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Feast of Reason

As a band, I'd say that Pleasure Forever is a celebration of the ecstatic annihilation of orgasmic energy."

So asserts Dave Clifford, drummer for the vicious cabaret that is San Francisco's Pleasure Forever. Clifford, guitarist Josh Hughes and keyboardist/vocalist Andrew Rothbard form an unholy trinity of rhythm, noise and verse that twists and lurches like a wraith-ridden carousel. On the band's self-titled full-length, released last year on Sub Pop Records, eerie piano and gloom-choked vocals dangle from guitar lines as taut as a hangman's noose. The atmosphere is heady with ripe decadence and wilted decay, the bouquet of sex in an open casket.

Still, it would be a mistake to typecast Pleasure Forever as yet another histrionic, pseudo-death-rock throwback. "We're a romantic band," Hughes says. "We celebrate life, the good and the bad."

"Celebrate" might be putting it lightly. Pleasure Forever deconstructs the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll credo and attempts to frame it within a much broader philosophical context. "Our music, as well as our name, is intended to underscore human desire," Clifford explains. "It's a symbol of the beauty of humanity, our will to supersede life itself. We advocate indulgence rather than abstinence. Most people realize that life is limited, yet they try to do the impossible, to live an eternity of pleasure."

While the band's members themselves balk at the misconstrued word "hedonism" ("Didn't MTV have a 'Hedonism Weekend' contest with Van Halen?" Hughes jokes), there is a marked epicurean aesthetic behind Pleasure Forever. The cover of its CD, for instance, depicts Clifford, Rothbard and Hughes drenched in bacchanalian abandon -- an orgy of wine, women, knowing winks and dirty secrets that could almost be a scene from Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera.

"Sex is very important to me. It's one of the two primary elements that motivate human communication and culture," Clifford explains, "the other being our fear and awareness of death."

Themes of eroticism and eschatology are nearly indistinguishable in Pleasure Forever's songs. "Sailing with sunken masts/Choking dead with a leather strap/Whip the passion into a sour mash/Poisons passions absolute collapse," Rothbard drawls menacingly in "Any Port in a Storm," his voice shuddering somewhere in the conflux of lust and mortality. Images of violence, sacrifice, carnality and damnation are sung like sea chanties -- nauseous waltzes with the lovesick dead. In "Curtain Call for a Whispering Ghost," Rothbard's haunted reverie creeps up the spine: "Wishes and kisses traipse into traps/Set by the specters from brand new pasts."

"I wrote most of these songs' parts and lyrics because I had a broken heart at the time, and I was looking to end it all with a bang," Rothbard says. "But I was also looking to encapsulate something in the process. When I looked around me, it seemed like a whole lot of other people I knew were being equally self-destructive, but not bothering to find any level of recourse for their behavior or lifestyle choices. I'm lucky to have had these opportunities to release myself in music over the past seven years."

The purgative potential of rock and roll is, of course, one of its benedictions. "I'd mostly like to create music that, in some form or another, affects the audience in much the same manner as it does the performers," Clifford says. "I think our main intent as a live band is to present our songs in the most energized and cathartic way we can and hope that the audience will feed off that energy. I want everyone in the band and the audience to contribute and release themselves in the ancient traditions of trance music. By that I mean real trance music: throat singers, chants, gamelan music and tribal drums, not the bullshit, modern, techno-trance stuff that doesn't require much of the listener at all.

"I know that sharing the catharsis of performance with an audience is often a pipe dream," he continues, "especially when considering that for a band to be successful enough to pull off a mass-catharsis performance would probably mean playing for the lowest common denominator. So the irony of it all is that perhaps the most effective cathartic event is a typical hardcore slam-fest."

When the members of Pleasure Forever refer to punk rock and mosh pits, they are not speaking academically. Rothbard and Hughes cut their punk teeth in Linus and Angel Hair, two mid-'90s Colorado bands that were known for their tense, frenzied, Fugazi-fueled onslaughts. Angel Hair wound up gaining national prominence and, along with groups like Heroin, Mohinder and Antioch Arrow, helped propagate an offshoot of hardcore (don't call it "screamo") that grafted spastic intensity to willfully experimental dissonance and dynamics. Angel Hair's sound hinted at the theatricality and moral ambivalence of '80s goth as much as it did the cryptic rebellion of Nation of Ulysses; the band even recorded a vessel-rupturing cover of Bauhaus's "Stigmata Martyr."

"While the bands that we have been in were part of the punk or hardcore scenes, I always felt that we operated outside, or at least on the periphery, of those scenes and those ideals," Hughes says. "What I've always identified with in the punk scene is the excitement and enjoyment of the people within the scene: sometimes a band, sometimes a promoter, sometimes an entire audience. But read Please Kill Me [Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's history of the punk movement], and the people that started punk will say that it was over by, what, 1978? And punk was a handful of bands on major labels. The word is thrown around so much that it's become a meaningless tag. Andy saw a poster for Dashboard Confessional that said they were the 'punk-rock Elliott Smith.' My uncle used to call me a punk when I was seven. I think you can fit just about anything in between those two definition."

When Angel Hair broke up in 1995, Hughes and singer Sonny Kay enlisted Rothbard and Clifford in the VSS, a more fully realized manifestation of the ideal Angel Hair seemed to be struggling toward. Soon after, the band moved from Boulder to San Francisco, where it began augmenting its live shows with stark, sequenced stage lighting and the crowd-baiting agitation of epic theater. The VSS's vastly influential full-length, Nervous Circuits, released in 1997, fell somewhere between Gary Numan and Born Against, with the clinical precision of new-wave synthesizers vying with post-hardcore's rabid atonality.

The VSS, however, imploded soon after the release of Nervous Circuits. Kay began focusing on his now-successful record label, GSL; Clifford formed the short-lived Tarot Bolero with Aaron Montaigne of Antioch Arrow. "Tarot Bolero was a very exciting and very frustrating band," Clifford remembers. "I enjoyed making our record, but the few shows we played were a chaotic mess: too many drug problems, too much personal drama. Some of the vaudeville and cabaret music that we were into has been brought into Pleasure Forever, but to a greater effect."

A few months later, Clifford, Hughes and Rothbard found themselves drawn together once again. "The biggest motivation for us to do this band was that the VSS was so limiting," Clifford says. "All we could do from the point we were at was either get more crazy or change completely. We'd painted ourselves into a corner, and the style of music that I wanted to do was different from where we were going. The VSS had a cold and brittle sound, and I felt more inclined to mix that up with more traditional and antique music, just to see what could happen."

Calling the new group Slaves, they set out as a leaderless trio, prompting many to assume that the name "Slaves" was a backhanded slam against Kay, their former frontman.

"That is a complete myth," Clifford says. "There wasn't any acrimony in our split with Sonny. None of us intended to kick him out and change the name, or anything. I came up with the name Slaves as an idea for a side project I wanted to start during the VSS. I was interested in the artistic imperative to control the reactions and responses of an audience. I've also always been intrigued by the human will toward slavery. This isn't any new revelation, but more of an artistic interpretation of Wilhelm Reich's writings about fascism and human nature. We all seek authority figures, whether to ultimately rebel against them or for the comfort of having someone make our decisions for us. Ultimately, all of us are slaves to one thing or another, and we all revel in that."

After a couple of embryonic EPs and singles, Slaves became Pleasure Forever. "We changed the name Slaves for a variety of reasons, all pretty boring," says Hughes. "It all comes down to Pleasure Forever being a better name."

Though tight-lipped with the details of exactly how the band got signed to Sub Pop ("Through a series of blow jobs and underhanded machinations," Clifford says. "Pure hustle," Rothbard counters), Pleasure Forever could be said to claim membership in a clique of the label's new acts, such as Vue and the Rapture. With Sub Pop's substantial backing, the group recorded its debut album at the end of 2000 with Nation of Ulysses/Fucking Champs guitarist Tim Green. As Rothbard notes, "With the three of us, things happen very naturally. The Pleasure Forever LP came about from many different worlds colliding at just the right time."

Honed by the studio and incessant tours across America and Europe, Rothbard's deranged, elegiac barrelhouse piano became more resonant, echoing the eldritch ivory work and composition of Kurt Weill, Nick Cave, Ray Manzarek and even Rick Wakeman's contribution to David Bowie's Hunky Dory. "Andy has a very elaborate style. I'd say busy, but that often has a negative connotation that doesn't really fit with what he does in the band," Hughes explains. "Because the keys occupy so much of the same frequency space as the guitar, there are definitely some directions I'm almost forced to go to fill out the songs. I think we've all had to adapt to fit within that framework. We are trying to challenge ourselves most of all, both musically and with our performance, and we're glad to bring the audience along for the ride."

As with many bands that snub indie rock's top-button-buttoned uptightness, the scarlet letter of T for "thespian" is often stitched to Pleasure Forever's tailored image. "The theatrical tag may be applied to us because, rather than playing a set list of individual songs, we attempt to present a complete performance, few breaks between songs, only an occasional few words from Andy, and some dramatic physical movements," Hughes says -- outlining Pleasure Forever's affinity for the theories of Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty.

"Our band may use certain concepts pertaining to theater, but I am pushing to transubstantiate both myself and the audience into total ritual during our performances," Rothbard adds.

"We want to invite whatever ridicule the staunch indie-rock kids can muster," Clifford says. "In making cathartic music, we may seem theatrical or over the top, but that's what I admire in so many of my favorite artists, especially people like Jerry Lee Lewis, Queen, Artaud, Bataille and Devo. They had the audacity to push their art to extremes that others would consider ridiculous. The genius of Devo was that they were a high-concept intellectual band, but they masked it well within their music."

On the other end of the spectrum from Devo's clean-cut, postmodern, silicone pop is the acid-rock drone of the late '60s that reverberates through Pleasure Forever's music. "We're equally inspired by a lot of the early psychedelic bands, like 13th Floor Elevators and Pink Floyd," Clifford says. After listening to the group's staggering, eight-and-a-half-minute "Magus Opus," the lineage is easy to trace, though the song owes as much to Bauhaus's "The Three Shadows" as it does to "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun."

All artistic and literary influences aside, Pleasure Forever has no desire to be pegged as an act with a shtick. "In the last year or so there's been a sudden and, for me, unwanted proliferation of concept bands. These bands either decide in advance what genre they want to ape or mock, or they deliberately limit themselves to creating their music inside a tiny, sterile box," Hughes says.

"I've never sat around the study with my smoking jacket and pipe thinking about what kind of concept I was going to pull off the shelf from all of the books that I've read," adds Rothbard.

So what sets Pleasure Forever apart from the gimmicky hordes of neo-goths, retro-wavers and acolyte rock stars that infest the post-hardcore scene today?

"While we're certainly a conscious band in the sense that we are aware of what we're creating, what we sound like and how we present ourselves, to say that we're a deliberate band is way off the mark," Hughes insists. "On the contrary, I think we're a very natural and intuitive band. We play music that springs from ourselves, and if we are seen as deliberate it's because we use performance and artwork to back up our music, to present a complete concept."

"We don't want to come off as a band attempting to make music for an intellectual elite," Clifford says. "There is no joke that we think the 'right people' will get. The footnotes are there for those who care to find them, but first and foremost, we play music because we enjoy it. Our approach to songwriting is simply to mash together disparate influences into something unique and exciting for ourselves and, we hope, for others."

Pleasure Forever maintains hope that the visceral impact of its live shows, as well as its daring songcraft, will outweigh more esoteric conceptual tendencies. "We're still just a rock-and-roll band, and we want to play songs for the fun of it," Clifford says. "We want an audience to enjoy our music and celebrate the brevity of life. I think Andrew W.K. said it best: 'Party till you puke.'"

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller