Refrigerator Article in Puncture #41, Spring 1998 by Franklin "the King"
"WE'RE ALL TANGLED UP AGAIN." Allen Callaci says
it at the end of the chaotic live version of Bruce Springsteen's
"State Trooper" that ends Refrigerator's 1991 vinyl-only 33 1/3
Long Play ( on Eighteen Wheeler). Every time I hear it, I picture
Allen lying on the makeshift stage at Munchies' (the sandwich shop,
now a Subway, that helped midwife the so-called "Shrimper scene" in
Pomona, CA that helped midwife the so-called "Shrimper scene" in the
early '90's), shirt off, wrapped up in a microphone cord.
It also reminds me that there's no way for me to write about this
band or the people in it without owning up to connections between our
lives, musical and otherwise. So: Brothers Allen and Dennis Callaci
(vocals and guitar, respectively), like myself, grew up
Italian-American in Upland, a former citrus town about 40 miles east
of Los Angeles. (We went to different schools, and didn't meet until
Dennis started working at a local record store.) Nothing Painted Blue
(my band) and I have released tapes on Shrimper, Dennis'
once-cassette-only label-as influential for its low-key cottage
industry modus operandi as for its catalog, which includes
Refrigerator's last two records, as well as releases by Sentridoh,
Boston's Secret Stars, Sweden's Bingo Trappers and many local
projects. Rocking Horse Loser, their first 7", was released by
Jupa, a label I helped run. My band's covered their "Anti-Nomination"
on record (and Allen's sung it with us on stage), and I've been known
to play "Tourists," while they recorded a version of our
"Epistemophilia" for a tour-only cassette. They met their newest
member and first-ever bassist, Daniel Brodo, after he started playing
with me. I've ended up on stage with them a few times, and it looks
like I'll be playing piano on the next Refrigerator record--hell, I'm
even handling extra guitar on that very version of "State Trooper,"
though I can't tell which bundle of treble is me and which is Dennis.
Tangled up, indeed. (I didn't end up on the floor with Allen, though.
At least not that time.) But enough about me.
YOUNG CONFUSION: Before Refrigerator, when Allen
was a senior and Dennis a sophomore at Montclair High, there were the
Bux. Allen: "The first Bux tape was made December 6, 1985--it's
written on the label. We released a Bux tape on that date for the
next five years."
Dennis: "Bucky Meadows, the guitarist in [local metal act] Angel,
had a pre-Angel band called Buxx. Stealing that seemed like a good
idea. The first tape was self-titled [The Bux, with one x]. We
made only 4 or 5 copies. We didn't make more, or try to distribute
the tapes, until '88 or so."
Allen: "Dennis and the drummer were in this R & B band called
Zahaba, and the singer, Joe, a guy in his mid-twenties, didn't show
up for practice one day. I had drawn a phony ad for Knickers
Down [the only album by the original Buxx], with fake titles like
"Microwave Poodle." So I wrote a couple songs and Dennis wrote a
couple songs, and we kept doing the Bux in Zahaba until we got kicked
Dennis: "Zahaba was supposed to play at that Mexican restaurant
[Don Jose's] next to Best in Montclair, but it never worked out. One
day Joe left a demo track he'd recorded at our house, and Allen
recorded vocals on it--"Frankenstein's House of Freaks." When we
played it for him, he was disgusted and the band got broken up."
Current drummer Chris Jones was around as well. "I've known Dennis
since we were nine. I'd come over and play on songs when the real
drummer wasn't there, I'm probably on about 40% of the Bux stuff. I
wasn't so much on the music side, but I made a bunch of
videotapes--30 or 40 of them, like the video for "Frankenstein's
House of Freaks" where our friend Jim [Coppola, of Shrimper
compilation stars Satnam Puppets] blows up at the end."
As Dennis says, most of the early Bux material was made on the
dub-a-few-copies-for-friends scale, though some appear on the
out-of-print Shrimper tape Yeast for Veal, which alternates
the alleged "worst" of The Bux with equally half-baked songs by WCKR
SPGT, a darker-humored but equally prolific Inland Empire
tape-outfit. (Also, a visit to Dennis' house often includes a dip
into the vast Bux archives.) Listening to Yeast for Veal now,
the main impression is of adolescent but free-spirited satires on
mainstream rock genres, from Foreigner swagger ("Mama don't
know/You're goin' to a rock 'n' roll show") to the power balladry of
"Yes, I've Been In Love" ("...but I'm not anymore"). Allen, under the
pseudonym I. A. Coca, uses a high, intentionally unpleasant singing
voice--imagine a cartoon character based on Journey's Steve Perry.
(Band members still fall into this voice for wisecracking.)
Even this early on, the elements of Dennis' unique guitar
vocabulary are heard, and on Hair, Nails, and Skin, a late Bux
tape but one of the earliest Shrimper releases, unironic songs like
the plaintive "Feeding Seagulls" prefigure what Refrigerator would
ALL THESE BILLS AND PROBLEMS ARE PILING DOWN ON
ME. Alan: "Before the Bux broke up, Dennis and I had started
making tapes of different stuff we'd written that the drummer
wouldn't play. There's some of that on the last Bux tape: to get him
to play a slow one, we'd have to throw in five hardcore songs."
Refrigerator was born in 1990-'91, when the aforementioned
drummer, also an occasional housemate, kicked himself out of the
band. Dennis: "Around the time our father died, our first drummer was
involved in drugs. He stole a bunch of my sister's belongings, and he
was kind of a coward about it. I ran into him at a comic book store
later, but he never apologized. It left a bad taste. Terrible things
had happened to Allen and me the year before. It was just growing
up--we wanted to approach it without being silly."
Asked to name the first song written as Refrigerator, Dennis
mentions one about the drummer that he's not sure if they've ever
released, while Allen names "Lonesome Surprize," the title track of
their first cassette, mostly culled from a live set on local college
station KSPC and released around the time the label was beginning to
run ads in zines and get mail orders from across the country. It's a
signature tune, with its descending classic-rock progression (think
"You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" or "Sweet Home Alabama") manhandled into
postpunk by Dennis' guitar, skilled-but-scattered drumming from new
recruit Joel Connel, and Allen delivering, with the pleading ache of
his natural voice, lyrics that seem (like much of Refrigerator's
best) an oblique response to personal loss: "I stepped into my
shower, feeling more wet than baptized/Here's your lonesome
surprise." It's an anti-anthem, at once heartfelt and tossed-off.
On the serious side, there's also the ballad "Albert Caboose" and
the high-school valedictory "Class of Next Year" ("All you future
leaders/All the kids you'll step on"). And there's plenty of
vestigial Bux silliness in the hardcore of "F Word" and the closing
cover of Prince's "Annie Xtian," and the title with its '80's-metal
misspelling. Allen: "I was going between my I.A. Coca voice and my
real voice. The Bux voice was totally made up--but it's how I'd been
singing for five years." At its best, Lonesome Surprize has
riffs and melodies insistent enough to connect emotionally despite
layers of sonic haze--the band's limited if growing instrumental
reach, the inexpert studio engineering, and the generation loss of
Shrimper's multiple dubbing decks.
TINA LIVES BY WHERE A SPEEDWAY USED TO BE: The
cassette, LP, and seven-inches following Lonesome Surprize are
a patchwork of Munchies' "field recordings," home-taped items, and
early studio forays, studded or littered with gems and frustratingly
half-baked experiments. 1993's How You Continue Dreaming (on
Communion), the band's first CD, is the payoff. Individual songs may
be tightly arranged ("Bicycle") or diffuse (the title track), but,
against the odds, all 20 fragments hang together. The record's
musical cohesion is all the more remarkable in that its percussive
duties are split between the departing Joel Connel and now-permanent
drummer Chris Jones. Dennis: "There was no plan for Joel to leave, he
kind of got busy and lost interest at the same time. Also, we'd known
Chris for so long." Chris adds, "I'd been away from the Empire at
college for a few years, but I met everyone again at Dennis' bachelor
party. After the wedding, I sat in on drums at a Satnam Puppets show,
and Dennis asked me to fill in for Joel a few times after that."
If Lonesome Surprize focused on personal losses, including
that of innocence, Dreaming inscribes the same losses within
the frame of social and economic changes within Upland and the nearby
towns collectively known as the "Inland Empire." (This grandiose
term, invented by the area's commercial interests, has been
appropriated by the local music community with a mixture of sarcasm
and local pride.) The Callacis (and I) have watched the last vestiges
of semi-agricultural communities, largely ignored by the neighboring
metropolis, be replaced by a patchwork of housing tracts and strip
malls, a grab bag for land-developer greed. Orange groves turn into
parking lots, wineries into burger joints, and the old Ontario
Speedway into an outlet mall anchored by the country's most
technologically advanced multiplex.
Allen: "A lot of that came from working at the Upland Public
Library and seeing old photographs of the area, and reading that book
Pomona Queen [a noir novel by Kem Nunn, with key scenes
set on the same block as Munchies]. I'm just writing about small
things, odd moments from out here. It's like we live in L.A.'s
shadow. But what people go through out here is any less important."
On the gentle "Colton" and "Old City Cool" ("we know our way
around here in the dark") Refrigerator vividly romanticize the area,
while on the distortion-and-voice "Orange Blossom," an enraged Allen
seems to embody the city itself--"Orange blossoms, dead
possums...I've changed my name, and I've changed my price." And the
withering put down from "Insect" ("Ain't it funny how you ended up
becoming what you swore you'd never be?") could be directed at Upland
itself (or Pomona or Chino) as easily as at some near-unrecognizable
friend. Which, in a way, is what these cities are.
YOU'RE AT THE WRONG SHOW, IN THE WRONG HOLE: If
all this sounds like quite a departure from "Microwave Poodle" and
"Frankenstein's House of Freaks," you've never seen Refrigerator
live. Allen is a merciless ham on stage, jumping on tables, rolling
on the floor, unbuttoning a loud sportshirt to show an inch or two of
high-riding boxers, and generally acting out the fantasies of the
lifelong Bruce Springsteen fan he is. Dennis, meanwhile, is a
wisecracking loose cannon, tripping his unsuspecting brother at a
moment of high arena-rock drama, turning the guitar part of any given
song into feedback or scratchy, Derek Bailey-esque improvisation, and
ranting about whatever comes to mind. A recent show at the Blackwatch
Pub, one of the few live venues left in the Empire, found a cover of
Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me" dissolving into Dennis'
motor-mouthed counting (as in the Phillip Glass opera Einstein on
the Beach), immediately followed by a tight version of "Ceiling"
(from an early single), and a rocking new arrangement of the
once-acoustic "Anti-Nomination," an even older song. The evening
ended with a brief appearance by Allen and Dennis' rap alter ego
To-N-Fro (the "Fro" being Allen's frizzy hair), an idea they've
kicked around since junior high.
Dennis explains, "The songs are pretty serious...performing them
live, you don't want to be phony, putting forth emotions with no
levity. It's fun to stretch things out and see what happens, too,
though that can get to the point of being cliched....When we play, I
still feel like a bastard son--at every show, I know someone there is
going 'What the fuck is this?' "
Their approach can be an acquired taste--I've heard people say
they didn't like Refrigerator until after seeing them half a dozen
times; and it can have a strange effect whenever the band make it
over Kellogg Hill for a rare show in L.A. proper. Dennis' rants turn
pointed, with self-aggrandizing local DJ Chris Douridas a favored
target. To see Allen dance into a trendy Silverlake crowd like a
warmer version of Chris Knox (a fan and occasional touring partner)
is to see something brave, endearing, and unusual in rock: he's
acting as he would in front of a handful of hometown friends.
Chris adds: "I think the improv level is much the same whether
we're playing at the Blackwatch or opening for someone at The
Roxy--if we're going on a tangent, it could happen either place. If
we're tired, we do it straighter: if we've been travelling all day,
it might happen because we're in another town."
Too bad Refrigerator hardly ever tour, despite semiannual trips up
the West Coast and a week of East Coast shows with Yo La Tengo. And
too bad more people don't have as healthy a view of the relationship
between their bands and the rest of their lives. Dennis: "We only
tour for a week a year--like guys going fishing. If we keep it to a
week or 10 days, it's fun. I wouldn't mind having the chance to do
three weeks scattered over a year, but with family and jobs, we
couldn't do it in a block." Allen agrees: " The library has been good
about giving me time off. But it's hard to get people I work with to
understand the idea that we put out our CDs ourselves. They think
it's either a hobby, and you play in the local bar, or you're trying
to make a career out of it. Neither of those frames fit us."
I SHOULD LEARN TO SURVIVE: Refrigerator's latest
(self-titled) record, also on Shrimper, is another breakthrough, this
time sonically. (For reasons I don't fully understand, 1995's
Anchors of Bleed doesn't seem up to their usual standard.)
Still recording with Inland Empire house engineer Bob Durkee, but
this time on 16 tracks, the sessions don't smooth out Refrigerator's
jagged edges, but fix them in rich, spacious settings. Dennis has
made a science of harnessing the oddities of his aging amplifier
(spray-painted POP INDUSTRY) into an eloquent range of
squeals, overtones, and buzzes. It's as much an instrument as his
guitar, and sounds as personal as Allen's voice. Chris' drumming
seems fully integrated for the first time, supplying uncluttered but
intriguing beats reminiscent of Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley.
"Unrealized," with its slow dynamic build and shifting textures
(including a banjo solo by Zorn-connected avant-guitarist Buckethead,
a high school friend of Jones'), would have been unthinkable on a
previous record. The songs-- from the early-Who-derived "Young
Confusion" and wiry "Splitting Atoms" to the sprawling, evocative
"Somehow"--are among the most fully-realized they have done.
Will this newfound studio savvy distress those who think of
Refrigerator as lo-fi flagwavers? Dennis doesn't think so. " I don't
really think anyone thinks that way. The resistance comes from places
I don't have any respect for, like Alternative Press or
Option--people who got it all wrong to begin with....I think
we've changed with every record. The first two are 4-track,
Anchors of Bleed is 8-track, and the new one is 16-track. At
first, I wanted to record things you could perform live in one take,
with one guitar. But we all feel we haven't really toyed with our
songs that much. With the next recordings, we'll probably have a lot
of bass and piano. We don't want it to be, here's another 4-track
recording--people get tired of hearing the same record."
Allen: "We're harder to satisfy each time.... Now, when I'm
singing, I know better what I'm trying to do. Also, when we first
recorded with Bob, we didn't know that much about the studio. It was
like, if we can get guitar, drums, and vocals all on four tracks,
then why would we need eight?"
TAKE IT SLOW, IT'S EASY: While I'm coming clean
about conflict of interest, I might as well go the distance and admit
that at times I envy Refrigerator a little. I envy the fact that they
still live where we all grew up and played shows together, while I
chose to move into L.A. for grad school. I envy (and admire) the way
they've garnered some of the attention and respect they deserve
without ever making a record for someone they don't respect, or
inflating their egos by tossing their label's limited funds into
radio and press promotion. As Dennis puts it, "We're not trying to be
isolated, but we're not trying to force it down anybone's throat, or
trick anybone into liking it." Dennis' actions, both with
Refrigerator and with Shrimper, back this statement up.
Most of all, I envy Refrigerator for the way they suggest a story,
sum up a friendship, or commemorate an entire city with two chords
and a few words; or the way that, live, they can be self-immolating
and genuinely moving at precisely the same moment. It's a strange
kind of envy, and something like love.
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