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PLAYING POSSUM

"It seems like a lot of bands are in the grunge mode--everyone's pissed and angry and punk," says Rob Zabrecky, bassist/vocalist for a pleasantly strange new act called Possum Dixon. "But you can do all that and still have a sense of humor."
The ability to laugh is a requirement for employment in Possum Dixon, a group whose brand of musical defiance is served up with a sly smirk. The quartet (Zabrecky, pianist/guitarist Robert O'Sullivan, guitarist Celso Chavez and drummer Richard Treuel) makes music that some listeners have likened to old sounds from the so-called new wave--not exactly the trendiest genre on the current scene. Just as quizzical for some is Zabrecky's ax of choice: the stand-up bass, an instrument that calls to mind either acoustic jazzbos or Stray Cats-esque rockabilly clones. And the group's name, borrowed on a whim from James "Possum" Dixon, a fugitive featured on an episode of America's Most Wanted, has led to even more confusion about what kind of band this is. "Because of the `Dixon' part, people are always equating us with the South," Zabrecky complains. "So that's just one of the tags we're trying to fight."

In fact, Possum Dixon got its start several years back in Los Angeles, where the bandmembers were either struggling through college or toiling in a variety of menial, mind-numbing jobs. They medicated themselves with music, which they rehearsed during the dead of night in a warehouse where Zabrecky worked. The practice sessions were unauthorized, but the Possums were so unafraid of their extracurricular activity being discovered that they actually covered their equipment with boxes and left it in the warehouse during the daytime hours. The foursome ultimately conceived enough material to fill 1991's Music for a One Bedroom Apartment, a boxed set of singles, and 1992's Apartment Music, a full-length cassette that appeared on the group's own Surf Detective imprint. The band was preparing to issue more songs in this fashion, in between gigs at L.A. dives such as Al's Bar, when Interscope came a-calling.

"It was surprising," Zabrecky admits, sounding like a winning contestant on The Price is Right. "We were prepared to keep going the way we had been when Interscope came along and said, `Do what you want to do, but here's a nice car for you.'"
The Possums have been thrilled with the attention Interscope has given them since their signing, but were less captivated by the producers company representatives suggested to helm their major-label debut. The band refused to be saddled with the knob-twisting flavor-of-the-week: "We didn't want the guy who might record the next Smashing Pumpkins record," Zabrecky says. Possum Dixon was eventually completed with the assistance of Earle Mankey, a longtime L.A. scenester known for his bargain-basement approach. As a result, the eleven songs on the disc are straightforward, simple and basic, with Zabrecky's slangy vocals and wise-ass words front and center. That's all to the good, since tunes such as "Nerves," an anthem to frustration, "In Buildings," which equates sex to earthquakes, and the smart-alecky "Executive Slacks" successfully mate clever wordplay with melodies that almost instantaneously stick in your head.

Critics thus far have mainly been kind to Possum Dixon's album, though Zabrecky isn't above grousing about the ones who haven't been. "The great reviews make you believe them, make you believe your own hype, and the bad ones will break your heart," he concedes. "It's hard for me not to read them, though. If you're happy and secure mentally with what you're doing, the stuff you read isn't going to change the way that you write a song. And we can write songs about anything. Shoelaces. What kind of oil you put in your car. There's never been a problem with that."

Zabrecky adds that any self-consciousness the band may feel rapidly disappears once the players take the stage. Possum Dixon has already built a reputation for raucous, dopey enthusiasm of the sort that led Zabrecky to accidentally destroy his bass. "I was kind of surfing on it one night when the neck snapped," he remembers. "And we don't have a lot of extra basses. Our van doesn't look like Noah's ark with stand-up basses tied to it. So until it's fixed I'm playing an electric bass--which is probably just as well." He laughs. "The stand-up bass detracts from our sound. It makes us sound like shit."

That was probably a joke, but with these guys, you can never tell for sure.
Possum Dixon. 8 p.m. Monday, January 31, KTCL/MusicLink showcase at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $5, 294-9258.

 
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