Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Haystacks: Regurgitated

The year was 1999. Grindcore, rap-rock, and other confusing musical crossbreeds ruled the adolescent hearts and minds of suburban Nebraska. Ska was back on life support, but the mustard plug was about to be pulled for good. Commercially viable independent rock remained a twinkle in Conor Oberst's dilated pupils. Nerd rock pioneers like Ben Folds Five and Cake had bravely blazed a trail for upper-middle-class balladeers, but they and their ilk were too self-absorbed and sexually frustrated to coalesce into anything like a popular movement. And so, listless and torpid in the post-coitus of Kurt Cobain and the First Gulf War, the township of Bellevue, Nebraska lay snoozing upon a musical faultline.

That summer, 16-year-old Keith Petit inherited a used drum set from a used car salesman, an acquisition his parents would rue for decades to come. Petit converted his minimum wage at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo into a TASCAM PortaStudio 424 mixer. With the addition of a $15 Yamaha PortaSound keyboard, all the trappings of a PortaBand were assembled in Petit's basement. But as yet he had no friends and thus, no band.

Petit's early recordings featured himself and whichever family pets were close at hand. They (the recordings) were not deliberately avant-garde, but sounded a bit like "Revolution 9" played backwards at 16 RPM. In his youth, Petit explored that sparse musical frontier between John Cage and The Bloodhound Gang. He relied heavily on his PortaSound's preprogrammed samba beat. His favorite (perhaps only) chord was A-Minor. Rock music was still intimidating to him and, afraid his parents might mistake him for one of the fauxhawked nogoodniks who smoked cloves out in front of Taco John's, he maintained a strict silence in the studio, always recording with a direct line-in connection and refusing to sing on any of his tracks unless the folks were out of town for an extended period: say, three weeks.

Meanwhile, as a marching band jock, Petit's circle of underconfident, acne-pickled friends was expanding. Before long, he had made four or five acquaintances who wouldn't beat his ass and were semi-proficient with unpopular brass instruments. Petit used his study hall time to delve into his high school library's expansive home studio recording section, where he found a slim, dust-jacketed volume entitled Start Your Own Band, which (along with instructions for building stage lights out of old Sanka cans and colored cellophane) chronicled the rise (but not the fall) of a fictitious 1970's jock-rock band named The Haystacks. It was The Haystacks whose final chapters Petit longed to write: the chapters where the band succumbs to creative differences and amphetamine addiction.

Not since The Beatles has the world seen a more agoraphobic studio band. The Haystacks were terminally afraid of performing, and indeed of appearing, in public, so they found refuge in Petit's basement on Hillcrest Avenue. There, the band wrote and recorded songs through a process they called stream-of-unconsciousness songsmithery. Lyrics were scrawled on the back of a Burger King receipt in the seconds before each session. A handful of chords were chosen, usually at random. Rather than rehearsing songs prior to recording, they simply hit the RECORD button and played so loudly and discordantly that tufts of asbestos rained down from the ceiling.

A glance at their early efforts reveals a stripped-down, minimalist sound when compared to their later, lusher, lewder work. The original Haystacks were a mere skeleton crew: Kevin Stinn on keyboards and screaming, Petit on drums, Jon Miller on guitar, and Jeff Hines on trombone, plastic wind tubes, and IBC Root Beer bottles. It was their very first session which yielded their least abrasive song: a spoken-word gem entitled "Cucumber."

"It's all there in the music," keyboardist/screamer Kevin Stinn says of Cucumber, taking a long drag from something that looks like a piccolo. "My mom used to teach at a Catholic school. I liked to play soccer with the fifth graders. I ate a lot of Subway sandwiches in those days. It's all there in the music. I'm not gonna explain it away."

Because the core members of The Haystacks were too socially inept to turn musicians away, the band's membership quickly ballooned to Funkadelic proportions. Andy Wenstrand contributed alto saxophone on a few neo-Basie numbers, while MENSA member "Toad" Taylor sat in on his homemade washbucket bass. A Franciscan monk known only as "Stu" hovered in the studio periphery and is regarded by fans as the seventeenth member of the band; he can be heard snarfing down York Peppermint Patties on a number of tracks. The Haystacks enlisted producer Phil Spector to add string ensembles to songs that didn't deserve them. Gradually, the Petit basement began to fill up with neighborhood gawkers and noisemakers - who were also included in the band - such that Phil Spector had to elbow and stab his way to the 424 to hit the STOP button.

Just as The Haystacks were starting to come together as a bandlike organism, Petit had his first experience with the then-unregulated psychedelic Miller Lite. Excerpts from his journal describe the intense revulsion he felt upon his first sip, how he dumped the rest of the can out in the sink and spent the next several days struggling through ego death and rebirth. He sank into seclusion and, as Phil Spector guarded the Petit studio day and night with a 700-year-old enchanted mace, collaboration was impossible and The Haystacks were suddenly reduced from a 37-man supergroup to a one-man chamber ensemble.

During this dark period, Petit's communiqués with the outside world were limited to a couple of EPs featuring African chants ("We Will Stay," "Dream Team"), sea shanties ("I Like Boats!"), and heavily accented Hindi raps ("Ball Song"). But it was with the surprisingly peppy Chicken Bucket single that Petit and The Haystacks finally struck gold.

"Mom and dad were at one of my sister's volleyball tournaments in Gretna or some shit," Petit says. "I went barefoot to the basement to cut a track before they got home. I got kitty litter in my toes. Between my toes, I mean. And I got to thinking about how bands should clump together, instead of allowing themselves to fall apart."

Chicken Bucket was a smash hit, peaking at #23,431 on the Unclassifiable charts at the now-defunct Built upon two not-quite-chords and the melody from "Devil's Haircut," the song was described by a member of the Bellevue West tuba section as "almost listenable." The Chicken Bucket EP also featured "Electric Football," a bareboned ballad about electric football and the loss of innocence, and was topped off with "Mean Ham Sandwich," a Nashville country jamboree featuring Jeff Hines on vocals, Petit on cornet, and Jon Miller on guitar: a harbinger of the more disastrous collaborations that loomed on the horizon.

The tripartite lust for fame, money, and sex with multiple anonymous partners finally wooed Petit from his psychedelic funk. The Haystacks reunited and returned to the basement for what would prove to be their most fecund studio session, recording some sixteen tracks in just over 34 minutes. Here we find them at their most intimate - the shuddering, undersexed horns on "Kopper Kettle" - and their most polemical - the rabidly McCarthyist "Communist Manifesto." Afro-Caribbean rhythms (or at least stereotypes) remained a key component of their sound on tracks like "Congo," whose lyrics evoke (and sometimes induce) a bad case of diarrhea, and "King Ridge Crabs," with Stinn's somewhat ingenuous Rastafarian lilt. They dabbled in hip-hop, inviting guest rapper RAJIV into the studio for a one-off freestyle that turned into a seven-minute exercise in scatology at which Henry Miller himself would've blushed. But the masses were growing restless. Bellevue ached for a full-length LP and a citywide tour. For far too long, The Haystacks had teased their fan base with sporadic EP releases and unannounced (and unattended) rooftop concerts. Over a round of Barq's Root Beers and three rounds of Putt-Putt Golf, producer Phil Spector unveiled his vision for The Haystacks' future: they would perform in the 2001 Bellevue Battle of the Bands.

There was a six-song minimum to enter the competition but, poring over their repertoire, The Haystacks failed to see how they could play fewer than 36 songs. Guided by Phil Spector's impeccable taste, they trimmed down their canon, disposed of several unimportant or unattractive members, and eventually agreed upon a seven-man lineup and a one-song performance.

What follow are the notes from an unpublished review by Clive Liverpool of NME Magazine, chronicling The Haystacks' first and only live concert:

Curtain rises grudgingly. Enter Haystacks.

Band seems to consist of a trombone, a tuba, a drummer, a guitar, a bass, a dancer, and a boy in a rainbow afro who serves some unspecified purpose. Oh, I see. He is the lead singer. Bassist is wearing a wifebeater with the word "GOD" scrawled across the front in blue perminent [sic] marker. The guitarist and the drummer are wearing matching blue uniforms and earthtone nametags - perhaps they just got off work. All are wearing KFC chicken buckets on their heads.

Drummer counts off, music begins. Guitar is barely audible - is it plugged in? Bass is flatulant [sic]. Unbearable groaning from the low brass section. Lead singer roaming the stage uneasily, does not know what to do during the intro, does not feel comfortable in the wig. Uproar in first few rows of the crowd: fans or hecklers? Are those batteries they're throwing?

Singer finally takes the mic and holds it at armslength like an unappetizing vegetable, sings the following couplet: I'm going crazy today/got a bat in my attic. Better get that looked at, mate. Melody sounds familiar, perhaps lifted from early Butthole Surfers? Chorus arrives somehow. Singer likes wearing chicken buckets on his head. So, evidently, does the rest of the band. And the gimmick comes out into the open: this is their hit single. Doesn't a band normally save the single for the end? Is this the end?

Trombone solo. Trombonist is furious. Look at him go. Removes KFC bucket from head and uses it as a plunger mute, with deleterious effect. Singer once again roams the stage, hides his face by turning away from the crowd and staring into the guitarist's amplifier, which is no larger, no more powerful than a shoebox. Solo winds down and for a glorious instant, the music stops. Is it over? Someone claps ... No. It continues.

This is the last chorus, one hopes. The low brass are blurting with heightened ferocity. Yes, the end is nigh. The bassist's wifebeater is dripping with sweat, blue ink is running down his chest. The guitarist's chicken bucket has fallen onto the stage, grease stains are visible on the inside, how utterly grotesque. The music stops. Again, there is impatient clapping. The curtain inches downward, sagging towards the stage like a lazy eyelid. An inept Phil Collinsesque drum solo and the dirge picks up again, this time at half-tempo. Wailing and gnashing of teeth. Someone is soloing but it is not clear who. Perhaps they are all soloing at this point.

Ritardando. The song is within measurable distance of its end. The band builds up to a chord that will not resolve to any other chord known to man. Good thing they don't try. After a murderous fermata, there is silence followed by a relieved wave of applause. The band remains stone still. Now they all look as lost as the lead singer, as though they've just woken from hypnosis to find that they have been masturbating in public. Clearly audible in the lull, a stage hand asks, "Is that your only song?" The band exchange glances. That was their only song. "Judas!" shouts an English folk revivalist from the upper deck. The drummer seizes an overhead mic and slurs, "I don't believe you. You're a liar!" Then he cries out, "'B-Flat Blues,' play it fucking loud!" and the band launches into one of those high school jazz band warm-ups, although there is some disagreement in the rhythm section as to which chords are B-Flat and which are not. The lights dim. The curtain drops suddenly, knocking both chicken bucket and afro wig from the singer's head. He appears to lose consciousness. Drummer flings drum sticks and chicken bucket into the crowd, either in frustration or gratitude. Lights go out, all is dark, only the fire exit signs remain visible. xDiztrezzDx is up next.

The Venaculas - a four-piece rap-rock outfit featuring three teenage brothers on guitars and their 56-year-old father on drums - took home the sweepstakes that night. The Haystacks lingered backstage, hoping to cop a stray beer or a female groupie from one of the actual bands, to no avail. Nobody invited them to the afterparty, so The Haystacks went out to eat - probably at the Sonic Burger on Cornhusker - and citing a mutual lack of confidence, agreed never to do anything creative ever again.

But The Haystacks' first and only public performance had stirred some interest among Omaha's indie scenesters - none of them female - and so it was that Phil Spector, always looking to make a quick buck off the lonely and disenfranchised, released the definitive 23 Reasons to Hate Us, complete with a string ensemble on all 23 tracks. It hit the charts like a dragonfly splattering against a windshield. The public unanimously agreed: they did not need 23 more reasons to hate The Haystacks. The album clung to the bottom of the US Avant-Garde Top 40 like a fat kid at the chin-up bar before it was taken out by a two-disc collaboration between Sinead O'Connor and the lead singer of Chumbawamba.

The Haystacks parted ways. Keith Petit spent the next seven years untangling the mess of cables in his basement and repackaging all of his instruments and mixers. He gathered up the tapes that covered his bedroom floor, shut them in his bedroom closet, and Masterlocked the door. It is said that only Phil Spector knows the combination. And so, like the Lost Ark, the lost recordings of The Haystacks have been hidden away for the salvation of mankind. But Phil Spector still holds the key to unleash the specters of that unholy sound, and all of us here at AMG shudder to imagine the Nazi face-melting that will certainly follow the release of the twelve-disc Haystacks: Regurgitated box set, due out in June of 2010.

- Mike Godol, AMG Music

The Haystacks:
Brendan Hartigan - tuba
Jeff Hines - trombone, plastic wind tube, IBC Root Beer bottle
Justin Kassube - bass, vocals
Jon Miller - guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals
Keith Petit - drums, guitar, bass, trombone, trumpet, vocals
Kevin Stinn - trombone, euphonium, bass, keyboards, vocals
RAJIV - vocals
Stu - ambiance
Andrew "Toad" Taylor - washboard bass, drums
Andy Wenstrand - saxophone


joe said...

this is something you have to read in pieces, for fear of your mind collapsing upon its self like a neutron star

Anonymous said...

this is really cool, I like here!