The last few months have proven to be a whirlwind for Tucson's latest contenders for mainstream success. Prom Body has appeared on the blogs of Spin, NPR, Noisey (Vice's music arm), and Stereogum, each complete with a video premiere—a marketing strategy more in line with major label rollouts than a hometown rock band with one album released during an entire existence of just one year. On the eve of the release of Prom Body's second record, Naughty By Natural, singer/songwriter Mike Fay seems to be feeling a bit of pressure. Guitarists Gilbert Flores and Ryan Chavira are supportive of Fay and somewhat amused by their situation, while drummer Matt Baquet is unfazed but determined.
This begins to make sense when Prom Body is looked at as an operation where each individual member and outside contributors (visual artists Yu Yu Shiratori, Patrick Foley; Joel Leshefka, whose Topaz Records releases Prom Body albums) perform a distinct role, that by all accounts, is solely designed to put Fay's brainchild on the national radar.
Fay, 30, writes and records all of Prom Body's music alone in an extremely modest home studio, consisting of just some instruments, a couple of microphones, and some outdated recording equipment. When he uploaded Prom Body's debut Creep the Strange on bandcamp.com just over a year ago, it was just another side project from the local post-rock band Sleep Like Trees drummer. Now, the side project is a fulltime band garnering the kind of semi-mainstream attention for a local act not seen since Calexico.
Michael Fay was born in 1984 in Kansas City, "on the border of Missouri and Kansas," he says. The second of four children in a working-class home, his childhood was generally ordinary, but defined by the same sort of plot twists that mirror Prom Body's rapid ascension.
"My mom had bought me a snare drum in Kansas City," he remembers. "She knew I wanted to play drums but she couldn't afford to buy me a whole set so she bought a snare drum from a little music store. We weren't poor; we weren't wanting. But my parents couldn't just be, like, 'OK, I'll buy you a drum set for Christmas.' So, she buys me this snare drum, and I lit this candle or stick of incense on this antique table—I don't know if I was the last one to leave the house or what but I left it burning on the table. It fell over somehow ... the firemen said the fire started in my room. Basically, I burned the entire upstairs of the house down. Everything was gone. My family had to go stay at a two bedroom apartment, all six of us over that Christmas. But the insurance money from that fire bought me my first drum set. So I burned my house down and it bought me my first drum set."
When he was "11 or 12" the Fay family relocated to Tucson, where Mike's mother is from. Playing Green Day songs with his bassist father and learning the beats to Smashing Pumpkins on a drum set made of pillows because "they were just different surfaces I could hit without getting yelled at," Fay proved to be a naturally gifted musician.
At the urging of his parents, Fay attended church youth groups starting at 16, where he met his future Sleep Like Trees bandmate (and original Prom Body guitarist) Ben Kohlhepp. Throughout the following decade, he played in a multitude of bands including Sleep Like Trees, the experimental electronic act Bark Bark Bark (with Jacob Cooper, whose computer-based approach informed Prom Body's recording aesthetic) and pop-punkers Lifers, which Fay says had an enormous influence on him.
"Lifers was really new for me. It was, like, a power pop lo fi kind of thing. It was really something brand new for me. At the time I was still playing in Sleep Like Trees and trying to make music that was geared toward experimenting with time signatures and ambient stuff, and just trying to push myself as a drummer, that for me to switch gears and just play punk music was just amazing. ... Just learning about bands like The Descendants and The Buzzcocks just changed the way I viewed writing music entirely.
"What really shifted was that music (didn't have) to be about crazy, technical skill and doing things that had never been done before, or topping myself as a drummer. I had been trying to do things that would move people in a really, sort of melancholy way and I'd see people at these Lifers shows and they were just having such a good time, having so much fun. I started trying to reach new territory and simplify things, minimalizing the way I looked at music."
By 2010, he and longtime girlfriend Shiratori were back in Kansas City. It was during this time that Fay began writing and recording tracks that eventually became the first Prom Body songs. "I first started the Prom Body stuff just stuck in Kansas City," Fay remembers. "I struck out with some bands I was trying to play with, I was locked in the house—there was a foot and a half of snow outside. So I just worked on stuff alone. I was in an apartment so I really couldn't play drums. I'd set things up like a suitcase to hit my bass drum pedal with or use a drum machine with headphones. It was just like this recording as necessity process. I was just so tired of being stuck in a place where I couldn't make shit happen and I just had my four track. My computer had crashed and deleted an entire album that I had just finished. Everything had been mixed and just got wiped out. So I just said 'Fuck this, I'm moving on to something different.' I just decided to switch gears and try to write these pop songs.
"I wrote half of Creep the Strange in Kansas City in the winter, 2011-2012. My girlfriend Yu Yu and I were just tired of being where we didn't want to be in Kansas City and we missed all our friends so we came back. But getting out of Tucson and not having anyone to play music with and no resources was a huge eye opener in retrospect, because when I came back, I came back hungry."
Fay rejoined Sleep Like Trees when he returned to Tucson, and the twosome released the excellent LP You're Alright in spring of 2013. Simultaneously, Fay was finishing Prom Body's first album.
He says that "Creep the Strange was never approached as anything else than something I was gonna play for friends and put online. It was just a fun project. It was just fun to experiment with something new. I have to do that or I get bored and music becomes routine or a chore. I like albums where every song sounds different but you can tell it was made by the same person. There's only so many times you can listen to the same song.
"A lot of '70s and '80s pop was hugely influential—like, horrible stuff, like Roxette. There's parts in some of these songs that just have these brilliant, hooky melodies in them that I can't get over. But I approached every song as its own unique sound without having any preconceived notions about anything. It just had to be uptempo, fun, and like a pop song. The (lo-fi) sound quality is more due to my inexperience with (the recording process)."
The ensuing events were as surprising to Fay as his music was startling. Before the album was even released, it was met with critical praise from the Weekly, where this writer called it "astonishing." Around the same time, Fay says, "Once I released it, Joel Lefeshka, who runs Topaz, was like, 'I don't think you know what you've put out. It's really good and I want to officially release it.' That was the push for me to take it more seriously than I was taking it. He said he wanted to do a release show and did I have anybody in mind. Reworking the songs live was something I was interested in and I talked to Matt, who was still in Dream Sick at the time. I've known Gilbert for a decade and he was down. He's so prolific and driven; he's in three or four bands at any given moment. I knew if I got really driven people I wouldn't have to worry about them being committed if this started moving forward. I wanted Ben in the band and I didn't want Sleep Like Trees to fall on the backburner, but that ended up happening."
Matt Baquet, 23, was playing drums in the rock band Dream Sick, had just started a new job booking events at Club Congress when he first heard Creep the Strange. He recalls being startled by its freshness and coherence—but also, its accessibility. "As soon as I started listening to Prom Body I just was immediately struck by how palatable and marketable it was, but it was still interesting to people who like underground music or whatever you want to call it," he says. "I just thought the music was great and it was something I could do, promoting and booking for.
"The managerial stuff—I actually find joy in doing that. I booked shows in high school. I remember my mom dropping me off at the shows I was booking at 15. I've just always been into that side of it. I learned a ton with Dream Sick. I was pushing so hard for three years with that. I realized ... why wouldn't all the artists in the community work together? When Dream Sick started there wasn't a ton of places to play, mostly just the Red Room. I was trying to curate things here and there. My thing was just bringing everyone together. I'd share everybody's show on my Facebook page. It had to be consistent, so you could come to one place to find out about everything. Then I started my website (Jalph.net) and got the job at Congress. Things just kind of took off from there."
Prom Body's first show took place at HoCo Fest at Congress on Aug. 31, 2013. Fay, for his part, "was terrified. We practiced for a month before and it was great to watch this music I had made become a completely different beast. It was perfect chemistry. But I had never been on stage and sang in front of people. It was totally awkward—how do I banter with people? I'm more of a hermit. When my friends are out drinking at night, I'd rather just be at home recording. It's not very natural to me to engage with people so it's really hard for me to pretend that I don't care when I'm onstage in front of people."
Perhaps in a subconscious response to Fay's discomfort, the band's shows immediately became more theatric and elaborate, with band members wearing garish makeup and costumes and often employing props. "It started to become something where our shows were more than us just coming up and playing a solid set. The visual aspect has become really integral to what we do—every time we play a show I want new costumes and all kinds of stuff. It's important to just put in a little extra other than just playing in jeans and T-shirts, even if it's ridiculous. I've always loved when bands have a visual aspect. It just makes it a little more exciting," he explains.
Prom Body immediately became one of Tucson's most popular local rock groups, even opening up for the Cult at the Rialto Theater last winter, which Baquet notes "was our first non-headlining show."
Personal tensions between Kohlhepp and Fay—presumably over Prom Body's eclipse of Sleep Like Trees in priority and popularity—came to a head soon after and Chavira, 29 and a childhood friend of Fay's, became the band's new guitarist.
At this point, Fay had already started working on Prom Body's second album, Naughty By Natural. "I started working on Naughty By Natural in November. I write and record at the same time. I'd go in and just hook up different pedals and drum sets and try to get fresh, new sounds. I definitely approached this album from a standpoint of playability, know that each song would have two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals. I didn't want to make a rule of that, but just have a guideline that we could do it live."
The record, which refines the pop-oriented songwriting of Creep the Strange into something resembling traditional rock music, and furthers its hooks and accessibility while still incorporating the experimental textures and vocal-less interludes—but the pop song to experiment ratio is now far less balanced, with Naughty favoring the punk-inspired sounds (sometimes compared to Wavves, the Strokes, and No Age) that were once Fay's experiments.
After an enjoyable but stopgap live cassette split with Vancouver's Weed (whom Flores has toured with as a drummer), the public relations campaign for Naughty By Natural began in earnest, with Baquet and Leshefka (and some help from Drunken Piano PR) rolling out a series of four music videos—"Pretty Flowers," "My Paradise," "Guttuggering," and "Vibrant"—which premiered on Noisey, Spin, NPR, and Stereogum, respectively. There's a two-week West Coast tour that kicks off with the album's release on July 29. This is not standard operating procedure for Tucson bands, even though it could, as acknowledged by most of the band, amount to nothing.
Baquet says, "Maybe because of my job, I've been seeing all these bigger bands coming through and I realize these guys are just like us. That's what really makes me think there's no reason Tucson can't be out there with every other city." Chavira quietly says he's excited but doesn't take it too seriously.
"It's fun," Flores, 24, adds. "And it's my best friends. That's enough for me. As far as promotion goes and everything, I think it's great because Mike has made some music that needs to be heard and it's awesome to be able to help him do that.
"I think the coolest coverage we got so far was on NPR and it'll probably be the coolest coverage we'll get. ... I don't think it goes to any of our heads. It's easy to get excited about the future but at the same time I think we're smart enough to not get fooled by the illusion of what success could bring, except relish in what's happening. Our lives haven't changed. We just like going to practice."
Baquet maintains that "I want to go further than this. This is just the beginning in my mind. We're off to a great start and I know our tour's gonna be great. We have extra support now: We're working with PR people out of New York. ... I'm the kind of person who doesn't take no for an answer and I manifest my own destiny. That's where I'm at with Prom Body. Now we got a foot in the door so let's fucking bust it open."
The drummer seems to sincerely believe that what's good for Prom Body is good for Tucson. And that might very well be true, but Fay has no stars in his eyes: "I try not to think about it. If I don't stay calm I'll get nervous about it. I get nervous about change and having to get up in front of a lot of people or think about what it really means that thousands of people are now listening to what we're putting out. I don't know—I feel vulnerable putting myself out there to complete strangers. I'm aware that I'll be in situations where people aren't gonna like what I'm doing. I just deal with it by playing it down and not forcing anything. I just try to stay mellow and grateful about it. But I am nervous about it. I'm afraid to fail. It's hard to say because I never would have thought that this little thing I did in my bedroom would have premiered on these blogs that we all read. I have no idea where this is going. The more I try to control things, the more they seem to backfire. So we'll just take it as it comes."