Sweet Home Missoula
Think all of Missoula's best bands have left town or broken up? Think again.
It's a curious feature of life in this valley: For all the stuff we're near, we're not really near anything anyone else knows about. Mountains, rivers, and lakes, definitely-not perks to be sneezed at when you imagine there are places where you'd have to drive a couple hours to find even one of these things. Missoula, of course, is defined by them. Folks with a taste for the lights of the big city may be-pleasantly, it is hoped-disappointed by how long it takes to get from Missoula to the nearest skyscraper or all-night Chinese restaurant. But that's what's so great about living where we do. The long haul from here to anywhere is one of Missoula's strongest suits.
Musically speaking, it's also an unusual asset: The simple fact of our geographical isolation is a sure-fire formula for mutation. Strange seeds blow in over these mountains, but stranger still are the ones that blow out again after a few years in the native soil. For a prime example of this, look no further than the 11-page spread on local punkernauts the Sputniks that appeared last year in The New Yorker. What the Sputniks were up to musically wasn't so extraordinary within the general parameters of late-'90s punk rock, but think about the naked strangeness of the thing in a greater context: Check it out-a punk band from the same state that brought you the Unabomber, the Freemen and the Capitol killer, spouting Marxist/millenarianist slogans and touring the country on six bits a day. Brother, you can't buy that kind of publicity.
Such is the face Missoula occasionally shows to the Real World stretching beyond the valley-through a glass darkly, to be sure, but refreshing nonetheless, and not least to local bands who aren't used to outside scrutiny. The music scene here is almost like it is in France, in a way: so insular and solidly into its own thing that external commentary often seems irrelevant and pointedly ridiculous. And can you think of any recent chart-topping French bands? No, but it's not for lack of talent. French bands benefit from the inward trajectory of French culture. Missoula bands do likewise.
The longest-running local acts are the ones that have embraced the strange combination of Zipf and Zen it takes to survive in what is essentially a closed system: an understandably human hankering for maximum returns on a minimum expenditure of energy, but tempered with the realization that desire is where you run afoul of contentment. A little outside recognition is nice, but with a few exceptions, Missoula music is played by people who do it out of love and for people who live here.
In every similarly sized city, there's probably at least one band that covers "Folsom Prison Blues." But there's only one Bob Wire and the Fencemenders. There are countless thousands of folkies plying their trade from Portland to Portland, but only one Cory Heydon. Thousands of everything else, too, but one each of the Volumen, the Cold Mountain Rhythm Band, the Oblio Joes and the Drum Brothers. All of whom call Missoula home for the same reason everyone else does: We like it here.
By any measure, the Missoula music scene was at its strongest in 1998. Most of the aforementioned and all of the following groups were firmly entrenched and playing out regularly this time last year: the Skoi!dats, the Sputniks, the Fireballs of Freedom, the Good Word, Prosciutto, Spanker, From Beyond, Chiseler, the Cleaners, and the Helltones. With the exception of From Beyond, all of them had also recorded or were planning to record some form of digital or analogue testimony: seven-inch, split EP or compact disc.
A mere twelve months later, only skeletal remnants of that roster remain. The Fireballs of Freedom have moved on to greener pastures (read: rental agencies they weren't blacklisted from) in Portland, Oregon. The Skoi!dats-first of the lot to sign on to a biggish indie label and split Missoula for the bright lights of New Jersey-called it quits earlier this year. With the exception of the Good Word, the rest of these bands have since broken up as well. And for the Good Word, the end is merely a matter of time, as at least two and possibly three out of the band's four members are planning a move to Seattle at the end of the summer-although not, it should be noted, before they make a parting gift of a full-fledged rock opera, slated for a grand premiere during the first week of August. Country-pop stalwarts Tarkio are in a similar state of post-dated breakup, rounding out an Indian summer's worth of shows before guitarist/lead singer Colin Meloy's departure to Portland.
Not that a little flux is a bad thing. Looking back over the past ten years, so many Missoula bands have come and gone that this particular juncture in Missoula music history, though it seems an especially grim one, is merely an eyeblink in the continuum of a community that replenishes itself seemingly while we sleep. Bands break up, it's true, but new bands emerge from the ashes-and someone's always looking for a bass player.
The people and bands featured here by no means encompass the length and breadth of the Missoula music scene. Rather, we hope they represent a decent-if regrettably slim-cross-section of what the town has to offer.
The name says it all
Our fair burg has seen more than its share of bands that can be loosely described as funk, although more often than not "funk" is merely one link in a chain of modifiers that leaves the prospective showgoer clueless as to what the band actually sounds like. Seriously, what kind of mood do you have to be in to enjoy something that bills itself as "psychohippietriphopfunkpunk?" Sounds like a Dutch venereal disease.
So it's just that much more refreshing to get the fusion infusion from Fuse, a quintet with funk chops to burn but an obvious soft spot for complex jazz composition as well. A Fuse show ultimately brings disparate elements of rock, jazz, blues and of course funk into the fold, but the resulting hybrid doesn't sound a whit like a calculated attempt to bung these genres together. "One of the reasons we list all these styles on our flyer is that we can't come up with one word to describe ourselves," says keyboardist John Davidson. "People want some kind of theme, but we do all these different styles and we don't want to just say, 'Oh, we play dance music.'"
|Local funkernauts Fuse, badly in need of parental supervision.
"Paula writes about 90 percent of the lyrics, but with the music it's pretty much me and Christopher [Gray; guitarist]," he says. "The more complicated, jazzy arrangements are generally his, while my songs tend to follow an R&B, soul kind of thing. And of course, some of it just happens-we'll be jamming along and suddenly, Hey! We've got a song here!"
Fuse's self-released six-song CD offers a mere sliver of what the band delivers live, but it's still a stand-up listen in its own right. "Gypsy Shuffle," especially, mixed straight off a live KBGA show, has the smoky, lysergic sleepwalk of an old psych band genetically recombined with the soundtrack for a shelved '70s pimp movie. It offers a brooding counterpoint to the frenetic bounce of the other five songs, and features some judicious use of Davidson's 1957 Hammond C3 organ, particularly the mind-warping emanations of acoustic vibrato as channeled through a revolving Leslie speaker. Gray tortures his signal with all manner of freakish guitar effects; it occasionally sounds like a Catherine wheel spinning its way out of a mudhole.
Volatile and unpredictable; seamless and shamelessly eclectic-whether you think of Fuse as a noun or a verb, either way it's a damned appropriate name.
Aaron Bolton & Anne Barksdale
The brains behind the vinyl at Don't Panic Records
Maybe, like me, you've paid a visit to a record store and been baffled by all the electronic genres and sub genres some of the albums are classified under.
There's house, techno, breakbeat, trance, jungle and more. So the first thing I asked Aaron Bolton and Anne Barksdale, co-founders of Don't Panic Records, was how the hell a regular person could tell the difference between all of the different styles.
The groans are audible. "Don't ask that, you'll take up the whole article explaining it," Bolton says, exasperated at what must be a common question.
|Photo by Chad Harder |
Anne Barksdale and Aaron Bolton are co-founders of Don't Panic Records, a local label that caters to house, techno, breakbeat, trance and jungle acts.
"Everything is crossing over," Bolton explains of current musical trends. "They're using electronic music in rock and at the same time, hip-hop is getting more organic."
Barksdale, who DJs under the name Gruv 42, moved here two years ago from New Haven, Conn., and hooked up with Bolton in electronic music classes at UM. They both were dissatisfied by what they felt was resistance by the "old school" music department faculty, who insisted electronic music wasn't "real" music.
But the folks at Don't Panic are clearly proving them wrong. As evidence of just how many people are, in fact, fanatical about breakbeats and trance, Bolton says they're set to release a record in two weeks. They've already sold 700 copies of it to distributors around the globe.
A contributing factor to that success was the Don't Panic crew's attendance at the annual electronic music festival in Miami, an event that by all accounts is a rowdy schmoozefest that draws participants from all over the world. It's the defining event for the electronic segment of the music industry and important enough to inspire a multi-page article in Spin.
"We were basically just hanging out," Barksdale says. "DJs are crazy people, record label people are crazy. Add a pool and a bunch of drinks and it gets a little insane."
Thanks to those connections-and the key associations that another partner in Amsterdam has been making lately-Bolton says that Don't Panic is now preparing to increase the amount of music it releases. However, Bolton and Barksdale both say they're content, for now, simply to break even.
"We're buying music and releasing it on our label," he adds. "But all we really want to do is make money to support our own music."
The Jodi Marshall Trio Deluxe
A six-pack of swank, suitable for any lounge
Tired of the usual Friday night glugfests at your favorite local bar, where the cigarette haze nears inversion layer standards and Check Your Head blares in the background umpteen times?
Then say hello to swanky class, in the form of the Jodi Marshall Trio Deluxe, a sextet that entertains each weekend in the Holiday Inn lounge. Imagine: Instead of fighting through leeringly drunk swarms of patrons and jockeying for position in line for another drink, you can actually sit at a table, sip a vodka tonic and enjoy the sounds of the best darned piano jazz in town.
Marshall, the band's namesake, is Missoula's grand dame of the piano, having been in the business since she was three years old and, at one time, even worked as Debbie Reynolds' accompanist. Joining her on stage are Severt Philleo, voted Missoula's favorite actor and actress in this year's Independent Readers' Poll; Eden Atwood, an internationally known young jazz singer finishing her degree at UM; Chuck Florence, saxophone wizard; Bob Ledbetter, head of the UM Music Department's percussion section; and Pete Hand, who provides thumping stand-up bass.
|Photo by Terry Cyr|
Say hello to the class: the Jodi Marshall Trio Deluxe.
Also representative of the sextet's variety is the crowd it attracts. Admirers of all ages turn out on any given evening. And don't let the hotel setting fool you-most of those dressed to the hilt are locals, while the tourists often wander in sporting T-shirts and shorts.
Perhaps the mix can be attributed to the songs themselves. Marshall says the set list includes anything from a Duke Ellington standard to a cha-cha.
"The tangos have really caught hold," she explains. "I think it's been that way ever since Scent of a Woman came out."
In fact, just as many fans come to try their sometimes newfound swing dancing skills as to listen, and from time to time the skirts really start flying.
"That's what I did when I was a teen, only then it was called the Lindy," Marshall adds. "Things just seem to go around full circle."
And the best thing about a Jodi Marshall Trio Deluxe gig is that it's arguably the best place to go with someone you love, whether you're entertaining the guy you've been after for months, your wife of 25 years or your parents visiting from the East Coast.
Missoula's mostly-girl punk pariahs
The first time I saw the almost all-girl punk band Sasshole, ages ago, I recall they were all wearing some sort of freaky stage get-up. Between songs, bassist Milli Thompson let the profanities roll off her tongue like waves on a storm-lashed mud bog.
When the music started, there was a lot of feedback and hesitant drumming, causing many in the crowd to react with a mixture of fear and disgust. Oh, but the lyrics!
"We're gonna fuck shit up we're Sasshole, we're gonna kick your ass you asshole!" Priceless indeed.
|Photo by Chad Harder|
It came from Missoula: Sasshole is your worst punk nightmare.
"When we got together, nobody knew how to play their instruments," says singer Kia Liszak. "We didn't care; it was more fun that way."
"Now that we don't suck so bad we don't have to compensate with gimmicks," adds Thompson bluntly, reminiscing about an early show where the gals dumped a 25 pound bag of kitty litter on the floor of Jay's Upstairs, causing enough damage that the floor had to be redone and Sasshole was stuck playing compensatory free shows.
After such a brave plunge into the local music scene, Liszak says the band has played a lot of good shows this year, where "people will actually talk" to her after she leaves the stage.
Thompson describes Sasshole's musical growth as moving away from the "Corn and Peanuts" songs to the newest darker, Dungeons and Dragonsesque offerings, such as "Black Mass, Bloody Mess" written by new guitarist Dave Parsons.
Sasshole plans to keep up their assault on local sensibilities with the early August release of a blistering tape following a tour of the Northwest. Thompson says Sasshole seems to be more popular out of town, especially in Laramie, where they've never actually played, but, thanks to a Jay's compilation CD, Sasshole rules the city.
Thompson attributes Sasshole's far-flung popularity to the fact that, in Missoula, they play often enough to approach saturation point.
"People take bands like us or Humpy for granted because they can see us once a week," she says.
But, by all means, don't let that stop you from checking out Sasshole. Their playing gets tighter with every show, while their songs remain just as perverted as ever. And if you were one of the unlucky ones who witnessed Sasshole's self-described "worst show ever" at a block party a few years ago, you really should give them another chance.
"We're doing what we want to do now, instead of being hindered by our abilities," Liszak says.
Paragons of garage rock
John Fleming is puttering absentmindedly around his kitchen, frittering with salads and cookies and things like that. Ordinarily one of the hardest-working fellers in the Missoula scene, Fleming is trying to figure out how to schedule his week around the Big Event: His wife Erin is officially one day overdue with their first child. It could happen literally any minute.
"I can't even think right now," he explains, shaking his head. "I'm very preoccupied."
To say the least. Even without the baby coming, a typical Fleming week is packed to the proverbial rafters-a weekly punk and garage show on KBGA, promoting shows at Jay's Upstairs and the Cowboy Bar, running Ear Candy Records and practicing with his band, the Everyday Sinners. Seems like they just don't put enough hours in a day anymore.
The Everyday Sinners emerged from the ruins of the Helltones, who threw in the towel early last fall in the wake of guitarist Forrest Williams' exodus to the Twin Cities and veteran drummer Yale "Nickel" Kaul's laughably short sabbatical from rock 'n' roll. Fleming set about putting together a new band with Josh May, whose own band, Thee Hedons, had already begun the slow spiral into desuetude that spells the twitching end of many a good Missoula act.
|Photo by Chad Harder|
Rude, crude and in the mood: The E-day Sinners lay it down.
The Sinners' brand of snarling garage rock should sound familiar enough to fans of like-minded bands on Estrus and Rip-Off Records, just the right blend of tuneful crooning and lunatic howling, walking basslines and rib-cracking scuzzball chords. The band has done some home recording with pal John Edgar, and Fleming hopes some of it will see vinyl by the time they hit the road for a brief Northwest tour this September. One of the possibilities is a split EP with the Evaders, a youngish local band, or maybe a retrospective split combining new Sinners tracks with some vintage Helltones gas. Whatever it is, they're prepared to put it out themselves, although Fleming aspires to something greater but still remarkably modest.
"What I really aspire to is having someone put out a record for us besides us," he says. "And it would be nice if we could tour for two weeks at a time twice every year-once in the spring, once it the fall-and get a $100 guarantee, food and beer. Anything above and beyond that would just be a bonus."