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Collective Cacophony 

Five years after its last album, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 returns with its oddball humor and loopy art rock intact

Wednesday, May 2 2001
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During the heyday of '90s indie rock, Bay Area quintet Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 was a ubiquitous presence, both locally and beyond. The group toured incessantly and developed a small but rabid international following for its smartly constructed, guitar-centric cacophonies. Unfortunately, while the band's recordings -- in particular its Matador releases, Lovelyville and Strangers From the Universe -- were critically acclaimed, the kudos and perpetual road trips offered limited financial reward. By 1996 the band had opted to stop touring, save for the occasional local show or weekend jaunt; the members took full-time jobs and recorded only sporadically.

"We don't have any specific plans, but we're in this perpetual state of potentiality," says Fellers guitarist/bassist Mark Davies, sitting in the Mission District living room of guitarist Hugh Swarts. Fellow guitarist Brian Hageman feels it's unnecessary to define the band's status: "We would be doing exactly the same thing if we were broken up. We've been friends for a long time and have more or less a common mind of what we think is funny."

"We're all in agreement about how funny poop is," interjects bassist Anne Eickelberg, causing the room to descend into a maelstrom of free-associative scatological humor, involving things like "lumpy ass-water" and "porcelain entertainments." The less explication the better.

For all its uncertainty, TFUL282 has implemented one plan: the recent release of its first album since 1996's I Hope It Lands, issued on local label Communion under the ungainly moniker Bob Dinners and Larry Noodles Present Tubby Turdner's Celebrity Avalanche. Taking its title from an imaginary talk show long in development within the Fellers' brain trust, the record is the band's best realized since 1994's Strangers From the Universe, in part because so much time went into it.

"In the past we always had deadlines where we were going on tour, and that meant the album had to be completed months before," says Davies. "We never had that [much] time." He adds that allowing longtime band engineer Greg Freeman free rein in the mixing process may also have increased the new album's quality. "We've tended to have better results in the mix when we have less to do with it," he chuckles.

For whatever reason, Bob Dinners is the band's most layered recording yet, with no shortage of keyboards, overdubs, vocal harmonies, and perplexing noises. As in the past, the group took inspiration from studio experimentation. On "Sno Cone" Davies and Eickelberg got on their hands and knees to double the bass line on the foot pedals of an organ, while on "Everything's Impossible" engineer Freeman directed Swarts to stand on a chair, hunched over and singing into a large tube. "It was the most absurd, ridiculously uncomfortable position I've ever been in in my life," Swarts recalls. "And [Freeman] was probably thinking, "I can get this sucker to do anything. I got him in a position where he can't even sing, and he's still trying.'"

Of course, not every experiment worked. For instance, the band slaved over one track, "Sleazy," for hours. Explains Davies, "For some reason we got it in our heads that the only way to record "Sleazy' would be to get really drunk, smoke a lot of cigarettes, get really crusty, then go and record it." Loosely structured around an elaborate list of cues, the song's skeletal framework was supposed to unleash the same spontaneity as in the band's practices. "It was a monster, and it beat us," Hageman says.

However, the group did complete a similarly structured number, "You in a Movie." During the song's recording, the band assigned tags like "Turkish minimart" and "five-tiered display" to its different sections as a form of shorthand. "They were named after what they evoked," Swarts explains. The song's lyrics are just as arcane, ranging from an observation of human behavior written from a cow's perspective to ruminations on wetting the bed and laughing all day. Everyone in the band contributes lyrics (and sings), and while there may be a message communicated, it's often not a literal one.

Take "Another Clip," for example. Swarts says the lyrics are an attempt to capture the thought process of a sniper. "[Hageman] once told me there are two kinds of men: snipers and suicides. When they go over the edge, they either off themselves or they climb up in a tower with an automatic rifle and start blowing people away."

The jaunty, many-faceted number "Sno Cone" features a different kind of trigger. "That song's more or less about the band, I think," Hageman says. "All these characters are sitting in the sand, melting around this big black pot, and they're all calling for a trigger, something to allow them to change -- a catalyst. Something to make themselves more permanent, give them the strength to become something else that doesn't melt or drift away."

With a back catalog of nine albums and numerous singles, EPs, and compilation tracks, the band needn't worry about fading away. And Bob Dinners -- a name taken from a sign advertising shish kebab meals that the band once misread while on tour -- will only help remind listeners how fascinating the Fellers' intricately interwoven compositions and signature whimsy can be. One number, "Boobfeeler," is a twisted stab at jingle writing that parodies the chipper instrumentals of '60s electronic composer Dick Hyman; another tune, "You Will Be Eliminated," features the robotic warning of an impotent alien invader. Then there's "Birth of a Rock Song," a 34-second snippet of the band flailing ludicrously at a clichéd blues riff. "That was something we did in practice a lot," Swarts explains, "where somebody would start playing some ridiculous thing, like they'd just discovered it."

TFUL282 has always been adept at making powerful music out of horseplay. "Holy Ghost" and "Everything's Impossible" have a beautiful, haunting quality, and "El Cerrito" is a pretty, atmospheric reworking of an instrumental that appeared on the band's album Mother of All Saints. "The Barker" is an elaborate prog workout, with lyrics about advertising ("This beer will make you live/ This soap is gonna sparkle up your marriage"). The album finishes strongly with "He Keeps Himself Fed," a 10-minute epic that starts with a sludgy rumble and transmogrifies into a narcotic drone. "I like having that at the end," Swarts says. "It's this long, drawn-out, meditative slide into oblivion."

Which is not to say that the Fellers plan to disappear, even given longtime drummer Jay Paget's recent relocation to Boston. Initially, the four remaining Fellers -- who first met in Iowa in the mid-'80s -- barely considered replacing him, but now they're leaving the option open. (Percussionist Gino Robair will sit in for the band's ODC performance.) And while they all agree they miss touring, they're not sure they want to hit the road anytime soon. "I can't imagine dropping everything and touring the way we did," Eickelberg says. "But the longer I work and the longer I'm not touring, the more appealing it sounds. Then I look through my own [tour] diaries and, God, it's so bleak."

Despite Eickelberg's apprehension, the group's members also had many great adventures while touring, judging from the whimsical travel logs posted on the band's Web site (tful282.com). So it's no surprise that they feel a bit wistful about the experience. On Bob Dinners' "'91 Dodge Van," Eickelberg sings, "Looking back over our days I know we won/ Sometimes it feels like that's erased by moving on." Does she think the band prevailed? "I think we did win," Eickelberg says. "Even though we never achieved great fame or recognition beyond a certain level, we did what we set out to do, and we did it on our own terms. We can look at our various failures and think that we still won, because it's fodder for a lot of good jokes and reminiscing."

About The Author

Mike Rowell

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