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"When you look out and people aren't getting into the music, sometimes you have to pull out the blood," Mink Lungs drummer Tom Galbraith says with a laugh. "We play the songs the best we can, but if people aren't being entertained, we figure give them their fuckin' money's worth. Cut off your head or something."
He's only partly joking. The quartet has garnered attention in Brooklyn's ultra-hip underground rock scene with no-holds-barred performance-art freak-outs that at times risk life and limb. At the beginning things were safe enough. Galbraith started playing drums with multi-instrumentalist brothers Tim and Gian Carlo Feleppa, and Gian's girlfriend, bassist Jen "Miss Frosty" Hoopes. They had a collective obsession with home recording, performance art and songwriting. But as the group pushed its onstage antics to more extreme levels, it started to get a little more hazardous. Gian almost became a minor rock martyr on a particularly sweaty night in a homemade light suit.
"We put Christmas lights inside these painting suits--these packs of 150 lights that do all kinds of different options," he explains. "Two songs before the end of the set, I was getting all these tiny little shocks 'cause I was sweating so much. An electrical shock can feel like a cold flash. I tried to turn off the adapter, but by then my hands were soaking wet. Tom is saying that was the night all my Talking Heads dance moves were born."
Throw Talking Heads on top of the pile of bands that people have likened to the Mink Lungs. If you look through the short stack of the press the band has garnered with its last two releases, it's a schizophrenic collection with 20 years' worth of names dropped: the Pixies, the Flaming Lips, Guided By Voices, Black Flag, Teenage Fanclub, Pavement--the list goes on forever.
"People compare us to ridiculous bands," Galbraith says. "I've learned to like the fact that people get really pissy and don't know what to do with us. We have been trashed in the press. I guess we make the writer think about what they're writing when we come up--and sometimes I think that fucks us up. They don't know what to do. All they can say is that we sound like the Pixies."
Except the Mink Lungs do not sound like the Pixies. There are times when the band channels the spirit of a raging Black Francis at his best, and Hoopes puts a dirty-talking bent on Kim Deal's subtle coo, but that's about it. Nothing works too well because of the band's original mission statement: to provide a platform to perform the songs of all four members.
"When people like us they try to say it's cohesive," Galbraith says. "But I'm not sure how cohesive it is. It's nice that they say we are, and it's easy to burn us by saying we're not, but you have four people all writing and singing and performing their own songs, and to me it sounds like four different bands sometimes."
True enough. On the band's recent effort, I'll Take It (released on Arena Rock Recordings), Galbraith's tear-in-my-beer "Sad Song of Birds" has little in common with the revved-up near-punk of Gian's "Gorilla." The sing-speak of Tim Feleppa's "Bunny Bought a Spaceship" has the surreal retrospective sway of some of The Wall's classic ballads, while Hoopes' "Sensual Pleasure" (a piece that she performs while hula-hooping) brings to mind the dark sexuality and post-rock desperation of Blonde Redhead. Galbraith's assessment is spot on: The band is a four-headed beast.
But if you can get over the divergent style of songs, it becomes clear that the record is held together by the uniform quality. It doesn't matter that they're hard on the clutch when they shift between sunny pop and aggro-punk; as a collective they write songs populated with rich characters, brilliant hooks and razor-sharp ideas that turn on a dime. Musical hegemony is so, like, 2002.
"If the audience is a bunch of bikers, there are going to be guitar solos," Galbraith says. "If we have Seeger fans, we're going to do something for them. We write and play arty songs, pop songs, but we don't beat people's heads about it."
The artfulness of the project is unquestionable. Lyrically, all four writers have a knack for impeccably crafted observations about sex and subway rides, spaceships and strange neighbors. While Miss Frosty yearns for someone to "walk her to the moon" ("Awesome Pride"), Gian sings of "sleeping though the dream-drenched days" ("Start From Scratch"). Galbraith parties his ass off while burning down a frat house on "Dishes," and Tim confesses to a lover that he's been "creaming in someone else" in "Black Balloon." While the stories they are telling are kind of messed up, they tell them with no shortage of poetry. And sure, their method of delivering the songs live might be a little too theatrical for some, but according to Galbraith, the carnival sideshow of a Mink Lungs live set is true to the spirit of their New York pedagogy.