Union, Si! 

Thinking Fellers' blend of beauty and butt-ugly is perfect for full-moon trips on 880 in a hot-wired ice cream truck with no brakes.

When I lived in San Francisco, I used to see fliers for Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 stapled up on every splintery telephone pole. Intrigued by their name (what a bunch of fucking weirdos was my hopeful thought), I finally saw them at some now long-defunct bar in 1988. And indeed, they were gloriously fucking weird. I realized that I was witnessing an inbred birthing: just about every musical form that ever existed manifested itself that evening in combinations that I had never heard before.

After that show, I snagged their first recording, the fantastically strange Wormed by Leonard. They would later release about twenty more albums and EPs on various small labels. Originally from Iowa, the members of TFUL282 have been Bay Area residents since 1987. There used to be five members, but the drummer recently relocated to Boston.

The last time the band toured was in 1996. Financial pressures, and the fact that the members have day jobs, forced the band off the road. "We just couldn't afford it," Hugh Swarts sighs. "We were living month to month on a stipend. It was just enough to get by. I would have done it more if it was financially feasible, but it wasn't."

Anne Eickelberg agrees. "We all knew that we couldn't get to the next level of popularity. What we were trying to do was have a small specialized audience, so it's impossible to get on a major label and tour." As far as major-label interest goes, there never were any real offers. "We were sort of this secret with people in the labels, like 'It's cool to like these guys,'" Eickelberg says. "But they didn't know what to do with us. Once you get closer to the mainstream, they only have room for one version of everything. Sonic Youth is the noise-art band to fill that niche."

After four long years, TFUL282 has finally released a new CD on the Communion label, the glamorously titled Bob Dinners and Larry Noodles Present Tubby Turdner's Celebrity Avalanche. In keeping with Thinking Fellers tradition, the music is an inventive flux of tumultuous sounds. Strange and ordinary instruments converge to make a blend of music that is at once identifiable but yet vastly different from anything you've ever heard before. "Boob Feeler" is a freewheelin', effervescent whistling ejaculate of song, and the opening cut "Another Clip" is an overwhelming, godawful blend of beauty and butt-ugly that's perfect for full-moon trips on 880 in a hot-wired ice cream truck with no brakes.

Thinking Fellers create records by taping rehearsals; then, after accumulating hours of music, they cut and paste snippets of sounds together forming songs that have elements of punk, chewy bubblegum, bluegrass, jazz, and perhaps a movie soundtrack or two. This tradition of refusing to be hitched to any one "sound" continues with their latest album. You're just sitting there, minding your own business, thinking, My, this is a wonderful song. It sort of reminds me of the Velvet Underground--or is it Merle Haggard? Then a Farfisa, or a cackling falsetto, or an instrument you don't recognize whacks you upside the head and changes your mind about what you thought you were hearing. Sounds are harnessed and then set free in all sorts of unheard combinations. Syd Barrett's not quite dead, but I can hear his madcap spirit channeled in the desolate "Holy Ghost." "Everything's Impossible" is surprisingly structured: quiet piano and whispery backup vocals are unexpectedly and beautifully melodic. "Sno Cone" is a jittery, fantastic mess. The coaxing lyric, "Do I do it like a sno cone," reverberates and burrows in your head like a brain-eating insect. And just when you think you have the song figured out, there's some weird instrument on the loose that prevents it from being what you expected.

Much like TFUL282.

Ever since receiving the CD, I've been pondering the title. Mark Davies patiently explains: "These are characters that have been around for years. Well, in our imaginations. Tubby Turdner is this talk-show host and he has this show, Celebrity Avalanche, where he has the biggest megastars you could possibly get. Bob Dinners is his sidekick, kind of like Ed McMahon. Larry Noodles is sort of the Doc Severinsen bandleader."

How did this compare to other TFUL282 projects? "In the past, when we were touring, there was always some sort of a deadline, that we had to have the record out by the time we toured," Davies says. "Then when we stopped touring, we didn't have a deadline. That's why it took so long. We had access to some better studio equipment. We've always had trouble with the recordings--the people who would see our live shows would say, 'God, your recordings just don't have the same power that you do live.' How would they? You can't really replicate live sound. We had a lot of trouble with that, because we have so many instruments that a lot of times you get frequency cancellations. When different instruments are in the same EQ range, you end up canceling rather than adding to the sound. We've always struggled with that, but it came out different this time.

"We haven't been really working creatively for the past couple of years," Davies adds. "The first batch we recorded after we got back from tour in '96. Some songs we recorded didn't go on the album. One was a cover of Rosemary's Baby, a medley of stuff from the soundtrack."

"When we quit touring, we went into this depression that lasted for a long time," Eickelberg says. "We went into this little womb of home life and other pursuits. I rarely go out. When I do, I think, 'This is great, I should do this more often.' You see great bands and meet great people. It's hard to when you have other things going on."

In 1995, the band went on a monthlong tour opening up for Live, which is almost as bizarre a combination as GG Allin opening for Britney Spears. "It was an extremely odd pairing," Hugh agrees, sounding somewhat baffled. "Their manager liked the name and liked some of the stuff. They got 'Admonishing the Bishops' and 'Strangers from the Universe,' which are two of the more accessible things that we've done. We needed to get on the road and make some money. We got along okay, but there was a gulf between us as far as musical sensibility goes."

"That was a pivotal moment where we realized where we fit into the scheme of things." Eickelberg remembers. "Once you get into the middle of that industry, you realize that we're not going to fit in. It's silly even to consider, although the perks were great. But then you'd have thirty minutes of just complete hatred. And it's all kids! Their only exposure to music was MTV, and when we came out looking like their parents, they just said, 'No way.'"

As far as the future of the band, she says, "I'd kind of like to be like the Mekons. Not musically, but I like the fact that they're never gonna stop. They come around every once in awhile making cracks about how old they are, but they're still playing entertaining music." I hope to see Thinking Fellers in my dotage, still making gloriously fucked-up music.

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