By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Joe Butcher, the lead singer and guitar player for UFOFU, leans on the microphone and asks the Club Clearview audience if they would prefer a Gordon Lightfoot or a Buzzcocks cover song. It is close to the end of the night's set, and almost everyone is grinning with something that resembles enjoyment. The crowd, though, is thrown by the query; soon enough, requests for both come from each corner of the room, which means some are bound to leave the club disappointed.
But like our own president, UFOFU strives to please everyone, and so they play both: a souped-up version of Lightfoot's immortal "Sundown" is followed by a down-to-the-last-note version of "Have You Ever Fallen in Love," and the Clearview front room turns into a happy place. One guy even tries to do a lonesome mosh, and a smile of satisfaction passes across the singer's face.
At a time like this, things seem bright for the band that has been performing locally for only a year--audience members enthralled in the moment, musicians giddily romping through sappy folk classics and new-wave love songs, crowds appearing to grow with each gig.
But the beginning was pretty rough for UFOFU. Though they still struggle through each rent period, there was a time not long ago when the three band members went through a period of severe poverty. Butcher's hard times reached an all-time low when he had to sell his collection of Depeche Mode albums for gas money. Which, in retrospect, was no great loss.
In true rock and roll fashion, the band's inception was rather adventurous, happening more than a thousand miles north of here. The 27-year-old Butcher hails from New York City, where he studied music theory at Five Tones Music College in Long Island. He spent his formative years, in the mid-'80s, playing with hard-core bands, one of which was Ludichrist; he can be heard on that band's two 1986 releases, the Off the Board cassette recorded at CBGB and the Immaculate Deception album released on the Combat Core label. He quit before the third and final album, and in retrospect, it was a stint of which he's not particularly enamored.
"Every band I played with in New York sucked," he says now, separated from the experience by a handful of years. "The music is cool, and the energy is good, but the lyrics sucked. It was embarrassing." For a man whose formal training made him an admirably accomplished guitar player, he found the hard-core scene too limiting.
So he placed an ad in The Village Voice in the spring of 1993 looking for a bass player and a drummer for a Pixies-ish band, and Brandon Curtis--a bass player from Norman, Oklahoma, who was a Naval instructor stationed in Hartford, Connecticut--responded. Curtis moved to Manhattan two months later, and they began practicing, clicking almost instantly--no doubt because Curtis is also a classically trained musician who studied piano for 12 years. The next step, then, was to find a drummer, which proved impossible even in the expanse of New York City. Eventually, the two musicians flew in Curtis' 14-year-old brother from Dallas to sit on the drum stool, and it was an experiment that yielded the perfect results.
Joe and Brandon decided, without hesitation, to move south after playing with Ben a few times at a rehearsal space in Long Island. At the very least, they figured, nothing was happening for them in New York and they couldn't do any worse. And besides, it was cheaper to live in Dallas.
The wonderful drummer, who turned 16 a few weeks ago, is just a kid, yet behind the drum set he seems much older, much larger, than his age. Like Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook, he is effective and imaginative, fierce yet precise--in other words, too good to let go. Together, the Curtis brothers form a granite-like rhythm section upon which Butcher's elaborate guitar-playing has found the perfect home.
If nothing else, UFOFU is noteworthy for Butcher's ability to move from straightforward punk guitar-slashing to melodious pop riffs with remarkable ease. The energy and influence of his punk past rears its head, and like any clever and formally trained musician he grabs all the snippets of pop history he needs to incorporate into his own personal style. One minute he sounds like Robert Fripp, especially his work with King Crimson; the next, like Meat Puppet Kurt Kirkwood. Eventually, it all coalesces into the tight, sturdy UFOFU sound, a sound best characterized by its odd occasional tempo changes and unorthodox chord progressions.
And yet Butcher does not concern himself with guitar prowess. He is no Joe Satriani obsessing over perfect technique, but over the perfect pop song. Their melodic punk-pop songs revolve around Butcher's catchy riffs. Take "Save Me" off their seven-song demo: it capitalizes on a typical hard rock riff that gets the Robert treatment through Butcher's able hands, yet is filtered through the three-chord punk format. Ultimately, UFOFU's energy and delivery recall the Toadies and the Pixies--distorted pop, catchy songs heard through the electric buzz of guitar noise.
Most songs hover around the two-minute mark, but the true standout on the tape is the longest song, one that unravels the band's ability to create a complex song without sounding contrived. Titled "Strange," it's an ersatz western epic that unveils Butcher's warped and dry sense of humor, describing a posse of evil characters who "borrow stuff and never give it back."
"We're into songwriting," Butcher says. "The Beatles still sound awesome today. Songs that are good last for a long time. There are a lot of good bands in Dallas, but not many good songwriters."
Butcher is prepared to go on about the subject, but Brandon Curtis interrupts him, fearing it will begin to seem like the backstabbing for which overly competitive local musicians are known. In fact, Brandon says, for a band that's been in Dallas for so short a time, they received a surprising amount of help and goodwill from some of the locals. "Bands like Hagfish and Tripping Daisy helped us a lot by telling people about us," he says. At the very least, the bandmates figure, it's easier to garner some attention in Dallas than in New York, where hundreds of bands fill hundreds of clubs scattered throughout the city every single night.
So far, they have had little problem getting gigs; one of the earliest came last January as one of the opening bands at the crushing Tripping Daisy-Course of Empire show at the Bomb Factory, sharing the bill with Vibrolux and Adam's Farm. And UFOFU has spent much of the past two months on the road traveling throughout the region, from Oklahoma to New Mexico to Louisiana.
Their recently completed cassette has proved to be a good selling tool for them: it's a rough demo they're selling at gigs for three bucks, but one that captures a big portion of their vigorous live sound, one that's conducive to moshing, pogoing, slamdancing, or simply gazing. The band is currently recording at the Last Beat studios for an upcoming seven-inch single, but they're unclear of when it will be released--and if it will be released on the Last Beat label or by the band itself. Butcher and Brandon Curtis share the songwriting credits down the middle, and theirs is a partnership cemented not only by their love for music, but by their wide ranges in age (Brandon Curtis is 22--five years younger than Butcher, six years older than Ben) and the life experiences that come with such differences.
"Joe introduced me to a lot of different kinds of music," Brandon says.
"And," Butcher adds, "they got me into stuff like cartoons.