"You're not going to hold out, are you?" I asked Interlocking Grip frontman Capt. 12 as he made his way to the stage. The underlying subtext: Give me a reason to be here, or just shoot me now.
"Nah," he smiled, completely unperturbed by the band and the delay. "We play the same whether it's for three or 50,000." So that's what these guys are up to: They're aiming for the big arena.
No surprise there for anyone who caught their groundbreaking show at downtown's Rialto, during the 1998 TAMMIES Club Crawl. In a word, they rocked. I only caught the last few minutes, but the last, ass-kicking set featuring Aaron Bonsall's drums (if he hit anything else that hard, he'd face felony charges), reverberating echoes from Nick Luca's electric guitar, and the crackle and pop of DJ Kade's turntable had turned this crowded house into an ecstatic mob. It's one of the best live music experiences I've had in Tucson, with any band, touring or local.
So what have they done for us lately? They've been busy in their lair down at Wavelab studio, where Luca's day job as sound engineer (for the likes of Julianna Hatfield, Evan Dando, Calexico and Giant Sand, among others) buys plenty of time for the band's own prolific odes to sonic experimentation. In a genre-bending blend of disco, funk, hip-hop and hard rock, they've taken the sampling craze into a new dimension. Joining the random wisdom of C3PO and Austin Powers are sound effects (glass bottles, whistling trains) and sonic blips on the pop-culture radar that add texture to a jazz-styled musical tapestry that in lesser hands, or to the dismissive ear, might wash over as just another college-boy jam band.
If you're one of those people who has to know everything about your music, you'll give yourself a headache trying to explain this pop band of jazz musicians that sound like Primus, Jamiroquai and the Sugar Hill Gang all in the same song. But once the I-Grip has you, you sense you're in the presence of brilliance.
They separate the clowns from the circus.
In short, not your typical pop band. Elder statesman Capt. 12 has been racking up road cred as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist since the tender age of 16. A Gemini, barely 30, he holds an M.A. in music composition from the UA. His band Greasy Chicken, one of the hardest-working local bands in its day, earned him top jazz musician honors three years running in the Tucson Area Music Awards; and he spent several weeks in Europe this summer, backing up Howe Gelb on guitar, keyboards and vocals as part of the Giant Sand experience.
New to the band this summer, bass player Gunner has already earned nickname status, as well as the much-needed role of straightman in this trio of wise-crackers. (He was known in his previous life as Chris Giambelluca, the right-hand rhythm man behind J Walker Band, Nickel Bag-O-Neckbones and George Howard and the Roadhouse Hounds).
London-born, Phoenix-raised prodigy Jeremy "T-Bag" Patfield is a UA jazz studies grad who dominates the keyboards here, among other instruments. Another pro at age 16, his skill on the saxophone captured Down Beat magazine's attention several times, as one to watch among up-and-coming jazz musicians. He even earned the dubious praise of Wynton Marsalis, when the latter's Lincoln Center Jazz Band blew into town a couple of years ago. IG drummer Aaron Bonsall tells the story, reluctantly.
"I was a guinea pig," says Mr. B (the B is for Beasley, by the way).
"You were a lamb, to the sacrifice," is Patfield's laughing rejoinder.
"It was pretty brutal. He did a clinic with the (UA) jazz band, working with me, Mike Eckroth and Lee Gardner in front of 300 or 400 people. He basically ripped on us for a good hour," Bonsall laughs. "I got to play with him for a little bit, which was cool. I think the only positive thing he said the whole time was about Patfield. He actually had him solo."
So what were the fateful words? There's a long pause, wrinkled brows: "I don't really remember," the two friends say in stereo.
"I think he just said, 'This kid can play,' which we all knew. That's the thing about Wynton," says Bonsall. "He's kind of an asshole. I respect his brother (Branford) a lot more. That guy's a genius."
Included in those Down Beat honors was Bonsall, a widely respected jazz drummer familiar locally from a variety of UA jazz band permutations at Café Sweetwater. Mention of the Aaron Bonsall Trio sends him and T-Bag into peals of laughter. "I was a student then, with Patfield and Lee Gardner. (Lee)'s in New York now, doing big stuff. We still have a kind of transformation of that (free jazz), called Slop, which is me and Patfield with Matt Mitchell, and sometimes bass player Ed Friedland," he says.
"But that's just gigs. We're trying to go national, baby! We want to be rock stars. Playing Pizza City every Wednesday just isn't our shtick this time around," he says, referring to the Greasy Chicken days.
So there will be no regular local gig, we ask?
"We haven't found our sweet spot," Nick muses, "Our, our...zone of love."
But they've been back in full force this summer. And on the rainy night that began our tale, in record time this quartet of mild-mannered musicians transformed that tiny Congress Street stage into a wall of sound. In the same amount of time it took those half-stoned puppies to move two guitars and a drum kit, Capt. 12 and his crew unfurled their magic carpet to lay down drums, CD player, two keyboards, sax, multiple guitars and a row of pedals and effects. The ensuing show, despite its meager attendance, restored my faith in venturing out to hear live music. Watching these guys improvise is one of those increasingly rare experiences where music gets reinvented rather than regurgitated, and you don't need a Ph.D. in music appreciation to enjoy it. It's easy, it's funny. It makes people dance.
"That's the best part," says T-Bag. "Playing music that people enjoy--that's everything. That's why we want to be rock stars, so we can play that kind of music all the time, to people going out for the sole purpose of having a good time hearing a band."
Capt. 12 nods in agreement. "I don't know what other people like, but I like having my mind blown. The players we have here will assist you in the mind-blowing process. That's what I'm all about.
"I think we're the saviors, saving the world, giving some good music back to it," he says, only half-kidding. "We're not music snobs, but we are trained musicians. I think that's truly important. There's always this myth that if you don't know how to read music it's somehow better, whereas like, oh yeah, not being literate is going to give you more understanding of the language you speak.
"I say life is huge! We don't have to conform!" he beams.
"That, and we have to sell 100 CDs to get (Nick) out of the hole," says Aaron. "We finished the CD in May, but couldn't afford to get it pressed. So Nick finally put it on his credit card."