In the liner notes to Self’s just-released album Gizmodgery, the Murfreesboro-born, now-L.A.-based studio rats take special care to thank late-’80s college rock staples Pianosaurus. Why the nod? Because Pianosaurus was the first to do what Self set out to do on Gizmodgerywrite, perform, and record pop songs using nothing but toy instruments.
Though the band acknowledges its progenitors, Self frontman Matt Mahaffey explains that “we’re taking it a little further. We have the technology to take the toys and meld them into melodies. For me, it’s an exercise in recording.”
It’s an exercise that’s rewarding for both Mahaffey and the listener. His band’s fourth album is its most invigorating and enjoyable collection of songs since its auspicious debut back in 1995. Kicking off with the mercurial, Cornelius-like head-trip “I Am a Little Explosion,” Gizmodgery proceeds through 12 tracks of danceable pop spiked with so much techno-clank that the original conceit of tinny, childlike instrumentation isn’t immediately noticeable.
Mahaffey concedes that the professional sheen he added to the kiddie gimmick “could be looked at as a hindrance. But I don’t know, maybe [people] will just accept the songs as they are.”
If nothing else, the toys were a constant source of inspiration. “We’d build off the beat from a toy guitar,” Mahaffey explains. “One song started from a stuffed animalan Elmo doll. We had a bunch of toy drum kits.” The band shied away from toys that had their own built-in songs, though, not so much for copyright reasons, but because “the toys that make melodies were all kind of bleepy.”
Mahaffey says he recorded a few songs in which the source of the sounds was obviousjust his voice and the plinka-plink of a toy piano. Ultimately, though, he stuck with the busier arrangements because “the rest of the songs are kinda heavy. [The record] just turned out good that way.”
Some songs do seem to have directly resulted from their unusual origins. Perhaps the most memorable track on the album is “Pattycake,” a Prince-like ditty highlighted by Mahaffey’s groovy falsetto, rhythmic hand-clapping, and a catchy children’s rhyme over the chorus. It’s a toy-generated song about playing with toys.
That’s just the result of the method by which Mahaffey constructs his songs. “I’ll write the music first,” he says. “It’s like building a house. Then the subject matter for the lyrics sort of suggests itself...or it’s based on what’s gone on since the last song I wrote.”
One of the other bright spots on Gizmodgery is a kicky cover of the Doobie Brothers staple “What a Fool Believes,” which Mahaffey says he had been intending to do for a while. Originally, the song was going to be recorded straight, as a duet with labelmate Count Bass D, but Mahaffey admits that “I thought it would be funny to do it for the toy instruments recordall those fat Michael McDonald chords.”
Despite their obvious appeal, neither “What a Fool Believes” nor the aforementioned “Pattycake” will be the first single from Gizmodgery. That honor goes to “Trunk Fulla Amps,” an insistently catchy dance-floor anthem that namechecks other musical acts between shouts of perhaps the least radio-friendly profanity. The edited version, also included on the album, is so chopped up that it becomes hysterical all on its own. “We’re not going for heavy radio play.” Mahaffey laughs. “But we did a video for it and it turned out really well.”
Gizmodgery was released on Murfreesboro-based Spongebath Records, and not as a co-release with Self’s major label, Dreamworks, as was the case with the band’s previous record, last year’s Breakfast With Girls. “Contractually, we can put out two indie records between the Dreamworks records,” Mahaffey explains. “I could put out three records a year if I was so inclined.”
Is he prolific enough for that? Mahaffey shrugs. “We did four of those (Gizmodgery) songs in one day.”
He expects the band’s next Dreamworks release will be done by the end of the year, and it will be the first record the band has recorded at Mahaffey’s new home in L.A. “I moved here four months ago,” he says, “as soon as I finished the toy instruments album. It’s more of a rock ’n’ roll town. When I lived [in Tennessee], I really didn’t get A&R guys stopping by the house. Now everyone’s starting to throw me bones.”
The other advantage of his new locale is that “it’s close to Dreamworks. I felt like we didn’t have good communication on the first record, and here I worked two years on it.” He hopes to get more of a label push for the next album.
In the meantime, Self is back in the ’Boro, rehearsing for a handful of Gizmodgery shows. The band will be at Sebastian’s on Sept. 8 and will be doing an in-store appearance at Tower Records’ Opry Mills location on Sept. 9. Mahaffey says the performances will be “all pretty much toy instruments. And battery-operated Yamahas. It’s impossible to tee up a See & Say.... You gotta do what you gotta do to pull it off live. We’re cheating a little.”
It’s been two years since The Spitfire Tour stopped in Middle Tennessee. The free-speech seriescocreated by political firebrand Zach de la Rocha of the funk-punk outfit Rage Against the Machinedropped in at Vanderbilt during its initial cross-country run in 1998, where a spirited presentation by Jello Biafra electrified a packed house. Now the fall 2000 edition will be kicking off at MTSU’s Tucker Theater, with Biafra headlining a bill that also includes the likes of Fishbone’s Angelo Moore and Spearhead’s Michael Franti.
The musicians won’t be singingunless they really want toand instead will be onstage for 15 to 20 minutes each for a combination of spoken word, audio, and video, in what Spitfire tour organizer Sarah Haynes calls “a mix of activism, entertainment, and interaction.”
Haynes says that the idea of Spitfire is to present speakers who engage disparate hot-button issues as a way of bringing different student activist groups into the same room, to see how much they have in common. She says that Spitfire’s goal is “to get people of like minds together.... If it takes celebrities, that’s what it takes.” She adds that the atmosphere is typically positive, with few vigorous disagreements between speakers and audience members. “We get a lot of people who don’t really have an opinion,” she notes.
Referring to the political commitment of the contemporary collegian, Haynes says, “My observations are of the people who come to the events, which may not represent all the people on campus. But the kids I see are incredibly smart, incredibly concerned about issues. They’re maybe a little overwhelmed. So we spend less time on the problem and more time on what to do about it.”
The rise of technology on campus means that, according to Haynes, “kids are telling our experts things that the experts don’t know.” She adds, “We don’t want to assume that we know more than the audience.”
The presentations typically include some sort of Q&A, which Haynes describes as “formal to start, but then the performers usually end up in some corner talking to the kids.... Woody Harrelson actually invited everyone to join him at a yoga studio the next day.”
The Spitfire staff actively courts some celebrities, while others volunteer. Once the organizers get a full slate, they give the speakers 20 dates to choose from, from which each picks four or so. The talent works up his or her own routines, with whatever multimedia he or she requires. Some bring local activists onstage with them, to get across the idea that the audience can get involved in their own community. “We don’t just come and talk and leave,” Haynes notes, adding that Spitfire tries to keep the attendees involved through e-mail lists and newsletters.
The lineup at MTSU is fairly provocative: Former Dead Kennedy Biafra will speak on “Nonviolent Extermination of the Rich”; Howard Lyman will talk about agricultural reform in the wake of mad cow disease; Fishbone lead singer Moore will tackle racism; Spearhead’s Franti will cover the broad topic of “Staying Human”; and, perhaps most promising, punk provocateur Lydia Lunch will deliver a lecture called “Motherhood Is Not Compulsory.”
As always, Spitfire has been invited by the college, which pays half its fee, while the other half is subsidized by the homesite of its Web pageColleges.com. The tour is nonprofit. The show will be Tuesday, Sept. 12. Doors to the Tucker Theater open at 6:30 p.m., and the show proceeds at 7. Tickets are $5 for students and $7 for the general public, available at the MTSU Student Programming Office or by calling 898-2551.
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