"We find ourselves caught in the middle of a lot of things," says Dave Shouse of the Memphis quartet called the Grifters--and considering the guitarist's gift for making music that borders on the schizophrenic, this claim is a wild understatement. Shouse and his bandmates (guitarist Scott Taylor, bassist Tripp Lampkins and drummer Stan Gallimore) create a piecemeal mixture of punk, blues and art-damaged pop that is too infectious and hook-happy to be dismissed as typical avant-garde noise, but too damned weird to appeal to most neophobic music consumers. The Grifters are square pegs in a circular world.
The combo's aural dexterity can be attributed in part to Shouse's extensive musical background. Classically trained on the piano, the guitarist/vocalist confesses to playing in a variety of musical ensembles prior to joining the Grifters, including a jazz band, a European progressive rock outfit and even a rock-oldies band. After losing interest in these acts, he switched to guitar and took a more experimental tack--a change that came shortly after hearing his niece pounding on a grand piano during a family reunion. According to Shouse, he was the only one in attendance that found the chaotic recital "intriguing. I never could have done that at the time. I was just too jailed by what I knew. I was still in the habit of playing what I was familiar with instead of playing anything just to see what happens."
Shouse's decision to embrace more discordant sounds eventually led in 1989 to the formation of A Band Called Bud, which featured longtime friends Taylor and Lampkins. Bud also marked Shouse's debut on the drums. He says the transition allowed him to completely remove himself from the choke-hold of his previous musical training: "I'd never played drums at that point. So it turned out to be just what I was looking for at the time."
After a long string of less-than-eventful gigs, however, Shouse returned to playing guitar, and recruited Gallimore to fill the drum seat. Its lineup solidified, the quartet changed its name and made the hard-to-find 1992 album So Happy Together; the critically acclaimed Shangri-la release One Sock Missing followed the next year. In spite of the humble circumstances surrounding their creation (both offerings were recorded in a flower shop on a four-track tape player), the discs are chock-full of disheveled, off-the-cuff surprises. On Sock, for example, "Casual Years" sports a chorus that's interrupted by a ringing phone, while "Bummer," the platter's lead track, is built upon a rhythm accentuated by the sound of a needle skipping across a dusty vinyl record.
While Shouse says that the band took an "immaterial, smart-aleck, we-don't-give-a-shit" approach to its first two records, he subsequently attributes the steady, undeniably catchy pop clarity of the Grifters' work to, of all things, practice. "We just started getting more comfortable as a unit," he explains. "We started to get a little more intuitive with each other because we could do whatever we wanted, and 60 percent of the time it actually worked."
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On Crappin' You West, the Grifters' latest addition (due out in May) to the Shangri-la catalogue, Shouse and associates have noticeably upped this percentage. From the murky, ethereal melodies of "Junkie Blood" to the snarling, pit-bull stomp of "Skin Man Palace," West stands as the group's most experimental yet consistent project to date.
Adding a sinister twist to the record are hallucinogenic lyrics such as those found on the aforementioned "Skin Man Palace," a romantic tale about a guy who trades skins in a junkyard and calls himself "Mambo King." Shouse writes off the demented nature of his songs to simple storytelling. "To tell you the truth, I'm not real sure where [the songs] come from," he admits. "I guess I'm more into the phonetics of the words and making them work with the song. I'm more interested in how they sound than their actual meaning."
The bandmembers hold to an equally ambiguous doctrine when they play live. With more than forty songs on its playlist, the band insists on changing its set each night--sometimes drastically. "A lot of times when you go to see a band," Shouse notes, "they just do their thing. They're there to entertain you, and they're able to do the same show when they go to Denver as when they played Topeka or Wichita. We can't do that. We can't go in there and play the same show every night and make it look like it's the first show we've ever done."
What else would you expect from a band that specializes in the unexpected?
The Grifters, with Rodan. 10 p.m. Thursday, April 7, Seven South, 7 South Broadway, $5, 744-0513.