Live Wires

The subversive charms of Warm Wires' clever, strange, catchy rock

As a songwriter, Brad Mossman of Warm Wires knows no fear. Over the course of more than a decade, with both the Wires and his previous band, Harm Farm, Mossman has written about chewy seafood, dolphins that favor gay men, sex with a Siamese twin, lead erasers, lakes of beef, and robot blood. He's tackled life's most trying conflicts, whether Arab-Israeli, Barbie vs. Ken, or nerd against jock. He's mixed the everyday moments -- sleeping, shitting, fucking, and fighting -- with the extraordinary, for an effect that's somehow both goofy and thoughtful. (Witness this couplet from "Pleasure Prison": "I like it so much better when you and I take drugs/ I get to see you smile and I forget about my bugs.")

"Every time I see [Warm Wires], I shake my head," says Dan Leone, former singer for local band Ed's Redeeming Qualities. "I'm amazed that a) he thought he could get away with writing about that, and b) that he did. He touches subjects that no one else will."

Unfortunately, the music world isn't kind to quirky songwriters anymore. There was a time back in the mid-to-late '80s when bizarre wordplay and kooky instrumentation could score radio air time and a major label contract. Groups like Camper Van Beethoven, Ween, and They Might Be Giants were weird and successful. Like-minded local bands such as the Donner Party, Catheads, 28th Day, Little My, X-Tal, and Thinking Fellers also flourished. Then grunge hit in the early '90s, and the majors went whole hog for loud groups with long hair and hard glares; the market for eccentric songwriters seemed to dry up.

Lute Bok

Details

Saturday, May 18, at 10 p.m.

Tickets are $8

621-4455

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

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Mossman has kept plugging along, nonetheless. Now, Warm Wires -- featuring Mossman, drummer Adam McCauley, bassist Bernie Jungle, and guitarist Matt Stahl -- has released its second album, Kindness. The record's full of clever lyrics, joyous singing, catchy riffs, and otherworldly presence -- you know, the kind of stuff that gets you nowhere these days.


Before he was the main singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitar player for Warm Wires, Brad Mossman (né Pedinoff) was in Harm Farm. That group -- formed in 1988 while Mossman, cellist Tom Hallenbeck, and violinist Morgan Fichter attended Oberlin College in Ohio -- melded bluegrass, Irish traditional music, Eastern European folk, and indie rock in much the same way Camper Van Beethoven did. After Harm Farm's members moved to S.F. and Fichter left to join Camper, Harm Farm added ex-Catheads/Donner Party drummer Melanie Clarin and recorded two albums for the Alias label. One of them, 1990's Spawn, remains an underappreciated gem, a record full of exuberant takes on aging ("Creases, Sags, and Wrinkles"), the Middle Eastern conflict ("Arabs and Jews"), and a certain squishy food ("Clams").

"That was the dividing line," laughs longtime Bay Area scenester and X-Tal member J Neo Marvin about "Clams." "You either really loved or really hated it."

Unfortunately, too many people were just plain indifferent to Harm Farm, and the group broke up in 1992. Mossman moved to Portland, accepting an invitation from ex-Donner Party member Sam Coomes to play bass in his new combo, Motorgoat (which also featured Coomes' then-wife, Janet Weiss). He lasted about a year, before rain and band conflicts got to be too much for him. "They told me we were going to play my songs, but I got up there, and it wasn't like that," Mossman, 35, says during an interview in the Mission home of Warm Wires' McCauley. Coomes and Weiss eventually formed Quasi and played with Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith. Meanwhile, Mossman took off for the United Kingdom.

"I wanted to get away from the States," Mossman says. "I probably should've done that first, instead of Motorgoat."

After traveling throughout the U.K., Mossman found work at a hostel on the west coast of Ireland in a town called Dingle. He spent nearly a year there, writing songs about his travels and the people he'd met, eventually recording them on a four-track with only his acoustic guitar and the Irish pipes of local Chris Prior for accompaniment. The seeds of Warm Wires were sown.


Adam McCauley moved to the Bay Area the same year as Mossman, 1988. Along with guitarist Matt Stahl and singer Tynan Northrop, McCauley formed Little My, a group renowned for its dark and arty indie rock. Harm Farm gave Little My one of its first big gigs, with Stahl returning the favor for Harm Farm when he began booking shows at Oakland's legendary Merchants club.

When Mossman returned to S.F. from Ireland in 1995, he played the recording of his new songs for McCauley and Stahl. "We were trying to talk Brad into putting that out as it was," McCauley, 36, says, "but he wanted it to rock."

While Harm Farm's second album, Nice Job, Einstein, had been heavier than its first, it still featured what Mossman calls "that fiddle aesthetic." For Warm Wires, he wanted something less folky, what he jokingly pegged, in his Oberlin alumni magazine, "cuddle-core influenced by elves and bulldozers."

"My understanding was that we were trying to make it more like pop songs -- streamline them and make them less arty and indulgent," McCauley says.

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