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."
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.
The Foibles' practice space is in Vielma's Lower Haight apartment, in what could be considered either a very small room or a decent-sized closet. Either way, there's barely enough space to fit two people, what with all the instruments, table saws, children's games, and half-completed wooden slot machines. In a way the room is the perfect metaphor for a Foibles song -- small, chaotic, and crowded with interesting items.
"I've always been a big fan of people who were very wordy and kept it interesting," Dumesnil says about his songwriting philosophy. "It comes out of paranoia -- you will lose people's interest unless you keep throwing things at them. It also comes from being the last child and trying to get people's attention."
Whereas much pop music is built around endlessly repeated choruses, Dumesnil's songs are resolutely non-redundant. He eschews lyrical repetition almost to a fault, preferring to end a song after a minute and a half rather than repeat himself. He's like a surrealist machine-gunner, continually pelting the listener with odd juxtapositions, non sequiturs, and tart observations.
While at first listen the lyrics can seem a bit random and tossed together, with further attention the sophistication shows through. On "Forty-three Masonic," Dumesnil dryly observes the teenage mores of his fellow City College bus riders ("Mascot wars/ 5-to-1 odds on the freshman dressed up like a tree squirrel on crank"), while in "Suburban Trampoline Casualties" he chronicles the minor-league miseries of small-city living ("Kiss yourself blue kid/ And think yourself stupid"). "Theme Song" is a critique of crass commercialism; "Refusing to Evacuate the Pool" takes a sharp look at euthanasia.
Dumesnil also shows a novelist's eye for detail in songs like "World's Biggest Most Dangerous Lily Pad," which distills San Francisco city planning into seven lines: "I've got an idea/ Crazy but it might work/ Let's build a city/ On lots of landfill/ On top a fault line/ You can leave your heart there/ We're all gonna dieeeee."
Then again, these songs would be nothing if they were all words, no play. "Since Pink Left" bobs along on a British Invasion riff from 1965 (quoting Herman's Hermits along the way), while "Abel and the Railroad" speeds forth on bubbly percussive bursts from a Toys "R" Us drum kit. "Typed Resume (Bag With That)" has a guitar riff that local pop band Beulah would kill for, and "Car Horn on Central" uses its namesake sound for a rhythm base. Many of the songs seem perfectly suited to a band that wears odd outfits and jumps around a lot.
With the confidence he displays in songwriting, you'd hardly know that until January Dumesnil was nervous about performing live.
"Cory told me that if I confronted my crippling stage fright and made an idiot of myself in front of people, he would stand next to me and do the same," Dumesnil says. "I just needed to get back in the [children's theater] frame of mind."
As for the odd characteristics of the Foibles' live act, Vielma says, "We were sick of going out to [shows] and being bored out of our minds by bands that just stand there and play their dumb songs and wear the same clothes they wear to work."
"We're trying to treat each show like a county fair," Dumesnil says, "with balloons and dunking booths to distract people from the fact that we are not actually musicians, only tightrope walkers battling vertigo."
For their second show, the Foibles donned hard hats, penlight glasses, and jumpsuits covered in flashlights. During the performance they broke into a puppet rendition of the "You can't handle the truth!" scene from A Few Good Men, and ended with a hilarious sing-along of the insipid '80s song "We Are the World."
For the band's most recent show at the Make-Out Room, the duo posed as the Kings of Labor Day, with matching crowns and flowered gowns covered in plastic vegetables. The twosome passed out cupcakes to all the worker drones and lectured on the origins of the holiday. "Originally we wanted to get a couple of fog machines, but we couldn't afford it," Dumesnil says.
"We have a lot of downtime at work," Vielma laughs.
Much of that time is currently spent preparing for this week's two shows. While they don't want to divulge all their plans, the duo will say that they're planning to adapt a well-known dramatic piece and use a Connect Four children's game as a prop.
"It's weird because I was just putting [the songs] down for cataloging, and now we're playing live," Dumesnil remarks.
That's how musical revolutions happen: One day, you're taping some weird lyrics in your bedroom, and the next you're wearing plastic eggplants and giving out cupcakes onstage.