It's not uncommon for musicians to find inspiration from a single artistic work: The Rolling Stones chose their name from a Muddy Waters tune. Jim Morrison called his band the Doors after Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, and Dan Potthast, singer/guitarist for ska-rockers MU330, claims to have found his calling in an opus about a man and his livestock, "Old MacDonald."
"When I got old enough to be left alone, my mother would make me sing it at the top of my lungs as a security measure, so she could hear me no matter where I was in the house," Potthast recalls. "Thus began my singing and performing career."
To date, the band has not put the song either on record or in any of its live performances, but is open to the idea. Sort of. "If the fans demand it," Potthast deadpans. "Then we'll think about it."
Actually, Potthast wasn't even a decade out of the nursery-rhymes-and-Mork & Mindy-lunch-box phase when he launched the group. He was a high school freshman in 1988 when he, drummer Ted Moll and bass player Chris Diebold began jamming together. Taking their name from a music class they all attended, MU330, the trio learned their instruments playing whatever they could bang, plunk and strum out in the candy-and-soda-stocked basement of Moll's grandmother. They soon scored gigs playing to even younger crowds at grade schools and sock hops around their hometown of St. Louis.
But the Midwesterners made a radical left turn once Potthast and the boys fell under the spell of ska records by the Specials, Madness and Bad Manners. A 1991 concert by the Toasters and Special Beat, a pair of ska all-star groups, cemented the trio's new direction.
"It was a very eye-opening thing," says Potthast. "They used horns in a very different way from what I'd seen before. Funk and rock bands use syncopated horns for a 'hit,' but ska bands lean on them for more melody. Plus, there's a great energy to ska shows that I love."
Performances at St. Matthias and Immaculate Heart of Mary, where all the Catholic schoolgirls would skank, went by the wayside once MU330 began writing original material. By then, trombonist Rob Bell had joined and was on board for MU330's 1994 debut, Press (reissued in '97). More touring followed, as did another record in 1996, Chumps on Parade, and another the following year, Crab Rangoon (all on Asian Man Records). The band, with constantly changing satellite players revolving around the main trio, also scored at least one song on more than a dozen ska compilations and split seven-inchers, and had music featured in the 1997 French film Pas de Deux. Its most recent records, Winter Wonderland and MU330, were released last year, also on Asian Man.
As for whether the recent Top 40 popularity of ska-tinged music can trickle down to his quintet, which in addition to Bell includes Gerry Lundquist on trombone, Potthast keeps a distance from the bandwagon. Mostly out of fear that the wheels are already coming off.
"There's a taste of ska with No Doubt and Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger's music, but it's kind of fading a bit now," he says. "All the predictions for ska to be mega-mega-huge have fallen flat. What's going to happen is that bands that were around before the [explosion] and that truly are good -- like the Blue Meanies and Mustard Plug -- will be fine. But the others will be gone."
Two things separate MU330 from its many ska contemporaries. One is a greater use of heavy guitar and punk attitude. The other is Potthast's wry, humorous and plainly bizarre lyricism, which is often based on real-life situations. His lyrical abilities are most prevalent on MU330 and a solo record he cut a few years ago, Eyeballs.
MU330 is actually beyond energetic and bizarre; its song topics include an airport dope-smuggling toddler ("Vow Vow"), a militant PETA temptress ("Baby Rats"), college entrance paperwork burial ("Hoops"), the joy of keggers ("Pool Party") and Wisconsin's favorite export ("Hot Cheese").
But Potthast, quick with metaphors, is most always dead-on -- and dead-on funny -- when writing about relationships that inevitably sour. "Favorite Show," for example, is a view of love from a Nielsen-ratings perspective ("I'm not your favorite show anymore / It seems my ratings have dropped faster than shows with singing cops / I put you to sleep with way too many commercials").
"In general, I try to make a conscious effort to avoid clichés," Potthast says. "I get tired of hearing them and immediately pick them out in a song. When I first started writing lyrics, it was just something to fill out the melody. But as you grow older and hopefully progress, you tend to be more conscious of what you're singing about, because you may have to sing that song for the next 20 years."
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In the future Potthast's live repertory may include tunes from Eyeballs, which consists of songs that the middle-aged songwriter had "lying around" and that either didn't feel right with the full band or are more personal (though the tempo is anything but somber and introspective). Originally, Potthast says, he just wanted to get them down for posterity. But when the owner of Asian Man wanted to release the tunes, Potthast signed off on the idea.
The band and its producers are currently mixing tracks for a soon-to-be-released live record and will start a tour of Japan, opening shows for Potshot in venues that seat 600 to 1,200. Japan, it appears, has a thriving underground ska scene (MU330 already has issued a "best of" record there). With these kinds of credentials in the Land of the Rising Sun, another Live at Budokan might be in the offing.
"No, probably not," Potthast says with a laugh. "But maybe we could record 'Old MacDonald' and get it pressed as a bonus track on the new record."
MU330 performs Thursday, February 10, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Link 80 and Missile Command open. Tickets are $7. The all-ages show begins at 8:30 p.m. For more information, call (888)597-7827 or (713)862-7580. The band's Web site is www.mu330.com.