Action Friend on For You the World, Toshi Kasai, Zorn and Spruance
For the past eight years, Action Friend (due Saturday, June 25, at the Meadowlark) has been evolving the kind of music played by what many would say is "a musician's band." Although all the players in the band are highly skilled, it's the inherent weirdness to its compositions that has always made Action Friend the kind of group that is easily appreciated by fans of technically proficient but genuinely creative artists like Frank Zappa and the trio's heroes -- and, at this point, friends -- in the Melvins and Mike Patton and Trey Spruance's various projects.
The group's new album, For You the World, was recorded by renowned engineer Toshi Kasai. The richly eclectic songwriting throughout showcases a band very much coming into its own, and is highly recommended for fans of bands on the Ipecac label and the unpredictable yet tuneful instrumental work of the Minutemen. We had a chance to hang out with the band's original members -- guitarist Jeremy Maclean and drummer Paul Alexander -- at their practice space to talk about how the band came together and how it came to work with the Melvins' Dale Cover and Kasai, and how they got words of encouragement from John Zorn and Trey Spruance.
Westword: When you were starting out, you had that practice space on East Colfax across near where Sportsfield Roxxx used to be...
Jeremy Maclean: It was literally a block or two east from there. We shared our space with Nicaraguan Death Squad.
Paul Alexander: It was the haven for all the nü-metal bands.
Jeremy: Rogue used to play there. Relevant, the Slipknot wannabe band, used to be there. We had a good time with their poster. They had this big poster of theirs, a nice vinyl poster hanging on the wall in the hallway. It wasn't on their door; it wasn't in their room.
Paul: Because jerks like us are going to come by and draw a bunch of dicks on it.
Jeremy: Paul had a sharpie and puts a dick in the singer's mouth, of course. And we left it there. Didn't they leave a note that said, "Whoever the fuck..."?
Paul: I can't remember. That place was terrible. It was like Nü-Metal Hotel. We'd practice late sometimes, and one night we were loading in after a show and this other band loads in, and it was like thirty people storming into this place. It was a party. It sucked.
Jeremy: One night Relevant showed up loading in, and they had their makeup on.
Paul: Angry Hand of God also practiced there with Nicaraguan, and I guess half the place burned down.
Jeremy: It was cheap, and the room was L-shaped and they let us use the back corner. We were a three-piece, so the cabinets worked out.
Paul: Those guys were cool, but their guitar player was like a Kerry King-Phil Anselmo hybrid, and he was always ready to "fight somebody!"
When did you start this band? It seems like you've been around for a long time now.
Paul: Technically, it started in the summer of '04, because I was living in Denver for a little bit. I was still living in Fort Collins when I met Don White on the Ipecac Records website that had a bulletin board where people would fight and talk shit. I stumbled across Don, and we'd always be talking about these obscure bands, and we realized we were both from Colorado, and he said, "Yeah, I have a band, New Ancient Astronauts." I actually booked them for one of the Red Fests in Fort Collins. Then I moved to Denver, and Don had just gotten kicked out of New Ancient Astronauts. I moved to Denver totally clean slate; I didn't have my old band anymore. We talked about playing, and we needed to find a guitar player. We got on Musicmates, and I figured it would take five years, and Jeremy was the first one to respond.
Jeremy: I'd had some terrible experiences before these guys. Like these dudes I went to their house and they said, "Yeah, let's jam!" And the first thing they do is clambake in the room. "Dude, have you heard the Probot album? How 'bout Queens of the Stone Age? Yeah, let's jam." It was terrible.
Paul: That was what was fun with Don and I with Jeremy, because Don and I grew up with all this stupid shit we'd grown up with our whole lives. Jeremy had heard of all that stuff, so it was cool to bring someone into that a little more fresh. I think that's why it comes out sounding the way it does. If he'd been on the same page, I think it would be different in how we discovered all this stuff as we went along. I grew up with Melvins, Jesus Lizard, Butthole Surfers and all of that. Jeremy had heard of that, but I'd been going to all of those since I was in middle school.
Jeremy: I saw Melvins with Primus at the CU Field House and I was a super Primus dork back then and I thought, "Ooh, these guys suck, this is noisy, this is terrible." When I first met these guys, I'd even seen something on Musicmates saying, "Weird rock," I think it said, like, Melvins, Jesus Lizard and Cows. I'd heard of the first two, but not Cows. I figured they were into weird music so they'd be more open-minded or susceptible to playing weirder stuff.
I talked to Don on the phone, and as we were chatting, he asked if I had been in any other local bands. I said, "I used to be in Ick." And he said, "Oh, yeah, we played with you one time." I asked what band he was in and he said, "I was in New Ancient Astronauts and I was the bass player." That was perfect, because I remember playing with New Ancient Astronauts and I didn't care for them, but I had loved what their bass player was doing.
What bands were you in before, Paul?
Paul: Liquid Enemy and Famous Bacon, totally Fort Collins-based. Famous Bacon opened for Sleepytime Gorilla Museum at the Lion's Lair in 2002. Liquid Enemy opened for Estradasphere at the 15th Street Tavern, and we started getting good shows toward the end. It was kind of funny, because my last two bands were like Action Friend -- all over the place. So when I came to Denver and met Don, because all the stuff we'd been talking about, and starting a band like Jesus Lizard and Melvins and rock out but have crazy bits here and there.
A lot of people who see your band probably think it's very precisely thought out because of the time signature changes and the instrumental precision, but apparently it isn't.
Paul: No, especially back then. Not at all. All the parts were there.
Jeremy: There was a lot of "Wait until Paul does this and then we'll change."
Paul: There's not a lot of thought there, just "Watch me for the change." All the parts were there, but how long they went on or where they stop or where they went from there was totally on the spot. It's not nearly as much now, but with the bass player after Don, Sean Solomon, things got a little more tight-knit in the live performances.
I basically learned to play with Sean. We were good friends since we were thirteen, and we literally learned how to play together. Liquid Enemy was mine and his band. After we lost Don, we thought Sean was the perfect choice because I had this history with him. It didn't work out. Our third and current bass player, Aaron Holtzer, was in a band from Fort Collins called Diagnosis Awesome.
Jeremy: He was actually supposed to be the fill-in bass player, but now he's the longest tenured bass player we've had. Doesn't he look like he could be the son of Frank Zappa?
Jeremy: Actually, he trimmed his moustache to look exactly like Zappa and sent me a picture, and it's fucking creepy how much he looks like him. [Jeremy shows everyone the picture]
Oh, man, that's uncanny! I remember meeting him and thinking, jokingly, "Aren't you dead? I was going to vote for you!"
Jeremy: He sent that to me one night and I was like, "What the fuck?!" And he said, "Looks like Zappa, doesn't it?" He was just supposed to play for a little while and we would move to L.A., because Toshi Kasai, our engineer, would tease us all the time, and we'd see bands he'd worked with a month before us opening for the Melvins in L.A.
Paul: "This could be you if you'd get your asses out here." Then Dale Crover himself has been on our ass about that, too. Every time he comes out here, he asks when we're moving out there.
Jeremy: That's still kind of the plan--moving to L.A. Aaron was kind of hired to play six months to a year, and then shit happened and we couldn't go out there, and next thing you know, we're sitting on fourteen new songs and we figured we should get it recorded, so that's what we did.
You worked with Dale Crover on your first album, right? How did you get hooked up with him and Toshi?
Paul: It was really easy. It was so fucking stupid. [laughs] If I'd known it was that easy all along, we would have done it way before that. When Don was still in the band, we were talking about it.
Jeremy: I had no idea who Toshi was at the time.
Paul: Big Business was just starting to get their name out, and we were like, "Yeah, this is great, it sounds like Melvins Jr. It even sounds like Buzz, and it sounds like Kasey from New Ancient Astronauts, too. That's how Toshi's name came up. From there it was Deaf Nephews on Myspace, where it said, "Dale Crover and Toshi Kasai recording team." I was reading the page and it said, "Always looking for new bands to screw up" or whatever. I just left a comment out of the blue: "You can screw up our band any day." The next day Toshi said, "Are you serious?"
Jeremy: I saw it first and I said, "What's this Deaf Nephews?" "Oh, it's Toshi and Dale." So I said, "You need to go check out our page."
Paul: So I e-mailed them and said, "We're mapping out a recording right now, so, yeah, we are serious." We knew Dale was part of this, and we were like, "Is this really something we're going to do?" Affordable with Dale and Toshi?
You recorded For You the World with Toshi, too?
Paul: When we first went to L.A., we recorded where the Melvins recorded some of their albums. It's more like a Southern California punk studio. Green Day, Rancid, NOFX and Guttermouth recorded there.
Jeremy: Parts of Pink Floyd's The Wall were mastered upstairs.
Paul: It had all kinds of history. Sonic Youth had recorded there.
Jeremy: No Doubt recorded there.
Paul: Yeah, and some cool bands, too. [laughs]
Jeremy: I was just trying to think of the records I saw on the wall.
Paul: For our first-ever studio recording, it was so exciting to be out there, "We're in Hollywood with Dale Crover? What the fuck are we doing?"
You had had some talks with John Zorn?
Paul: Pretty minimal. I think it was a big deal to us because he responded. We were freaking out.
Jeremy: We'd just seen him with Mike Patton. Our friend from Creative Music Works kind of had me watch the door because people were sneaking in and talking to John. So while I was standing there, I made three copies of, I think, a demo. I wanted to give one to Fred Frith, Mike Patton and Zorn. I thought of the three, we'd get a response from Patton, and that was a super-long shot.
Paul: Oh, I didn't think we'd hear from anybody. Even if they threw it in the garbage, maybe their neighbor would get it.
Jeremy: I'd given one to John, and I was like, "There's no way in hell John will respond." The next morning, I was at my girlfriend's house at the time and got on our Hotmail, and I almost deleted it because it was a phone number at T-Mobile or something like that. So I assumed it was spam, but it just said, "Hi" and I clicked on it for just a minute. It said something like, "Hey thanks for giving me the CD. Crazy band, good stuff, keep it up." I think it just said, "JZ."
Paul: Not to be confused with Jay-Z.
Jeremy: I was all freaked out. There was no fucking way it was really him. Somebody had to be fucking with us. But I looked up the phone number and I noticed the area code was for lower Manhattan. I called Paul and said, "Dude, you've got to check out our Hotmail." I e-mailed him again when we got done with our album, kind of a long e-mail, and he said, "Yeah, send it here and don't e-mail this address again." We haven't talked to him since.
Paul: That was insane. Definitely a morale booster. I can't imagine how much crap that guy gets.
Jeremy: Besides John, we gave a disc to Trey Spruance. And he said, "I've heard this." I said, "There's no way you've heard this."
Paul: He remembered me from when the Secret Chiefs first came through in 2000 and played two nights. Before all that, it was all those Mr. Bungle shows, and we'd always be there, hanging out, talking to those guys. They'd get familiar with us, and Patton would remember us, and we'd always help with equipment. We even went to New Mexico and saw Fantomas's first tour, because they didn't come to Denver. We helped with setup and everything. They always kind of remembered us, and finally in '98, Daniel Heifetz came through with Dieselhead and me and Sean Solomon, and it turned out they needed a place to stay and he said, "You can stay at my place." So we hung out all night and had coffee with Daniel and the next day played baseball. Heifetz really remembered us, and in '99 and 2000, because of him, he'd see us and invite us to hang out and we met Trey. So when Secret Chiefs came on tour in 2000, I was walking up and Trey was like, "Oh, hey, Paul." From that time until 2007, he remembered me.
Jeremy: He was looking at the sticker and said, "I've heard this." So I told him, "The only way you could have heard about this is on Myspace." And he said, "Yeah, yeah, I get tons of friend requests all from horrible bands, and I remember liking this." And I said, "I've got to go now." So those were the two biggest for me with John saying, "Keep up the good work" and Trey saying, "Yeah, I actually like this."
Paul: We were backstage with the Melvins and Secret Chiefs, and Trey shook my hand and said, "We will play together." I'm holding him to that.
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