A chat with guitarist/vocalist Peter Bagge…
Can You Imagine? is a hell of a lot of fun, and delightful to listen to in part due to the mad guru keyboard-production participation of Steve Fisk (his own band Pigeonhed, and known for his work with Nirvana, Low, Damien Jurado, Soundgarden, and many other Pacific NW greats). But there are also amazing vocals from Michelle Plaitis, Rachel Frost, and Sue Merrill as well, which means live they “jam” like a bad-ass beat menace set loose on a jibbering Cold War.
Can You Imagine? has a self-titled, self-released debut CD just out, and has played a handful of shows around their home-base of Seattle, but their back story is as amazing as their music. Most of it can be gleaned from the title at the top of this article, but for more specific details read our interview below with Peter Bagge, the guitarist/vocalist/Kim Fowley mastermind of the group.
You might remember that name as the writer and artist of many titles, the most well known being Fantagraphics’ esteemed “slacker generation nation” title HATE. Bagge handed off a copy of Can You Imagine? to me at the Ballard Sonic Boom, not too far from his own digs, and we set this conversation up soon after.
Listening to Can You Imagine? I detect a little B-52s, some Scottish indie pop like Camera Obscura, perhaps a few grains of regional rock humor a la Young Fresh Fellows. Are these solid guesses at inspirations, or (1.) Am I a wildly comparison-guessing hack? and/or (2.) What artists REALLY inspired the band?
That all sounds accurate, though any post-1980 influences would be coming more from my younger bandmates than myself. The B-52s are an obvious one, but for me the Beach Boys and the Beatles are also huge — as is pop music from the mid-late ’60s in general.
Can You Imagine? is made up of Steve Fisk (keyboards and production), Michelle Plaitis (lead vocals, percussion), Rachel Frost (bass, vocals), Sue Merrill (drums, vocals), and you (guitar, vocals, and amazing cover artwork). Give me the story of how you and Steve met, and then how the ladies got involved?
I’ve known Steve for so long that I’ve forgotten how I met him! At an opium den, most likely. He lives a few blocks from me, so I see him around all the time. Rachel and Sue I’ve known casually via mutual friends. About five or so years ago Rachel moved two blocks away from me and bought a bass around the same time I bought a cheap second hand electric guitar. We played in our basement with other friends. Eventually Sue joined (I didn’t know she could drum!) and things evolved from there. Michelle (our singer) was a work mate of Rachel’s. She sang with us one day, and then informed us that we were now her band!
This was about two years ago. It was all fun and games at first, but then we started getting pretty good and thus got ambitious, poor us.
How are the writing duties split up?
The credits are on the CD’s inner sleeve, for an accurate accounting of who wrote what. Rach comes up with some of the tunes but mostly write a lot of lyrics, or words for song ideas. I got in the habit of helping her set it all to music, mainly because I hate working on lyrics! Michelle then started writing songs on her own, though we occasionally collaborate with her. SO basically the song-writing is now equal parts me, Rach and Michelle.
Can you tell us the band band backgrounds of each of the members?
Steve’s the only professional musician in the band. I played briefly in a band called the Action Suits thirteen or so years ago: http://www.myspace.com/theactionsuits, so I had a wee bit of experience playing on stage and in a recording studio. The three women are all novices, though at this point you’d never know it.
What happened to the Action Suits? Are they on hiatus or what? Are you still on that Japanese label?
I quit the Action Suits after only playing with them for less than a year. The other two guys wanted to “go grunge!” Then about four years ago we reformed simply to record additional songs to make a full length CD. By then Eric was in a new band, so reforming for good was pretty much out of the question.
Is there anything in the current local scene inspiring the band — do you go out together to local shows, or is this all created like a cabal away from the regular music scene?
I never go to live shows other than my own. I’m a terrible supporter of the local scene! Seriously though, I never cared for the rock club environment unless I’m on stage.
The others go to shows and frequently inspired by what they see. It’s hard to gauge how much that influences us, though.
Were there specific records Steve worked on that you complimented him for doing, as you went into a project with him? Or was this something new he wanted to try with you?
Steve has quite a varied musical resume, and there’s no one type of music he’s made that I like over the others. His sampling/production work oh Jesse Bernstein’s spoken word CD is utterly brilliant, for one thing. I also love his work with Beat Happening, and his own bands Pell Mell and Pigeonhed (especially their first CD).
Steve being in Can You Imagine? is simply a case of him living nearby and joining us first for a laugh, but then getting into it and sticking around. That plus the rest of us constantly nagging and begging him to play with us and record us.
I know you have a personal musical aesthetic that could be explained as based on fun and enthusiasm, as opposed to rock pretension. Your defense of enjoying early Beach Boys or bubblegum teen bands, for example, or the simple but dynamic power pop of Can You Imagine? itself. Because of your success as a comics artist, is the terrific self-titled CYI? album both a means of self-expression and sort of a mission statement, for music that you actually want to hear being played by other bands?
Yes to all of the above. The main reason I took up the guitar and abandoned the drums was so I could have more control over what type of music my band plays and how. Pop rock from the 60s is obviously my favorite kind of music, but I also loved punk and new wave from the late 70s, since those bands broke free from the self important and self indulgent style of music that was ruining rock. I also loved that the self deprecating humor they all exhibited (or that the best bands did, anyway).
Since then indy rock quickly went back to being self indulgent style of playing that I hate, and has mostly been stuck there ever since. I rarely hear a song that doesn’t have WAY too long an intro, vague to incomprehensible lyrics, and a repetitive chorus that refuses to end at some merciful point. The singer also tries way to hard to want me to know that he or she is a Sensitive Person, and that they’ve KNOWN PAIN. That to me is the exact opposite of what I find entertaining!
A lot of people forget, in the punk era-worshiping world, that the first well known post-60s “punk rock” band, the New York Dolls, adored and channeled the girl groups. There is a lot of great girl group energy in Can You Imagine? but I know you also grew up (as I did) through the world of late 70s/80s “alternative music.” Did you find a lot of it to be needlessly macho (i.e., political hardcore) or forgetting what made David Johansen, etc., make music in the first place?
I hated almost every indy rock band after ’81 or so, regardless of if they were macho or political or not. I thought they all made lousy, boring, badly produced records. A certain esthetic sensibility took over that I could not comprehend. Everyone was determined to sing badly and incoherently. The Ramones where great in spite of their incompetence, but soon incompetence itself became the goal, and something to be celebrated.
Can You Imagine? can’t help but sound like a girl group since all three women in the band sing (and I don’t exactly have a very deep voice myself).
The songs of Can You Imagine? are real howlers sometimes (intentionally funny, please don’t misunderstand) — the weird details of “How Did I Get Home Last Night?” or the girl-boy violent slapstick of “Be Nicer To Me,” or the descriptions of weird friends in “Drive,” which all could be audio comic strips — whereas other tunes, like “Stay Warm” or “Beautiful You,” are almost completely straightforward story or love songs. Is that due to the tunes’ specific authors, or is there an agreement in the band to balance comedy gold with tunes about “a-courtin'”?
Rachel’s lyrics are all derived from her own bittersweet experiences and memories. She didn’t intend for either “Drive” or “How Did I Get Home” to be yuckfests, but they just naturally evolved that way as we played them (and once I started putting my own cartoony two cents in). Michelle intended both “Creepy” and “Be Nicer” to be funny from the start, while “Tell Me” is anything but. “I obviously wrote “Steve Says” just for laughs. It’s a musical caricature of Mr. Fisk! “Beautiful You” was an old Action Suits song that we never recorded. It’s a VERY simple song — the same 3 chords throughout — and I wanted the words to reflect that”: Oh baby baby I miss you” etc. I’m a very lazy lyricist when I work on my own. I prefer collaborating with someone on lyrics.
What does your own family (wife and kids) think of this band? Is it something they have fun to? I am thinking of your daughter, especially — is she old enough to enjoy the ironies and non-Top 40 joy of it all (since being raised on all the blinged-out Britneys, etc.)?
They both enjoy the band and like our music — which is a relief, since we practice at my house!
Speaking of girl groups, your sci-fi/comics collaboration with LOVE & ROCKETS’ artist Gilbert Hernandez, “YEAH!”, is about to be collected and released. Any plans to promote the collection with a Can You Imagine? performance? And did your authoring that title have any effect on why you want to do CYI?
It hasn’t occurred to me to use CYI to promote the release of “YEAH!”, though that certainly ain’t a bad idea! We’ll just have to think of a logical way to do it, is all.
“YEAH!” was very inspired by bands like the Spice Girls, as well as cartoony bands like Josie and the Pussycats. They also had an obvious DYI punk element to them as well.
Your most recent mainstream book, OTHER LIVES (Vertigo), was a pretty heavy narrative about people’s dives into reality-avoidance (whether through on-line role playing, alcohol, or other forms of escapism). Do you ever see yourself making rock music that serious? Or would you rather keep it fun (though creative and weird) like CYI?
Some of our songs are quite serious, especially ones we’re working on now. The trick is to not make them dull or TOO “woe is me.” It’s a delicate balancing act, and I lack the musical experience to pull it off effectively. It was the same with my comics: it took me a while to develop the ability — and work up the NERVE — to tackle more serious subjects head on.
Thanks, Peter! Can’t wait to see CYI? next time they play out live!