If there was any justice in the world, Toronto’s Spookey Ruben would’ve become a weirdo superstar in the mid-’90s, around the same time it was actually still possible for eccentric bands like Primus and Ween to sell millions of records and gain some mainstream recognition for their offbeat brilliance. Ruben came on the scene with a similarly brilliant debut album in 1995 called Modes of Transportation Vol. 1 that should’ve achieved Chocolate and Cheese-level notoriety. But the album came out on the crap-tastic TVT Records, a label that has screwed up the careers of everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Lil Jon over the years, and that was apparently no less kind to Ruben. For reasons we haven’t been able to discern, they decided to release his second album, Modes of Transportation Vol. 2, only in Japan, which had the not surprisingly effect of causing him to drop off most folks’ radar everywhere except Japan. Well-played, TVT.
Fortunately, Ruben has persisted, continuing to release new music through his own label, Hi-Hat Recordings. He even managed to get back the rights to all (or at least most) of his old TVT material, and has plans to do a 20th anniversary reissue of Modes Vol. 1 later this year, along with a new album called Modes III that he just successfully funded via Indiegogo.
Ruben got his start playing guitar in D.C. area punk and metal bands as a teenager, before moving to Toronto to go to film school. His hardcore roots occasionally surface in his solo stuff, especially when he lets rip on the occasional shred-tastic guitar solo, but mostly his music exists on a folk/pop/psych-rock axis somewhere between Ween and XTC. It’s catchy and polished, but always takes unexpected twists and turns, either with goofy lyrics, cartoon sound effects, unexpected stylistic shifts, or even just in the way Ruben’s melodies often cut against the grain of his chord progressions, making tunes that are at once bright and oddly dissonant, like Beach Boys songs heard from a passing train.
Last year, Ruben took time out from his solo work to front a power-pop band called AAA Battery. They did a song called “Jenna” that’s not really that weird, but the video is fun.
He’s also been putting that film school experience to good use with Spookey Ruben’s Dizzy Playground, a comedic short film series that has guest-starred folks like Ariel Pink and Feist. They’re all pretty hysterical, but our personal favorite is “Natural Born Grannies.”
We’ll leave you with two videos from Modes of Transportation Vol. 1. First up: his catchy, keytar-fueled ode to fast food, “Wendy McDonald.” Bet this is Zayde Buti’s favorite Spookey Ruben song. Don’t stop watching before the xylophone solo or you’ll miss out.
Next: The song and video that’s probably Ruben’s masterpiece, “These Days Are Old.” Remember, before you judge: Everybody in the mid-’90s had bad hair.
Many thanks to Sarah Dukakis at Hi-Hat for sharing Spookey with us.
Good news for Primus fans who like reading and stuff: Tomorrow marks the arrival of the awkwardly titled but sure to be awesome Primus: Over the Electric Grapevine: Insight Into Primus and the World of Les Claypool, the first oral history of the influential, bass-slappin’, beaver-ticklin’ alt-rock legends. We’re supposedly getting our mitts on a review copy soon, so we’ll provide more details then. All we can tell you right now is that it was compiled by journalist Greg Prato and features interviews with all the major players in Primus—Les Claypool, Larry LaLonde, Tim “Herb” Alexander, Jay Lane, Bryan Mantia and Todd Huth—as well as friends, fans and occasional collaborators like Trey Anastasio, Stewart Copeland, Tom Morello, Geddy Lee, Kirk Hammett, Tom Waits, Chuck D and Hank3. You can pre-order a hardcover or Kindle version here.
In other Primus news: On Friday, they released another track from their forthcoming Primus & the Chocolate Factory, their tribute to the music of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, due out Oct. 21st on ATO Records. “Golden Ticket” turns the light-hearted original into a primal space-blues stomp—but in a light-hearted way. Les even whistles at one point. Yep, even by Primus standards, this one’s clearly gonna get pretty weird.
I know we’re not exactly digging deep with our latest Weird of the Day, but fuck it. Sometimes, when you’re having a tough week, you just need to crank a little Soul Coughing.
For all two of you readers who aren’t already familiar: Soul Coughing was a ’90s band from New York made up of singer/songwriter/latter-day beat poet Mike Doughty, vintage-jazz-and-cartoon-obsessed sampler player Mark de Gli Antoni, and the jazz-trained, hip-hop-inspired rhythm section of Sebastian Steinberg on upright bass and Yuval Gabay on drums. They met in New York’s downtown underground jazz scene in the early ’90s and managed to put out three brilliant albums of self-described “deep slacker jazz” before their conflicting musical tastes and personalities (and addictions) drove them apart in 2000.
There aren’t many bands I say this about, but if you don’t like Soul Coughing, we probably can’t be friends. Their music just ticks all the boxes for me: It’s silly but whip-smart, geeky but undeniably funky, weird but never far from a shamelessly pop sensibility (after turning solo, Doughty would cover Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” with absolutely zero irony), full of lyrical non sequiturs and slyly manipulated samples of familiar songs by the Andrews Sisters, Howlin’ Wolf and Carl Stalling.
“Bus to Beelzebub,” off their mind-bending 1994 debut Ruby Vroom, is too dumb (lyrically speaking) to be the band’s best song, but it’s certainly among their weirdest, what with its Raymond Scott “cartoon assembly line” sample and Doughty chanting “Quadrilateral I was, now I warp like a smile” and “Yellow No. 5” over de Gli Antoni’s razor-blade organ samples and Steinberg’s relentlessly marching bass. It’s really too bad these guys all hate each other now, because in their heyday, they were a force.
Stoner rock pranksters Ween may have called it quits last year, and Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo may be more into fishing these days than music, but that doesn’t mean he’s hung up his axe for good. In fact, in this cool new video from Noisey, Vice’s music blog spinoff, he proves he’s still got chops for days—even though he also claims to have only played two different solos his entire career. (For you fledgling young guitarists out there: They’re lifted from the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” and Funkadelic‘s “Maggot Brain.” Look ’em up!)
Over the course of a rambling conversation/jam sesh with fellow guitarist Matt Sweeney, Dean also breaks down how to play the Ween classic “”Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?”, argues that Jimmy Page is the greatest sloppy guitarist of all time, and demonstrates the only two proper places for guys to wear their guitar: “It either goes below your dick or over your dick.” So that’s what I’ve been doing wrong all these years! I always assumed it was because I’m tone deaf and never practice.
Spoiler alert: No, they don’t discuss the possibility of a Ween reunion. But our money’s still on Coachella 2014.
Sad news in the world of weird bands this week: Ween have broken up. At least according to Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman they have; Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo, heartbreakingly, seems to have been totally blindsided by the whole thing. “This is news to me, all I can say for now I guess,” Dean posted on Ween’s Facebook page. Poor guy.
We never got around to adding Ween to the Weird List sooner because, frankly, we’ve always classified them more as “quirky” than out-and-out weird—more left-of-center than, say, They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies, but part of that same continuum of late ’80s/early ’90s bands whose reaction to the bloviated mainstream rock of the era was to genre-hop with cheeky abandon. But we know plenty of our readers are big fans, so when news of Freeman’s breakup announcement hit yesterday, we decided to revisit their gargantuan catalog (extra-gargantuan, if you include all their self-released ’80s material). And you know what? These dudes were pretty weird.
The hardcore fans don’t really need a tally of all their wackiest moments, but for the punters, let’s include one anyway:
Their early, self-released cassettes, mostly recorded when they were still in their teens and getting baked in the totally adorable Philadelphia exurb of New Hope, PA (I’ve been there and, trust me, it’s like if Martha Stewart designed an entire town), included such immortal titles as Axis: Bold as Boognish and Erica Petersen’s Flaming Crib Death. They recorded everything on four-track and would frequently speed up or slow down the playback to achieve various creepy psychedelic and underwater effects, like on this track.
Their first major-label release, 1992’s Pure Guava, included such track titles as “Reggaejunkiejew,” “Poop Ship Destroyer” and “Touch My Tooter.” Amazingly, it also produced a hit single, “Push th’ Little Daisies.” When their label, Elektra, made them release a radio edit of the song that omitted the word “shit” from the lyrics, they replaced the word with a Prince sample and titled the new version “Push th’ Little Daisies (Shitless Radio Edit – No Shit).”
In 1996, they went to Nashville and made a country album. It was actually pretty good, too.
They followed that up in 1997 with The Mollusk, a nautical-themed concept album that many consider to be their best work—or at least their weirdest. It also inspired at least one great Lego-mation video.
They became one of the first bands to fully embraced digital music formats in 1999, when they released their next album, Craters of the Sac, exclusively on MP3.
They committed fewer acts of weirdness in the ’00s, although they did release their one and only full-on house track, the awesomely ridiculous “Friends.”
Even post-Ween, Dean and Gene have been keeping it weird. Gene’s first solo album under his real name, Aaron Freeman, is made up entirely of Rod McKuen songs. Dean Ween, meanwhile, has mostly gone fishin’—literally. You can charter a fishing trip with him on the Delaware River or off the Jersey Shore through Mickey’s Guide Service.
It’s also worth mentioning that arguably no other band, over the course of the past 20 years, covered more musical terrain. Ween songs range from punk to psychedelic rock to lo-fi bedroom folk to ambient tape loop experiments to country to reggae to bossa nova to funk to sea shanties to Led Zeppelin covers and back to punk again. They could seemingly do anything—and while much of it was done with tongue firmly in cheek, it was all executed with undeniable skill, which may be the single quality their fans love about them the most. Listening to the Ween catalog is like listening to a really good barroom jukebox after a really good bong rip.
We’ll leave you with “Push th’ Little Daisies,” which for me remains Ween’s crowning achievement (and yes, I know, that’s sacrilege to all you hardcore fans, but c’mon—how great is this song?). Also, how freakin’ cute are Dean and Gene in this video? They look like they’re barely old enough to drive.
We look forward to your Coachella 2014 reunion, guys!
Sometimes, all it takes to be weird is a lineup. Take Tinted Windows, a band whose music is actually kinda generic and boring, but the combination of dudes involved…wow! When I first heard about them, I thought it was some kinda April Fools Day joke.
Going left to right in that band photo, we have Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick, James Iha from Smashing pumpkins, Taylor Hanson (!!!!) from uh, Hanson, and Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne. Seriously, you coudln’t make this shit up if you tried.
Like I said, Tinted Windows’ actual music isn’t really all that weird. They basically sound like Fountains of Wayne with less nasally lead vocals (hey, that Hanson kid’s not bad) and that trademark grindy guitar sound from Iha. Power pop is what the kids are calling it, I hear. Very 70’s-ish to my ear…having Cheap Trick’s drummer in the lineup is sort of like having a human cover tune. And on drums…our influences! Give ’em a big hand!