By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
When Angel Hair broke up in 1995, Hughes and singer Sonny Kay enlisted Rothbard and Clifford in the VSS, a more fully realized manifestation of the ideal Angel Hair seemed to be struggling toward. Soon after, the band moved from Boulder to San Francisco, where it began augmenting its live shows with stark, sequenced stage lighting and the crowd-baiting agitation of epic theater. The VSS's vastly influential full-length, Nervous Circuits, released in 1997, fell somewhere between Gary Numan and Born Against, with the clinical precision of new-wave synthesizers vying with post-hardcore's rabid atonality.
The VSS, however, imploded soon after the release of Nervous Circuits. Kay began focusing on his now-successful record label, GSL; Clifford formed the short-lived Tarot Bolero with Aaron Montaigne of Antioch Arrow. "Tarot Bolero was a very exciting and very frustrating band," Clifford remembers. "I enjoyed making our record, but the few shows we played were a chaotic mess: too many drug problems, too much personal drama. Some of the vaudeville and cabaret music that we were into has been brought into Pleasure Forever, but to a greater effect."
A few months later, Clifford, Hughes and Rothbard found themselves drawn together once again. "The biggest motivation for us to do this band was that the VSS was so limiting," Clifford says. "All we could do from the point we were at was either get more crazy or change completely. We'd painted ourselves into a corner, and the style of music that I wanted to do was different from where we were going. The VSS had a cold and brittle sound, and I felt more inclined to mix that up with more traditional and antique music, just to see what could happen."
Calling the new group Slaves, they set out as a leaderless trio, prompting many to assume that the name "Slaves" was a backhanded slam against Kay, their former frontman.
"That is a complete myth," Clifford says. "There wasn't any acrimony in our split with Sonny. None of us intended to kick him out and change the name, or anything. I came up with the name Slaves as an idea for a side project I wanted to start during the VSS. I was interested in the artistic imperative to control the reactions and responses of an audience. I've also always been intrigued by the human will toward slavery. This isn't any new revelation, but more of an artistic interpretation of Wilhelm Reich's writings about fascism and human nature. We all seek authority figures, whether to ultimately rebel against them or for the comfort of having someone make our decisions for us. Ultimately, all of us are slaves to one thing or another, and we all revel in that."
After a couple of embryonic EPs and singles, Slaves became Pleasure Forever. "We changed the name Slaves for a variety of reasons, all pretty boring," says Hughes. "It all comes down to Pleasure Forever being a better name."
Though tight-lipped with the details of exactly how the band got signed to Sub Pop ("Through a series of blow jobs and underhanded machinations," Clifford says. "Pure hustle," Rothbard counters), Pleasure Forever could be said to claim membership in a clique of the label's new acts, such as Vue and the Rapture. With Sub Pop's substantial backing, the group recorded its debut album at the end of 2000 with Nation of Ulysses/Fucking Champs guitarist Tim Green. As Rothbard notes, "With the three of us, things happen very naturally. The Pleasure Forever LP came about from many different worlds colliding at just the right time."
Honed by the studio and incessant tours across America and Europe, Rothbard's deranged, elegiac barrelhouse piano became more resonant, echoing the eldritch ivory work and composition of Kurt Weill, Nick Cave, Ray Manzarek and even Rick Wakeman's contribution to David Bowie's Hunky Dory. "Andy has a very elaborate style. I'd say busy, but that often has a negative connotation that doesn't really fit with what he does in the band," Hughes explains. "Because the keys occupy so much of the same frequency space as the guitar, there are definitely some directions I'm almost forced to go to fill out the songs. I think we've all had to adapt to fit within that framework. We are trying to challenge ourselves most of all, both musically and with our performance, and we're glad to bring the audience along for the ride."
As with many bands that snub indie rock's top-button-buttoned uptightness, the scarlet letter of T for "thespian" is often stitched to Pleasure Forever's tailored image. "The theatrical tag may be applied to us because, rather than playing a set list of individual songs, we attempt to present a complete performance, few breaks between songs, only an occasional few words from Andy, and some dramatic physical movements," Hughes says -- outlining Pleasure Forever's affinity for the theories of Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty.
"Our band may use certain concepts pertaining to theater, but I am pushing to transubstantiate both myself and the audience into total ritual during our performances," Rothbard adds.
"We want to invite whatever ridicule the staunch indie-rock kids can muster," Clifford says. "In making cathartic music, we may seem theatrical or over the top, but that's what I admire in so many of my favorite artists, especially people like Jerry Lee Lewis, Queen, Artaud, Bataille and Devo. They had the audacity to push their art to extremes that others would consider ridiculous. The genius of Devo was that they were a high-concept intellectual band, but they masked it well within their music."