Even though Tim Prudhomme, vocalist and guitarist for Fuck, has been a card-carrying member of the music industry for several years, he insists (in the most disingenuous manner possible) that he still does not understand how it works. "I watch the MTV and try to figure out what the hell's going on out there in middle America," he says in a hazy monotone that moves at the breakneck speed of a snail with a shell too big for its body. "Doing it makes me very anxious. And one of the reasons, probably, is because I don't really know who else is out there. I mean, who exactly is watching the MTV and buying all those Celine Dion and Toni Braxton albums? Not any of my friends. But someone must be."
Odds are good that there's not much of a crossover between the Dion/Braxton contingent and boosters of Fuck. However, the reasons for this state of affairs aren't as obvious as they might seem on the surface. The name of Prudhomme's combo, which also stars singer/guitarist Kyle Statham, bassist/pianist Ted Ellison and drummer/guitarist Geoff Soule, conjures up visions of tattooed speed-metal ruffians with pierced eyelids and body odor that would peel the linoleum off your mom's kitchen counters. But in actuality, the Fuckers are polite, well-spoken young folks with respectable backgrounds: Between gigs and tours, for example, Ellison works as a substitute teacher in the Oakland area. "He was teaching both elementary and junior high," Prudhomme notes, "but then some junior-high kids threatened to beat him up, so he's dropped down to just elementary. He's a big guy, 6-2, so he wasn't really afraid of being beaten up. I think it was just too much stress."
The music on Fuck's three first-rate discs--1996's Pretty...Slow and Baby Loves a Funny Bunny and this year's debut for Matador, Pardon My French--also defies expectations. Songs such as "Hide Face" (from Slow) and "To My Gurl" (from French) rock, for lack of a better term, but they do so in a scraggy, mid-period Velvet Underground sort of way. Most of the other cuts, meanwhile, progress quite deliberately; as Prudhomme concedes, Pretty...Slow is a fair description of the band's average pace. The numbers alternately lope, amble and drone, accented by Prudhomme's sometimes wispy, sometimes druggy vocals and a rich sonic palette typified by keyboards and all manner of stringed instruments, including the occasional violin courtesy of Statham. Just as important, they don't wear out their welcome. Of the sixteen efforts on French, a quarter of them ("Li'l Hilda," "La Jolla," "Raggy Rag" and the aforementioned "To My Gurl") clock in at less than two minutes; the longest, "Tether," manages to fall twelve seconds short of four.
"I'm a big fan of the word 'concise' and everything that it entails," Prudhomme explains. "You should say what you want to say and then get on to the next thing. A lot of bands think they're being concise at four minutes, but I think they're fooling themselves. More and more bands that I've gone to see or listen to over the past year or so suffer from that. It's one of their biggest faults--that they don't edit themselves. They get in there and start jamming, and they never seem to know when to stop. But we know how."
They also know how to market themselves, Prudhomme's satirical claims of naivete to the contrary. Pretty...Slow comes in a modified handkerchief box and features, in addition to a disc, a packet of SweeTarts, a mini-rattle of the sort that can be purchased at arcades for the price of one skee-ball ticket, and a small coloring book (blue crayon included) whose every page corresponds to a song title. As for Baby, its disc can be found inside an oversized matchbook along with a sticker that bears an appropriate Fuck graphic--a clumsy sketch of an index finger on one hand sliding into the rounded palm of another. The French cover is less elaborate but just as amusing: Its colorful sketches of barnyard and domesticated animals and anthropomorphic vehicles would look fine on the jacket of a children's CD were it not for the fact that the figures are cavorting around giant pink letters that spell out the act's name.
The bandmembers settled on the moniker in 1994, shortly after deciding to combine forces in what was then their hometown, San Francisco. (Today Statham remains in San Francisco, but Ellison and Soule reside in the eastern part of the Bay Area, and Prudhomme is headquartered in New York City.) The players enjoy getting as much mileage out of it as possible: Witness Fuck's press kit, which cheekily provides an answer to the unavoidable queries it prompts. ("Interviewer: 'I must ask you why you chose your band name.' Fuck: 'We thought it would make for a good interview question.'") Prudhomme acknowledges that by going with such a handle, he and his cohorts were essentially soliciting the reactions they've gotten--and he swears that he has not yet grown sick of them.
"So far, it's been fine and dandy. It has served us very well, because it really works for us. It does everything we like. For one thing, it contrasts nicely with our music--and we like to have as much contrast as possible between one song and the next, or whatever. For another, it's memorable as all get-out. And then there's the controversial aspect of it, which is always good for business."
Prudhomme should know. He's been intimately involved in the rapidly burgeoning Fuck success story. The combo put out a couple of seven-inches on its own label, Rhesus, in late 1994 and early 1995, but within a matter of months, other indie imprints were begging to issue Fuck vinyl. In 1996 the quartet received a similar response after assembling the material for Slow, which Prudhomme is careful to describe as an EP. ("It's only 26 minutes long, and there's this rule--I forget who instituted it--that says anything under, I think, 35 minutes is an EP, and if you call it an album, you're ripping off the public.") That offering was financed by Rhesus in conjunction with two other operations, Walt Records and Esther Records; likewise, Baby was a joint project of Rhesus, Walt and another company, Lamplighter.
These platters met with such a strong reception from dwellers of the rock underground that Prudhomme was eventually overwhelmed by the demand. "One of the main reasons that we went out in search of a label to take over was because the business end started getting a bit too big," he says. "As we were selling more records, I was finding that a lot of my time was being taken up with the packaging and the booking of tours and talking to the printing press and talking to the CD manufacturers and talking to the distributors. So we went to Matador and said, 'Could you put out our next record?' They said, 'Why?' And we said, 'Because we don't have time to write songs and play music anymore.' And they said, 'Okay.'"
Completely breaking the do-it-yourself habit has been more difficult than Prudhomme anticipated. Between day jobs he must work on occasion to make ends meet ("Tomorrow I'll either be driving a van or washing dishes"), he continues to handle most of the details of Fuck's live appearances himself, and he even calls journalists personally rather than relying on Matador's staffers to do so for him. "That's been one of the more difficult parts of joining up with Matador--deciding what we really don't need to do anymore," he allows. "I'll be talking to someone like yourself and then I'll think, 'I should have told the publicity department I'm doing this. That's their job--that's not something I'm supposed to be doing anymore.' But I'm just so used to doing it."
Nonetheless, Prudhomme says that Fuck's marriage to Matador has been a happy one thus far. "They've been pretty much hands-off as far as what the band's wanted to do. They didn't ask us to redo anything and they didn't question any of our song choices, maybe because their expectations haven't been very high. I don't think they see us as very commercially viable, partially due to our name--or maybe mostly due to our name. So there's been zero stress there. Some bands are in a position where they think they need to write a hit song or have a hit video, but there's none of that pressure on us. Calling ourselves 'Fuck' kind of safeguarded us from that."
By the same token, Fuck is not interested in obscurity for obscurity's sake. When Prudhomme announces, "I really think we have a very Top 40 appeal," he's joking, but he seems sincere when he talks about entertaining audiences in a live setting. Because of the intricacies inherent in so much of the group's music, he prefers a courteous crowd: "It's always nice when everyone is quiet, because then we can perform at a quieter level. And whenever you're able to do that, you can play with the more subtle elements of the music." But whereas some artists whose music walks on the tranquil side of the street hector listeners who can't keep their lips zipped, the men of Fuck take a different tack. As Prudhomme tells it, "Sometimes when we're playing a show, we'll realize that the people are not going to be quiet, and we'll change our set on the spot. We'll go, 'This song is not going to work in this club tonight, nor is this one, nor is this one. Let's either turn up or drop these songs.'" He's not frustrated by such situations, he adds. "I always feel like we're sort of the guests in whatever town and whatever club we're in. We're there to entertain, basically, so if people want to hear loud music, I'm certainly not going to tell them they shouldn't.
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"But you've got to learn how to work the crowd. Like, for instance, one evening we were playing in Missoula, Montana, and there were only a few tablefuls of people there. And at one table, a young lady kept shouting out for us to play something by Pink Floyd or Steve Miller. I looked at the set list, and there was this one song--it was just a pop song. And I thought, Steve Miller--he's done pop songs. Let's pretend it's his. I announced, 'This song is for that young lady. It's a Steve Miller song.' And we played it, and I think she bought it; when we finished, she was up and clapping, rabid. I thought, this seems to be working. Before our next song, which was one of our stranger songs, I was like, 'This song is by Pink Floyd.' And she liked that song really well, too. See, it's all a matter of presentation."
So Prudhomme doesn't know anything about the music industry? Hell, before long, he'll be running it.
Fuck, with Two Dollar Guitar and the Emirs. 9 p.m. Monday, August 4, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $5, 572-0822.