Driven by intuition and a simple beat, Cash for Junkers runs smooth


Nothing makes me snirtle like seeing one of these "classically trained" drummers a la Neal Peart at Jay's Upstairs, making eight or ten trips to haul his box-frame drum kit in from the band van, painstakingly arranging each sizzle crash, China crash and rack of roto toms for maximum ergonomic efficiency. It's especially funny when, judging by the rest of the band, the guy obviously got suckered, blackmailed or bribed into the job, possibly drugged or merely kept in a state of impaired judgment with a constant supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The catatonically jaded look on the guy's face invariably suggests that he would much rather be home, alone, watching instructional videos or studiously replicating Peart solos from obscure Rush albums.

Catch Cash for Junkers at Top Hat this Friday.
Photo by Andy Smetanka

And a friend of mine is always wont to crack wise about such ill-advised hardware overkill. "Man," he'll shake his head, "I'm gonna demand a dollar refund on every drum this guy doesn't use. You already owe me six dollars, chump!" Snare drum, kick drum, hi-hat, floor tom, one ride and one crash. Maybe a cowbell. Any drummer worth a tinker's damn can get the job done with these basic tools.

And some of them take the basics and strip them down even further. Garth Whitson of Cash For Junkers even admits to some initial reservations about playing on the barest of three-piece trap sets-kick drum, snare and hi-hat-rigged together by a guy who lives behind bassist Matt Haugh's house. "When Buck Owens recorded 'My Heart Skips a Beat,' people were actually upset because they thought that the drums were way too prominent," Whitson explains. "Back in those days, it was a little bit jarring for country music fans to hear drums. The Grand Ole Opry didn't allow them for years."

How far we've come. Nowadays, with every FM country song anchored by what Whitson dismisses as a "heavy Def Leppard mix" on the drums, the stripped-down sound his kit brings to Cash For Junkers is a crisp departure, driving the band along without being too obtrusive. "Plus," he adds, "I've always wanted to play a drum kit that could fit on a small kitchen table."

Whitson and his bandmates-Haugh, fiddle player Lua Faverty, Tyler Roady on vocals and acoustic guitar, John Rosette on mandolin and electric guitar, Marco Littig on lap steel and National Resonator guitar-approach their music more like a pickup game of hoops than anything else, forsaking a steady practice schedule for the sweet thrill of doing it live and direct at Charlie B's every Sunday evening. It's hard to get six people together during the week, Whitson explains, so the cohesion in Cash For Junkers has developed almost telepathically. "A lot of it has happened by chemistry," Whitson muses. "A lot of eye contact and intuition going on up there. I think it comes from a mutual love of the music and years of listening to it."

Cash For Junkers plays the Top Hat with Tarkio, Friday, March 26 at 10 p.m. Tickets $2.

Nearly 20 years after "Blister," Violent Femmes have another day in the sun


Sometime during every adolescence, a murderous gloom descends on the heart, and that gloom demands an anthem. If you're a white, middle-class American under 35, "Blister in the Sun" by the Violent Femmes was probably yours.

Nearly 20 years have come and gone since Gordon Gano, reedy-voiced and tense as a post office gunman, pounded the lyrics of his anomie-ridden masturbation epic deep into teen America's subconscious. The song was and is perfectly weird, alienated and wry. "Blister in the Sun" has become so ridiculously popular that college radio disc jocks basically parody themselves every time they play it.

Six years ago, when the Femmes played University Theatre on campus, a packed house of several thousand thundered along with every lyric with the certainty of a soccer mob. Almost all of the pop music, indie and otherwise, released alongside Violent Femmes in 1982 has been totally discarded, but if anything, the Midwestern trio's fusion of amphetamized punk, pop and acoustic folk suffers the opposite problem. The band is really too iconic for its own good.

Now, the question is whether their post-punk, early Reagan angst translates to the end of the century.

Pardon my sarong: The Violent Femmes play the UC Ballroom Wednesday.

"We've never had anything to do with what's popular on a mass-market level," says Gano, who spoke to the Independent this week. "We just do what we do. I think though, that as time passes I get better. Hell, I know I get better-better at looking forward to shows, better at playing and better at singing. I'm able to do more in terms of improvisation or innovation, I guess, than ever."

What about the longevity of that first album, which might seriously grate on some artists anxious for their new masterworks to be celebrated?

"Actually, it's beyond flattering, to the point of being proud and humble at the same time," Gano says. "It honors the person I was when I wrote those songs. I think the older songs keep the connection to people who are the same age now as I was then."

Gano says he and the band-stalwart bassist Brian Ritchie and drummer Guy Hoffman, who replaced original percussionist Victor DeLorenzo-still write prodigiously, although there's been no new album since 1992. The Femmes are just now escaping from a contract with a record company that refused to release any of their new material.

"There is a dark side to the music business and when it gets dark, it's very, very dark," Gano says. "We could do three albums for sure with the material we've recorded but never released. It's just ridiculous, and hopefully it will never happen again."

As for the tight-wound internal strife that, so long ago, inspired Gano to fill Violent Femmes with tales of desperation, fantasized murder and self-abuse, the singer declines to elaborate much. Not that it's gone away, mind you.

"It's more the same than different for me than anyone else in the world," he says. "Every life has its points of tension and conflict and sometimes you just feel like you're going to snap.

"As for specifics, I'll leave it for the biography. The unauthorized biography, so I can claim it's all lies."

The Violent Femmes play at the University Center Ballroom on Wednesday, March 31, 8 p.m. Tickets $26.

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