What sort of band releases a video it describes as, we quote, "an awful commercial for the city of Houston" just as the city is attempting to recover from the worst natural disaster in its recorded history? Who would turn their camera's eye to the city's plethora of sex-shop signs and vacant real estate in the days of Houston Strong?
That band would be Cake Rangers, the sludgy stoner-rockers who recently released the album Queen For a Day, source of the song "Centralia." Before you start sharpening your Tweets about the band's insensitivity, you should know two things: The video was shot as a humorous bit, in advance of Hurricane Harvey; and, Cake Rangers believes Houston is strong enough to endure, as they say, "a native band goofing on it." After all, they reason, the city is recovering from the storm and has endured other disasters, such as "Matt Schaub."
"The concept behind the video was a pretty simple one: Make an awful commercial for the city of the Houston," says guitarist and vocalist Chops McChopperson. "Once we had that down, it was obvious that all the location shots should be either places that you wouldn't want to put in a promotional video because they depict the city in a negative light — Enron, random dilapidated buildings, that giant 'ADULT VIDEO' sign next to (Interstate) 45 — or because they're extremely weird, [like] the red button in downtown, the giant busts at the Adickes Studio [or] the art installations at Smither Park.
"If the suits at City Hall ever commission someone to make a video to promote the city, I don't think it will look anything like what we made, which is kind of the point," he explains. "We decided to include a band performance in the video because that's all we are. If you go see us live, that's what it will look like. Alex probably won't be wearing a shirt."
Alex is the band's bassist, backup vocalist and, apparently, its resident exhibitionist. According to Chops, they keep things very informal. He introduces the act's members by first name only: Shane is the lead guitarist and James its drummer, who recently took up the seat vacated by Victor. They formed in 2012, but don't ask him how; all you'll get is a tall tale of chance encounters at DJ Screw's burial site and how Ann Coulter is ghostwriting the daring tale of what it took to rescue "Alex from the sweatshop that's in the basement of Lakewood Church."
The band's Facebook page is awash with this weird, absurdist humor. To us, it's kind of refreshing from such a heavy act; Chops says he agrees.
"You're right, and I think one of the things that people disparage heavy metal in general for is how self-important and humorless it is, which in and of itself is pretty funny to me," he says. "To give you an example of what I mean, I saw Mayhem a few years ago and thought the show was absolutely hilarious. Mayhem carries a very dark image; their backstory includes murder, suicide, rumors of cannibalism, and any discussion of them is incomplete without the Satanism and Nazi crap they're associated with."
"But if you're at a Mayhem show, all you're doing is looking at a bunch of Norwegians in corpse paint performing on a stage littered with props like skulls and candles," adds Chops. That might look horrifying to someone, and the band certainly takes this all very seriously, but to me it looks like demented vaudeville.
"The humorous content we put on social media comes from the fact that I've always liked bands that had a humorous element to them — Ween, Primus, Mastodon — so I figured why not include something to that effect in the band?" he goes on. "I write all the lyrics to our music and I can't say that there's much humor there, mostly because the lyrics concern things that I find interesting, not things that make me laugh. So I guess it balances itself out."
Released last month, Queen For a Day features nine original tracks. It was recorded at Upper Room Studios in Sugar Land by Matt Cranley and mastered by Noah Lopez. Chops called recording the album a weird, time-consuming process that didn't get "particularly interesting until you get close to the end, when the songs actually sound like songs and not random snippets of individual instruments." For an idea of what those songs might sound like, consider the album's title, based in part on a peculiar 1950s television game show of the same name.
"I'm not sure if you're familiar with the show, but its setup was that they would interview women in a studio with a live audience and get them to talk about hardships in their lives and what they wished they could have to alleviate their suffering," he explains. "The problems they would talk about would often include pretty heavy topics — recently deceased husbands, children with debilitating illnesses, extreme poverty. The metric for picking a winner was the level of audience applause for each story.
"So basically, a bunch of women in tragic situations were competing to out-pity each other on national television," he summarizes. "The show was massively popular. I'm pretty sure the modern equivalent would be things like Maury and Dr. Phil, which are just windows into other people's problems. I'm not sure what exactly it says about us as a culture that shows like this are as successful as they are, but it can't be anything good."
Yes, but is it a bad idea to release a video that essentially kicks a city when it's down? Chops says the band was committed to its vision, captured by director Uche Ogbonna. But you can't just sweep 51 inches of rain under the rug, so the band bookended the clip with disclaimers explaining the humor and providing info on Harvey relief groups.
"We decided to include those disclaimers for a few reasons, but the main one was timing; we shot everything in early August and Harvey hit right as Uche finished the video," says Chops. "We already had an album-release show scheduled for the middle of September and the plan was always to release the video before that show.
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"After Harvey, we had to reconsider the content of the video and whether or not releasing something that made fun of a city that was partially underwater was the most responsible thing we could be doing," he adds. "So the idea of the disclaimers came out of that. We figured most people would get that it was a joke anyway. The part about the places to donate to seemed like a good idea for obvious reasons."
The band next plays Houston December 1 at Dan Electro's with Pyreship and Forming the Void. Chops and his gang might go out of their way to poke fun at what seems crass about Houston, but they consider its music community on par with or better than a lot of what's happening elsewhere.
"And the thing about doing this in Houston is that you get a chance to see and play with a variety of interesting musicians and bands, without much pretense to it," he notes. "I lived in New York for a long time and there was a lot of pretense when it came to music, even among the random small-fry bar bands.
"That kind of stuff is obviously bullshit — playing in a particular city or place doesn't make your music any better or special than it would be otherwise," adds Chop. "I'd put B L A C K I E, Say Girl Say and Funeral Horse up against any trio of bands from Brooklyn or London that are being touted as the next big thing and they would crush them."