It's a Dallas stage, a few years ago. Picture a slightly younger Phillip Karnats onstage, clad in a black jumpsuit, "08" on the back. He's just moved from Bloomington, Illinois, to add his guitar to the pre-Commercials, pre-Adventures Of Jet pop-rock stylings of Bobgoblin. On this particular night, a feisty Chris Wheat--the bassist for the now-defunct Bedhead--is in the audience, and he's moved by Karnats' highly inspirational guitar playing. In that moment, a friendship is sparked.
Later, Karnats finds himself bandless when Bobgoblin opts to pass on his distinctive style and guitar ability, forcing him to begrudgingly return to his hometown. The night of Karnats' departure from Dallas, he and Wheat write and record some of what would be the seeds for later projects. Wheat vows to Karnats that night to retrieve him from Bloomington and bring him back to Dallas so they can finish what they started. Three months later, a borrowed car and a friend take a sleepless Wheat, living up to his promise, all the way to Illinois to attend Karnats' going-away party, and bring him home. His musical home, anyway. And with that, When Babies Eat Pennies was conceived. It'd be a couple of years, however, before it came to life.
True to Wheat's word, he and Karnats moved in to a place together and formed a band named after their musical abode, 1919 Summit, enlisting drummer Josh Garza (now of Captain Audio) and Richard Paul from rubberbullet. But 1919 Summit ran aground before it had a chance to pick up much steam, because during that time, Karnats also got involved with some other band called Tripping Daisy. (You might've heard of them.) The popularity and schedule Tripping Daisy maintained precluded him from continuing his work with Wheat. The duo kept in touch during Karnats' stint in the Daisy, and instead of forgetting about working together, they merely shelved the project temporarily.
After recording two albums with Tripping Daisy--1998's Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb and this year's eponymous release--Karnats found himself bandless yet again. Tripping Daisy split up last December, a couple of months after guitarist Wes Berggren died from an accidental drug overdose. Wheat was also without a band at the time, since Bedhead had dissolved quietly a year earlier.
Time finally permitting, the two resurrected their ideas and set out to bring their music to life in a live situation, under the name When Babies Eat Pennies. Um, wait a minute--When Babies Eat Pennies?
"It doesn't mean anything," Wheat explains, relaxing in the Curtain Club's backstage area after a recent performance. "It's a nothing name."
Karnats continues, "And it sounded good, and..."
Wheat joins in, and they amusedly--and almost eerily in unison--chant, "And, it eats up the marquee like a motherfucker!"
Picking up where the conversation didn't leave off, Karnats adds, "My favorite color is red, and When Babies Eat Pennies are sticky, hot and sweet!"
OK, then. Marquee-devouring abilities aside, When Babies Eat Pennies has pulled together some of the best innovative, multi-talented instrumentalists in Dallas to interpret Karnats and Wheat's various four-track recordings; the current line-up includes Tripping Daisy drummer Ben Curtis, Noa Lothian (samples) and former Buck Pets bassist Ricki Pearson. Wheat and Karnats' years of hard work together came to fruition in February on the Ridglea Theatre stage, two days before a tornado tore its way through downtown Fort Worth, leaving the area covered in a glittering, sharp bed of glass. Which, in a way, describes When Babies Eat Pennies' music--radiant and jagged, all at once.
At one of the band's shows earlier this summer, their entrancing mix of beautifully arrhythmic music, atypical melodic strangeness, and subtle teetering of great ideas mixed with the shakiness of new-band jitters drew a perplexed crowd closer to the stage, necks craning to make out what was being used to create the music. For the record, it was: a teapot, a sequencer, keys, guitar, and, oddly enough, a lone snare holding the beat together. The crowd watched and listened, not quite knowing when to clap, which might be the most disconcerting stunt a band can pull on an audience.
In that regard, When Babies Eat Pennies is a breakthrough musical concept band and to the Dallas scene, a shock to the system, much like Radiohead is to modern rock, but even more so. While Wheat and Karnats own up to the influence of "Mark Ribot, Brian Eno, and Aphex Twin, to name a few," that is only a starting point, a recommended-if-you-like base on which to build. They know their craft: They've honed their instruments and have thrown away every convention in pop-slash-rock in order to dive into pure human sound and rhythm. Their music inspires imagery normally left to an abstract painting that moves you but you can't quite put your finger on why. It's like a Jackson Pollock painting that you can hear, but that doesn't quite cover it either.
On a recent Friday night at the Curtain Club, they held sway over a crowd much larger and more enthusiastic than at that first outing at the Ridglea. Soft beginnings and strange noises came from the stage, the sounds whispering to the audience, giving those in attendance an open invitation to songs with no formula and rhyme. Their last song of the evening was a study in tightly coordinated beats and sparse and jarring guitar, the rhythm washing over the crowd with clean simplicity. Wheat and Karnats sang the syncopated words over Curtis' ferocious beat, Lothian's wall of keys, and Pearson's driving bass, drawing the audience into their smoothly achieved crescendo. Close your eyes, and it's beautiful. With music that reverberates in your mind, When Babies Eat Pennies engages and intrigues--no CDs to buy, no T-shirts or merchandise to show that you were there, or that, for one moment, live music lifted your spirits into some other place. A place outside of the usual ego and artifice of a traditional rock-and-roll show. A performance during which the audience isn't subjected to insultingly simple song-by-numbers in 4/4 time, but where hooks are the subtle blending of subconscious patterns or noises. Bittersweet songs and oh-so-little time on stage, leaving you to madly search the papers for their next show. The biggest-kept secret in Dallas and you can't buy it. It's a shame...for now.
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"We've got about 20 songs recorded, and we've given some homemade CDs out to friends and family," Wheat says. "We would be interested in getting a label to help us put this stuff out."
This stuff, on this particular evening, moved an inebriated and foul-mouthed photographer friend to loudly whisper, "What the fuck is this?" When informed that it was a band called When Babies Eat Pennies, she crinkled her nose and with a perplexed expression flatly stated, "It's weird and fucked-up." Maybe that's why Wheat laughs when, referring to the band's busy recent schedule, he says, "Well, we are working quite a bit, but mostly we like the mystery, the intrigue." You say mysterious and intriguing, someone else says "weird and fucked-up." Potato, potahto.
That, perhaps, is the band's best asset: its willingness to do whatever it wants to, as long as it sounds good to them. When Babies Eat Pennies allows each person onstage to be themselves, in their full and total individual state, without having to compromise their sound, water it down to the lowest common denominator for commercial means. Each note so determined, so emphatic; each musician in his own zone, hitting varied and different frequencies. And when it works and when it's on, it's a once-in-a-lifetime performance, each different than the last.
"The thing that's so great about this band is the musicians involved," Wheat says. "They understand what the music is all about. Someday, it would be great for us to make a living out of music. Some bands, you get a sense this is the one, and that it's going straight to the top. I certainly had that feeling in Bedhead, a band that lasted for more than seven years. Yet, it doesn't always work out that way. Our focus right now is to make music as good as we can without becoming rock stars on the way."