You might not expect the term "punk" to accurately describe a horn-fueled, co-ed, eveningwear-clad cabaret band that combines the music of Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean with ska, Dixieland jazz, gospel, chamber pop, Irish revelry, swing and honky-tonk.
But that's exactly how Jack Terricloth, leader of the World/Inferno Friendship Society, chooses to categorize his group's music.
"We're a band of guys and girls who want to make punk a treat again. We definitely have the punk attitude," he said during a recent interview while on his cell phone at his favorite Brooklyn, N.Y., watering hole.
"To me, punk has transcended any style of music. We're trying to remind the kids that punk's in your attitude, not just a certain three chords."
The World/Inferno Friendship Society—known to fans as simply The Inferno—will return to Tucson for a gig Sunday night, Oct. 9, at Club Congress.
Terricloth considers The Inferno's new album, The Anarchy and the Ecstasy, to be "our most mainstream effort to date. It's less eclectic, shall we say, than anything we've done before. I guess it's just a punk record."
Sure, if you define punk as a no-holds-barred musical experience in which anything can happen—treacherous samba, mariachi horns, haunted-house cacophony, carnivalesque lurching, barrelhouse blues, Celtic melodies, Springsteen-style epics and urban folk operas in the manner of Kurt Weill. The album states its case right away with the manifesto-like opening track, "I Am Sick of People Being Sick of My Shit."
The Inferno began about 15 years ago when, Terricloth says, he was desperate for a creative outlet.
"It was maybe 1995 or '96, and I was running a recording studio with another friend of ours, and we were recording crappy punk bands every day. We must've recorded every punk band in New York City, and we thought we can't do any worse.
"We had this idea to produce fast music that was political but reflected a wider worldview than a lot of the dunderheaded rock at the time—you know, just dudes with guitars. ... I never really thought it would be a full-time job back then, and it became one all by itself. It has taken on a complete life of its own. It started as a whim and became a mission. For some reason, we came to mean a lot to people."
Perhaps listeners have come to appreciate that Terricloth and his collaborators write songs about subjects beyond the pedestrian pop fare of love, sex, guitars and cars.
"We always wanted to have every song be about a thing—not just that emo way of expressing yourself: 'I'm so upset.' And I consistently did not want our songs to be about one person, meaning me, or from the perspective of that one person."
Toward that end, World/Inferno tunes have tackled a variety of subject matter over the years, including Peter Lorre, Jeffrey Lee Pierce (of The Gun Club), Paul Robeson, Leni Riefenstahl, Dante Alighieri, Philip K. Dick and Joseph Moncure March's jazz-age narrative poem The Wild Party.
Terricloth's songs often bark at the listener with a chip on the shoulder and a "fuck you" attitude, but without sacrificing whimsy and a hyper-literate cleverness. Tunes such as "All of California and Everyone Who Lives There Stinks," "Zen and the Art of Breaking Everything in This Room," "I Wouldn't Want to Live in a World Without Grudges" and "Stay on the Charming Side of Drunk" are just as snappy as their titles.
The band has included more than 30 members over the years, sometimes more than a dozen at a given time. But the current economy has caused the band to scale back its road show, Terricloth said.
"We're down to a lean seven members for this tour. We made a conscious decision this time around to try to run a tighter ship. We're only taking one bus, whereas we used to take two when we went out on the road. But the group is still amazing. These kids are all crackerjack players."
After playing some 3,000 live shows (by Terricloth's conservative estimate), many gigs begin to blend together, he said. "I remember clubs more for their dressing rooms and backstage areas. When you play every day, that's what makes the biggest impression, unless there was a fistfight or someone didn't get paid."
The logistics of maintaining a large touring band can wear a person down, he added.
"A friend of mine told me, 'They think it's easy, because you make it look easy.' But every day is a constant struggle. Every two-hour van ride is one more obstacle to get to the stage. But we seem to keep getting there."
Terricloth said he still derives satisfaction from making and performing music, and it gives him a purpose. Either that, or he can't stop. "Once you stop trying, you're dead. Adventure is a form of protest."
Among the highs he experiences each night onstage is usually one especially exhilarating moment.
"I don't know if you've ever done ecstasy, and I hope you have, but that moment usually comes during a specific song in our sets, 'Only Anarchists Are Pretty.' It's kind of a required one, the only song I can't leave the room without playing. My face hurts when I sing that one; I'm smiling so much."
Terricloth said that he hopes The Inferno's music ultimately brings a little hope into the lives of its fans.
"When they hear us, they should feel that life doesn't suck as bad as they think it does, and that they could lift themselves out of it with their dreams," he said.
"You know, you broke up with your boyfriend; you broke up with your girlfriend; you have a crappy job and no money, but you still have a group of friends who care about you, and you can get away from all that for a while. Our music is really about a sense of community."