John Freeman was here yesterday, picking up Blue Oyster Cult CDs; today, he browses Borders' bargain bins and fingers a couple of Hawkwind discs, cut to half price. This is how Freeman likes to spend his time, skipping through the dustbins of history--surely there's something in here he can use.
Walking through a record store with him--even a Borders in Lewisville, where alternative means Shania Twain instead of Trisha Yearwood--is like strolling through a supermarket with your grandmother as she picks up fruit, smells it, squeezes it, then sets it back down with her nose scrunched up in disgust. Only Freeman looks for produce that's been in the bins for decades; nothing is too ripe, or too rotten, for this rock-and-roll hero.
The first record Freeman bought, as far as he can remember, was Styx's 1978 album Pieces of Eight. He recalls the purchase with affection, like someone talking about a first love; even now, 20 years later, Freeman won't bad-mouth the almost unlistenable disc, which features among its collection of bombastic tracks "Renegade" and "Lords of the Rings." Then again, Freeman's not the kind of guy who passes judgment on such records; one culture's trash is another man's treasure, and Freeman is capable of extracting genius out of the most reviled pop-culture detritus.
Indeed, during his mid-'80s days at Booker T. Washington School for the Performing Arts, Freeman discovered the prog-rock of the 1970s, and never once did he find it within himself to make fun of groups long since written off as pretentious, grandiose, ridiculous. To him, their music was brand-new, exquisite, bigger than life, capable of encompassing everything "rock and roll" had to offer.
"By the time I started listening to progressive rock," he says, "I was too much into it to make fun of it. Maybe if I had heard it when I was younger, I might have made fun of it. I'm just lucky I didn't go to a regular high school, because I think it probably would have been uncool to listen to Yes."
A decade after graduating from high school, Freeman now fronts his own brilliant prog-rock band, Dooms U.K.--and yes, at its core, the Dooms are very, well, progressive. Any band that opens its second record, the brand-new Art-Rock Explosion! (art-rock, prog-rock--it's all semantics, anyway), with an eight-minute song titled "Japanimation Nation" that leaps from bombastic Rock Guitar riffing to swelling vocals to keyboard roars to turntable scratches to Spanish vocals is indeed progressive. It's downright fanatical.
But to call the Dooms "prog" is to summon the worst sort of fatuous, grotesque rock and roll--at least as far as its detractors are concerned. Prog-rock has long been the genre's whipping-boy, a description summoned forth to dismiss ambitious, large-scale rock and roll. Where pop was once the derisive term of choice, suddenly prog has become the pejorative. Even its biggest fans can't avoid defending the music before celebrating it: In his 1996 history of the genre, The Music's All That Matters, British author Paul Stump admits that prog "seethes with ordure, groans with junk" before insisting that it "contains some of rock and pop's most glittering inspirations."
If nothing else, the Dooms U.K. prove that prog is alive and relevant after all these years. They rescue the genre from the history books and the dung heaps, proving unflinching ambition tempered with sincere passion results in music that lasts beyond any nostalgic smile they might elicit when they render Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" into a ska tune (on 1995's debut Greasy Listening) or bury the title track from Grease (featured on the new disc) beneath so much inspired distortion and avant-skronk.
Since the early '90s, when Freeman began performing on local stages under myriad names (solo as the Dutch Treats, on and off as Duck Duck Annihilation! and the Meat Helmets, and with the rotating amalgam that has become the current lineup of Dooms U.K.), he has embraced the notion that progressive rock simply means rock and roll that is all-inclusive. It's the heaviest of metal and the lightest of pop, sincerity hiding behind an indulgent smile, rock and roll masquerading as performance art. Freeman and his band of merry men live in a world where Krokus, Steely Dan, Styx, Journey, Rush, early Genesis, and Blue Oyster Cult get played on the radio. They're grown men not so much stuck in the past but ignoring the fact that there's a calendar at all--every tomorrow is a yesterday, every yesterday is a today. And everything is fair game.
"The whole reason we started the band in the first place is anything we wanted to do, we could just do it," he says. "We wouldn't say, 'No, we can't do that 'cause we're a country band, and we can't do that 'cause we're a free-jazz band. We'd say, 'We can do country and free-jazz, because we're an art-rock band, and that encompasses everything.'"
For years, the Dooms were a sort of revolving-door of Dallas and Denton's most eclectic and talented musicians. The band has long been a sort of magnet for musos looking for a chance to play anything and everything without having their tastes scoffed at by their peers. The band that appears on Art-Rock Explosion! is its most solid, long-lasting roster--though even then, some changes have been made since the record was completed. Dave Seiden, who played guitar and Moog on the disc, has since been replaced by James Henderson--who plays bass and keyboards on Art-Rock Explosion!. Matt Pence, the drummer on the album, has since been replaced by Eric Eisenmann; Dave Wallin also has been added on guitar. Other than that (whew), the lineup remains the same: Freeman on vocals, Ian Bjornstad on guitar and sax, Corbett Sparks (who prefers D.J. Geeky C) on samples, and Jon Cunningham on keyboards and accordion.
"It's just really strange how we came together," Sparks says. "James Henderson, for instance, I used to live with him, and he would be at our shows, and I never thought he would be interested in coming in. He just asked one night, and he just started, and he's totally, totally into it now."
Cunningham--best known as Corn Mo, he of the glamorous blond poodle locks and the Kevin Von Erich arena-rocker homage "Shine On, Golden Warrior"--joined in 1994, without knowing much about the band and its history and intentions. Cunningham, who had grown up in Kentucky and San Antonio adoring Kenny Rogers and Christian metal band Stryper and the likes of Van Halen and Mstley CrYe, had simply heard the band was looking for an accordion player; having since split from his partner, Mauve Oed, Cunningham was free to sign up. Had he not joined the Dooms, Cunningham says, he might well have turned into "Tiny Tim looking like Tommy Shaw."
"I didn't really know them that well," Cunningham says. "John was melting a plastic spoon outside Bruce Hall [on the University of North Texas campus], and I thought, 'That guy's fucking weird.' He was hosting a Bruce Hall jam, playing by himself, and he said, 'Who likes Stryper and Rush? Raise your hand.' I did, and then I realized he was making fun of me. I had heard about him through the girl I was dating. I saw one Dooms show, but I was real drunk when I saw it."
Now, Freeman and Cunningham are almost inseparable; you can't think of one without the other--both tap dance on the line separating the bizarre from the genius. Both men refer to the Dooms as something more than just a mere band: Freeman calls it a "secret society"; Cunningham, a "collective." Both mention wanting to make more than albums. They talk of the desire to make films, of writing a rock opera based on the life of Howard Hughes (it would be titled Goosed!), of staging elaborate pranks. The Dooms is more than a band--it's a lifestyle, a scheme, an ongoing performance that takes place no matter the setting. Live, they're the funniest band in town--but also one of the finest, pretending the smallest club in Denton is the largest stadium in the world. Rare is the night when Freeman doesn't don a costume, bite into a blood tablet, and rock your world as the Dark Messiah.
Perhaps, in the end, that's what separates the Dooms from any other band in town: They have a mission beyond playing some shithole on a Saturday night for free drink tickets and a few lousy bucks. The band's members have created a whole fake history for Dooms U.K. revealed in the Freeman-penned liner notes inside Greasy Listening and expanded upon in Art-Rock Explosion!. According to this history, the Dooms are a "rock band" in name and deed only; they're actually a "splinter faction of the Freemasons" who greet each other with a secret handshake and hand signals (including the MONKEY-CHUM). "The members' true strength lies in the usual secret society activities of controlling world governments, political assassinations, and putting on really bad-ass puppet shows. Go watch the 'rock group' and scoff if you will. But if you see the 'MONKEY-CHUM' on stage tonight, don't be surprised if the price of gas goes up in the morning."
"I think the eventual goal is this power group--not a band--of people at the controls of pop culture," Cunningham says. "I would like us to do movies together, and there's one idea where we're all superheroes and D.J. Geeky C has five arms. We want to do the teenage romp movie, which would be a total tribute to the movies with the blond asshole with the sweater around his neck. We want to go as far as we can with as much financing as we can. It's not limited at all. It's sort of Mason-like."
That said, Art Rock Explosion!--which was recorded over a four-year period yet sounds as though it was done in one take--is also a brilliant record. It's a bigger, badder, leaner, and ultimately better album than Greasy Listening. There's more music on this record than in most record stores' bins, and trying to describe Art Rock is like trying to count the grains of sand in a Coke bottle. It's a genre unto itself, each song starting out as one thing and ending up as 15 other things; and always, Freeman sings in that squeaky-high voice of his, sounding like Geddy Lee on helium. "Going Steady" might well be a catchy pop song, but its chorus devolves into a montage of keyboard tweaks and car-crash explosions; "(I'm a) God Walkin'" does metal-rap with more savvy than anything Korn could ever imagine; "Skyscraper 3-D" is a talking lounge ("the sun cut through me like a hot knife through a warm bowl o' chutney"); "Golden Shower" might be the damnedest power ballad ever recorded; and the closer, "Melody and Harmony," kind of sums up the entire record as a sort of Meco-meets-The-Who disco-ambient-trash wrap-up.
It would be too easy to dismiss Dooms U.K. as an art-rock parody; with songs like "Heather Has Two Mommies," "Licking 4 Jesus," and "Cum Play with My Kitty," it's hard not to. But to do so would imply they are in it for the cheap laughs, that they think themselves above the music they play. Theirs is not a comedy routine with guitars. They perform Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" or Journey's "Open Arms" with a straight face because to do so is almost revolutionary. Anyone can screw up those songs, play them loud, turn such refuse into laffer travesties. But to play it straight, to be sincere about rescuing rubbish, is to defy convention; it's to risk being laughed at when all you want is to be smiled with.
"That is very important to us--the one thing we don't want to be is a novelty," Freeman says. "A lot of people think you can't have music that's funny without it being a joke, and that's totally not true. Frank Zappa is a classic example. He's right up there with 'musically valid rock,' but some of it's so hilarious you laugh all the way through it. I don't think music has to be serious to be valid. I mean, there are wacky parts of 'Japanimation Nation,' but it's not even like a parody.
"Just because you do something in a style that most people think is nostalgic and bygone doesn't mean it's not relevant. Just because we don't live in 1972 doesn't mean we can't play like we're in Genesis in 1972."
To which Sparks adds, very simply: "It's pretty much from the heart.
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