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Boogie Men

The members of VHS or Beta invoke the disco godhead.

Goldfish never belonged in the heels of platform shoes. Period. They'd slosh around like poor, lost souls, seasick in tiny drunk tanks of flashing strobe lights, pummeling low-end frequencies and too much loco-motion. At least it was a miserable condition the little fishes shared with their evil captors, the oblivious dancing fools who actually wore such criminal footwear.

Craig Pfunder knows all about nostalgic displays of embarrassing excess. But he's not about to hack off PETA or reintroduce dance moves like the Bus Stop -- hopefully. He's just a good Southern boy who makes good dance music.

As one of four energetic members of VHS or Beta, a Louisville, Kentucky-based quartet that combines techno-romance, robo-thump and loads of wicka-wicka-wah-wah guitar effects into a contemporary blend of synthetic rapture, Pfunder throws himself on the mercy of the beat. He pleads insanity to roto-toms and infectious grooves and heeds the siren call of French cosmopolitan chic like Daft Punk, Bob Sinclair and the Ass Funkers. By extension, Pfunder finds himself a willing human conduit between new ears and old sounds: smooth, black urban pop, the string-induced Philly-based glide and strut of Gamble and Huff. Donna Summer. The righteous grit and hot-buttered soul of Isaac Hayes. And -- oh, yeah, baby -- even the seductive cornball shlock of Barry White.

From all appearances, it's the down-and-dirty D-word we're talkin' about, duckies. So pull down your pants and dance!

"I know some of the press is leaning towards pinning us down as disco," Pfunder concedes from a hotel room in Seattle. "But I don't think it's a rehash of disco, considering that we grew up on so much rock music. The people out there are seriously considering what we're doing. Even in some of the glossies, not one of them has said, 'You know, this is a bad rerun of K.C. and the Sunshine Band.' I think the tones and the textures and the other elements that are happening in the music make it more of a dance band. There's definitely disco in there, but I definitely wouldn't want to rehash a disco band."

Yeah? Then what's with the dark shades and plastic jumpsuits, baby? Though horribly uncomfortable, Pfunder and the rest of the band -- guitarist Zeke Buck, bassist Mark Palgy and drummer Mark Guidry -- once donned such thermostatic togs on stage.

"That was a thing in the past. We felt like it was nice to get up there and dress up a little. People would be able to look at [us] and not associate it with people," Pfunder says. "It was just something fun that we decided to do. It wasn't too serious. But touring with those things was too hard. They're too hot. I mean, they're plastic."

No longer a slave to fashion (and what is fashion but the pursuit of looking ridiculous in order to not be thought ridiculous?), VOB exudes a glaring lack of irony with regard to its entire retro-future vibe. Instead, Pfunder -- arguably still in fashion's employ to some degree -- offers a brief, hair-splitting lesson in musical history.

"Disco got shut down 'cause punk came along," he points out. "A handful of guys starting producing music on equipment that allowed them to not be a band, and that turned into house. And the same thing happened in Detroit, and that turned into techno. Sometimes we get indirectly influenced by disco because of house. A lot of people who listen to house music can hear that. They can hear Chic bass lines, probably because they straight-up sampled it, and then took the feel of disco and sped up the tempos. And instead of it being a live drummer, it's a drum machine."

Playing actual instruments rather than activating pre-coded machinery -- utilizing duel six-strings, keyboards, sparse vocal harmonies and a rhythm section tighter than Phyllis Diller's face -- VOB's members think like producers. Utility player Chea Buckley handles vocoder, program changes and filter sweeps, allowing the group to bring the seamless production values of its recorded backlog to live settings.

"We're really doing everything we can to be a live band," Pfunder says, "and not be someone that goes up there and pushes 'play' on a DAT machine or a MiniDisc or something like that. If there's anything live we'd like to achieve, it's that arena-rock-band feeling. We love the idea of Queen and Journey and Boston, just because there was so much power in what those people were doing. They were writing songs particularly for that group feeling when everyone was in that arena together. The video for [Queen's] 'Radio Ga-Ga,' when everyone was clapping at the same time, was a really cool thing. At home we could play to about 800 to 1,000 people, and that's definitely not an arena, but it feels really good to have everyone in the same room on the same page."

Besides squalling hair metal and rock operas, VOB has drawn inspiration from an unlikely range of musical influences over the years. The band actually started out in the mid-'90s as -- get this -- a structured-noise collective. "We used to listen to a lot of Chicago no-wave stuff," Pfunder says. "The kind of stuff on Gravity Records and Skingraft Records. We all grew up on Sonic Youth and punk rock and college radio back when it was good -- like Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine. I'm a huge fan of Echo and the Bunnymen, too. And Joy Division and the Smiths. Sometimes it's a good thing when you can't pin down someone's influences by what they're doing."

Four years ago, VOB issued its first homespun effort: a hundred self-titled VHS tapes of racket-based pop experiments that accompanied equally experimental video footage. ("Obviously, Beta is the format that lost that war," Pfunder points out, "but it's actually a better format. You get better video and audio.") A follow-up EP called On and On was issued as a limited-edition vinyl pressing of 500 copies; Pfunder describes the effort as "Gang of Four meets Kraftwerk." On and On bridges the gap between VOB's less refined days and its current, silky-sounding and retro-rific debut Le Funk, issued by the band's new label, On! Records.

On that release, six extended dance tracks melt together effortlessly, like the goo in a lava lamp left in the trunk of a car. Creamy textures inhabit interlocking rhythms laced with congas and hand claps. It's a mostly organic and instrumental blend of vintage '70s dance-floor vibe and today's highly repetitive house stylings. Yet with titles like "Heaven," "Flash," "Solid Gold" and especially "Disco Paradise" (not to mention the groovy fonts on the inside sleeve and the actual title of the album), the connection to the rather embarrassing days of coke spoons, feathered hair and eight-tracks seems impossible not to notice, despite Pfunder's insistence that VOB isn't a disco act. But who really cares? One man's pop artifact is another man's raison d'ĂȘtre.

After all, there are plenty of reasons that 1977's Saturday Night Fever -- the Citizen Kane of working-class dance-culture flicks, with one of the biggest-selling soundtracks in the history of pop music -- tickled the G-spot of mass consciousness. It offered oblivion, glamour, seduction -- and the hope that all of us might hustle up some love gravy. Its songs were simple, too: verse-chorus-instrumental break, repeat. Bump till you drop -- or go home lucky. Blown-dry personalities like Andy Gibb and Scientology's spokesman, Vinnie Barbarino, ultimately gave disco a face that even white America could fall in love with. And now that the torch has been passed (or perhaps ripped from the cold, dead hand that once wore the mood ring), bands like VOP find themselves in a funk-infused time warp of Quina T, Mister T, the Prodigy and Ecstasy. And they couldn't be happier.

"We're getting indie rockers and punk rockers and your normal thirty- to forty-year-olds at our shows," Pfunder enthuses. "We haven't really marketed to any specific crowd. It's a very welcoming kind of thing that we're doing: trying to get away with crossing genres of music.

"Certainly it's a hope of ours to take something and, in a special way, make it our own," Pfunder continues. "Whether we've succeeded or not is kind of up to everyone else. We're just trying to have a good time and make music that's different for us. We're not trying to reinvent anything."

That's good news, indeed, for little goldfish everywhere.


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