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Chain Smoking Records Brings Harley Poe and Furious Frank to Town
By Ben Larson
Fort Wayne Reader
If the midwest was suddenly to be overrun by hoards of the living dead, there’s not a doubt in my mind that Harley Poe would provide the soundtrack. The Kokomo-based quartet just released their newest album, Wretched, Filthy, Ugly on Chain Smoking Records, and will be celebrating with a show at The Brass Rail on May 28th with local support from The End Times Spasm Band and Poopdeflex.
Harley Poe has evolved steadily since their inception in 2004, when vocalist/guitarist Joe Whiteford decided he wanted to do something different than he had been in his previous group, Calibretto. “I was in [Calibretto] when I started to write Harley Poe songs,” he told me, “and I started to have a change of heart as far as what I was writing about . . . it was originally going to be a side project, but now it’s my baby.” Whiteford recorded Harley Poe’s first album, 2005’s In the Dark, for Indianapolis-based label Standard Recording Co. with the members of Calibretto, “basically because I had no band at the time.”
That lineup was not to last, however. “They stayed on to record that album and then everybody went their separate ways.” Undaunted, Whiteford continued to play shows under the Harley Poe moniker as a duo with drummer Christian Riquelme, a fellow resident of Kokomo. They then went through a couple of lineup changes, with a couple new members coming and going, until recruiting Gregg Manfredi and Kevin Phillips on keys and bass, respectively, for the band’s 2007 split CD Harley Poe and The Dead Vampires, also on Standard. This lineup stuck, and has remained constant to this day.
With lyrical themes that include the zombie apocalypse, speaking out against intolerance, vampires, and male oppression, there is no lack of variety. “I’m just trying to tell a story,” Whiteford said, “but at the same time I try to throw morals into the songs, like in ‘Suckers,’ where some chauvinist a*# hole goes out to try and take advantage of a girl, but actually she’s taking advantage of him.”
Whiteford describes Harley Poe’s overall sound as being “a bit horror themed, gothic, but also humorous. I love The Cramps, but I don’t think you hear them in the music. I also love The Violent Femmes, who you can definitely hear in there.” Also citing surf rock and punk bands such as Dead Kennedys as influences, Whiteford added “but while I like all of that I don’t think I’m really trying to emulate that sound very much, except for The Violent Femmes and The Dead Milkmen, as far as that quirky punk sound.” It’s a pretty good description of the band’s sound, too. You may need to listen to “Wretched” a couple of times to really hear all the subtleties going on, but repeated listens conjure up the thought that if Gordon Gano of The Violent Femmes had locked himself in a room for a month with nothing but a case of Red Bull and a copy of The Dead Milkmen’s Big Lizard in My Back Yard, what would come out of it would be Harley Poe.
I also spoke this week with Mason Payne of the Chicago neuf-tet Furious Frank, who will be playing The Brass Rail the week after Harley Poe, on June 4th with The Staggerers. With a sound akin to throwing Gogol Bordello, Los Straightjackets, The Specials, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot into a blender (I mean that in a good way, I assure you), Furious Frank creates music that makes you wonder why you never thought to put a ukulele next to a trumpet and add a dance beat. “The original idea came from me and a guy who is no longer in the band,” Payne said. “We wanted to create a mariachi band that did 80’s cover songs, and call it Roberto Duran Duran. But we can’t play mariachi music, and I can’t stand 80’s music, so that never really happened.”
What did happen is that Payne recruited musicians from a wide range of backgrounds, such as jazz, country-punk, and even a friend who was a former high school marching band trombonist. With everyone adding their own musical spin, it all came together to make what Payne describes as “an americana-mexicana-punk-ska thing.” With violins, guitar, bass and drums rounding out the mix, Payne confessed that he wasn’t sure it was all going to work at first. “We recruited the nine people that we are now, and all along I kind of figured that it would dwindle down as the fist few months of a band go by and you try to write and learn new songs. But everyone stuck around, and we got better shows, and we got a good album done. So now there’s nine people in the band, and still have to figure out how to transport all of them. But I think it’s all working out.”
Since getting together in the spring of 2007, Furious Frank has gone on to play with such notable acts as Bottle Rockets, Ike Reilly, Robbie Fulks, and Devil Makes Three, and in 2009 released Hobocamp Mud Show, which Payne described as “the Ed Wood approach to recording. Very quick and dirty; very low-fi.” They have recently finished recording a new album, which Payne summed up by saying “this time around it was really nice to have the opportunity for everyone to learn the songs before recording them.”
All of this self-deprecation and half-joking way of speaking might lead some people to believe that the members of Furious Frank don’t take their music seriously. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Payne is a funny guy, but there’s no way Furious Frank’s music could work without a lot of hard work. That kind of work ethic is apparent on songs like “Another Life,” and “The Coroner of Drifters Creek.” These tracks showcase a band that, for all their quirks, make truly orchestrated music that shouldn’t work, but does. The first is a good picture of the mariachi-esque music Payne initially described, with great horn lines and the back-and-forth 5ths of the bass. It’s a great song, but “Drifters Creek” takes you by surprise with its syncopated counterpoint (if there is such a thing. My theory is a bit rusty) between the horns and stringed instruments, and stylistic leaps between gypsy music, western swing, and punky guitar. It’s infectious music, and I am really interested to see how it sounds live with all of those musicians crammed onto The Rail’s stage.