share one other common trait. They don't like being labeled noise.
"Don't lump us in with noise bands," pleads Orcutt, despite the fact that nearly every reviewer from Barlow and Moore to writers for 'zines like Short Cutz and Ben Is Dead falls back on the term (or thinly veiled euphemisms like "skronk" or "clamor" or "lo-fi sounds") somewhere in their description of his band's music. "They're more into ambient sound. Our name lets you know up front we're more of a rock band. Primitive. Chaotic. Harry Pussy is supposed to sound like crazy, backward shit A like country people locked in the basement somewhere beating the shit out of their instruments."
Orcutt pauses for a moment of reflection while cuing up a cut from the album that will, he assumes, drive home his point. "To put us into context, go back to the early, early, early rock and roll. Balls out, chaotic, psychotic. We're about getting it wrong in interesting ways," he summarizes before dropping the needle on god-knows-which song. The room is filled with feedback thunderclaps and crashing cymbals and frenetic guitar jabbering. It's a compelling, potent, anarchic free-for-all. A veritable clamor of lo-fi skronk. Noise, in short.
Harry Pussy is not the only noise band in Dade County. (Broward? Surely you jest.) They're just the one with the biggest national rep. If you accept the concept that Miami has a rock scene (a subject of much debate among local rockers who could be said to compose such a scene if they could agree that one in fact existed), then you can make the case that such bands as To Live and Shave in L.A., Scraping Teeth, Dimthingshine, and to a lesser extent King Felix, Snatch the Pebble, Drive Choir, Kreamy 'Lectric Santa, and Deerfield-West Palm Beach's Postface constitute a miniscene of their own. The noise thing is only part of the bond. It's got more to do with an aversion to playing what's already been played, a revulsion for looking and behaving trendily.
It's like high school, in a way. The noise bands are the social pariahs. No other clique will have them, so they've formed a loose clique of their own, almost by default. At the center of it stands an enigmatic guitarist-producer-promoter-DJ-gadfly known as Rat Bastard.
Rat (his real name is Frank Falestra, but only old-timers call him anything but Rat) is a veteran of the South Florida rock wars. A skilled guitarist (Myrin and the 2 Wotz) and highly visible presence during Miami's early Eighties glory days of rowdy punk at such alternative rock clubs as Flynn's, 27 Birds, and Beirut, Rat was one of the first local musicians to foresee the role noise would play in rock's future. In customary style, he dove in headfirst, turning his recording studio-record label (ESYNC) from an Eighties synth-alternative rock hangout into a more primitive and aggressive home for brash, get-a-reaction-at-all-costs sonic assaults on the status quo.
An airline employee by day who devours 'zines in his spare time, Rat is a music junkie who uses his travel privileges to fly around the country in search of whatever's next. American Music Club, the Mekons, Guided by Voices, Liz Phair -- if you listened to Rat you'd have been hip to all these acts way before they started fielding offers from major labels.
The knock against Rat (frequently used to disparage other noise bands as well) is that he can't play. You hear this a lot from people whose only exposure to Rat's music has been his recent solo gigs or his work as guitarist for Scraping Teeth, crowned the Worst Band in America last year by Spin. He's the lunatic who plays until every string is broken, the clown who spazzes out and wields a screwdriver for a pick. Even musicians who respect him fear him. Especially in Broward. No one clears a room like Rat (except maybe Tom Smith, but more on him later).
The fact is that Rat can play what he calls "boring guitar-god cliche bullshit." He still occasionally sits in on lead at Myrin and the 2 Wotz reunions, or when a veteran local rocker with a shred of integrity (read: Charlie Pickett) asks him to. But for the most part he's sworn off the typical rock guitarist's method: recycling riffs that Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton ripped off from Jimi Hendrix who stole them from Buddy Guy who got them from Guitar Slim and Muddy Waters who filched them from Robert Johnson who, as everybody knows, made a deal with the devil to buy them in the first place.
In an interview with New Times following Scraping Teeth's selection as America's worst, Spin editor Mark Blackwell theorized that the thing that made Scraping Teeth special, the quality that enabled their music to plumb depths that thousands of other more mediocre contestants could not even fathom, was their musicianship. "They've obviously been playing for years," Blackwell asserted. "They didn't create this music to try to win our contest. I don't think they meant to be bad. They meant to fit some mysterious category of their own, like Skinny Puppy or the Swans, with all the things that make those bands interesting removed."
Many musicians would be discouraged to find that a major music publication such as Spin had judged their music the nation's worst. Not Rat. He couldn't have been happier. "We've achieved the ultimate reaction!" he gushed back then. Generating a strong response is Rat's supreme musical goal. "When I play music, it's like when I played high school football -- I get psyched up," he explains. "You gotta go out there and you gotta kill. You can't just play because there's nothing else to do or because you want to look cool. There's a million bands out there that sound like Pearl Jam. You gotta kill!"
Much of said killing, at least as perpetrated by the local noise bands mentioned above, occurs on Thursday nights at Churchill's Hideaway in Little Haiti. Rat has been holding court at Churchill's on Thursday nights off and on for the better part of a decade. The festivities used to include performance art from the likes of Tina's Dirty Girl Revue (basically an ex-stripper named Tina telling provocative stories), and Scraping Teeth regularly would share the stage with avant-rockers such as the Trash Monkeys. Of late, however, the night has been billed as "Frank Falestra's Beautiful Noise Series."
Drive Choir took the stage at 11:45 p.m. on a recent Thursday night. This is normally prime time for live music clubs. However, discounting journalists and bar employees, for this particular installment of the Beautiful Noise Series band members outnumbered listeners. Despite the paltry turnout, Drive Choir looked nervous. The band evinced little to no stage presence: They wore jeans, nondescript cotton shirts, and sensible shoes; vocalist-guitarist Bill Munoz often turned his back to where the audience would have been if there had been one; nobody in the band danced or otherwise engaged in typical rock-star posing or histrionics. If anything, Drive Choir looked fearful.
Musically, they were disciplined and melodic and placed far too much emphasis on vocals to be considered true noise. Michelle Oleck even played flute on several tunes and frequently sang harmony with Munoz. Songs were structured and lyrics were, by and large, intelligible. And bassist Carl Carvajal and drummer Brian Grayson anchored a conventionally tight rhythm section. With the exception of Munoz's odd forays into free-form feedback jams, the band was hardly scary at all. In fact, they were downright enjoyable.
You had to figure Falestra would be disappointed. Drive Choir was his favorite local band. They had played a civilized, harmonious, palatable set.
But Rat wasn't worried. His ace in the hole was coming up next.
Tom Smith is probably not the antichrist. For starters, he doesn't look the part. Smith has one head, not seven, and no horns to speak of. If you didn't know him, you would have an easier time picturing him standing in a driveway in Cocoplum waxing a BMW than stalking the stage at Churchill's on a sweltering Thursday night. Smith has the cocky bearing of a Southern frat boy; a slight puffiness about the eyes suggests one too many keg parties. Not only does he not resemble the antichrist, he probably wouldn't pass muster as an alternative rocker. Short hair, but not buzz-cut. Baseball cap on backward. Solid black T-shirt. No goat. No tattoos. No pierced body parts. White socks. Cute legs. (A female musician who considers herself something of an authority on the subject recently remarked upon the sleek muscularity of Smith's gams during one of his rare public performances. Smith is not bashful about exposing them, either -- his wardrobe runs to jean cutoffs rolled up to reveal plenty of thigh.)
He arrived at Churchill's quietly near the tail end of Drive Choir's set. As soon as they finished, Smith was on-stage setting up. He did not mingle with the band, nor did he waste any time glad-handing the dozen or so patrons who had drifted in after midnight. He was, in short, all business.
Rat, who was accompanying Smith on bass, barely had time to adjust the last monitor level on the sound board and scamper up to the stage before Smith, without introduction, began. One second there was silence, the next there was chaos. Smith unleashed an anguished frontal assault on the senses that evoked all the horsemen of the Apocalypse simultaneously playing unearthly instruments with savage ferocity. It was loud, violent, aggressive, and disturbing, a turbulent musical uproar formed by layering Smith's electronically distorted voice and Rat's berserk paroxysms of bass atop a convulsing cacophony of cross-cutting samples on DAT. (Samples of what? Who knows? There were too many to sort out amid the clamor.) It was a buzz-saw glee club, a cordite choir, an aural onslaught.
How many days did it take U.S. troops to flush out Noriega by playing classic rock? Give Tom Smith the microphone and you've got fat Manny running out of the Vatican compound in his flaming red briefs, begging for a plane to the U.S. Adrenaline rush, fury, disorientation, confusion -- a Smith performance should be an integral part of basic training. It elicits the same emotional responses as combat.
For twenty minutes Smith howled and prowled. Occasionally he bellowed so loudly he doubled over at the waist from the effort. The audience didn't so much applaud as yelp back in kind. Between songs Smith crouched over a monitor, wheezing ominously into the mike. It was intense. It was harrowing. It was Woodstock and Nam and demolition derby all rolled into one brief musical experience.
When it ended both Smith and Falestra were wasted from exhaustion. They looked like escaped convicts who had just eluded a police manhunt on foot, not like musicians who had just completed a twenty-minute set. Smith packed his equipment into an Everlast athletic bag. As unobtrusively as he had arrived, he was gone.
Like Harry Pussy's Orcutt, Smith lists avant-garde jazzmen Cecil Taylor, Charles Gayle, and Sun Ra as influences. But that's where similarities cease. Orcutt is contemplative and deliberate. Smith is brash and in-your-face. Orcutt shrugs and says "whatever" a lot. Smith calls people "babe."
"Nobody locally can touch Bill and me," Smith insists. "We're thinking globally. The rest of these bands are a joke. [Ft. Lauderdale-based Nothing/ Interscope recording artists] Marilyn Manson may as well be H.R. Puff 'n' Stuff. All they can do is buy our shit and suck up to us."
Smith's background is incredible for the number of near-misses his musical career has endured. Now 38, he attended high school in Georgia and played in his first band as a teenager with Don Fleming, who would go on to become a hotshot record producer (Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque) and guitarist-songwriter (Velvet Monkeys, Gumball, the BackBeat soundtrack). "I had a short-wave radio. He had a guitar. We thought we were rock singers," Smith recalls.
Fleming moved to Virginia in 1980 and formed the Washington, D.C.-based Velvet Monkeys. Smith headed for Athens and started an alternative rock band, Boat Of, with a guitarist named Carol Levy and her sort-of boyfriend, Michael Stipe. "I think he was still experimenting with heterosexuality back then," Smith muses. Boat Of specialized, in Smith's words, in "search-and-destroy dance music. We sounded like the chain that drags on the highway behind a tractor-trailer to release static electricity."
Stipe's other project was gaining in popularity and the singer had less and less time to cruise with the Boat. "I think Boat Of was just a lark for him," says Smith of his former bandmate. "I saw R.E.M. for the first time in '81; I thought it was the worst shit. Vile music. Nowadays they're untouchable, so enshrined in the halls of political correctness that they could be photographed molesting kids or killing people and nothing would happen to them."
Levy and Smith carried on until Levy's death in an automobile accident in 1983. Grief-stricken and full of acid, Smith moved to Washington at Fleming's invitation and joined the Velvet Monkeys. He was quickly expelled, however, for sleeping with another Monkey's girlfriend. Smith didn't let the setback slow him down; he formed another band, Peach of Immortality, with a speed-freak named Jared Hendrickson. Peach released three LPs and an EP and were set to tour the U.S. with Pussy Galore in 1986 when their drummer was jailed for striking a cop. Hendrickson and Smith pressed on without him, touring for three weeks before throwing in the towel as a band and just folding into Pussy Galore for the balance of the tour. Smith moved to Atlanta in 1988; Hendrickson founded CHEMLAB, which is now recording for his own Fifth Column label, which is distributed by Metal Blade/Relativity.
Smith and Fleming teamed up again in 1991 for a CD and a seven-inch under the band name Gin Blossoms (no relation to the band that plays "Hey Jealousy"). Smith's fiancee moved from Atlanta to Miami in 1990; he followed in 1991 and has been working on a solo project ever since.
"I got to Miami and headed straight for the studio. That's where I met this nut case," Smith explains, nodding in Falestra's direction. While recording, Smith became impatient with the time allotted to him. He was occasionally being bumped by another local band, the Holy Terrors, who were recording their recently released Lolitaville CD at the studio that Rat built. At one point Smith's impatience bubbled over and he launched into a tirade against the Terrors, which he left on Rat's answering machine. A tape of the diatribe found its way into the Terrors's hands, and the band used Smith's caustic rant to close its CD.
Smith named his new project To Live and Shave in L.A. after an obscure porn video; the result of his thirteen months in Rat's studio is a CD titled 30-minuten mnnercreme, which consists of 40 tracks of all-out, no-holds-barred bedlam.
"This album is about sex straightup," Smith enthuses. "Lasciviousness stripped of its PC. It's the only thing I'm qualified to sing about, basically. We recorded 85 tracks, then narrowed it down to the best 40. Most of them are short, a minute and a half or less, because that's all you can really absorb with music this dense. We incorporated more than 300 samples of other people's work A guitar solos, drum tracks, lines of dialogue from films. I don't consider it noise, I consider it balls-out rock and roll. After all, the Stooges are the standard; Rubber Legs is the ultimate fucking record of all time.
"This," he says, holding up a copy of 30-minuten mannercreme, "is number two."
Tuesday, June 28. It's raining. Cafe Bacala, an acoustic music showcase shooting for a postmodern coffeehouse ambiance (chosen Best Beatnik Hangout in New Times's 1994 Best of Miami issue), is in full swing at Blue Steel, a Boho lounge at 29th and Collins on Miami Beach. The club is abnormally dense tonight, maybe twice the usual crowd of 35-40. Acoustic performances by Harry Pussy, Tom Smith, acclaimed jazz saxophonist Leo Casino, Rat Bastard, and King Felix are slated. The intrusion of these veteran noisemakers into hippie country is putatively to celebrate the release of King Felix's Owl Plane Crash CD on the San Francisco-based Sulphur label.
Many in the crowd have come expressly to catch Harry Pussy in an acoustic setting. And although neither Orcutt nor Feehan is anywhere to be found a few minutes before their scheduled showtime of 12:15 a.m., a pair of battered Kay acoustic guitars, one missing two strings and the other missing three, are propped against the blue stucco wall near the back of the room under the pinup-style painting of a woman whose pink nipples teasingly protrude above the towel in which she has cloaked herself.
Apparently moved to passion by the artwork, a young, expensively dressed man with a beeper and a leggy brunette woman in a black microskirt French kiss vigorously and uninhibitedly on a well-worn love seat near the club's entrance. Local legend Casino kicks off the noise segment of the night's program with twenty minutes of free-form jazz, backed only by Rat on electric guitar. Casino, black and bald, cuts a high-profile figure just mingling with the predominantly white, latter-day hippie Bacala crowd. Once he starts wailing, with Falestra behind him (it's a little-known fact that Casino was a founding member of Scraping Teeth), the joint is mesmerized. The air is electric, full of possibility and danger.
There is a slight commotion in the back of the room. The Kay guitars are gone. A journalist who has come to hear Harry Pussy panics, then spots Orcutt and Feehan heading for the door. "We need to tune up," Orcutt says sheepishly. But he isn't fooling anyone. Harry Pussy is trying to sneak out. The journalist shames them into staying.
Casino finishes and steps aside to enthusiastic applause. Rat launches into a solo set. People begin streaming out of Blue Steel. In less than a minute sixteen patrons leave the bar and stand vigil under the awning outside, waiting for Rat to finish. A young woman runs into the rain screaming "Augghhh!" at the top of her lungs.
Harry Pussy tries to sneak out again. Again the journalist intercepts them. This time Orcutt informs the writer that Feehan refuses to play because drummer Hoyos isn't there, and "it wouldn't be Harry Pussy without her." The journalist persists, pointing out the fact that they must have known it was an acoustic night and that there were many inside who, like the journalist, had braved the elements specifically to get a little Pussy. But Feehan remains steadfast. He won't play. (Later it was revealed that Feehan became distraught when, upon arrival at Blue Steel, his ever-present can of Mountain Dew soda was confiscated at the door.)
So it was left to King Felix to make up for Harry Pussy's abstinence. A one-man band who creates sound sculptures using a variety of samples, sequencers, and synthesizers, the King does not look very regal. Felix suffers from Marfan syndrome (the condition, which is characterized by abnormally elongated bones, was not identified until 1892; Abe Lincoln, Paganini, and even Jesus Christ may have been afflicted as well), which makes him gaunt as Ichabod Crane. He surrounds his skeletal person with keyboards and pedals and esoteric digital equipment. He begins playing and the crowd noise subsides to an unnatural whisper (unnatural for a bar, at least). He looks like the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy pulls back the curtain -- a lone man surrounded by strange machinery, creating sounds that no one has heard before.
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He blows some Tibetan horn into a microphone, processes it through a synthesizer, loops it through a sampler. His cheeks look like Dizzy Gillespie's in reverse, imploding instead of popping out. Hyperventilation seems like a real threat.
He moves on to the recorder, then to the kalimba. The bar reverberates with King Felix's bizarre, futuristic music. Several patrons become transfixed, carried away by the hypnotic performance. Blue Steel has fallen under a spell.
The King fades to a close. His newfound fans pause, unsure whether he's finished, then burst into heartfelt applause. The couple on the couch stop making out long enough to join in the tribute.
Chalk up another small victory for noise.