The Fireballs of Freedom used to have this town in their pocket. Later this fall, it will be 10 years since Missoula’s party-heartiest band ever moved in, and five years since they moved out. Well, it looks like five years on my rock timeline; guitarist Kelly Gately remembers it being closer to six, but concedes that he might not be the best judge of Fireballs chronology: “You’d remember way more than we would,” he admits.
What’s the difference? The important thing is that ever since the band that used to call itself Honky Sausage showed up on the doorstep with a case of Schmidt under one arm and a fabulous red plastic National Airliner guitar under the other, Missoula has never been the same. The Fireballs were the dirty-rock Tilt-a-Whirl that put the local scene on the national map, and Kelly Gately the clown prince of the whole beer-sodden circus. A charismatic motormouth with an unmistakable speaking cadence, the Gator has always been the guy most likely to do something totally debauched at a party just so he could gleefully recount the story three days later. From their innumerable misadventures and comic episodes—and the diligent reportage of same by an army of local fans who still swap Fireballs stories the way kids trade Pokemon cards—arose a nearly legendary aura about the band, a deep lore as well as many solid friendships. This week, we caught up with the Gator at his Portland restaurant job to pick his brain about the Fireballs of Freedom, past, present and future.
“It was pretty tough,” says Gately of the band’s decision to move to greener pastures in 1998. “We fell in love with Portland the more shows we played here, but it was a little depressing, I must say, leaving Missoula. I still miss Missoula every day. It’s just that with the position we were in, I think everyone wanted to explore some new territory. We were starting to get frustrated, feeling a little stagnant. Nothing to do with the city or the scene, it was just so much touring and leaving town and coming back and trying to regroup that it got kind of hard to function consistently.
“But you know,” he continues, “when we got here, I wanted to move after about three months. It rained from Halloween to the Fourth of July, no joke. By December I was like ‘When’s the rain going to stop?’ and people were laughing at me. Then spring rolled around, and short skirts and incense burning in the streets and pretty much fuckin’ whatever. It was time to stay.”
“Besides,” he adds, “half of Missoula lives in Portland now anyway. I can’t walk down the street without seeing fifteen people I know in less than ten minutes.”
In trying to imagine how the Portland uninitiated might have reacted to the Fireball invasion, it’s instructive to remember what happened when the band still calling itself Honky Sausage rolled into Missoula ten years ago. A trio at the time (second guitarist Paul “Von” Wenner followed Gately, drummer Sammy James Adams and bassist Troy “Squirrel” Warling several months later), the band made its Missoula debut at the old Connie’s Bar in support of a popular local jam band that had just about run its course. By the second night of the two-night engagement, members of the headlining act were practically cowering in the wings as the opening act preemptively blew them off the stage with one funky depth charge after another. This is my first recollection of Gately: a sweaty dervish with a crazy rotini salad of curls flying every whichaway and a snakepit of fingers wringing the freakiest sounds out of the funniest guitar I’d ever seen. By the time they moved to Portland, of course, this unprepossessing rock curiosity had matured into the musical equivalent of a machine gun nest with a live show that had already won them fans across the Northwest and made them legendary among touring bands from coast to coast.
“Honestly,” Gately recalls, “we kind of came in [to Portland] like an atom bomb, just because there was nothing like us really going on. I still don’t know if there is, for sheer intensity and freakout factor. Bands are so fucking generic now. It seems like when we were learning about rock back in the ’80s, things weren’t as easily classified—it was bands like the ones in the SST catalogue that were really freaky. Being able to drill into our own sound in Missoula was the best thing we could have done. Living there, we were always able to keep our freaky side.”
The Midwestern man-rock freakiness first manifested itself in a sound remarkably different from the vicious attack they’ve since honed to a science. Early Honky Sausage shows were just as likely to feature extended funk and boogie-rock jams with in-joke lyrics as the theme from “The People’s Court” run through a stylistic wood-chipper and a memorable slaughtering of the Jimmy Buffet chestnut “Margaritaville” as “Marijuanaville.” Other favored covers included “You’re the One That I Want” from the Grease soundtrack, the ’70s AM gold of Jay Ferguson’s “Thunder Island” and a hard-charging version of the Eddie Money cringer “Two Tickets to Paradise.”
Around the same time as the name change, Gately put the blood-encrusted Airliner out to pasture, and the trademark blend of greasy funk and full-tilt boogie rock gave way to a savage new attack. New songs bucked and heaved with a staggering amount of precision-bombing riffage, raw chunks of tortured guitar dissonance, squalling feedback and an accompanying live show as gritty and cathartic as the funk had once been laid-back and aphrodisiac. Asked what spurred the upheaval, Gately responds with a typical dig at the same hippie-rock dross that the Honky Sausage once sliced through like a hot knife through butter.
“We could only play the funk until the jingle bells fell off our ankles,” he laughs, “Which was exactly when my feet were so dirty from being shoeless all the time that I had to put my Chuck Taylors back on and throw my wah-wah pedal away. Seriously, I didn’t touch a wah-wah again until, like, three years after we moved to Portland because I fried myself out on it so bad living in Missoula.
“There’s quite a bit more of everything here,” Gately says of his adopted Portland. “And with more people and more stuff going on, it’s just inevitable that you’re going to run into more things that broaden your horizons. I’ve seen a lot more music, but I’ve also seen a lot more generic bands. That made us want to strive even harder and become even more of a freaky anomaly of misunderstood youth. We didn’t think, “Oh, we’re going to move to the Northwest and sound like a Northwest band.’ We were like, fuck that, let’s just freak them out even more. They really need it.”
As in Missoula, the Fireballs’ career in Portland has not been without its ups and downs, disappointments and hard feelings. The band’s decision to jump from eMpTy Records to the better-known and better-distributed Estrus Records for their second LP, Total Fucking Blowout, ruffled the feathers of the label owner who had signed the band for their debut, The New Professionals, on the strength of a handshake deal.
By and large, though, the ups and downs have been more personal—and personnel—in nature. Around two years ago, the current bassist known simply as The Doctor replaced original member Troy Warling, whose long friendship with Gately and other Fireballs stretches back to a number of pre-Fireballs bands in the Fargo-Moorhead area where members first met. Warling’s leaving, says Gately, was the nearest the Fireballs have ever gotten to calling it quits.
“Troy’s ordeal, the alcoholism, was when we came about as close as we ever have to breaking up. He’s one of our best friends, and he was having some problems with living fast and living hard that he needed to sort out. He wasn’t fired and he didn’t quit, he just had to prioritize and get his life back together after going on the road all the time. Which we completely understood. The alcohol and everything mixed with it just wasn’t doing him any justice, because he’s such a smart and talented guy. I think he was feeling the pressure, like he had to stay in the band because we had been his friends for ten years. When it finally came down to the end, we just told him, hey, go take care of yourself and your wife and get some rest and get your health back.”
Two years later, Gately says, a recovered Warling is doing much better, still happily married and playing with a new band, Marquis de Suave.
“I see him every couple of weeks,” says Gately. “He bounced back so fast, now he’s been sober for two years and playing all kinds of music and he’s healthy and looks great. He just needed to chill for awhile.”
Still, he says, subtler changes are afoot in the current Fireballs camp. Guitarist Wenner has been married since November, and there’s even the impending pitter-patter of little Fireball feet.
“We’ve kind of slowed down the national touring a little,” he says. “Von is married and working on a house he just bought. He’s been really busy sciencing his carpentry technique. Doctor’s got a baby on the way. We’ve had to put a hold on the relentless touring to take care of domestic things.”
Gately also plays in the charmingly scuzzy Starantula, which just wrapped up its album debut. He also mentions another new project, Thelonious Drunk, with himself and Sammy James and the usual cast of Missoula-Portland lunatics. “Pretty much the Statler Brothers meets Slayer,” he says, once again breaking into the trademark Gator laugh. “And sprinkle some PCP on it. I basically wanted to put a band together with the three other most whacked-out people I could possibly find. And I definitely found them.”
In recent months, and in very muted tones, it’s been suggested that Gately’s devotion of more time and attention to other projects is his way of dealing with the sense that, with family life fast encroaching on the Fireballs’ hedonist dream, an end to the swashbuckling tours that consolidated the band’s reputation as a peerless live act might not be too far off. A more circumspect answer would simply be that Gately’s practically boundless charisma, energy and creativity are always landing him in new musical situations.
In any event, this year is looking good for the Fireballs. Wäntage Records, the Missoula label that put out the first Fireballs single, will soon release a new seven-inch. A CD version of the single will include many bonus tracks spanning the band’s 10-year existence, culled from live tapes, outtakes and some previously released material by label head Josh Vanek. Also by the end of the summer, Gately says the band hopes to get its third LP for Estrus in the can before leaving on a European tour in September. Promoters in Spain are flying the band over for a rock festival, where they will share billing with the likes of the Cramps, the Dictators and Swedish Marx-rockers International Noise Conspiracy before heading north for club dates in France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. It’s their first trip outside North America, and Gator is obviously looking forward to it—confident, no doubt, that everything will somehow come up roses for the Fireballs, just like it always has.
“We’re good guys,” Gately muses, “raised by good Midwestern mothers, which is good for keeping your expectations fairly low. We’re not out to write cheesy hit songs. We’ve always been able to do our own thing, and I think people respect the fact that we stick to our deal and nobody else’s. We like to have fun. We make friends, not enemies.”