Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Ballad of PFFFFT!

Nostalgia for the recent past is a strange thing, and something I try to avoid, but lately, I've been thinking about PFFFFT!, the rock-based improv outfit I played in with Matt Hembree, Clay Stinnett, and Tony Chapman for eight months in 2008.

It was a year when I was playing a lot -- my dad was ill, and I think I was booking every show I possibly could with Stoogeaphilia to keep my mind off it, although I wound up drinking so much that I can only remember about half of them. The Wreck Room -- our second living room for five years -- had closed the previous fall, and the building it had inhabited was demolished on New Year's Eve 2007, leaving us as "stateless people." I started booking shows at the Chat Room until Ben Rogers advised me that they "weren't booking any more shows" -- a lie, but a kind one, I suppose, although it wouldn't have hurt my feelings if he'd just shot me straight and told me, "You guys are too fucking loud and you're running everybody out of the bar." Then we moved further down Magnolia to the Fairmount until they folded the tent at the end of the year.

PFFFFT!'s genesis came with a chance meeting at Fred's Cafe. I was eating lunch there when Clay Stinnett blew in like a character from a Larry McMurtry story. Clay's a preacher's kid from Boswell High who went to UNT to get his fine arts degree and drummed with Ghostcar and History At Our Disposal. He looks different every time I see him. This time, he had slicked-back hair, a mustache, and a big Stetson, and he informed me that he'd just gotten back from Austin. We'd played an improv gig at Lola's the previous fall under the rubric Kamandi, with two drummers, two guitarists, Aaron Gonzalez on stand-up bass, and Tony Chapman on vocoder: a noise-and-feedback apocalypse replete with raining broken drumsticks.

"We ought to make a band," he said. I agreed and made three phone calls: One to the Chat Room to book a show (on 4.20, hahaha); one to Matt Hembree, who'd been playing bass with me in Stoogeaphilia, and whose work with Bindle, Goodwin, The Underground Railroad and Pablo & the Hemphill 7 I admired greatly; and one to Tony Chapman, Clay's Ghostcar bandmate and the chaos factor (on guitar and synth) I thought the project required. Hembree was skeptical about playing improv at first but wound up really digging it.

On the set, the band worked off the interaction between Clay's extremely assertive drumming (the real bandleader) and Matt's melodic bass (and quest for order), with Tony and your humble chronicler o' events hanging on for dear life. On the track "Chaoseptic" I've been listening to lately (archived, like every show we played but one -- Matt was visiting his mom in Tennessee and Jeremy Hull sat in -- on Hembree's katboy.com site), Matt starts off tentatively, mitigating between Clay and me as we blow up against the back wall, then adds a Jack Bruce-like complexity behind our ongoing rant-dialogue. (It's worth remembering that Hembree probably played more notes on his track on Marcus Lawyer's Top Secret...Shhh record than all the other bassplayers combined.)

I think that the people at the Chat really did like us, but we were _fucking_ loud (and I was just using my li'l Hughes & Kettner back then, but I'd been listening to Last Exit and Les Rallizes Denudes a lot) and folks tended to gravitate toward the patio when we were up. We would do stuff like playing along with the jukebox music when we were getting ready to start. One night while we were taking a break, some kid got up and started jamming on Tony's synth, so we all got up and joined in with what he was doing. It was that kind of band.

Once at the Chat, Eric Harris from Yeti came and sat in with us. Another time, at the Fairmount, Daniel Huffman from Ghostcar did the same. Toward the end, Marcus Brunt from the Brokers, who used to come out to the Wreck Room jams when I played there with Lee Allen, started bringing his bass trombone, and Matt Hickey from the Fellow Americans surprised me by sitting on the floor behind me playing inaudible synthesizer. When we had sit-ins, we would modify the band name. For example, when Jeremy subbed for Matt and Eric sat in, we became "PFFF(F)(F)T!"; when Daniel sat in with the core lineup, we were "PFF(F)FFT!" And so on.

I think that we got better at playing with each other as we went along, but as we did, our audience dwindled. It might have had something to do with the fact that the Fairmount was about five blocks east of anything else that was open by the time our evenings there started, and the neighborhood still had a semi-sketchy rep -- in fact, a bassplayer that performed with Bill Pohl one night when Bill played before us had his pedalboard stolen out of his truck _while he was loading out_. And it's possible that in the way of lots of noisy improv, our stuff just wasn't as much fun to have to sit through as it was to play -- I have no perspective on this.

In any event, the last three months we played at the Fairmount, we knew the jig would soon be up on our regular one-Thursday-a-month stand there. I even told the guy that booked us that we'd understand if he pulled the plug. The Day of the Locust finally came the night we played to the bartender and soundguy, and when we took a break, one of them asked if we were going to play a second set. When I responded affirmatively, he said, "But we want to _go home_!"


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