Cracking Wise

Inscrutability Suits Local Art Popsters Wise Folk Malcontent Just Fine.

CONTRARY TO WHAT one might surmise from the band's name, Tucson's Wise Folk Malcontent doesn't play anything even remotely resembling folk music. And don't call them an emo band, either; never mind that the group has sported several of the defining emo traits over the course of their existence -- emotive, heart-on-sleeve vocals placed way out front in the mix; straightforward, churning guitars -- especially in their earlier incarnations.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Andy Gardner, the band's only constant presence throughout their history (the current lineup features Steve Krolikowski on bass and keyboards, and Michael Newman on drums), prefers to think of his band -- with trepidation -- as playing pop music. Krolikowski suggests the Wise Folk-specific genre of "Andy-rock," a tongue-in-cheek play on the term indie-rock.

But the term pop music has become a loaded one in the past year or so, too. Ask the average music fan what pop music is, and they'll probably direct you to the Billbored charts, where all the current teen pop sensations reside. But before you start to believe that Wise Folk Malcontent has anything in common with the Backstreet Boys, keep in mind that pop music, in other circles, also means well-crafted, catchy songwriting -- which WFM has in spades -- or "popular," which, somewhat inexplicably, Wise Folk is not.

Wise Folk Malcontent formed in 1993 as a vehicle for the songs Gardner had been writing since age 18, back in 1989. Well-versed in the indie-rock world through booking touring indie bands at various locations around town -- including the Downtown Performance Center and Luna Loca Café, as well as clubs -- Gardner also displayed a natural knack for songwriting at a young age. When his peers were still composing badly written, angst-addled poems in their high-school notebooks, Gardner was writing fully formed pop gems like "Bailed Out," which still sounds timeless today.

While Gardner estimates that the band has been through about 12 members over the course of its existence, all of the current members agree that this incarnation maintains an unprecedented chemistry. (Indeed, in "opposites-attract" fashion, each band member reveals himself during our conversation in stereotypical terms: Newman is the quiet one, Gardner is honest and passionate, and Krolikowski is the wise-cracking smart ass). Krolikowski and Newman, for their part, both seem genuinely honored to be a part of WFM, and Gardner, for the first time in the band's existence, has welcomed songwriting ideas from his bandmates, which seems to indicate the amount of respect he has for them as well.

Accordingly, the band has recorded more material in the last year than it had in its previous six years. Following the release of their 1994 debut six-song EP Shoebox (Clever Trouser), Wise Folk hadn't released any recorded material until last year's stopgap cassette release, #14 (Where the Fuck's My Wallet! Records), a collection of home recordings of both Gardner's solo work and the full band lineup. WFM has also recorded a new full-length album, currently awaiting mixing, with Jim Waters at his Waterworks West studios, which the group hopes to release on a small independent label later this year.

The futility of trying to pigeonhole Wise Folk Malcontent into a particular genre is mostly by design. As Gardner puts it, "With Wise Folk Malcontent, even if we remain the same three people, it's going to change every six months. Or at least every year or so. There have been times where Wise Folk Malcontent was completely noisy, but we've also had cello players, vibraphones. There was a period last spring where it was very Neil Young-oriented, lots of guitar-wanking, whammy bars. My mom saw our last show and said, 'You guys are so '70s!' And it's like, 'What?' We're all influenced by a lot of different things. I've been listening to a lot of The Who lately, and there's some amazing pop in that stuff, but they're really not considered a pop band. Basically (our music) all revolves around the melody." And perhaps that is the band's modus operandi, after all: keep things interesting and challenging for both the band members and its audience by constantly changing its sound. And by the same token, those qualities could be what is standing in the way of making believers of the masses.

The band members all concede that they are far from one of Tucson's most popular bands, to the extent that they've pretty much given up trying. "I don't think that Wise Folk Malcontent is going to get very big in Tucson. 'Cause we're just not a Tucson sound," Gardner states matter-of-factly. "With the exception of How to Build a Rocketship and the guys from the Cassidines, no one is really making arty pop songs. There's a couple of straightforward pop bands here and there, but...I don't know. It's such a weird place. When we open for bigger bands, people tend to show up after we play. A lot of people still don't know who we are. Sometimes I think that if we were from somewhere else, like Portland, Oregon, or something, we might do better. I think that Tucson just isn't our audience, in a sense, because we tend to do better in other towns."

Add to that the fact that Krolikowski relocated to Orange County, California, several months back to take a job as a software engineer, which only allows the band to play local gigs about once a month -- though the band says it's not a problem since they didn't play a whole lot more than that before he moved -- and you've got, despite their reign as one of Tucson's longest-running bands, also one of its most criminally under-appreciated.

If there's any justice, the new record will provide Wise Folk Malcontent a reappraisal of sorts. A four-song sampler of the album reaffirms that Gardner hasn't lost a step in coming up with instantly catchy pop hooks, and finds the three band members congealing into a seamless unit. "Audrey Hepburn" is a subtle, Sebadoh-influenced creeper until the last minute, when it finally explodes; "Red Guitar" atypically features a spare Ennio Morricone guitar lick over a military-style drum march; and "Stereolab Rock" displays its namesake's strum without devolving into a pale imitation of its trademark drone.

In short, the band deserves, but does not expect, a larger local following. In simple terms Gardner sums up the state of Wise Folk Malcontent as it enters 2000: "We're just so happy to be in the same room together, playing music. It's a really good feeling."

Wise Folk Malcontent appears Saturday, January 15, at the Plaza Pub, 20 E. Pennington St. Mila Vita opens the show at 9 p.m., and cover charge is $3. Call 882-0400 for more information.