On a Saturday night a couple weeks ago I attended a rock gig at a venue here in Des Moines I had not been at before, a bar called Carl’s Place. The bill was local institution North Of Grand, opened-for by Going To Grandma’s. You’ve already probably heard a bit about Fetal Pig here at the Farm, we’ve been recording lately and are playing at the Mews this Saturday night. Going To Grandma’s is like Fetal Pig in that it’s another re-boot of an old band involving Dan Hutchison of Why Make Clocks on guitar and vocals, and his brother Jeff on drums; and also in that its new lineup has a member of Why Make Clocks, Will Tarbox, playing bass in lieu of its original bassist. Both bands were re-launched in what was planned as a one-off show for the birthday of, and at the request of, Dan’s wife Kim, earlier this year. The show got a really good response and it seemed evident that people would like to see these bands some more, and we kinda figured what the hell, after we went to the trouble of re-learning all these songs — or in the case of Will and I, learning them for the first time — and additionally in the case of Will, taking up a whole new instrument — may as well keep it going.
Going To Grandma’s is different from Fetal Pig and the other bands this bunch of guys are involved in, however, in its musical style, being catchy, humorous pop-punk, played with sloppy abandon. Facebook event postings self-deprecatingly boasted, “Come see a bunch of 40-year-old guys sing songs about getting grounded and going to keggers.” Other song topics include zombie movies, shoplifting, and putting the milk back in the refrigerator with the cap off. These are definitely songs they wrote many years ago, though I’m reasonably sure they could write more now, just as good, if they decided to, though there would probably be more songs about shitty jobs or driving or bars.
Why would guys involved in other, “artier,” more “serious” bands, want to resurrect a goofy pop-punk band? Well, one thing that distinguishes Going To Grandma’s musically is that the songs are packed with hooks. Bands working in this style are a dime a dozen, but very few of them write songs this good. So far after both performances I’ve seen, “Beach Nuts” is still running through my head days later.
Another reason perhaps is that audiences love this stuff. I’m not going to complain or suggest that people are unsophisticated when they don’t respond as strongly to material that’s supposedly more sophisticated, because I think it’s part of the band’s job to find their audience instead of whining that it hasn’t found them — but I will say that it’s a hell of a cool feeling as a musician when people actually cheer enthusiastically for you. Sure, such behavior probably isn’t as appropriate a response to a song like Why Make Clocks’ “Christmas Is Ruined.” Even though as an artist you feel a need to convey depth and range of emotion, sometimes it feels great to just be bringing the party.
It’s because music like this has such a broad appeal that I think a lot of musicians and music fans secretly, or perhaps not so secretly, have a special place in their hearts for fun-rock too. At least, I know Dan loves The Descendants, so that’s something. I think there’s an assumption out there that musicians engaged in straightforward pop-punk or in bar-punk (or whatever you’d call the kind of thing North Of Grand and Squidboy do) are exclusively fans of the same sort of thing. I’ve found that the best musicians are persons of wide, eclectic tastes. Sometimes this crosses over into their playing and causes them to play in multiple bands quite different from each other.
To illustrate, let’s take the members of Going To Grandma’s themselves. I’ve already mentioned Dan and Jeff and Will; that leaves Jim Duede on lead guitar and some of the lead vocals. Will, Dan, and Jim are noted metal fans, especially Jim, with various subgenres represented among their collections and regular listening. Will and Dan are of course also into various sorts of indie rock and folk as you’d expect, and I don’t know what all Jeff likes to listen to but he seems to have a sincere appreciation for what would be termed “classic rock” in addition to more “alternative” materials. If you’ve been following my accounts thus far, you know (but in case you haven’t, I’ll summarize) that Dan, Jeff, and myself currently comprise Fetal Pig, and that Fetal Pig play a sort of dissonant, paranoid prog-punk that might be described as a mix of Minutemen and Voivod; and that Dan, Will, and myself likewise comprise Why Make Clocks, who play a somewhat moody brand of indie rock with occasional country sprinkles on it, that usually draws comparisons to Wilco, Crazy Horse, and Built To Spill. What I haven’t talked about a whole lot yet is that the duo of Jeff and Jim is known as Blutiger Fluss, and they employ an assemblage of synthesizers to play ambient electronic music heavily inspired by certain early ’70s German artists. Needless to say this stuff doesn’t exactly pack the rock clubs, but it has its following. Their space-themed compositions like those on their album The Moons Of Jupiter have gotten them some interesting gigs with the Science Center Of Iowa. Even lesser known is that Blutiger Fluss have an intermittently-active alter-ego playing 1980s-styled synth-pop, called Businessmen On Bicycles. This is just the bands these guys are in now, to say nothing of their past, but regarding that I’ll just throw out some band names: Airborne Catholics, The Delirious Conniptions, Mondo Cane.
I’d be curious to hear from any active musicians reading this who are currently or have in the past been involved in a little community like this, where a small knotty collection of people in various combinations create nearly as many bands of differing musical styles among them as there are people. I’ve found myself in such a situation once before in Cedar Falls, that which I now refer to as the “Garage” or “Ragman Records” scene. Most of the people involved were high-school kids during most of that time, and I was the weird older guy hanging out and collaborating with them because I was so excited by their creative energy. Ever since they started breaking off to other cities I’ve really missed that scene, and now I think I may have wound up in another one.
Another thing about this gig that really got me thinking was the vibe of the venue and the event. For some years most of the gigs I’ve played (hometown gigs especially) have taken place at places that are considered rock clubs, that is, the music venue is the main attraction. The Reverb operated that way early on before becoming more bar-oriented on their move to Spicoli’s, which got rolling not long before I moved to Des Moines; Vaudeville Mews doesn’t even open up as a bar if there aren’t acts booked for the night. But Carl’s Place is different — a neighborhood bar that happens to host live music on occasion, especially focusing on the more popular local bands. When Why Make Clocks has played in Omaha and elsewhere out-of-town we’ve sometimes played at this type of place — the 49′r, O’Leavers. It’s not a rock club gig, it’s a bar gig, and it’s a totally different feel, and I believe in many ways more advantageous circumstances.
It still helps to have a draw in a bar gig, but it’s also a better place to build one — you don’t just only get people who are there because of the bands (which might not be many), you get people who are there to hang out and would be there even if you weren’t. Perhaps not having a cover helps. There’s a loose, fun vibe of people who are there to have a good time together. I think that’s an especially good environment for a music show. The crowd is people who are among friends and open to hearing something new.
You’re also less likely to have 4 or 5 bands crammed into a night, so you don’t always end up being limited to a 35 minute set, which I personally think is too short. I really don’t like having more than three bands in a night, and preferably two. The shorter sets don’t really present me enough to get the feel of a band whose stuff I don’t already know. A 35 or 40 minute set isn’t even as long as a whole album, man!
There are downsides, but I think they’re small ones. The PA is more likely to be vocal-only and might not be very good. I think that’s fine though, your band should just sound good anyway. If your music sounds like mush without the perfect equipment, maybe your music just sounds like mush and you should rethink some things. Also it’s not as easy to get on these gigs, these places don’t usually have a dedicated booking person or a lot of focus put into seeking out bands. You kind of have to know someone who knows someone, and they tend to focus more on local outfits than touring acts. In the case of Going To Grandma’s, it was North Of Grand who asked them to do the show.
Also, certain kinds of performances or music may not work as well in this environment. I can’t quite imagine a band like Burmese going over well in such a setting, likewise Blutiger Fluss or even Distant Trains. Stuff like Going To Grandma’s and North Of Grand works especially well, though; North Of Grand seems to be the band doing the most business in these kind of places here in Des Moines (Hull Avenue Tavern comes to mind as another place they seem to frequent) and it seems to go well for them. I conjecture that a Why Make Clocks or Fetal Pig would do well with it too. There is a certain openness to hearing something different. Let’s not forget that punk rock itself had some of its early roots in something called “pub rock.”
To sum up, I had a really good time at this show, and it got me thinking that I personally could go for playing more of these kind of gigs, as well as attending more of them in non-performing capacity.