Phoenix Hill Tavern – May 2, 1998. Derby night. Late. The Saloon is a sea of Tommy Hilfiger. Sunburned skin. Crew-cut twentysomethings heavy with a full-day's worth of beer. Middle-aged women in big hair, lip gloss and makeup layered thicker than a plateful of pancakes. Several people were carrying large snifters filled with a drink called Summer Sensation, a blue beverage that looked like a Windex slushie. Some six hours earlier a thoroughbred named Real Quiet had slipped first under the finish line at Churchill Downs to win the 124th Kentucky Derby, shutting out the handful of favorites. Six hours before that, most of these people had already started drinking.
Upstairs a ska band called Johnny Socko entertained in the Roof Garden, an acoustic duet called Hank Sinatra played in the next room over. Outside on the deck in the cool wet air was Dem Reggae Bon. As midnight ticked closer, more people began making their way into to the Saloon for the headlining act. A few people were being removed, too. I watched a neckless young man in a gray sweatshirt pound his wide head into the bar. A duo of yellow-shirted security guys pulled him past me on his way out – a red spot as big as a baseball in the center of his forehead.
Three huge ceiling fans - big enough to be used as propellers on a B-17 – circled slowly over the dance floor in front of the stage. Brassieres, panties, and boxer shorts hung from the blades of the fan in the center as clear evidence: the Velcro Pygmies had already been there.
They had played there as headliners the night before, Derby Eve, the one night when Louisville slithers out of its inhibitions and most of its clothing. No matter if it's Derby Eve or Night or Day-After, though. Undergarments on the fan blades is always part of a Velcro Pygmies show at the Phoenix Hill.
Several minutes before midnight, Steve Buttleman, official bugler for Churchill Downs, wearing his uniform of black cap, red cutaway, white riding pants, and black riding boots, played the "Call to Post" on his herald trumpet. The crowd erupted into a roar when he finished.
Shortly, another wave of cheers grew as shadows of four men moved onto the stage in darkness. Vocalist Cameron Flener, as slender and taut as the handle-end of a bullwhip, flipped his long, curly hair back and strode across the stage. "Tell you what," he said, "Derby's over. Let's rock and roll!" His voice has an unusual sound, throaty but with a sharp timbre, as if he gargles with a milkshake of molasses cactus spines.
His voice and the rest of the band were scheduled to last until 5:30 that morning, common for a band used to playing multiple sets in packed clubs for 51 weeks a year (one week off for Christmas), primarily throughout the southeast, and an occasional slide up to New Jersey.
Home-based in Louisville, the Velcro Pygmies roam the Southeast playing in clubs and always making an impression.
"We're on a never-ending tour," Flener had said of the band, which performs rock-and-roll full time, chalking up between 1500 to 1600 shows and, by their estimates, millions of sets in the eight years of its existence.
While some other bands gripe about the negative experiences of touring – a tasking schedule, constant exhaustion, dealing with indifferent or hostile crowds, clubs that pay little or nothing – touring and performing are one part of the job for the Velcro Pygmies. They are career rock performers without day jobs in restaurants, record stores or boiler rooms selling long distance service. Hauling their equipment, sound team, themselves and their instruments to gigs around the Southeast is their equivalent to what the rest of us do: rising in the mornings, stumbling into an office or factory or classroom, attending endless meetings, then coming home to dinner and four hours of numbing television shows.
Another part of their job is to hang undergarments from the blades of ceiling fans in packed music clubs. But it's a small part. Anyone else who would try that at a job would either be fired or forced to attend sensitivity training.
So what, specifically, are The Velcro Pygmies? More to the point, into what rigid category can they be shoehorned?
The Velcro Pygmies are an energetic throwback to arena-rock hair-bands of the last decade. For any who choose to remember, think of Ratt, Poison, Cinderella, Van Halen fronted by David Lee Roth. Or step back one more decade and think of Kiss in their original pyrotechnic, makeup-fire-and-blood-spitting lineup. The Pygs do cover versions of a number of your favorites from those periods: "Dr. Love," "New Girl Now," the Van Halen version of "Really Got Me," into which they tuck War's "Low Rider" and perform the well-known sax riff on kazoos. The retro-80s hair-band aspect of The Pygs receives the most attention and harshest criticism. Most of the critical reaction they hear is that they are sellouts: nothing but a cover band playing in fraternity houses and cramped nightclubs during spring break, blocking the way of serious musicians with a message.
However, the band also has a huge repertoire of original music, performed in the style of the songs they admire, that they have released on three recordings: We Ain't From Athens, 3?, and Dice. The song "Undeniable," from Dice, was written for the "National Bikini Champions" Pay-Per-View television program. It and "Love Machine," from 3?, have accompanying videos. A song of theirs was used in the obsessed-psychotic- teenager epic The Babysitter, starring Alicia Silverstone. Plus 3? and Dice contain their versions of "Dr. Love" and "I Think I Love You," respectively.
Yes, that "I Think I Love You," originally a big hit for the fabricated television band The Partridge Family. The Pygs' version is darker, metal-edged, more reflective of the song's themes of obsession and unrequited love. Hardly like the original version: sunny pop laced in 1970s harpsichord.
Regardless of criticisms and impressions, the Velcro Pygmies feel they are laserlocked onto target with their style of show. "We understand what we are," Cam Flener said on the May 9 episode of the Louisville Music News television show. "and we promote what we are, instead of trying to apologize for the way the band is. [When others say] 'you guys are nothing but an old 80s hair band,' they're right. That's what we are because we choose to be."
* * *
"That's always gotten under our skin from the very beginning," said Pygs' guitarist Blake Baumeier – tall, long-haired, sad-eyed, subtly humorous - referring to the 'sellout' slur frequently imposed onto the band. "We get a lot of flack about being sellouts. But we have sold out less than any other band. We've never played music in the Top 40, we never followed trends.
"If we were sellouts, we'd be playing covers of Smashing Pumpkins songs."
The five of us were sitting at a long table at Damon's, a ribs-and-barbecue restaurant, during lunch hour on Derby Eve. Two large, flatscreen televisions blared a local station's all-day coverage of races at Churchill Downs. The other two Pygmies with us were drummer Chris Eddins, tall and blond, known for balancing a drumstick on his nose during a show (or sticking them both up his nose), and Chattanooga native Jimmy Mullin, the bassist noted for his melodic, mathematically-precise fingerings and excellent tan.
Formed in 1990, the Velcro Pygmies originally consisted of Flener, co-founder and bassist Jeff Crane (now with Edenstreet), and guitarist Tony McElwain, currently playing with Silver Loop. Crane and McElwain left the Pygmies when it moved toward becoming a full-time rock band. Eddins and Mullin had known the Pygmies and shortly filled the empty slots.
Eight years, a new bassist and guitarist, and three releases later, the Pygs are at a point in their career where they are making a comfortable living at being full-time rock musicians, sometimes pulling in thousands of dollars per show off door receipts from a packed house. They have a new corporate sponsor, a caffinated spring water beverage called Water Joe ("Keeps men up all night," Flener joked at the Phoenix Hill show Derby night). The band discontinued sponsorship from Miller Genuine Draft and George Dickel whiskey, claiming alcohol sponsors for bands has become too cliché.
One cliché they have avoided in their never-ending tour is the starving musician, dedicated to his/her/their art to the point where they play to near-empty rooms then gripe about it. As Flener put it, "The only artists that are starving are the ones who want to." The Pygs avoid that by giving their audiences a fun show full of what the band calls the "pageantry of rock," something they feel is missing from many other performers' shows: flashing colored lights, loud rock tunes the audience knows (both covers and originals), bawdy humor. Added to their performances at Phoenix Hill: undergarments on the fan blades.
During a show a few members of the audience clustered tightly in front of the stage somehow manage to remove a piece or two of underclothing and hand it up to vocalist Flener. He then hooks it to the end of a microphone stand and lifts it to an awaiting fan blade. By the end of the show, the fan looks like a rotating display at a lingerie store.
"Anybody can play the songs," said Flener, "but there's a certain amount of charisma the band has. So much of that happens when the band's not playing."
"There are physical reasons why some bands work and some don't work," Baumeier said. "We see bands all the time that don't have a personality, but they're still successful because they're right on target by playing what's on the Top 40. And a band can make a living by just being a jukebox. What makes us different is our personality, not the songs we play or how well we play them. People come to see us make fun of each other."
Baumeier continued. "And I think musicians are just a little too serious anyway, as far as their music is concerned. I wish that more bands would put an emphasis on the performance aspect of the show. When 2000 people come to Phoenix Hill on Derby night, it doesn't mean they're all there to see the Velcro Pygmies. If it were all about the band and the music, why don't people show up at the rehearsal to watch? It's not as serious as people want to make it."
That attitude leaps at you from the homepage of the Velcro Pygmies' website. A box at the bottom proclaims:
"It ain't art it ain't politics it ain't philosophy
It's Rock and Roll Stupid (sic)"
The Pygs' reminiscences of rock's pageantry from 10 or more years ago also dominate their only two music videos. Undeniable is filled with the imagery and camera techniques common in music videos from the 1980s: rapid cutting, slow-motion, interspersed black-and-white shots, and girls, girls, GIRLS! Love Machine takes places in a world of techno-industrial S&M with fleeting shots of a snake and some children's toys.
"They don't make videos like that anymore," Flener said, almost wistfully.
A story in the December 16, 1996 issue of Louisville's business newsweekly Business First reported on the release of the Pyg's Dice. What made that story worthy of a business publication? Funds for recording Dice came from the US Small Business Administration (SBA).
The Velcro Pygmies are, so far, the only rock and roll band to apply for and receive an SBA loan. Thirty thousand of the $55,000 loan amount went to recording Dice, $7,000 was used to buy portable digital recording equipment, with two 16-track recorders (a money-saver, since the band can now record on site, save cratefuls of cash, and collect live material for future releases), and the balance went to paying outstanding bills.
The band has a strong entrepreneurial streak. A keen, responsible sense of good business and public relations. When discussing the business and financial factors behind the Velcro Pygmies, the Cam Flener who hangs panties from ceiling fan blades and belts out, "We ain't got nothin' to say / We ain't got nowhere to go / All we got is Na Na Hey Hey," is the same one who refers to the four band members and its three-man road crew as an organization.
"We've got a seven-person staff, plus lawyers and agents that this organization has to support. Everybody's gotta be paid every week, and the bills all need to be paid. We have to operate that way. That's a philosophy that all of us have been a part of developing."
Plus, like other civic-minded businessmen, the Pygs also sponsor a little-league baseball team. Theirs is called the Senators. It must be the coolest thing in the world for a group of kids to say a rock band sponsors their baseball team.
There is a calculated, almost diabolically simple strategy in their business presence in the city, and every performance, even in front of a crazed crowd: promote the Velcro Pygmies by keeping the name visible, giving the audience a memorable show, playing the songs patrons like to hear - including the original music - and offering the merchandise and CDs.
"We make our living playing music," Flener said. "So why would we rather go get an unrelated job, then get together at night to play and, every once in awhile, maybe get a break and play an all original-music show at Phoenix Hill on Tuesday night to fifteen people? The way we look at it, it's more important to put a thousand people in a room and have them hear your songs because they came to hear you play 'Honky-Tonk Woman,' than to stand on stage and whine through an hour's worth of all original tunes to fifteen people."
"Most original bands," Baumeier added, "only play about an hour-long set. Over the course of a four-hour gig, we're playing just as many originals in front of a big crowd."
It's the mini-mart model of profit: bring your customers in to buy huge fountain soft drinks at some sinfully low price, and while they're in the store they'll also buy chips, candy, cigarettes, and maybe fill their cars with gas for $1.20 a gallon. In the case of the Velcro Pygmies, the cover tunes, like a mini-mart's cheap soft drinks, are a loss-leader. You come to hear "Honky-Tonk Woman," you leave with memories of a great show (you'll be sure to check for the next time they'll be in town) a tee-shirt, and a CD, humming "We Ain't From Athens."
"It's all a path to getting to where we want to go," Flener explained. "I don't know why, maybe it's jealousy, but people look at the way we're doing it as being less noble than the starving artist route. None of us wants to starve."
"It almost sounds like we're trying to justify what we do," drummer Eddins said. "We make a damned good living playing music. Anybody would trade with us. How much fun is it, standing with your arms crossed in the back of the room saying, 'I could do it better.' Well, go do it."
* * *
It's been two years since the Velcro Pygmies released Dice, so can we expect anything new from them besides more visits to Phoenix Hill?
The band was silent for a moment before Baumeier spoke up. "We've kinda got a rift in the camp that we need to work out. Couple of us want to do a studio album. We own a portable digital studio" - the one purchased with the SBA loan - "we can take with us on the road anywhere we want. So there's the possibility of doing a live album."
"All three of our CDs," Flener said, "have only been released in the Southeast. So to everybody else in the world, they might have been recorded yesterday. We haven't even scratched the surface with the possibilities from those products. We can compile one record from the three CDs, maybe throw in some new tunes, then release that."
However, while the band is extremely successful, musically and financially, the band lacks a manager, someone to make them bigger, someone who can do the things the band needs done.
"Right now," Flener said, "we do it all. And when you're playing 200 dates a year, it's hard doing all that stuff. We want to be megastars, just like anybody. It's frustrating for us as well."
* * *
During their first set of their show at Phoenix Hill on Derby night they performed "New Girl Now," a mid-80s hit for some group I couldn't remember. But it did kick open a memory that sucked me back about eleven years earlier to the same place, listening to a band called Recordio, from Indianapolis, who were probably the Velcro Pygmies of their time. They, too, played mostly covers and had a lot of hair. I remembered they played "New Girl Now." And I remembered thinking how different it sounded, gritty, dark, with an edge like a scalpel. Four years later, that sound would leak from its established home on the college radio charts to become mainstream. It would be branded as "alternative" rock.
"Stuff like the Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam," Flener had said earlier, "is now Top 40 music. It's not alternative music anymore. The Velcro Pygmies are alternative music."
Back in the present, a stout young man with black hair and glasses sidled up to one of the yellow-shirted security guys standing behind me. The young man asked, "Y'all got an alternative band in here someplace?"
I chuckled. Isn't that an alternative band on the stage?