Creep Show

The joys of navigating Creeper Lagoon.

"You know those records that you can listen to over and over again and you hear something new every time? We're trying to make records like those," says Geoffrey Chisholm, bassist for San Francisco's favorite psychedelic son, Creeper Lagoon. "We want to make the kinds of records that stay in your CD player for a month at a time."
Judging from I Become Small and Go, Lagoon's splendid new full-length on Nickelbag Records, Chisholm and his fellows (guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist Sharky Laguana, vocalist/guitarist Ian Sefchick and drummer David Kostiner) are off to an excellent start. Wrapped in a tangle of fluttering beats, vibrant keyboard fills and hallucinatory samples, Small is both an addictive slice of headphone rock that Roger Waters probably would be proud to have created and a damned fine pop platter. In fact, the band's crafty, post-indie hooks and harmonies stand front and center on the album. "Dear Deadly" and "Empty Ships," especially, have all the earmarks of classic Pavement tunes--yet listen closer and you'll find that these seemingly straightforward rockers contain nearly as many levels as a skyscraper. Like the aural equivalent of a Magic Eye puzzle, they shift and reassimilate to reveal a roiling, abstract tapestry that has more in common with the Orb's UFOrb than it does Slanted and Enchanted.

At least a part of Small's sonic depth can be attributed to Nickelbag president and co-founder John King, who helped produce modern-rock classics like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay as half of the legendary team called the Dust Brothers. King had a hand in three of the album's twelve tracks--a limited contribution but, in Chisholm's opinion, an important one. "We'd all known his work for a while, and we were all impressed with it," he says. "So it was a real treat to work with him. Originally, we were just going to go in for a couple of days and do a remix on one, maybe two songs. But we ended up doing three songs. It was a really in-depth process. We were in there for 24 hours a day for almost three weeks."

Not that Creeper Lagoon founder Laguana minded. On the contrary, he's been fascinated with the recording process since his high-school days in Cincinnati, when he first fiddled with a four-track. Together with classmate Sefchick, a punk who shared the guitarist's fondness for subversive outfits such as Negativland and the Butthole Surfers, he created a slew of homegrown tapes--and after relocating to San Francisco in 1990, he continued the practice under the moniker Creeper Lagoon, a name he used to describe the skid-row hotel where he worked. Although his efforts received only limited distribution, the project eventually caught the attention of a handful of labels, and Laguana responded by setting out to assemble a more permanent version of the band. After Sefchick moved to the Bay Area in 1996, he and Laguana ran an ad in the SF Weekly seeking bandmates interested in "Guided by Voices, the Fall, Hank Williams, My Dad Is Dead and sampling." Chisholm and Kostiner were intrigued by the description, and before long, they were full-fledged Creepers.

Looking back on the process, Chisholm is amazed at how easily the whole thing fell together. "I hadn't played with anybody recently, and I wanted to get back into a band--more for fun than anything else," he says. "So I was calling around trying to find some kind of thing to do and, damn it, I found these guys. Within ten minutes I knew that it was the place to be. As it turned out, we hit it big."

They did so quickly, too. Before Chisholm had even learned the set list, the foursome had gathered most of the material for an EP that was released in April 1998 on Dogday, which Chisholm describes as "a hardcore gangsta-rap label. Believe it or not, their most popular record is Attack of the Killahoes." He laughs before adding, "But Sharky had talked to them on and off for quite a while, and we thought the time was right, so we went with it. They had really good people and a good network, so it actually worked out well for both of us."

Despite its decidedly urban backers, the EP still found its way onto enough college-radio stations to earn it a spot on CMJ's Top 200 list for five consecutive weeks. It also caught the attention of a number of record-biz execs, who swarmed the band's gigs like Versace-clad locusts. The quartet eventually signed with Dreamworks, the Disney-owned imprint known for harboring such diverse acts as Dr. Octagon, the Rollins Band and George Michael. However, the band requested that Small be licensed to Nickelbag because, as Chisholm puts it, "we didn't want to deal with the whole major-label thing just yet. We wanted to build up our touring experience and build up a larger audience before we got on a major, where everything is full-speed ahead."

The move has paid off. Among other things, Nickelbag has provided the Lagooners with a host of engineers and producers, all of whom have helped them refine--and re-refine--Small's intricacies. "Sometimes we just don't know when to quit," Chisholm says. "We'll just keep messing around with something until we get kicked out of the studio." The musicians have also been given ample opportunity to polish their in-concert sound. To date the group has toured with Versus, Harvey Danger and Rocket From the Crypt, and it's currently wrapping up a jaunt with Archers of Loaf. Chisholm says playing alongside such groups has been invaluable. "Our shows are really different from our records. We rock when we play live. But it was a challenge playing for Rocket From the Crypt's crowd because, number one, they were there to see Rocket From the Crypt and nobody else. And number two, they kick so much ass. It's hard to compete with them. In my opinion, they are one of the best live bands in the world. Playing with them, we really had to do it right. We came off that tour rocking hard."

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