Intercourse without love. That's how local KDGE-FM (94.5) disc jockey Josh Venable plans to introduce a certain band on his Sunday-night show, The Adventure Club, when he spins a song from the group's new record, Conduct. That, or a word scramble: "It has an F, a C, a K, and a U in it--just jumble the letters." The FCC might prick up its ears, but couldn't really do anything about it.
This is exactly the kind of obstacle--or promotion--the band Fuck was going for when it chose its name a little more than four years ago. Never mind that the bicoastal act sounds nothing like the expletive. Actually, its first full-length record, self-released three years ago with the title Pretty...Slow, was just that: pretty songs, played pretty slowly. Since then, Fuck has put out another self-release and two albums on Matador, and through it all, the band's original anti-image has stuck: scant photos, no available biographical info on the members, no videos, and a sound so passive that if you don't strain to listen, you'll miss it entirely.
Fourteen of the 17 tracks on Conduct are so restful and detached, they're just this side of ambient, a style that may earn the band enough insider distinction to join the ranks of other groups with singular pop aesthetics--Pavement, Palace, and Smog. The music more often than not carries the unsettling feeling of a punch line to a joke we don't know, or the schizoid rambling of a friend who checked his emotions at the door. Yet the band's name more often than not keeps that music out of record stores, off the radio, and even out of rock venues--or at least keeps the moniker off club marquees when the band is booked to play. Theirs is an uneasy alliance between image factions, striking a self-annihilation akin to matter meeting anti-matter: It's punk-rock attitude without revolution, fuzzy-sweater indie rock without shoegazing or apologetic angst. This is an anti-band.
"We're definitely a democratic band," says Tim Prudhomme, the Manhattan-based member of the otherwise Bay Area-based act. "We vote on everything, and we don't always agree." He's referring to such Fuck ploys as withholding photographs: The picture on this page is the only official band photo for the promotion of Conduct, and it exists only because Matador forced the issue. "That's one of the label obligations. So we sent it in."
Prudhomme, mainly a guitarist, shares duties with the West Coast contingent: Geoff Soule, Ted Ellison, and Kyle Statham--all known for randomly switching instruments. When asked the members' ages, Prudhomme says, "Most people are described by three things: sex, race, and age. We try to avoid describing ourselves in such terms." He's about half-serious. (Pictured here are four white males in their 20s and 30s. Quelle surprise.)
Add to that the near impossibility of discerning which member was responsible for each song, a far cry from glory-chasing. All four members write and three of them sing, but they don't credit themselves on the CD sleeve. "There's plenty of confusion about that," Prudhomme says. "Even my girlfriend will listen to the tape and not know which songs I've written." Generally, each member sings his own songs, and while Prudhomme insists the songs on Conduct aren't grouped according to songwriter, they bleed from one track to the next until the disc nearly sounds like a three-act drama. After a maverick, Pixies-like opener called "The Thing," songs two through nine carry a thematic, sleepy-yet-loopy quality; tracks 10 through 14 show a more experimental, waggish side; and the record finishes up with a trio of sibling songs, each an opium-laced mini-flood. Not one lasts more than three minutes.
"You mention that grouping," Prudhomme says, "but I know for sure the last three songs are by three different people. We just all think alike. It's nice--we don't worry about having a split audience."
He claims the band's sound hasn't changed much over time, but the differences between Conduct and the band's previous record, 1997's Pardon My French, are clear, at least if you lean in and cup your ear. The well-mannered Pardon My French is essentially 16 tracks of self-indulgent politeness--like a spacey, self-absorbed stranger who remembers to smile when he shakes your hand. It also introduced a growing following to the band's ability to pen great hooks, albeit reluctantly; "Dirty Brunette" and "To My Gurl" showed off an ear-pleasing pop sensibility. Thing is, even though it can, Fuck doesn't visit such an obvious place very often, and on that album, it never lets the listener catch and hold a mood. It's every song for itself, creating a delicate bigger picture that threatens to shatter into slippery fragments.
"The new record is more upbeat," Prudhomme asserts, though a few listens tell a different story. All those idle, quirky tracks, when piled back-to-back, create a warmer cohesion than any passage on Pardon. So often a few interweaving guitars, a spare snare, and a languid bass line support a mere implication of a vocal line. What sounds like a single singer throughout is actually three different drugged voices, each one so buried and lax, it seems whoever is standing at the microphone must be propping himself against the wall, barely shrugging off the threat of passing out from sheer exhaustion or boredom.
Yet somehow a glint of heart or a prick of visceral pleasure breaks through the syrup of many of these tracks: "Stumble Inn," "Gone," and "Gimme Some" throw curve balls that make a complacent listener sit up and squint. Pop-wise, it's a small pebble skipping lightly over a huge belt of water, while underneath the ripples, some dark brand of redemption follows in its path. Bedhead's stylings come to mind, though Prudhomme says, "Yeah, about 20 people have told me that. But I haven't gotten around to hearing their stuff." And besides, it's less ambitious, more from-the-hip than Bedhead's sonic heft and cathartic builds.
Fuck's real obstacle is a long-suffered albatross--the Pavement comparisons. While the flat, rambling vocals and jingly, twangy riffs from Pardon My French, as well as "Monkey Doll" and "Laundry Shop" off Conduct, definitely evoke the Stockton boys' clever tunes, clearer connections could be drawn between Fuck and the more grounded side of the Flaming Lips or the warier side of the Grifters, with a flame of vocal irony singeing much of the material. From the song "Blind Beauty": "Talkin' to a blind beauty about beauty / Talkin' to the red brigade about the blues / Talkin' 'bout a fairy tale...Let's talk about something else."
Despite its love affair with such opaque discourse, one could never accuse the band of being unaccommodating. The band customizes its live shows to fit the occasion. "It completely depends on the club," Prudhomme says. "We have to think while we're playing. We can't have a set list; we have to adjust according to the noise of the crowd." Known for dropping the volume of a set to near-whisper in front of a rapt audience, Fuck will also ditch the quiet tunes or turn up their amps when faced with a raucous crowd. "Say, Philadelphia," he says. "Philadelphia loves to drink, and drinking causes loudness. It took us a while to figure that out. We play louder sets there. Charlottesville--very attentive, quiet crowd." And in Texas? "We like Rubber Gloves in Denton. Very polite, appreciative audience." He pauses. "But College Station was pretty bad."
The bicoastal arrangement forces the band to plan rehearsals and road shows well in advance. "We figured out that for touring Europe, it's actually cheaper to buy all new equipment than to rent the stuff over there," he says. "And we could even throw it all in the garbage at the end of the tour and still have saved money."
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These days, signing with an indie is a band's safest bet for securing distribution and recording funds, yet after Fuck's three-round spar with Matador over posters, the label's insistence on some kind of photographs, the design of the CD cover, and other such minutiae, the band is uncertain how it should proceed. With Fuck's two-record deal fulfilled and the label showing interest in extending the contract, Prudhomme says, "We've asked them if we can self-release our next EP. But who knows? Once we're reminded of what it's like to have to do all the work ourselves, we may change our minds about the next record. We need to figure that out."
So much of Fuck's approach epitomizes the increasingly precarious state of real-deal indie-rockers, and the band's name pretty much burns all bridges between the band and The Man, sealing its fate of obscurity--or everlasting validity, take your pick--with a single, simple gesture, the music notwithstanding. Forget cathartic expression, making grand statements, attracting groupies. Bypass opportunity to land on the radio, the TV, to find your name becoming a household word, and your records in every store. Blow off posturing and getting rich.
Regardless of the insidious strength of the songs, the general public still has to leap the initial hurdle, and most won't bother. Which is the point. "The best way we've been introduced thus far was at a live show for WNYU in New York," Prudhomme says. "The DJ said, 'It rhymes with suck,' which to me is an even dirtier word."
Fuck performs October 7 at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios. Go Metric USA and Stumptone open.