Mention the term "singer-songwriter" and immediately the image appears: an excessively serious soul--acoustic guitar in hand--singing an excessively serious song. Wally Pleasant may actually be a singer-songwriter, but you won't hear about Tom Dooley's long black veil from him: Instead of whining about a world gone to hell, Pleasant uses a smaller, more personal voice, more akin to that of a best buddy or friendly neighbor. Instead of addressing the State of the World, he teases you for going to Lollapalooza or expounds on the tragedy of a bad haircut; his ability to find the absurdity in the most ordinary of situations has endeared him to fans throughout the country.
Pleasant's albums, however, could go in the folk section; after all, Pleasant does possess some of the characteristics--and a healthy portion of the style--traditionally associated with the genre: acoustically based songs, an occasional political observation, and a thoroughly useless college degree (in political science). But despite the expanding definition of modern folk--aided by the presence of newcomers like Jewel and Ani DiFranco--the label doesn't quite stick with Wally.
Pleasant's albums also could be filed under comedy. With songs like "The Day Ted Nugent Killed All the Animals" ("Bob Barker cried/Ricki Lake tried/to save 'em"), Pleasant has the same quirky sensibility as Bruce McCulloch (from the comedy troupe The Kids In The Hall, whose similar album of songs and sketches is considered comedy), and the same knack for finding the humor in the day-to-everyday as Jerry Seinfeld. Lumping Pleasant in with Gallagher and Sinbad, though, makes Pleasant seem like a sort of less retarded Adam Sandler--a guy who could write "Red Jacket," only with more verses.
There's more to him than that, but even Pleasant doesn't know where he fits in. "I just try to sing about things that people may not have thought of much, things that happen that people don't stop to think about," he says. "I deal with some of the same things that comedians do, talking about life in a funny way."
The most logical place for Pleasant is where comedy and music intersect, the region occupied by such hybrid groups as They Might Be Giants, but without quite as much weirdness. Pleasant won't tell you that the statue got him high, but he knows the outrage that the holder of a parking ticket feels ("With the crime rate so high, and people's hope at a minimal/they'd rather ticket me than arrest a real criminal," from "I Hate Cops"). It takes more, however, than a keen eye for human foibles to gain the kind of following Pleasant enjoys; he's just as likely to see the crock at the core of his own act as anybody else's. His first album, Songs About Stuff, contains the hilarious "Bad Haircut" ("I looked in the mirror and almost fainted/My head looked like something Picasso painted"), and Pleasant himself appears on the back cover with a titanically bad haircut and a look on his face that tells you he knows just how ridiculous he looks. This ability to laugh at himself as readily as at others is why he has obsessive pockets of fans throughout the country, writeups in Billboard, CMJ, and The Wall Street Journal, and three World Wide Web sites devoted to his exploits, while Roger Waters is still remembered as that asshole from Pink Floyd.
Pleasant truly lives up to his name, genuinely glad you called and happy to talk to you from his house in East Lansing, Michigan. Just like his audience, he values human connection.
Once not too long ago, Pleasant did a guest appearance at local station KDGE-FM 94.5. It was pouring rain, and one of the interns at the station couldn't get his car to start; Pleasant left the studio and gave the intern a jump. After the intern drove away, Pleasant ended up getting locked out of the studio in the rain for a very, very long time. He still sends postcards to the guy he helped and whom he now addresses by the nickname Jumper Cables. Everybody knows--or has known--someone just like him: the boy next door who mothers implored their daughters to go out with, the quiet kid in the back of history class muttering sarcastically, or the been-there, done-that college senior dispensing sage advice to a confused freshman.
Pleasant has been all of those things. He grew up in Detroit influenced more by the abrasive guitar sounds of British punk bands than the sweet Motown soul the city is famous for. "In high school I listened to bands like the Who, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols--a lot of bands that smashed stuff," he says. "Me and my friends were mainly into smashing things. It's hard for me to listen to the old tapes we made of ourselves, because we would play a song and then smash all of our stuff."
By the time Pleasant moved to East Lansing to attend Michigan State University in the late 1980s, he had moved away from his early punk leanings and begun perfecting his pseudofolk sound at local open-mike nights and smashing the serious folk-singer archetype instead of his guitar.
In 1992, Pleasant released Songs About Stuff on his own Miranda Records. The album featured such instant classics as "That's Evolution!"--undoubtedly the first song to apply Charles Darwin's survival-of-the-fittest theory to dating ("Well there's nothing you can do about natural selection/so don't get upset over a barroom rejection...I've noticed that those who are physically attractive/are also more likely to be sexually active/and that, my friend, is evolution!")--and the self-explanatory "She's In Love With A Geek." Songs also included "Ode To Detroit," a chronicle of the not-so-legal activities of Pleasant's former hometown's citizenry ("Shoot someone and tell everyone you're from Detroit/Steal a car and tell them you're from Detroit").
Pleasant the next year followed up Songs with Welcome To Pleasantville, another batch of whimsy that took on institutions like Christmas, cops, and the Republican Party. The album's cover only advertised four songs, but touted 10 "bonus tracks." Houses Of The Holy Moly--Pleasant's third release--switched gears a bit, adding drums, bass, organ, and electric guitar to his normally sparse arrangements. Lyrically, he stayed true to form, targeting among other things bad jobs ("Stupid Day Job," with the chorus' universally resonant "My stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid day job."), pretenders to the throne of Bob Dylan ("Song for Bob Dylan"), and the suburban mall-punk culture ("Alternateen"). For his just-released fourth album, Wally World, Pleasant reverted to his acoustic roots, leaving much of the extra instrumentation of Houses behind.
"It's more of a return to what I was doing in the beginning--just me and my guitar," he says. "Sort of a return to that acoustic kind of feel." Wally World opens with "Ted Nugent," a live favorite on Pleasant's last tour; "Rumble at the Karaoke Bar," "Bingo Addicted Grandma," and the Elvis-styled "Amusement Park Death Song" are further proof that Pleasant may have changed his sound, but not his approach.
Wally World is the first of three releases planned for this fall by Pleasant's Miranda Records. The second, Sasquatch, is a compilation featuring a new Pleasant composition, plus songs by 18 other bands--including Pansy Division, Manchowder, and Habitual Sex Offenders--that Pleasant encountered while on tour. Most of the bands on the disc are obscure and still in their infancy, and Pleasant says the album is good for them as well as Miranda Records.
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"We're putting this record out, plus my new one, so that Miranda Records can have a few more releases out," he says. "A lot of the bands on [Sasquatch] are pretty new, and I just wanted to help them out; give them a chance to have something on a record. And all those bands have helped me out, too--advertising my shows, putting up fliers, getting people to come; we kind of help each other out."
Also in the works for Miranda is a live album by Pleasant, his first that captures his appeal on stage, where he's a musical MacGyver constantly improvising and using no more than what's on stage or who's in the audience to augment his songs. During one show, he created a "distortion pedal" by folding over his strings a piece of paper found close by; it didn't work that well, but that really wasn't the point. He also adopts an extemporaneous approach that again links him to comedy: He circulates a sheet of paper upon which the audience members write a song, line by line, which they then get to hear at the set's end. Some of their contributions, such as "I've got a double-wide trailer and a triple-wide wife," turn into authentic Wally Pleasant songs.
"I like performing in front of people; I like interacting with them," Pleasant explains. "Especially in college towns. They seem more open to what I'm doing." Pleasant doesn't aspire to major label signing. He is instead content to remain on his own releasing records on his own label and traveling around the country. "I'm just going to keep touring and recording and maybe doing more things for other bands with my label," he says. "It feels too good to help other people out; give them a chance to play. Somewhere down the road, I won't be doing this anymore."
Wally Pleasant plays Fort Worth's Impala Room Saturday, November 23; the Green Room Monday, November 25; and Denton's Argo Tuesday, November 26.