Gravy Train!!!! is a John Waters wet dream come to life, with openly gay boys and super-snarky girls singing hilarious lyrics about ghost boobs, 40-ouncers, and cottonmouth blow jobs, all the while playing a giddy form of bubblegum garage-pop that screams Hairspray (if not "holy crap!"). So it's kind of a shock to hear the Oakland quartet's third full-length, All the Sweet Stuff, because the disc sounds almost mature.
No need to worry, though. There's still plenty of the salacious lyrics and exuberant melodies that've made Gravy Train!!!! so fun. But for the first time, the band members sound like, well, musicians. By adding glam, disco, and even '60s French pop to their euphoric garage-rock, Chunx, Funx, Hunx, and Junx have created one of the most thoroughly entertaining records in ages, joining the upper echelon of local bands in the process.
How'd they do it? "We got a practice space, that's what happened," Hunx laughs.
Gravy Train!!!! has never been the most orthodox of groups. In fact, Chunx and keyboardist Funx (the band members prefer to go by their pseudonyms) started the band in 2001 as a kind of bitch slap. "It was a product of being unemployed and not having much success in the romance department and wanting to bitch about it in a constructive way, rather than just sitting on the couch and watching daytime TV," recalls Chunx. "The original plan was to humiliate this guy who had fucked me over. I wanted to record songs talking about him and put them on a tape and plant them at Amoeba with his name on them."
Out of those high-minded ideals came "Hella Nervous," which included the immortal lines "You were long in the pants/ Short in the wiener/ Sucking my muff like a vacuum cleaner." Soon, Hunx and Drunx joined as backup dancers, and when "Hella Nervous" became a surprise hit on college radio, the kids hit the streets. They crashed house parties, playing in living rooms and wearing shirts sporting their names scrawled in puffy paint. They went to other people's shows and yelled out "Gravy Train!!!!" between tunes. Sometimes they'd jump onstage and start playing, even though they had only two songs.
Eventually, though, the motley crew focused on music over shenanigans. "Funx and I had never been in bands before, but Hunx had been in bands for years, so he kind of took the reins," says Chunx. "When he started writing songs, it just came together."
Kill Rock Stars released Gravy Train!!!!'s first full-length, Hello Doctor, in 2002. The disc was unlike anything else around rude, crude, and hella lewd, like a gay 2 Live Crew recording booty rap on very cheap equipment. One can only imagine what all those earnest Sleater-Kinney fans thought when they came across the homofabulous gutter-rap of "You Made Me Gay" and "Double Decker Supreme."
"The lyrics on that first record are way over the top," says Chunx, the group's main lyricist at that point. "It was about what can we say that will get the most attention and be shocking and funny. And what's the best way to put [forth] my personality [which has] always been kind of grating and makes people uncomfortable."
Junx replaced Drunx in 2003, adding another gay boy, songwriter, and, most importantly, exhibitionist to the mix. "That first year I was here I was drunk and naked a lot," admits Junx.
"He would go to shows and strip down and get naked," says Hunx. ""Oh, there's that naked guy.' But now he's not really the Naked Guy anymore, except to my mom."
Gravy Train!!!! released one more disc on Kill Rock Stars, 2005's Are You Wiggling?, which had more of a punk/new-wave feel, while still dropping lines about pussy sauce, outer-space sex, and X-rated Polaroids. Imagine the Cramps as a sexed-up riot grrl band, and you get the (dirty) picture.
"We were sick of the style of our first record," says Chunx, "because we didn't feel like there was a lot more that could be done with lo-fi, raunchy rap."
While the sophomore release didn't have the same impact as Gravy Train!!!!'s debut, it did score the band a Playgirl pictorial (for Hunx, Junx, and some strategically placed grapes) and a Le Tigre tour.
"I love Gravy Train!!!! because they are the raunchiest, sexiest teenaged adults ever," writes Le Tigre's Kathleen Hanna via e-mail. "Their music is like if the Archies and the B-52's took ecstasy and had a baby and then the baby started a band with its weird friends while waddling around in a Day-Glo diaper with a beer."
Soon after the Le Tigre hookup, the group began recording the tracks for its latest release. "Our last record was really punk," says Hunx. "And the first record was really dancey. I think we wanted to revisit the best parts of them [for All the Sweet Stuff]."
In order to flesh out the two danciest songs, "Strip 4 Me" and "Club Situation," Gravy Train!!!! turned to local disco-rockers Sugar & Gold for production help. The band suggested chilly synth parts, wiggly guitar riffs, and clinky percussion, giving Gravy Train!!!! a decidedly different, "Freaks Come Out at Night" vibe. On "Call Me in French," Hey Willpower's Will Schwartz helps Junx turn Deee-Lite's house track "Call Me" into a breathy French pop song.
Elsewhere, Chunx indulged her love of '70s glitter and glam rock, concocting stomping beats, handclaps, and cooing harmonies for tracks like "Frat Party" and "Solo J/O." Hunx wrote "Wutcha Wutcha Wutcha Wutcha Wutcha Wutcha Doin Tonight?", which sounded like vintage B-52's, complete with new-wave organ and high-pitched squeals. And Junx offered up some numbers from his forthcoming solo disc, several of which recalled Blondie's bubblegum punk side. (All four band members are working on solo projects, and are hoping to release them on the same day, just like Kiss).
With such a diverse, far-reaching effort, it came as something of a shock when Kill Rock Stars declined to keep the final product for its roster. "It wasn't that [the label] didn't like it," Hunx says. "They wanted us to make something like our first album. Which is completely ridiculous since they're all about the artist's freedom." (At press time, the label hadn't responded to queries for comment.)
With a release date and tour already booked, the band scrambled to find a home for All the Sweet Stuff. After fielding several offers, Gravy Train!!!! went with S.F.'s Cochon Records, which had released discs by Hey Willpower and Von Iva, and was already planning on putting out the vinyl version of Sweet Stuff.
"I fell coo-coo crazy in love with the new record," says Cochon's Manuel Gutierrez. "I love that they've kept their "chipmunk punk' style and have added dancier and more mature elements."
It's hard to believe that KRS would pass on the album. Besides the fact that All the Sweet Stuff has some of the most goofily anthemic music to come out of S.F. in ages, the disc is also hilarious. On "Frat Party" Chunx describes a gassy keg party, where she's blowing farts and watching "all the sluts turn bi." On "Solo J/O" Chunx explains that she'd rather a guy go home and jack off to her than come on to her: "It would be so much better to know/ That later after the show/ I'm gonna totally blow/ Your little brain to pieces/ Make you say "Jesus'/ Get none of my diseases." For "Wutcha Doin Tonight?" Chunx and Funx ponder what to do at their slumber party: "We could masturbate, or we could roller-skate/ Create some paint-by-number art/ Or just light each other's farts."
OK, so Gravy Train!!!! still isn't writing about high-minded philosophy and the plight of endangered species. But unlike its past attempts at using lyrics for shock value, now the group seems content telling funny stories. The jokes feel more like A Dirty Shame than Polyester.
"I think it's cuter," Chunx says of the album. "We're not trying so hard to say the absolute worst thing we can."
Wow, how adult that sounds. Pass the glitter, will ya?