Fat Chance

Call it integrity or call it stubbornness, but the Joint Chiefs won't slim down their bursting-at-the-seams jazz/grunge/funk act

Joint Chiefs' music has been described many ways in the nearly three-and-a-half years since the band first formed here in Houston. Fans and critics who latch first onto Jay Maulsby's vocals can easily mistake the Chiefs for a bad heavy metal band (wrong clothes and long, fractured songs), and Maulsby's testosterone wail has caused a few otherwise unwarranted cries of grunge over the years. Notice the rhythm wall of Lisa Harrington's drum kit and Scott Beliveau's percussion, and you might think you were hearing a groove band stuck within a band that won't stick with a groove. Focus your ears on Brett Needham and his rumbling Chapman Stick bass and you start to hear a bent toward embryonic prog rock, a tendency further embellished by Doren Bernard's jazzy guitar noodles and squawking sax contributions. Pat Stallings's guitar weaves all over the map, a trouble-shooting utility instrument that adds heft to whatever multi-hyphenated stylings the Chiefs happen to be pursuing at the moment. To further confuse the issue, Joint Chiefs began life as a progressive funk band, taking advantage of a groundswell of underage fans back in that genre's Sprawl- and Billy Goat-dominated heyday.

Joint Chiefs sound a little bit like Rush one moment, a little like Black Sabbath the next, a lot like King Crimson in sporadic bursts, and, in inspired flashes of dissonance, like a flock of screaming geese being sucked into a jet turbine. Guitarist/sax player Bernard describes the Chiefs' songs -- mostly constructed of a democratic hodgepodge of ideas in the rehearsal room -- as "weird or silly riffs, something rhythmically strange but not mechanical." "We don't want to be a techno band, which I'm sure would be easy to do," he says. "A nice degree of sloppiness thrown in to keep it fun. We're real interested in textural layering, like putting a lot of sounds together and seeing what it comes out like." Maulsby's lyrics alternate between mood paintings and social commentary, but unless you read a lyrics sheet, you're more likely to be impressed by the visceral punch of the vocals than by their content.

As far as relative positioning within the realm of Houston's rock product goes, the Chiefs share more common musical ground with prog-rock implants King's X and Galactic Cowboys than with the blues derivatives or punk-rock deconstructions that surround them -- probably more than anyone in the King's X, Galactic Cowboys or Joint Chiefs camps might like to admit -- and it's easy to think that if the shaggy quintet would shape up its act (just flash a few tattoos, maybe, or at least stop showing up on stage wearing those crappy shorts their mothers gave them three Christmases ago), they might find themselves signing on the dotted line for some deep-pocketed employer with a tour bus and a friend doing video in L.A.

It's been close. Ron Goudie, at the time an A&R scout from Los Angeles-based Restless Records and now with the Houston-based Sector II label, showed up at an Emo's gig in the summer of '92 with pen in hand. His assessment? "He liked us," says drummer Harrington, "but he said we were too fat and too busy."

So "fat" is a A&R rep's metaphor for a really heavy sound?
"No, he said Jay was too fat. Brett was still a little overweight then too, and I'm overweight, and he said it just didn't look good with these fat people all over the stage. And he thought the music was too busy with Brett's Stick."

The band's response?
"We were just like, "Fuck you. We like the belly." I mean, we thanked him for the criticism, you know, thanks for flying out from L.A. and everything, but he wanted to work with the band's sound, and it wasn't what we were looking for."

Joint Chiefs may not have gotten a record deal out of the exchange, but they did get a name for their second recording (and first CD) -- in stores for the past three weeks and officially celebrated with a record release this Friday night. Fat and Busy is the title of the self-produced disk, and it's both.

Tactless gauging of personal appearance aside, Goudie's assessment is understandable. Sometimes, usually at a live show, in one of those moments of sparkling clarity when all the divergent tangents of the Joint Chiefs' music cross paths, you want to jump up on the stage and shake the nearest Chief cross-eyed until he or she acquiesces to pursue some single idea -- any single idea -- to its conclusion. Be a groove band, dammit. Or be a jazz band. Or wail your grunge lungs out. Or play that outdated funk, fer Chrissake. Do something with a tag so you can sell this slab of plastic and move out of this dumpy burg and into some rented mansion in the Hollywood Hills with Rick Rubin holding your hand and your family hired to count the cash. You can do it.

Yeah, well, fat chance.
Joint Chiefs are stricken with that peculiar affliction of the musical underground -- some call it integrity, some call it sheer stubbornness

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