The story of postwar pop is littered with outmoded technologies as surely as it is cluttered with discarded styles and poses. The ability to electrically amplify a sound to make it audible to large numbers of people is crucial to rock 'n' roll's chokehold — at 40 years and counting — on the imperialist imagination of the Western world. It's no wonder developments like Les Paul's guitar, the PA, and foot-pedal distortion quickly altered the genre, and are the reason you haven't heard your favorite rock combo use much piano or sax lately. Sometimes someone flips the switch — think of the continuing saga of the turntable — but we've generally come to expect an orderly progression in the technological narrative.
In that context, it's downright disconcerting when Six Finger Satellite vocalist J. Ryan grandly straps on a Moog Liberation during a show. These keyboards-on-a-stick, worn around the neck like guitars, were probably an attempt by some egghead in product development to wed the keyboard's electronic primacy to the six-string's symbolic power. It's safe to say that a general consensus has long since been reached regarding the Liberation's obsolescence.
In Six Finger's case, though, the move to the Moog was largely one of necessity, as various lineup changes left John MacLean the sole remaining guitarist and “synthesizer stylist,” and threatened the Rhode Island band's sound and image. “It's also a great visual effect,” says MacLean, as he and his bandmates kick back one morning on New York's Upper East Side. “J. hides it behind the stage, and when he pulls it out, there's literally this wave of repulsion that runs through the audience.”
“Yeah, people seem almost mad,” Ryan says.
“It's worsened by the fact that we play this really intense, stripped-down rock music,” MacLean continues. “People expect you to break into some goofy, wacky thing.”
Although the strains of Liberation only make it onto a handful of songs, MacLean often coaxes the sound of futures past from a battery of analog synths. Severe Exposure, SFS's acerbically entertaining new release, dispenses with much of the ranting and noodling that made 1993's The Pigeon Is the Most Popular Bird such a rough road. Call it a party record, the kind you slip on at that inevitable point when you want “certain people” to head home. As such, its blend of synths and guitars has led to a certain amount of confusion.
“We hear a lot of people trying to peg us and pegging us wrong,” states bassist James Apt with the good-natured arrogance that's key to the SFS approach. “Like saying we're some sort of high-kitsch new-wave conceptual thing. I mean, it's just rock 'n' roll. If you listen to old Hot Chocolate records, you hear the same mix.”
Well, Apt's “just rock 'n' roll” comment skirts the issue, but the “new wave” tag probably continues to surface because no one knows what to make of the technological component. Back when the Human League became one of the first acts to break big with an all-synth format, that group's vocalist used to publicly declare that the electric guitar would soon vanish altogether. This was typical Brit-hype nonsense, of course, but the dichotomy between guitar (“rock”) and machine (“non-rock”) is still largely accepted, despite the fact that bands as diverse as Can, MX-80, and Chrome have incorporated predominant electronic elements into a more or less “rock” framework.
“I think people tend to approach [the synthesizer] as a novelty, instead of exploring its strengths,” Ryan says. “Synthesizers usually bring to mind lots of layered sounds. They're not played in a percussive way [as we do].”
“It's hard to play 'anguished keyboards,' and a lot of kids want so badly to be anguished,” Apt jokes.
Excepting the Cars, whose sound leaned heavily on '60s pop, one of the most commercial near-misses within the synth/guitar continuum was the late-'70s' Tubeway Army, featuring Gary Numan. Of course, Numan had to drop the band, shed his guitar, and warble an ode to assembly-line wish-fulfillment (“Cars”) before the pop world gave him his due. Six Finger follows the Army model, but trades Anglo detachment for American grit and vigor. Over Richard Pelletier's ferocious big beat, Ryan spouts off about trouble in the monkey house (“Simian Fever”), the dark underbelly of civilized amusement (“Parlour Games”), and his (probably imaginary) role as a sexual saboteur (“Cock Fight”).
Although Apt likes to describe the band's hazy development in organic terms (“Like that of a young girl getting all lumpy and furry”), cold calculation is essential to the SFS story. The ironic fact that the act is signed to Sub Pop, the label largely responsible for resurrecting a certain brand of guitar-heavy murk as the market norm, is no accident. Six Finger kicked around Providence in the '80s with various lineups, eventually hatching what should have been a futile hoax to score a deal.
“Unlike today, it was not taken for granted that anyone could be in a band,” MacLean recalls. “We listened to some Sub Pop records — they were putting out stuff like Mudhoney at the time — and basically mimicked that sound and put together four songs that we sent to the label.”
“It was an exercise in demographics,” notes Apt.
Not only did Sub Pop bite, staffers even decided to release the songs as the Weapon EP in 1992, marking the first time in the imprint's history that an unsolicited demo had landed a contract. Confusion ensued, however, when the label realized that its new darlings didn't sound anything like their debut.
“They were so shocked,” laughs MacLean, ” 'cause they had signed this band, and the next thing you know we're dressing up in space suits … I mean, it was so easy — it was the only place we ever mailed [the demo] to.”
Rumored by industry insiders to sound like “bad early Tad,” Weapons quickly vanished without a trace, which MacLean alleges was a face-saving maneuver on Sub Pop's part. Label publicist Nils Bernstein denies that the band's “shocking” revelation had lasting consequences.
“I don't think anyone else at Sub Pop even knows about [the prank],” he says. “I think everyone just thinks they started changing.”
One of the few living souls to actually hear the record, Bernstein enjoys speculating that SFS was simply a “crappy band that got a clue late in the game.” In any case, he denies that the label felt slighted by the ruse. “They're not giving us enough credit,” he says. “But then again, who does?”
Would the bean counters at the Warner Music Group — which recently paid somewhere between $20 million-$30 million for 49 percent ownership of Sub Pop — get the joke? Originally dedicated to documenting an emerging scene in the Pacific Northwest, Sub Pop's capital and cachet derives from its enormous success in making its sound and attitude an industry standard — one which SFS was able to parrot effortlessly to land a deal. Today, as Sub Pop struggles to remain relevant to the indie cultures that put it on the map and also keep an eye on a growing bottom line, it will still tolerate an act that implicitly mocks its cash cows.
But where does that leave SFS within the larger rock world its label helped shape? Unsurprisingly, James Apt has an analogy: “There's two kinds of music — the kind that goes directly to your brain, and the kind that makes your groin tingle,” he opines. “We're somewhere in between, like maybe the esophagus.”
Six Finger Satellite plays with Zumpano and Hardship Post Fri, July 28, at Slim's in S.F.; call 255-0333.