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Fuck takes the high road -- to the end of the line

Wednesday, Apr 11 2001
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There was a time when local indie rock band Fuck was, if not the flavor of the month, at least a well-hyped spice. Around June 1997, when the quartet released its third record, Pardon My French, on largish indie label Matador Records, Fuck received a hail of interview requests from hip magazines like Magnet and Bikini and not-so-hip newspapers like the Chronicle (whose piece was called "%*@#!!!" and whose writer later admitted to having no idea what the band was about). But many of the articles couldn't see their way past the band's lurid name or its somewhat obvious bicoastal hook (one band member, Tim Prudhomme, resided in New York City). In the hopes of heading off similar questions, the group -- Kyle Statham, Ted Ellison, Geoff Soule, and Prudhomme -- put up a "How to Interview Fuck" page on Matador's Web site. Some samples:

Question: "Is it hard being a bicoastal band?"

Answer: "Yes, sometimes."

Question: "I must ask why you chose your band name."

Answer: "We thought it would make for a good interview question."

By the time Fuck's fourth album, Conduct, came out on Matador (its first two were self-released), the press had moved on to more forthcoming acts.

"With Pardon My French, we were the new fresh band and [Matador] did a really good job of pushing us," Soule says during an interview in Statham's Tenderloin recording studio, Black Eyed Pig. "But when Conduct came out, there was Cat Power, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Pavement, Liz Phair, and we were on the bottom of the heap."

Part of the problem was Fuck's illusory, hard-to-pin-down records. Sure, there were hints of guitar rock, spaghetti western twang, surf, and '50s balladry, but there was also a seedy, junk shop aesthetic, as if the listener were peeking into the dark recesses of a haunted house's garage. Few bands get rich making albums that sound this fragmented and weird -- accessible but just out of reach.

After touring the U.S. and Europe behind Conduct, the band discussed its options for a new album. "Matador was signing [electronic acts like] Boards of Canada so it seemed like the time was right to leave," Ellison says.

Explaining the split, Matador publicist Ben Goldberg says, "It wasn't any less love for Fuck; things just didn't work out. We'd done a few records, and the label and band looked to see if it was working out for the best and decided it wasn't."

So what does a band do when it's fallen from high profile to no label, when its members are separated by several time zones, and when its music seems to be growing increasingly unfashionable?

It packs up and goes on a farewell tour.


Fuck built much of its fan base by touring. In fact, Matador signed the group on the strength of its live shows. "Fuck is one of those bands that is a touring machine. They played everywhere," Matador's Goldberg says. For its last U.S tour in 1999, Fuck decided to branch out even farther, skipping the big cities the band had played before.

"We had this idea that we should hit the smaller towns," Ellison says. "Instead of Chicago, we'd hit Dekalb."

"No, we didn't play Dekalb," Soule corrects with a laugh. "We drove to Dekalb, and the [record store] guy paid us not to play. Nobody came to the show."

After two weeks in the States (including Memphis, where Prudhomme had moved in 1999) and two more weeks trekking across Canada, the band played a final tour stop at San Francisco's Make-Out Room. Ellison auctioned off his entire mechanical toy collection (whose onstage presence had been another highlight of past articles) as well as all of Fuck's instruments. Breakup rumors began to circulate over the next several months, especially when the band remained quiet and Statham started playing solo shows as Pablo Wong. Following a canceled gig at the Bottom of the Hill in early 2000, the East Bay Express printed an obituary for the group.

Statham explains that it was all a misunderstanding. "Our booking agent booked a show and needed to get out of it. So that's what he told Ramona [Downey, Bottom of the Hill booker]."

In fact, the quartet was busy working on two new albums: Gold Bricks, a singles collection that spans the eight-year history of the band and includes covers of the Rolling Stones' "She's a Rainbow" and Dr. Seuss' "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch"; and Cupid's Cactus, the foursome's official sixth album.

"The process we go through to make a record is that everyone has a boombox or something at home and people make a tape of songs they're working on," Statham explains. "Then we trade them and we say, "I really liked that second song. Should we rerecord this, add to it, or is it ready to go?'"

The heart-shaped cacti on the cover of Cupid's Cactus exemplify the songs within -- pretty and soft in one way but jagged and thorny in others. Often, the band undercuts its sweet melodies with ominous lyrics and vocals. For instance, the delicate guitar strum and tickled ivories of "Panties Off" clash with lines like "She takes her panties off/ She covers when she coughs/ She makes a face/ And under her shaky hands/ She pumps monkey love like medicine." The epic guitar-and-synth number "Awright" features a desperate vocal, an elephant trumpet sample, and the high-pitched gurgling of Ellison's newborn son, Max. The bouncy piano tune "Respond" sounds like a Randy Newman outtake, right down to the uncertain lyrics: Is the song's "lazy baby" a reticent girlfriend or a child in a coma?

Statham explains that the bandmates -- songwriters all -- like to work in gray areas where the lyrics are open to interpretation. "More and more I like to try to derive musical inspiration from things beside music," he says. "Like, most of my favorite films are kind of murky. They don't create a single hero or single protagonist. A lot of movies end, and you're not sure if it was a happy ending or not." One of his favorite directors is Stanley Kubrick. "Unlike an Oliver Stone, Kubrick doesn't hit you over the head with his message. A lot of modern filmmakers get one idea and tape it on the head of a hammer and stand there and pound you over the head for two hours."

Fuck certainly has a plethora of ideas. The songs on Cupid's Cactus sprawl in all directions: "High" is percussion-heavy film noir jazz, "Melt" tilts toward spacey psychedelia, "How Do You Do, Mr. Do" sounds like an electro-rock band covering Seals & Crofts' "Summer Breeze," and "Cobra Lullaby" oozes like a sinister Christmas hymn. Lesser musicians might come off as dabblers; Fuck takes each stylistic genre and makes it its own.

"I think our sound mutates faster than other bands'," Statham says. "Each album is like a snapshot of all the stuff we were listening to at the time. We'll go on tour, and Ted will be raving about ['80s ambient-synth act] Talk Talk or something like that, and then you see him six months later, and it's Al Green. When I've been in bands that practice every week, that metamorphosis goes slower."

In need of a home for Cupid's Cactus (Gold Bricks was set for release as a tour support CD from Insound.com), Fuck contacted Steve Shelley, Sonic Youth drummer and owner of New Jersey label Smells Like Records. Shelley's other combo, Two Dollar Guitar, had toured with Fuck back in 1998. "We had a lot of fun. They were one of the best live bands I'd seen in a long time," Shelley says via phone from his Hoboken office. "When we were touring together, I told them that if they weren't with Matador, I would drop everything to do a record with them."

With a deal set, the band concentrated on the album's packaging. For some groups, this isn't a big deal; for Fuck, it's huge. Past CDs had come in coloring books, oversized matchbooks, perfumed love letters, and children's books. Soule's original idea for Cupid's Cactus stemmed from its Valentine's Day release date: "We were going to have it on a heart-shaped CD, and cut into stuffed animals and put it in them. But Ted and Tim thought they would take up too much space in the van."

Instead, the bandmates mailed off the cactus picture to Pop X, a design company in Belgium whose owners had tracked down Statham's studio. In keeping with Fuck's prickly past, the CD cover lists the band members as "Todd, Harold, Darin, and Scott," displays the UPC symbol more prominently than the band's name, and, on the back, features a cactus that appears to be flipping off the camera.

But even with two new albums and a reputation as a great live band, Fuck has decided that its upcoming U.S. tour will be its last. "It's become problematic touring America for a lot of reasons," Statham says. "It seems like, based on the bands and booking agents that I've talked to, we're kind of in a lull period for interest in live music. A lot of clubs are closing. Also, it's hard to tour in America because [its cities are] so far apart." But the band isn't breaking up; it will continue to tour in Europe, at the very least. On April 28, the group heads off to the Netherlands.

As we went to press, the band neared the end of its American travels. Writing via e-mail, Ellison said, "Texas and Fuck don't mix. This was our second time here and the second time we played to a room full of muscle-bound knuckleheads. We played with the Murder City Devils, whose crowd is tattooed, sweaty, drunk, and ready for some rock 'n' fuckin' roll. Things got a little sketchy when they started their set with "We'd like to thank the first and third bands.' We were the second band. Between every song they thanked the first and third bands -- the implication being that we sucked. So we let the air out of their tires." The group's South by Southwest appearance proved equally eventful, as local indie-noise act ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of the Dead chucked Fuck's drums out the door, down a ravine, and into a river. Even more amazing was an appearance by Britney Spears at a performance in New Orleans. Supposedly the megastar called Statham "sugar hon."

It remains to be seen what the quartet will do for its final San Francisco performance this Saturday. "That's the kind of stuff we think up on the road," Ellison says. You may want to bring some extra cash, though, just in case -- you could walk away with an instrument or, even better, an autographed glossy of Ms. Spears.

About The Author

Dan Strachota

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