Weird Without Choice

Before each tour, the five bandmates in the Iowa-born, San Francisco-bred Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 gather together and choose the songs they'd like to cover in concert. Each member is allotted one pick, and the song list they assemble tells a lot about the band's collective musical mindset.

For their current tour, drummer/keyboardist Jay Paget chose the Butthole Surfers' "Graveyard." Guitarist/violist/tape operator Brian Hageman selected "Velvet Muscles" by Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. Bassist Anne Eickelberg picked a Steve Miller tune. Guitarist/organist/French hornist Mark Davies offered a medley from the soundtrack of Rosemary's Baby. Lastly, guitarist/pianist Hugh Swarts abstained; he had enough trouble simply figuring out the band's complex originals.

To say the least, this is a joyously eclectic and unflinchingly eccentric outfit. But with a name like Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, what else would you expect? To fans, the band's unusually long, noticeably irregular moniker says much about the group. How they take a rootsy, blue-collar approach to intellectual, artsy music; how they'll play a banjo on one song and use Indonesian note scales on the next; how they utilize instruments such as the erhu and the optigan; or how they play guitars with odd tunings. For the band, however, Thinking Fellers is just a name -- for better and, often, for worse.

"The story behind the name is not as interesting as the name itself," admits Eickelberg.

Swarts explains further. "We were sitting around getting smashed, having a good time -- sort of being redneck armchair philosophers, and the name kind of tumbled out of my mouth," he recalls. "We needed a name when our first showwas coming up, and we agreed on this one, thinking somebody would have a brain-flash and we'd change it. But it just never happened."

Swarts, though, often wishes the band had given a little more consideration to their christening. "I've had real problems with the name off and on since the beginning, though I've kind of made my peace with it because we're stuck with it," he laughs. "People think the name is jokey and we're trying to be deliberately or self-consciously weird, and it's something contrived. I don't like that it might make us sound like a novelty band, and some of the weirder stuff we do plays into that impression. It bothers me sometimes, especially because I think some of the more melodic and accessible things we do get overlooked."

Listen to any of the six CDs and two EPs the band has released in the last eight years, and it's clear TFUL282 would come off as strange even with a name as simple as Bush or Oasis. That's because they employ a songwriting style that often finds them cramming bits of tunes written by two or three different members into the same composition -- and it shows. The group conjures up shades of Captain Beefheart, the Residents and Sonic Youth -- often within the same song -- without sounding much like any of them.

"We don't set out to sound like anyone, which I think is obvious from our recordings," Swarts says. "But I see reviews and interviews where people are saying, 'Oh, this sounds like so-and-so, their influences are so-and-so,' and in some cases it's people we've never fucking listened to."

Perhaps the primary contributor to the band's idiosyncrasy is its approach to composing. TFUL282 tapes hundreds of hours of its freeform rehearsals, where any and all musical ideas are thoroughly explored. "The main element is collaboration," says Swarts. "Even if somebody brings in a whole song structured out, it'll evolve as other people work in their parts. It'll usually be a lot different from what the writer thought it was going to be."

From these rehearsal tapes, the band whittles down the best moments into what eventually becomes TFUL282's quirky, at times disjointed, music. Often, when members can't recall what they played in rehearsal, or can't quite recreate the feeling captured during a practice recording, the band will simply stick pieces of rough rehearsal tapes onto their CD. The finished results are, for the most part, a collage of studio playing, found sounds and spontaneous lo-fi improvisation. True to the group's collaborative nature, everyone has a hand in singing.

"A lot of jams we never play again," says Eickelberg. "It will come out once, and there will be something about the particular sound quality or the mood of the piece that gives it a character we really like; we realize it could never be replicated. We just want to note it. To us, it's complete in and of itself."

While taped bits and abstract segments pop up throughout TFUL282's latest release, I Hope It Lands, the CD's relatively conventional instrumentation, emphasis on vocal clarity and 24-track mix make it the band's most accessible recording to date.

"We had more control over the mix. Plus, the quality of the recording equipment makes a big difference in how it sounds on tape," says Swarts. "But at the same time, we tried to keep an ear out, because we didn't want it to come out sounding too processed or slick. We still wanted it to have some life to it."

Clearly, I Hope It Lands is far from a blatant bid for mainstream acceptance, even on an alternative level. For every cohesive and melodic song such as "Empty Cup" or "Lizard's Dream," there are discordant and angular instrumentals such as "Inspector Fat Ass" and the 17-second "Jagged Ambush Bug."

"It's still a really weird batch of stuff," Eickelberg says. "Within the weird batch there might be some stuff that sounds a bit poppier, but taken as a whole, it still looks like commercial suicide to me, which is fine."

Swarts explains the band's music as a natural progression. "It evolves, but I don't think it necessarily evolves in a linear direction, like we're getting more structured," he says. "Things change because you don't want to repeat yourself. A step forward in a more accessible direction may be the result, but that's not a conscious attempt on our part."

Eickelberg agrees that the new CD's half-step toward center is by no means an indication of where TFUL282 is headed. "It was like this experiment, because we had an opportunity to go into a studio at a discount," she says. "I'm not sure everyone in the band is convinced it's the way to go. There's an argument in favor of continuing to record in the practice space on a four-track, or just recording in all different types of situations that might be referred to as lo-fi. That's still up for discussion. Everybody's still trying to assimilate what happened and decide whether we'd want to do it this way again."

For its current tour, TFUL282 has for the first time tried to relearn some of the rehearsal jams that appeared on record but were never played live. Songs such as "Heaven for Addled Imbeciles" from its Mother of All Saints release may soon gain new life -- that is, if the band can figure out how they played it the first time around.

"We've been going through and making lists of songs we think we might be able to do," Eickelberg says. "We've already had to throw a bunch out because there's no way we can get into the particular state of mind we were in when we did them. But others have actually worked out and sound pretty good. We're not trying to be exact. We're always into the idea of reinterpreting or covering ourselves."

If you do happen to catch TFUL282 live, be prepared for a sound that's radically different from what you may have heard on CD. Sets are made up of a loose mix of bizarre covers, new versions of the band's own material and ad hoc jamming.

"People are surprised at how powerful we are live, and how tight we can be," Eickelberg says. "Live, it's a more concise experience."

"Live songs can be taken as a whole in a way that's hard to get from our recordings, especially when you're doing overdubbing and you've got discrete tracks for different instruments and different parts," Swarts adds. "You really can't approximate the live experience on tape, because you lose a lot of the frequencies that are there, in the upper and lower levels."

No matter how disorienting that band can be, try to stay until the end of the set.

"The longer we play -- the more everything seems to make sense to everybody," says Eickelberg.

Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 perform Thursday, May 23, at the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam. Polvo and Peabody open. Tickets are $7, 21 and up; $9, 18 to 20. Doors open at 8 p.m. For info, call 225-0500.

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Roni Sarig