No Payne, No Gain

Arizona's Les Payne Product feels the burn.

The mythical Phoenix flapped its wings so hard it finally burst into flames. Singing a melodious dirge, this ridiculously flighty creature ended up burning to death -- snap, crackle, pop -- before rising up from its ashes happy as a lark. Renewed. Triumphant. Like Jesus with feathers.

As tough an act as that might be to follow, Arizona's sweltering capital now boasts a pair of musical arsonists called Lush Budget Presents the Les Payne Product, whose modest bonfire approach to the indie-festooned school of songcraft might just outshine that majestic birdy -- or cremate the two hucksters in mid-beat. Either way, guitarist James Karnes and drummer/keyboardist Christopher Pomerenke harmonize like hyperventilating choirboys, and as the demon-addled force behind such energized chicanery, they more than ably compensate for their glaring lack of bandmates.

Such a sparse rhythmic configuration recalls rockabilly's Dex and Crow of Chapel Hill's Flat Duo Jets. But by parading playful meter changes and sing-song silliness, LBPTLPP actually has more in common with the earliest two-headed conceptions of Ween or They Might Be Giants. The music is entertaining, crazed and frenetic, and doesn't take itself the least bit seriously. It's also tight as a bull's sphincter and funny as a bowl haircut. Theatrics abound during live sets (including the occasional staged kidnapping, assault by mechanized Gobot or sudden bouncer-enforced removal of the band's nemesis, Decepto), and coordinated outfits are the rule rather than the exception. With a generous nod to Frank Zappa and any of the ear candy produced by the Knack, Les Payne (named after the reigning mayor of Nothing, Arizona) might remind folks of many things -- including half-familiar nursery rhymes, B-movie hooks or Perry Farrell's piercing shriek.

These qualities by no means paint the pranksters into a corner of novelty, mind you, because the skill behind their shtick is as seasoned as it is abundant. Consider an epic ditty from their self-titled debut on Aviator Records called "At the Rodeo (Fireball)" -- a song that's as much rip-snorter as it is lilting ballad, demonstrating an uncanny ability to juggle not only the technical side of tempo, rhythm and speedy scale maneuvers, but the listener's emotions and expectations as well. The amusing lyrics bounce like a rubber ball: "At the rodeo/Uh-oh/There is something in the air/No way/You can't/Pretend that you don't care about a bull named Fireball/It's the rodeo/Flowers in your best girl's hair." It's a big, colorful sound, all right, made all the more impressive by the band's Siamese-twinned lineup.

"Most songwriting teams are actually two guys, anyway, if you think about the good ones," Karnes notes before pointing out the more practical side of the band's arrangement. "There's less backbiting and arguing. The pay gets split two ways, and there's a lot more drink tickets at shows."

"More blow," Pomerenke adds.

"Smoke and mirrors. That's what I tell 'em when they ask where the other guy is," Karnes says.

"More blow," Pomerenke repeats.

"And we can keep the money in the family, so to speak," adds Karnes.

Sharing a house that doubles as a practice space in the middle of a Phoenix ghetto, the members of Les Payne maintain solid footing as certified grunts in the desert's music scene but sense a greater purpose for their seven-year efforts. "It's hard to play in the same town when the whole reason you started a band was to travel," Karnes notes. "I just want to be able to do it without having to sell butt door-to-door. And take it around the world as many times as people will have it. That's really why we got into this racket."

Without the benefit of a record company, booking agent, manager or any European contacts, the two actually haveperformed abroad -- something born more from a manic case of chutzpah than any overwhelming global response to their now-two-year-old CD. After coordinating a seven-week tour entirely through e-mail and a single Internet site, MP3.com, the sweet Valley duo headlined for a hastily assembled Danish thrash act called Crowded Orifice, yielding some 25 shows in Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the hash-huffing Netherlands. A small van shlepped three puny Yanks, four massive Danes -- "huge guys with stinky feet," Pomerenke notes -- and a trailer full of gear through freezing temperatures at the top speed of 45 mph; as they wound around the continent, the question posed most frequently to this curious collective was simple and direct: What is "orifice"? Oh, when glitz and glamour drop the hammer!

"Before going to Europe, we'd never seen east of America past Denver," Karnes admits, and while the experience granted world-weariness to the desert bumpkins, it also isolated them to an extent from their Phoenix peers. "Lately our attitude has really rubbed people the wrong way. I think we came back from Europe and everybody thought, 'Oh, they think they're gonna be bigshots or something.'"

It's a funny reaction, considering Arizona is primarily known outside of itself for bad water, racist politicians, a chirpy state bird called the cactus wren, the lack of participation in daylight savings and the measly emergence of two national acts, namely the Gin Blossoms and the Meat Puppets. And though a few big labels have told the Paynes how implausible it would be to package -- let alone describe-- their sound to the national public, the two still keep their hyperactive shoulder to the wheel. Last year, under the management of Phoenician film producer Ryan Page -- semi-affectionately referred to as "Hollywood scum," "the golden-boy Antichrist" and "Crispin Glover's butt boy" -- both Karnes and Pomerenke found themselves collaborators in a "meandering documentary" about the powerful spell that fame casts over our society. With the working title American Royalty, this low-budget stream-of-consciousness effort is Page's followup as a fledgling producer for Glover's markedly bizarre 1999 indie What Is It?, an unconventional bit of mindfuck in its own right that found the spastic fringe icon exploiting a troupe of actors with Down's syndrome. Royalty, however, examines the cult of celebrity (special in its own way), from the biggest rock and movie stars to the obscure porn luminary or Internet peep-show artist, from budding child actors to the modeling world's latest flavor of the month. Les Payne handled many of the film's celebrity interviews in Los Angeles, and even got to lock horns with 90210's ex-prime-time hellcat Shannen Doherty. (They threw popcorn in her hair for "being rude" -- something even Howard Stern's hitman Stuttering John might consider excessive.) After many severe alterations, the documentary remains unfinished, and its producer now lives in San Diego. "[Page] boiled it down to a half-hour show for a PBS station out there," Karnes says. "If we want to work on that, I guess we'll have to move out there. Which is okay. We want to get out of Phoenix. It's too hot."

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