Using Their Illusion: Ferocious — and funny — locals the Livers hope video builds the radio star
By Jaime Lees
Published: April 23, 2008
9 p.m. Friday, April 25. The Bluebird, 2706 Olive Street. $7 21-plus, $10 under 21. No phone.www.myspace.com/bluebirdstl.
BFFs Scot Freeman and Luke Roulston hit a rough patch last year. Mired in typical twentysomething malaise, they found themselves working too hard, drinking too much and continually complaining about their lack of a creative outlet. Both were seasoned musicians who admired each other’s skills and former bands (Freeman’s Chiaroscuro and Roulston’s Poe’s Music for Weirdos), and so as an extension of their bromance, these multi-instrumentalists decided to quit their bitching and put together a new band.
There was just one problem: They only wanted to play with each other.
Freeman and Roulston began trying to find a way to multiply their sound without adding any extra people. They jokingly wished they could form a band with clones of themselves to fill out the empty instrument positions. As the story goes, one day Roulston said, “What if we just did that?” And so after considerable preparation and months of trial and error, they managed to invent something brand new: a four-person rock band with just two band members.
This is accomplished by both Livers playing guitar in front of a prerecorded video of themselves as the rhythm section (with Roulston on bass and Freeman on drums). But the virtual band members don’t just play, they also have names (Karl and Merl), distinctive personalities and sassy attitudes. Through the magic of painstaking video editing and green-screen wizardry, all four band members have the ability to interact with each other. (In fact, the video Livers frequently talk back to the live Livers.)
This elaborate presentation is helped along by Zak Thenhaus, the unofficial third (fifth?) Liver. Similar to the Wizard of Oz, Thenhaus fills the role of the unseen magical man behind the curtain (or video screen) who assists the real-life Livers in their video interactions, largely by handing them props. Between songs every last Liver gets to catch a break as hilarious commercial-like clips — such as a Laverne & Shirley spoof, or one for Evan Williams brand whiskey — appear on the video screen. (These riotous, between-song bits are also known as the “interstitiary videos” in Freeman’s professional-speak.)
The result is both spectacularly effective and logistically bewildering. Roulston dryly explains, “Yeah, it’s kind of our motto: ‘To do everything the hardest way possible.'”
Entering the Livers’ headquarters — a.k.a. Roulston’s spacious Benton Park bedroom — one immediately begins to get an idea of just how detailed the band’s production process must be to pull off this kind of act. The vast space is part living area and part artist workshop, with enough cameras, lights and cables to outfit a television studio. In addition to the clothes, electronics, books and numerous art pieces strewn around, tiny strips of green tape on the wood floors mark frequently used instrument and filming positions. It is here that all of the “rhythm section” and comedic segments are taped.
Though these ingenious videos and fun live additions make the band instantly unique, without competent songwriting and playing prowess, the Livers would be little more than an interesting live art project. But the band’s tunes stand alone and can be enjoyed, even separate from its shtick.
The admitted “control freaks” extended their hands-on attitude to their debut album, Vino in Uriam Mutando, which they self-mixed. Recorded locally at Firebrand Recording studios, Vino sounds strikingly professional (with solid lyrics, wicked riffs and intimidatingly heavy drum hits) and contains recordings of a few songs that are quickly becoming audience favorites. Freeman’s “Autistic Girlfriend” was written as a “rock juggernaut” about a cold lady with insincere feelings and “a hole where her heart should go.” In contrast, Roulston’s “She-Wolf” is a wistful, gently sung pop-punk musing on missed opportunities and misdirected emotions. Other standout tracks include the sweetly seductive “Humble Plight” (a salute to the pleasures of love and makin’ love) and “2 Legs to Dance,” a jolting bass-and-beat-filled swoop into the world of dance rock that implores listeners to get up, get drunk and start dancing.
Between the Livers’ unprecedented musical presentation and strong tunes, it’s rumored that the young band has already been fielding label and distribution interest. When questioned on this development, both guys just smile and coyly decline to discuss this topic on the record, claiming superstition. It wouldn’t be surprising; the band contains the kind of natural charisma and overflowing raw talent that label scouts are always looking to unearth. Plus, Freeman and Roulston seem to have a very brotherly relationship — where both compliments and playful ribbing are common — and both are good-natured, smart and funny as hell.
On meshing their musical styles:
Scot Freeman: Luke’s music is really complicated and the time signatures are all weird and stuff and I can only play, like, uh…
Luke Roulston: 3/4 and 4/4 or a combination thereof. [Laughs]
Freeman: Yeah! Really, just like, Top 40. I just wanna play riffs and sing soaring choruses and that kind of stuff. So when I write a song it’s usually really simple but his stuff is all over the place and I’m like, “I’m gonna go ahead and dumb this shit down.”
Roulston: Well, that’s called “rocking it up.”
On their perfectionism in the videos:
Freeman: I think I’ve worked harder on this than on anything I’ve worked on, ever. There have been times that my actual job has bummed me out, but there have been times with this shit where I wanna cry.
Roulston: It’s toil.
Freeman: There’s been times when we worked on this 50 or 60 hours a week, while still working our regular jobs 40 hours a week. I mean, [we were] working to the point where it’s almost ruined friendships and relationships.
Roulston: But the best thing about it is, the other members of the band? They don’t seem to argue! [Laughs]
Freeman: On the videos, I’m of the opinion that Luke could pretty much fake it, that he could hit some wrong notes. But he refuses. He refuses to hit one wrong note, even though it wouldn’t matter.
Roulston: If there was a bass player [in the audience] that actually had perfect pitch and knew his shit, he would know.
Freeman: And that’s why he obsesses. We’ll get done taping and he’s like “I missed a note,” and I’m like “I played it fucking perfectly! I’m bleeding!” and he’s like “Let’s do it again.” And I’m like “Fuck!” and I fucking duct-tape my hand back together, [and] do it again.
On the band’s sound and influences:
Roulston: Thus far, we’ve been compared to ’90s music. But I love ’90s music. Our big influences are the Jesus Lizard and the Pixies and Nirvana and the Foo Fighters and, you know, just hard-hitting drums. And he [Freeman] plays better than most drummers I’ve ever seen.
Freeman: Yeah, all my favorite bands are fucking gone. Jesus Lizard and fuckin’ Seaweed, Failure, whatever. Bands that nobody remembers.
Roulston: At least the Pixies came back, I guess. You know what I liked? When Frank Black came to the Duck Room. That was a really fucking awesome show. I have nothing but respect for him. Actually, I have nothing but respect for anybody in the Pixies. They’re just… God! What a great fucking band! I would say, like, that’s the band that I would aspire to lick their…
Bare Is My Mind?
Bobby Bare Jr. covers up with his ace Pixies and Breeders tribute act.
By Jaime Lees
Published: January 2, 2008
Call him what you will — Charles Thompson, Black Francis or Frank Black, but as the frontman of the Pixies, ol’ what’s-his-name deserves a little praise. From 1985 to 1993 Black pulled lead singing and songwriting duties for America’s preeminent alternative band — and is credited with bringing killer caterwauls, magnetic guitar hooks and paranoid, UFO-themed lyrics to the masses. The Pixies reigned over college radio and youth culture for a time, and the bands that followed in its sonic wake still hail the power of the quartet as a revelation. (Most famously, its loud/quiet/loud dynamic was claimed to be the sound inspiration for a blue-eyed, blond-haired guy fronting some band called Nirvana.)
Nashville singer-songwriter Bobby Bare Jr. counts himself among the Pixies’ many fans. As the son of country musician Bobby Bare, he grew up around music and has the distinction of receiving a Grammy nomination at the age of five. First fronting the rock band Bare Jr. — and now as a solo artist churning out stripped-down, bittersweet compositions that push the envelope of alt-country — Bare has found genuine success throughout his entire career.
But for now, Bare has put all solo and future plans on pause in order to squeeze one more project into his busy schedule: His very own Pixies cover band, Is She Weird, Is She White. (Appropriately, it’s currently touring with a Guided By Voices cover band, the Teenage FBI.) Bare’s Pixies covers can sound much different than the originals, often changing the tempo or the tone of the songs — making these interpretations insightful, if not asking the audience to listen again with fresh ears.
Which begs the question: Why would Bare, a renowned solo artist and pedigreed musician, start a cover band? That scene is usually a schlocky, dirty world populated by balding has-beens and portly never-beens. Why would Bare take the chance of sullying his good name — and embrace another artist’s music?
“Because the Pixies fuckin’ rock!” Bare explains, enthralled.
And indeed, his love of Black Francis is well-documented. The lyrics to “Dig Down,” a song found on Bare’s first solo album, Young Criminals’ Starvation League, include Francis in an exalted list of historical rock icons. Bare sings about all of the distinguished dudes who have used up all the soul and original ideas in the world of rock & roll, listing Francis in a pantheon of recognized legends including Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry and the Beatles.
When we catch up with Mr. Bare via phone, he seems honest and charmingly childlike, as though he can’t contain any emotion — be it excitement or insecurity. He comes off as a hyperactive kid on a sugar high when talking about music that thrills him, and he’s eager to relay fanboy stories of Frank Black and the Pixies (like a fantastic, “freaked out” moment when he sang background vocals on a recent Frank Black record). And of course, Bare’s most eager to discuss his past and future work — and undying love for the Pixies.
Bobby Bare Jr.: I obviously have been a fan for a long, long, long, long time. Because it’s like, I don’t know, do you dress up for Halloween?
Jaime Lees: Oh, hell yeah.
It’s exactly like dressing up for Halloween, for a musician. It’s just fun to be somebody else.
How do you have time to get all of this done?
It’s a whole lot of work. Usually for a real set you learn fifteen songs — like, for an hour [long] set. If you learn fifteen Pixies songs you’ve only learned 30 minutes worth of music. So, you know, we’ve got to learn twenty-something songs. And we do some Breeders songs.
What’s your favorite to sing? Or what do you most look forward to?
What songs? The ones like “Gigantic,” where I just play guitar. ‘Cause I never, ever get to just play guitar in any band. So that’s what’s fun to me.
Are the people who come to the shows your fans? Or Pixies fans? Or a mix?
Um, I think they’re just mostly Pixies fans. We’ve only done this in Nashville. This is going to be our first show out of town.
The St. Louis one is?
Yeah. We’ve only done probably four of these. It’s me; the former drummer from […And You Will Know Us By the] Trail of Dead [Doni Schroader]; and Beth Cameron, both of whom are also in a band called Forget Cassettes. And a girl named Leah [Paxton] who’s been in bands with the other two people.
How did you get hooked up with the Guided By Voices tribute band?
It’s other people who have been in my band. It’s my drummer from my last tour who is also the drummer for Clem Snide [Ben Martin]. The guitar player is William Tyler; he’s in Lambchop and the Silver Jews.
Did you go see any of their [Pixies] reunion tour shows?
Yes, I saw three of them. I played Sasquatch in Seattle and Austin City Limits in Austin where they were the headlining band….But they played the Ryman Auditorium [in Nashville] and that was the best show I’ve ever seen anybody do anywhere. Seeing them at a festival where there’s 75,000 people was just OK, but at the Ryman it was transcendent.
Did you hear any of the new Breeders album yet?
No! When did it come out?
It didn’t come out yet, but they leaked a single online last week.
Oh, wow. Is it good?
It’s really good. It’s sort of like, sleepy-time Breeders, you know? It’s really pretty. They said that they’re going to have a whole U.S. tour in the spring and do South By Southwest…
For the Breeders? Holy cow. Awesome. Isn’t there supposed to be a Pixies album, too?
I don’t know. No one ever gives a straight answer on that crap.
Do you think anybody will come out and see us?
Heck yeah. We’re big here on fun shows…So are you gonna call yourself Bare Robert or something?
Naw, I’ll just be Bobby.
9 p.m. Thursday, January 3. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $10. 314-773-3363