French Ticklers

Bumping and grinding with San Francisco's Frenchy

Frenchy's drummer, Kelly Richardson, returns to the table balancing an armload of drinks. "I work for this art company, and we were at the de Young wood shop picking up paintings," he says, distributing the Red Hooks and a martini, "when I heard us on the radio: I was like, 'C'm'ere guys, this is Frenchy!' It was hot: I was working and making BMI royalties at the same time!"

Crowded around a booth at the DeLuxe, the four other members of Frenchy -- singer Carla Lease, clarinetist Adrian Gormley, bassist Don Ankrom, and marimbist Brian Lease -- laugh boisterously at Richardson's story, a long guffaw the San Francisco band regularly unleashes. With loyal local audiences, gigs all over the state, and ink still drying on their first recording contract, Frenchy is feeling good these days.

"It all started right here at the DeLuxe," says Carla, sipping her martini, "born in a moment of lucidity in the midst of an obnoxious drunk. I was ranting to the bartender about how much better I could do --"

"The first practice I went to, Brian was playing marimba," interrupts Richardson, "with a floor tom on one side, a crash cymbal, a tambourine under his left foot --"

"We were going to strap cymbals between his knees," adds Carla. "We also had a guitar player, but figured that was way too traditional."

Frenchy carves its niche francaise inside a movement of musical nostalgists, a post-retro sound that's part Ella, part Zappa, part bar mitzvah band, and all cool. Untainted by obvious irony, Frenchy can segue deftly between "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and a slinky version of Black Flag's "Jealous Again," between "Devil's Beatin' His Wife" -- an original they released as a 7-inch -- and Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse." Think of Circle Jerks' Repo Man performance; think Combustible Eskimo.

"We're not Dean Martin-style lounge as much as the Mae West-style lounge," Richardson explains. "The torchy element is more prevalent."

"But you've gotta be able to shake your ass to it," adds Carla. "Swing's really packing a punch right now, but it mostly revolves around dance music. You can dance to Frenchy, but not all of it: You also need to smoke." This brings a laugh. "I think we're trying to emphasize a cheesy element, though we've backed off the stripper approach."

"I'm pushing to bring that element back," Gormley says, grinning.
"Thirties, '40s, '50s, '60s -- we have songs from all these decades," Brian explains, "but we each bring a different emphasis. Carla's a more traditional jazz singer, like Billie, and I try to mix in late-'60s Ornette Coleman stuff. That's 40 years apart. We don't try to stay in one period -- maybe because we don't know how."

"Or don't care to," Carla says. "We're not trying to live retro-lives; we're injecting all our interests, and punk is as heavy as jazz."

Frenchy recently caught the interest of Dionysus Records, an L.A. label that will release the band's full-length debut on CD and vinyl this fall. Bumps and Grinds will be recorded under the production of Wonderful World of Joey bandleader Skip Heller. And, true to Frenchy, therein lies a tale.

"We weren't sure if Skip really liked us," says Ankrom of their producer, "but right after our set at the Viper Room in Los Angeles, I went to relieve myself in the men's room, and from out of nowhere came this slap on the back -- "Inspirational!" -- and it was Skip; he caught me right in midstream." Much snickering and trajectory discussion ensues. "And I closed the deal" -- Ankrom finishes his anecdote with a Groucho lilt -- "with a little on his shoes." The table breaks into laughter.

But Frenchy knows that, even with a CD to shop, gigging is a band's pain et beurre. Giving props to colleagues Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and locals Mingo 2000 ("We're moving into their vacuum as Mingo gets blackballed," smiles Brian), they relive a story from the road.

"We played this Russian-Jewish wedding," remembers Carla. "where the groom did a dance with a napkin --"

"And Carla gave the bride's uncle a heart attack," Richardson says, cutting to the chase, "because she was wearing leopard-skin panties and bra in the pool."

"He told me to get out," defends Carla, "and I was like, 'Are you sure?' so I got out and he was like, 'Aaa-HOOO-gaaa! Within minutes he had a heart attack."

Their guffaws fill the club, but before the band begins another story, Richardson rises again to replenish the drinks. "Hey, what do you want?" he asks. "Frenchy's buying tonight." "What's the best thing to sip while listening to Frenchy?" I wonder.

"A martini," blurts Carla.
"A smart martini," adds Gormley.
Carla and Richardson: "That would be a ... smartini!"
French champagne?

"Oh yeah, that, too," says Carla. "And any pink drink will do. Do they make anything called a Poodle?"

Frenchy plays Fri, April 19, at the Ivy Room in Albany; call (510) 524-9220.

 
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