BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
If it weren't for all that great Aimee Mann music scoring the drawn-out angst of "Magnolia," the director should have used a song by the Frogs for the film's biblical climax.
It wouldn't have been the first time you've unwittingly listened to the band.
Milwaukee's flipped-out Frogs have been a crucial underpinning of most of the alt-rock you've grown to adore during the last decade and a half.
Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder habitually dropped their name in interviews. Both of their bands played the Frogs' wacky gay-power-folk debut "It's Only Right and Natural" on the PA before concerts. Pearl Jam even covered some Frogs songs live and shared a single with them ("Immortality" in '94).
Juliana Hatfield's Blake Babies named an EP after a song on the Frogs' debut ("Rosy Jack World"). The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan and James Iha regularly joined the Frogs onstage. Kelly Deal played bass for them. Beck sampled the Frogs in his hit single "Where It's At."
We could go on. And on.
Suffice to say: the examples above are artists who have kinky sides to them, and that's the side of everyone that the Frogs embrace.
"Kinky? Kinky? Can you even be kinky anymore?" asked Dennis Flemion, the more frenetic and breathless half of the duo with brother Jimmy. "The culture's gotten so scattered, so numbed, nobody even feels kinky anymore."
This from a band whose debut album is loaded with stark, naked, pro-gay anthems — written by two brothers who probably are not gay themselves. Flemion would not answer "the $64,000 question" during this week's interview.
But on all subjects, the Frogs are, er, unconventional.
Some sample song titles (at least ones that can be printed in a general newspaper): "(Thank God I Died In) The Car Crash," "I Don't Care If You Disrespect Me (Just So You Love Me)," "Raped," "I'm Sad the Goat Just Died Today" and "Which One of You gave My Daughter the Dope?"
They also perform wearing some crazy costumes. First, it was giant bat wings. Then, not surprisingly, frog outfits with protruding stuffed green arms. Lately, it's bunny suits.
That's not to imply that the band is all about humor and weirdness — they have some great straight material, too, so to speak, especially on the newest CD, "Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise" — but it's the wacky stuff that's gotten them attention.
Flemion, however, assured us that the wildly eclectic and bizarre music — connect the dots from Zappa to Captain Beefheart to the Frogs (and, perhaps, fellow Milwaukeeans the Violent Femmes) to Ween — is not recorded and released simply for the sake of using controversy to gain attention.
"No, no. That would be the easiest and cheapest trick in the book. 'Oh, let's see how controversial we can be!' What would be the point? Do you think Alice Cooper did that?" Flemion said.
"I don't necessarily have to be the thing I create."
And therein lies the heart of the Frogs' oddball genius. They truly deserve the label "art-rock," because they approach rock music as artists — using the medium to explore their human potential for all states of thought and feeling. The things they sing about might not describe who they are, but those things came from within them.
It's a heady concept, one jazz players might understand better than others. It springs from the practice of improvisation. The Flemion brothers often — and sometimes on stage — practice making up songs on the spot. The band's album "My Daughter the Broad" is a compilation of these improvs, and the results are alternately right-on and far-out.
"The songs we make up are often quite controversial and inflammatory," Flemion said. "I could say I'm putting a mirror out there, but that's (nonsense) really, because everybody writes about themselves. Whatever you're writing, it's coming out of you.
"Just last night, I finally figured out the meaning of a song I wrote in '87. It's so twisted, you would never understand it, but I realized in a flash, 'Oh my God, that's what I was writing about.' It's something very sad that I made funny, but it came from me. It ultimately always does.
"You have to let yourself get out of the way for things to come through, too. That stuff I made up was just me opening my mind and letting stuff fly out of me. That's what we do. We try to open ourselves up that way. The stuff that comes out, well, we can't be afraid of it."
The fact that his subconscious ditties shock the conservative and sometimes even the liberal is no surprise to Flemion. Nor is it a threat.
"We have to do that as human beings, don't we?" he said. "There's no sense or irreverence in the culture anymore. When I grew up in the '60s, that's the way it was, that's the way you thought. But look at us now. Aren't you bored with what's out there?"
Unfortunately, commercialism sells only the material that's inoffensive to focus groups. That's made the Frogs infrequent residents of record store shelves — this despite the duo's piles and piles of songs. They're the They Might Be Giants of the counterculture.
"But our records are always delayed," Flemion said. " 'Right Natural' was finished in '87 but didn't come out until '89. 'Racially Yours' finished in '92 and just came out a couple of years ago.
"The latest one ('Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise') was done in '97 and came out last year. The only ones that came out on time were the compilations, and most of that was dated material, anyway."
The duo has two new records currently in the works. One of them is — ahem — a spiritual album.
"Well, I mean, it's us doing spiritual stuff. One song is called 'Satan,' and it sounds like 'Uncle Ernie' from 'Tommy.' There's a serious one called 'Jesus Is the Answer,' and then there's 'Jesus Is My Buddy' and 'Pact With the Devil Blues.'
"It's stuff that actually is fairly universal in theme so that people might even embrace it. Color me surprised."
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
You've probably never seen the most important member of your favorite band.
She gets most of the band's money. She's instrumental to the band's success. Every member talks the most about her, and if it weren't for her unique contributions, you'd never have seen the band in the first place.
It's the van.
Yes, Roger McGuinn offered some great advice about playing guitar and wearing tight pants in his handbook song "So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star," but he left out the most important bit of advice: buy the best van you can afford.
Playing live music means hauling equipment — drum kits and doo-dads, cabinets and keisters. If you can't get to the crowd, how can they adore you?
It takes a lot of fame and money to afford the tour bus of rock legend, so most bands — even a sizeable majority of household names — travel cramped together with (and sometimes on) their equipment inside a van.
Talk to a musician and the van undoubtedly will come up in conversation. It broke down again. It nearly went off an icy precipice in Utah. While trying to sleep in the fetal position against the window, it induced a terrible cramp.
"The van is a huge investment, probably the most important piece of equipment you can buy," said Jarod Gollihare, singer-drummer for Admiral Twin.
Admiral Twin recently upgraded its ride, bidding farewell to "Old Blue," the lurching, smoking '86 Chevy that's taken this local pop band in loop-de-loops around the country for a decade. Her odometer has rolled twice.
"It was on its absolute last wheel, held together with rubber bands. It gradually lost its heating, then the air-conditioning and the transmission's about to fall out. It was making weird noises, and sometimes it was hard to start. Then it would be hard to get it to stop," Gollihare said. "We've never actually driven it to a coast. We've always flown to the coasts. I think the salt air would just disintegrate it."
The new Twin ride is a used '99 Ford, purchased with money from a flush gig in Michigan. The former owners were dog trainers.
"The dog smell is pretty much gone now, but we left the 'We Raise Golden Retrievers' sticker in the back window," Gollihare said.
"This purchase is the biggest thing that's happened to our band in months."
Admiral Twin wasn't brand specific in its search for wheels. The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey trio was.
Keyboardist Brian Haas was trapped in Los Angeles over the Christmas holidays waiting for a custom Dodge part to be shipped to a garage — where the band's former van had languished inoperable for 19 days.
"I guess Dodge vans just totally suck," he said at the time.
For a band that plays 221 shows a year from coast to coast, the van is crucial — transport, rehearsal hall and bedroom, all in one. It's got to work.
"We just got a lemon," said bassist Reed Mathis of the thankfully departed Dodge. "Last year, that van forced us to cancel tons of gigs. We missed the whole Dirty Dozen Brass Band tour because it dropped its transmission for the second time and stuck us in a roach motel in Florida, where we laid around watching 'Behind the Music' all day with whores calling the room asking us if wanted dates."
The Odyssey's new Ford has already been on an odyssey — 47,000 miles since February, and no complaints.
The guys also do what they can to make the place feel like home.
"We took the middle two seats out and put down a futon," Mathis said. "We've got kitchen drawers up front, a cooler and a water dispenser. We try to keep at least one plant inside to keep the air clean and the energy positive. We had one spider plant that lasted a year and a half. We were amazed."
"We keep ours pretty clean and standard-looking," said guitarist Mark Haugh of the van hauling his band, Caroline's Spine. "If we don't keep it clean, we'll get in a fight. I can, well, be kind of a slob."
When the members of Caroline's Spine went shopping for their latest van — their fifth in less than a decade — they decided to go all out and get all the features they wanted and needed.
"Until now, it's always been the cheapest van we can find, then we throw 100,000 miles on it and get rid of it," Haugh said. "This one we actually special-ordered. We got a good deal and got exactly what we wanted. We have a matching white trailer, so we look like a government vehicle. That's important so you don't get pulled over."
The band's previous vans included Haugh's old Volkswagen minibus, an "old, beat-up Dodge that never worked," a green Ford and an "old Ford conversion van that was like the Good Times van, the '70s disco vehicle."
The new van has a diesel engine.
"If you close your eyes, it sounds like a bus," Haugh said.
"We got all these features, but somehow we didn't get a CD player. I still haven't figured that out."
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.