Meet the Foibles

How a one-man home-recording project turned into the oddest stage show in town

In 1986, while he was still in the guitar-noise combo Dinosaur Jr., Lou Barlow began home recording with fellow musician Eric Gaffney. Their subsequent album, The Freed Man, released in 1989 under the band name Sebadoh, provided a nation of reclusive indie-rockers with a new sonic blueprint -- ultra-personal lyrics wrapped in tossed-off noise. This pathetic aesthetic, with its emphasis on audio vérité over studio refinement, spawned a vast bedroom-taping community of quality, lyric-based artists like the Mountain Goats and Simon Joyner as well as questionable wankers like Barlow's own Sentridoh project. In the end, the movement forever changed the idea of releasable rock music -- lo-fi could indeed be high art.

Fast forward to 1998. Phil Dumesnil, a scrawny 24-year-old San Jose native, bought a used Tascam tape recorder with a tiny inheritance. Under the name the Foibles, Dumesnil recorded 26 very lo-fi, very high-energy pop songs, with no intention of ever releasing them.

Skip ahead to January of this year. The Foibles -- Dumesnil and his Streetlight Records co-worker Cory Vielma -- took to the stage at the Edinburgh Castle, wearing kiddie scuba masks, yellow rain slickers, and bathtub appliqués shaped like fish. The duo bashed out helter-skelter pop songs with names like "Retina Heads Go Home" and "Always the Walrus, Never the Wall."

The Foibles: Crazy but it might work.
Dr. Foxglove
The Foibles: Crazy but it might work.
The Foibles: Crazy but it might work.
Dr. Foxglove
The Foibles: Crazy but it might work.


Tuesday, Dec. 12, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $6; call 621-4455. The Foibles can also be heard Saturday, Dec. 9, at 9 p.m. on KALX radio, 90.7FM. Call (510) 642-1111.

Sample of The Foibles' "Retina Heads Go Home," from the CD Solid Rock Baptist Church Rummage Sale. Click the "play" icon in the control console below.

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Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St. (at Missouri), S.F.

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Over the next nine months, the Foibles evolved into one of the most unpredictable pop bands in San Francisco. But none of this would've happened if it weren't for Dumesnil's faulty memory.

Phil Dumesnil, it seems, is always on. When I sent him a few simple introductory e-mail questions, he returned a detailed transcript of an interview between his right brain and his left brain. Included were funny queries ("What's the difference between "Kill me Jesus' [written] in the bathroom and a stained glass depiction of Christ on a cross?"), insightful data (both Foibles are Pisces), and one moment of lucidity ("Is everything a joke to you?"). That moment speaks volumes -- the negative answer being the biggest joke of all -- about Dumesnil's need to entertain. Ask him who are the sexiest man and woman alive, and he'll tell you the Devil and Mother Nature. His favorite album to screw to? Cookie Monster's C Is for Cookie. This anything-for-a-laugh nature informs his daily life as much as it informs his songs. Dumesnil treats each moment like the Mad magazine feature "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions."

The basis for his relentless joshing took form early in life, when he followed his two sisters into an after-school musical theater program in Almaden Valley, a suburban area south of San Jose. Dumesnil quickly discovered that a small, somewhat frail boy could get big laughs and lots of attention by wearing silly costumes and doing inane songs.

Because his parents listened to Elvis Presley and little else, his only other contact with music was through the program. "I was sheltered from the Beatles until I was 16," he remembers. "Then a friend made me a mix tape, and I got really interested in how you write a good pop song."

In high school, he joined Pseudotunesmith, a fluctuating octet of fellow improv comedy troupe members. Because Dumesnil had a four-track recorder, he was called on to capture the band's sessions. "We wanted to sound like the Talking Heads, Camper Van Beethoven, and Warner Brothers [cartoon music]," Dumesnil says. "It was basically joking around." In 1993, while its members were still in high school, the group released its first cassette, No Doi; all 25 copies sold. (Since then, various players have reconvened for 1997's End Friendship tape and 1999's Happy Hollow, a rock opera about a depressed teenager who tries to set the zoo animals free, only to have the creatures crucify him.)

After graduating in 1993, Dumesnil shipped himself off to South Oregon State, in an attempt to get away from San Jose. "I went there for three months and I learned how to smoke pot and I came home," laughs Dumesnil. After working in the San Jose branch of Streetlight Records, he moved up to San Francisco in 1996, did a nine-month stint at an unnamed "megastore" ("It was absolutely horrible," he says), and got hired on at the local Streetlight shop. That's where he met Vielma, a home-recording sample artist whose self-proclaimed goal was to "terminate all music."

Around this time, Dumesnil's grandfather decided to parcel out his savings to his grandchildren, enabling Dumesnil to buy his used eight-track. Since it came without a manual, Dumesnil learned by doing. Part of that doing meant recording a batch of new songs he had written. "I have a very bad memory and don't write the songs down so I need a way to remember them," Dumesnil explains. "And in the process of recording, I came up with some new ones."

The result was a tape that Dumesnil gave to Vielma and his roommate, Scott Runcorn, to burn onto a CD-R. Runcorn liked it so much that he burned more copies for friends; soon, the roommates convinced Dumesnil to press a large quantity, and the Foibles debut album, Solid Rock Baptists Church Rummage Sale, was born.

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