TAKING YOUR LUMPS
The bar crawlers gathered at Herman's Hideaway this brisk Friday night in October know exactly what they want: accessible funk grooves, catchy melodies, good-time lyrics and the steady thump-thump-thump-thump associated with the evening's headliner, Furious George and the Monster Groove. But when the members of the opening act, Fort Collins-based Won Lump Some, take the stage, the throng gets something else entirely. They get Jason Hyland "Mamma Hymen" Mather perched on a stool, his head whipping from side to side as he slaps a bass silly and barks out lyrics to tunes such as "Flaps of Silly Putty Skin" and "Lovely Rolling Lawns." They get Matthew "2 Cents" Farina attacking his drum kit as if he were getting even with it for having just trashed his apartment. They get Stephen "Reg" Bartenhagen, who reels off more twisted guitar riffs per song than most players manage throughout entire albums. They get saxophonist Clifford "Jonas Dome" Parker III wandering the stage in home-workshop glasses and a hooded sweatshirt that leave him looking precisely like the FBI sketch of the Unabomber. And, most important, they get a chance to hear some of the most vibrant and novel music being made in Colorado.
Not everyone is thrilled by this opportunity. Even a sprightly, half-ska/half-punk version of Black Sabbath's "Paranoid," featuring Won Lump Some manager Joe Lusi on lead vocals and harmonica, doesn't prevent some of the more impatient dudes in the audience from shouting "Furious George!" a time or two. Still, a sizable percentage of the crowd keys into the band's energy, inventiveness and humor. As the Won Lump Some set nears its conclusion, a man and two female companions actually venture to the space in front of the stage and begin to dance--and when the tune that's attracted them undergoes four separate shifts in tempo and style, they change tempos and styles with it. "See," says Bartenhagen a few days later upon being reminded of that moment. "It's possible to dance to our music. It's not always easy, but it's possible."
Possibility: It's a quality that all but drips from Won Lump Some's Clean Hits, a bracing CD produced by Kramer, the idiosyncratic founder of Shimmy Disc Records, and recently issued on Boulder's Sh-Mow imprint. But the album doesn't succeed merely because the quartet (recently joined by Matt Gordy, a bandmember so new he doesn't even have a nickname yet) takes risks. No, Hits makes an impact because the players understand that imitation is the sincerest form of creative bankruptcy--and besides, innovation is a hell of a lot more interesting.
"The only kind of music we stay away from is the unoriginal kind," Bartenhagen notes.
"Yeah," adds Mather. "You should have the balls to try something different."
Clearly, the Lumps don't just espouse this maxim; they live by it. Clean Hits occasionally recalls the work of other artists--the Mothers of Invention, perhaps, or They Might Be Giants. But what's most surprising, especially considering that this band has been together for only three years, is how often it doesn't. The disc isn't a difficult listen. In fact, it's jammed with so many hooks and harmonies that some folks may be overwhelmed by it. Others, however, will be entranced. And talk about value: Of the eighteen songs on Hits, not one can be described as filler.
A more accurate tag is eccentric. A prime example is "Toothpicks," which contains the lines "Now we have kids/ And they all have human heads/And a couple legs/ And like salamanders/We think they're ugly." Farina offers no apologies for these excursions into surrealism. "It's not bad to puzzle people sometimes," he notes. "I mean, it's better to puzzle them than to get them pissed off."
Won Lump Some has been doing a little of both since forming in 1992. None of the musicians is a Colorado native: Farina hails from Pennsylvania, Parker from Connecticut, Bartenhagen and Gordy from Iowa, and Mather from Alaska. Their tastes are just as disparate, as they demonstrate while eagerly declaring their guiltiest musical pleasures.
"Iron Maiden!" Farina announces.
"The Beach Boys!" declares Bartenhagen.
"Madonna!" Parker concedes.
"C.W. McCall!" crows Gordy.
"Hawkwind!" Mather affirms.
Upon getting together, Won Lump Some's founding foursome sat down to write songs; from the beginning, they focused on their own material. Their initial shows were at private parties. "I remember this one at Winter Park," Bartenhagen says. "There were six people and 39 stairs."
Over the course of the next year or two, the gig situation in Fort Collins began to improve. So, too, did the music scene itself; it's presently more stimulating than ever thanks to the arrival of out-of-town combos such as All and the blossoming of northern Colorado talent. The Won Lump Some mates sing the praises of band after homegrown band--Armchair Martian, Jupiter, the Switchblades, Hoss USA, Bucket, Element 79, A Band Called Burn--as well as KCSU-FM, a college station that's helped nurture a fertile atmosphere. "Everybody really supports each other," Farina claims. "And because the scene is so new, there isn't any of the arguments and jealousy that you hear about in other places."
As Won Lump Some became more established in Fort Collins, the members decided to take steps toward professionalism. The first of these was to find a manager, and Bartenhagen knew a candidate, albeit an improbable one. "I used to play with Joe Lusi in a band," he recalls. "After that, Joe moved up to Idaho and spent a year living in a cave at a place put together by this old hermit guy they call Dugout Dick."
"The caves are really great," Parker chips in. "Dugout Dick uses old car windows and mud for doors--and you can even cook in them. Joe and I spent last Christmas up there."
"When I talked to Joe, though, he'd just left Idaho and moved to New Orleans," Bartenhagen continues. "And I told him, `Hey, we need a manager. Why don't you come up here?' And he said okay."
With Lusi effectively recruited, Bartenhagen and his fellows recorded a demo tape and shipped it to every record company they could find. The response they received from most of them ranged between indifference and discomfort--about what you'd expect from people much more familiar with commercial product than art. The exception was Shimmy Disc's Kramer, who sent back a letter overflowing with compliments. "He said he couldn't sign anybody right then," Farina reports, "but he offered to help us in any way he could."
He proved to be as good as his word. After receiving the expected number of rejections, the Lumps called Kramer and asked for advice about putting out a disc on their own. He countered by offering to produce it himself at his studio in New Jersey; furthermore, he invited them to stay at his home during the recording process. The players purchased a 1976 Ford Chateau van for the grand total of $100 and hit the highway. Remarkably, they made it to Kramer's place alive.
"As soon as we got there, he sat us down and gave us a little talk about the music business," Farina says. "He has a subversive way of looking at things. He told us, `Do what you've got to do to get in the door, and then start doing weird things.'"
Five days of intense recording later, the entirety of Clean Hits was down on tape--and Tom Peppard and Martin Wachter of Sh-Mow Records promptly agreed to release it. The platter, complete with an enthusiastically bizarre art design, reached the marketplace in early September, and since that time it's garnered a variety of reviews. Parker recounts, "One was great, one was okay, and the other one was like, `What the hell is this?'"
Reactions from audiences outside Fort Collins have been just as diverse. For every positive experience, there's been its polar opposite--for instance, a date in Laramie, Wyoming, that went bad as soon as Farina attempted to spice up "Paranoid" by inviting those gathered to sing along. "But even with all that, we met some good people there," he volunteers.
"Yeah," Mather adds, "but we had to get them stoned first to find out how good they were."
Worse was an appearance in Gunnison that was attended by all of two people, both of whom left before the group had finished. "We were still playing when the bartenders stuck their head into the room and said, `Could you quit playing? Since there's nobody here, we'd like to close and go home.'"
"After we packed up, we found out that everybody else in town was at this karaoke bar," Farina goes on. "So we went down there, and Stephen got to sing `Surrender.' That way it wasn't a total loss."
Things are bound to get better. Won Lump Some may never appeal to everyone, but its compositions resound with the sorts of quirks from which cult followings are built. And for the adventurous music lover, the band is extremely appealing live. All of the Lumps are multi-instrumentalists who delight in trading axes such as Parker's demented Casiotone and a bizarre, semi-zither called a perepelochka that Mather got his hands on after "my girlfriend stole it from her job at Children's World." The group is looking for another contraption--an ancient keyboard setup--to supplement this array of gear, in part, according to Parker, "because we need to give Gordy something to do."
It's probably just as well that Gordy wasn't on stage at Herman's; the crowd there had more than enough to digest as it was. Afterward, though, the attendees thanked Won Lump Some with a relatively warm round of applause--and later, several people came up to the musicians to express just how much they'd enjoyed the show. Bartenhagen is relieved. "Thank goodness," he says, "that there are some open-minded people in the world.
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