In their three years of existence, Cleveland proto-punks The Electric Eels played all of six shows. According to the All Music Guide, each of those six shows ended in either arrest or violence, often between band members on-stage. The group’s fuzzed-to-death music would go on to influence the Dead Boys, the Rubber City Rebels, and any number of suburban Ohio kids with an anonymous axe to toss.
In 1972, when the Electric Eels formed, there was no such thing as classic rock. Sure, the Beatles and the Stones were multi -millionaires with tabloid lives, but there was still a bit of mystery about them. And the greats that those groups had imitated — Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry — were still playing when the Beatles and Stones formed, their legacies far from cemented. There was no Rock and Roll Hall of Fame perched on the banks of Lake Erie, no real music press of which to speak. Point being, there was nothing but music to make.
It’s become rote to sobbingly proclaim the victory of the Information Age against the great goods of mystery, patience, and moderation, and while that sentiment may be very true, it’s also true that a band itself is still for the most part only as exposed as it wants to be. After all, a rock ‘n’ roll band is still only as exposed as it wants to be. Case in point: Yo La Tengo. Blame it on their already-legendary status, blame it on the fact that they outdate the internet, but the Hoboken trio have always fought overexposure — their bulging discography notwithstanding. Because, as bassist James McNew explains it, not knowing everything about your favorite band can be a very, very good thing.
To that end, YLT adopted a fake name, the Condo Fucks, and bashed out a record of eleven garage, surf, and glam covers that range from the well-known Beach Boys track “Shut Down” to the aforementioned Electric Eels. It’s a sweaty set of songs, as hot and hissy as the concrete box in which it must have been recorded.
Fuckbook’s reception has been a fresh air of confusion; while its power is hard to be denied, critics have had a hard time classifying it, with some even going so far as to proclaim that “a covers record isn’t really essential listening,” as if that phrase meant anything to the album’s creators (not to mention the original songwriters).
So, yeah, the Electric Eels were mookish brawlers, and Brian Wilson had problems as deep as the ocean. That doesn’t change a note of the music they made, of the energy and fire that cut into the records they released, just as no amount of taxonomy and “essential” tags applied to, say, Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One are going to change a note of the music. Maybe it shouldn’t be the stuff swirling around rock ‘n’ roll — the lauds, the lives — that are worth talking about, but the music itself and the way it makes us feel. Some mysteries just aren’t worth solving.
Last week AD caught up with CF’s James McNew to talk about the Condo Fucks record, the idea of legacy, and Prince.
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Aquarium Drunkard: I think people have been a little confused about this Condo Fucks record. People seem to not be able to understand why you guys would release it.
James McNew: (pauses, considering) I don’t know. There’s your answer. I’m not sure; we recorded it just for kicks and we liked the way it sounded. We played it for a few people at Matador and they really liked it and encouraged us to put it out.
AD: The critical mass, though, seems to keep saying that this is a great but inessential release, which implies that “having fun” isn’t a legitimate reason to put out a record.
JM: Is there a list?
AD: A list of what?
JM: Of legitimate reasons. If there was, I should totally get that.
AD: I don’t think so, but even people that dig the record seem to want to know “why”.
JM: Well, people don’t have to know everything. I think it’s more fun not to know everything about everything. I think that’s a better way to go through life. Nowadays you can find out everything — and I say “nowadays” only to make myself appear even older than I am — but you can go and find out everything about a band before you even hear them play a song and, yeah, it’s great — if I had that kind of access to information as a youngster it would have been awesome. But when you don’t have that, it forces you to use your imagination. It’s more fun to imagine why someone is doing what they’re doing rather than have them tell you why they’re doing what they’re doing. Because then, 99 times out of 100, the reason they give for putting out a record or writing a song — I don’t give a shit. It really lessened it in my imagination, because the thing I thought of made me laugh or I ascribed something else to the artist that the artist didn’t have. It can be disappointing. It’s like when Chubb Rock made “3 Men at Chung King,” that single; I’d hate to see him on Inside the Actor’s Studio explaining his craft. I don’t care. I don’t wanna hear Chubb Rock explaining his craft; I wanna hear Chubb Rock knockin’ it out.
AD: I’m guessing that that’s why you released under Condo Fucks and not Yo La Tengo.
JM: Well, the name was something that we made up a long time ago. It came into existence in 1996, because the Yo La Tengo record I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One came out in ’97 and the inner sleeve for that record we’d designed to look like a crappy 70’s paper inner sleeve that would advertise other releases on ABC/Dunhill Records or whatever shitty label had put out the record you were listening to. Actually, I take back “shitty,” because I don’t want to infer in any way that the label who put out that Yo La Tengo record are in any way shitty; they’re not. So we made up a bunch of band names and the Condo Fucks were one of them. I know I thought somewhere down the line that I’d eventually like to make a record by each one of those bands we made up, though that may be unrealistic, as I think there were twelve of them. Anyway, this is the name we chose for ourselves, and I think it works. It’s fun to say. My Mom won’t say it. I don’t know why.
AD: Cover records are often of songs that the band liked when they were kids; is that the case for you guys?
JM: I wish. That would have been really great if I were really into the Electric Eels when I was nine years old; I would totally tell people that. When we first started playing in bands, though, first trying to make music with people, we played in cover bands. And we still kinda do. It’s just a part of how we view playing in a group — playing our songs and other people’s songs, too. Playing covers is really fun; I’d totally recommend it. The very idea of a band playing a cover song at a show that isn’t on any of their records, or tacking on a cover to a b-side of a single, or even going so far as to put a cover in sequence on an album — that makes you wonder and think about who they are, especially if it’s at a show and the band rips out a cover song, it can change your entire perspective on a group and show you a different side of their personality. I always thought that that was more telling than just time-filling.
AD: That’s really interesting to me. You guys seem to be very much above the fray, so to speak, of what’s going on in indie rock and really just rock music in general. So many bands are focused on keeping their legacy pristine, of not allowing any mistakes into the public record. But with things like the Condo Fucks record, the Freewheelin’ Yo La Tengo tour, and what you’re saying about you guys just making records that sound fun to make, it seems like the question of “legacy” hasn’t even come up with you, which is amazing. If any indie rock band has a right to consider something like a legacy, it’s Yo La Tengo. Is this something you guys have talked about at all?
JM: I love the idea of avoiding legacies; that’s an awesome concept. I don’t think so, though. It isn’t grandly motivated. We’re kinda lucky enough to do something that seems fun and seems interesting. The Freewheelin’ shows also very much address the notion of mystery or explanation. They’re probably as close to explanations as we’ll ever come. At those shows, people just ask questions; it’s a Q & A show. We answer questions, and it’ll lead to the playing of songs. Those shows definitely say a lot about where our music comes from.
AD: The early press for the Condo Fucks record said that the release of the album was going to be the end of the Condo Fucks project, but I saw you guys are playing a show in New Orleans in a couple of weeks. That’s a long way from Brooklyn for just a one-off. Are you plotting a tour or is it just a special event?
JM: It’s just a special event. The great band The A-Bones are playing down in New Orleans as part of this annual festival called the Ponderosa Stomp and they invited us to come and play. The members of Yo La Tengo frequent the Ponderosa Stomp, so we’re gonna go down there and subject people to a Condo Fucks set. It should be fun. I’ll look for any excuse to go to New Orleans.
AD: And this isn’t the first covers project that you’re personally involved in, right? You released a record of Prince covers several years back [the hard-to-find That Skinny Motherfucker With the High Voice, released under the name Dump].
JM: This is totally different, I think, but the Prince record started as an exercise, because in — I think — 1998, I had gotten some new piece of instantly-obsolete recording gear that I didn’t know how to use. It was some hard disc recorder and I was upgrading from the Tascam four-track cassette recorder. I was teaching myself how to use this hard disc thing and I didn’t want to start recording my songs, because I knew I would end up erasing them accidentally, so I just started messing around. I think “1999” was the first thing that I did. I was just doing it to get to know the machine, so I tried to loop this drum track and of course I did it wrong. It came out in 7/4 instead of 4/4, but, you know, I was only off by one beat. Close enough. So I thought, “That could work.” I kept playing with it and teaching myself how to use the machine and after a month I had six or seven Prince covers. That’s what I would do — I’d move on to the next one and learn how to edit on the machine. So I had this cassette that I made for friends and gave to people. Actually, there’s a large similarity between the Prince album and the Condo Fucks album. My friend Dennis Calaci owns this record label called Shrimper in Southern California wanted to release it. He had a mostly cassette-only label so we released it there and then later with on CD with a few more songs. So, yeah, both the Condo Fucks record and that record [came out that way]. Plus, the instance of the word “fuck” is on both records. They were both things we did because they were fun and because they were interesting and someone else suggested that we make it available to the public. I was pretty happy about both records. That is, until the Universal Music Group contacted us about the Prince songs. Other than that, it was a lot of fun!
AD: Yeah, Prince is pretty controlling of his image. I don’t know how he’d feel about some indie rocker putting out a lo-fi collection of covers.
JM: It’s funny — I don’t know how much of any of this is true, but I like to tell myself that some of it is. The only trouble that Shrimper and I got into on that record was a mechanical royalty thing, but it came through the Universal Music Group. Meaning, it wasn’t Prince’s people, it was his label. It happened years after the release of that record, and Prince could have had me destroyed the day after that record was released if he had wanted to, so I tell myself, “I guess he liked it. I’m still alive.” words/ m garner
Previously: Condo Fucks :: Fuckbook