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On the Road with. . .
THE VELCRO PYGMIES
By Bob Bahr
I was riding shotgun in a white Saab down to Nashville with Jeff Crane, the guitar tech/stage hand/roadie for the Velcro Pygmies and I was facing five days on the road with a working band. Like most bargoers, my impression of the Velcro Pygmies, Louisville's most successful cover band, was dominated by the image of frontman and wild man Cam Flener. I remembered seeing him hang from the rafters, tear his shirt off, stand on a table at Phoenix Hill Tavem and grind his pelvis in a girl's face. I'd be lying if I said I didn't have second thoughts as Crane hurled the car south at 80 miles an hour.
My worries were assuaged a bit when Crane outlined some Velcro Pygmy philosophies and generally discussed the group. Crane, universally referred to as Pork Chop among band members, was free with praise for vocalist Cam Flener and forthright in his compliments for the other band members.
The essence of the Velcro Pygmies came out as we discussed rock 'n' roll and its historically bad attitude. The two go hand in hand, I asserted. It's always been that way.
"Yeah," he responded, "but bar owners want people, not rock 'n' roll."
That is the key to the Velcro Pygmies' success. They know that bar owners want people, not attitude and the Pygmies know what people want.
They have no hangups about playing exactly what a bar crowd wants, even if it means playing a song every member in the band hates with undying passion.
If that makes them sound like musical sluts, then listen to Flener himself tell it. Entertainment is entertainment, he says. Flener freely uses words such as "exploit" to describe the band's approach to other rocker's music. The thin vocalist with haunting grey eyes openly uses his sexuality to enhance the Velcro Pygmies' popularity. Flener is very sexual on stage in an effort to attract girls, who in turn attracts guys, who in turn drink a lot and make the bars money. When bars make money, they love your band. When they love your band, they'll book you more often and for more money. It's an obvious chain reaction, but very few bands have realized that and acted upon it.
For the sake of entertaining the crowd, Flener will transform himself into a sex-drenched prowler, jumping on speaker cabinets and hopping directly into the crowd. He'll dirty dance with an unsuspecting female, then laugh it off as soon as he turns away.
Bassist Joe Straub, with his muscular build and guitarist Blake Baumeier, his long blonde hair shyly covering his face, add to the attractive image of the band. The cherubic Robb Bazzell faces the obscurity cursing all drummers, spending every night hidden behind a drum kit.
Flener goes over the top to provoke and please an audience, but don't accuse him of selling out.
"We love what we do," Flener said one morning. "This is how we define selling out: if the Velcro Pygmies starting playing country, that would be selling out."
Echoed guitarist Blake Baumeier, "A heavy-metal guy playing Janet Jackson, that would be selling out" The Velcro Pygmies may not have sold out, but they certainly do sell. The week I spent with them, the band made $7,000 and that was a bad week for them.
"This is the music BUSINESS," Flener told me countless times. "We treat rock music like a business, because that's what it The rest of the band is right with Flener on that point and they play the role out completely, 24 hours a day. The Pygmies have realized that every moment in public is a chance to promote their music and they do so by projecting a good image. It's not fakiness, yet they are very conscious of how they are coming across.
Pork Chop and I rendezvoused with the rest of the band in Nashville and I climbed into the musician's custom van for the trip to Birmingham, Alabama. The entourage consisted of Flener, Baumeier, Pork Chop, Straub, Bazzell, production and tour manager (sound man) Mike Mclntyre and visual effects manager (lighting) Andy Knighton. A friend of the band acting as their merchandise manager, Jeff Blocher, joined McIntyre and Knighton in the equipment truck and the rest of us settled in the van for the four-hour drive to Birmingham.
Almost immediately, the expected pill containers emerged from the musicians' bags. "You want one of these?" they offered one another and me. Soon, a variety of innocuous vitamins and an Actifed rested in my palm. So much for stereotypes.
In Birmingham, we shacked up at a friend's apartment in a swanky development, invading the corporate quarters for the spillover travelers. The next morning in the parking lot by the band van, Flener delivered an impassioned and interesting treatise on Pygmy rock. The taunt of "Flener Saves!" punctuated the intense 25-year-old's talk, courtesy of band members in the apartment doorway.
"We're trying to destroy the stereotype of sex-crazed drug addicts and change that to smart businessmen," Flener said. "We are there to entertain people. Everybody likes to be entertained. If we are unsuccessful at entertaining the crowd, then we have failed."
Baumeier joined the conversation, adding even more frank and blunt statements to the exchange. "If you're good enough, then you'll make it," he said simply.
Flener smothered that hint of fatalism with a textbook-like discourse on marketing. In 30 short seconds, Cam dropped business lingo like "network," "organization," "promote," "bang for your buck," "deal," and "connections." Not your typical rock musician jargon.
That afternoon, after a trip to Chick-Fil-A, the band piled into the light brown van for the hour drive to Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama campus. The conversation among the band was littered with inside jokes and anecdotes within the band and a healthy dose of silliness. It became apparent that these guys travel on the road together a lot. Exactly 200 dates last year, to be exact.
Cam took advantage of the travel time that sunny afternoon to do some paperwork out of his attache case, calling the band's manager, bar owners and friends on his cellular phone. One of his phone calls was to the Miller beer distributor in Nashville. Cam was trying to drum up support from the distributor there in anticipation of an upcoming gig.
The Velcro Pygmies are a Miller Genuine Draft band, which means the quartet gets a string of endorsements and samples wherever they play. As one of only 26 Miller bands, the Velcro Pygmies can get bookings in most clubs with ease. Bar owners and booking agents know that Miller sponsors stellar acts such as Joe "King" Carrasco, Marcia Ball, Anson & the Rockets, Rhino Bucket and the Bonedaddys. The Miller sponsorship gave the band instant credibility, as well as great deals on equipment by Shure, Remo, Sabian, Gibson and Pro mark.
The band arrived at the lvory Tusk in Tuscaloosa hours before gig time. A typical college town bar, the Tusk sports Doors and Led Zeppelin posters in the front room and a roomy black stage in the back. The night before, the Velcro Pygmies had sketched out four songs at a rehearsal hall in Nashville with producer Scott Baggett and today the soundcheck consists of those four songs.
Bill Puryear, of Crescent Moon Talent Incorporated in Nashville, has driven down to hear the band and offer them encouragement. Puryear acts as sort of a hands-off manager of the band, handling the bookings but largely keeping out of artistic decisions. Even most business decisions come from the band, such as their unorthodox merchandising strategy.
"What we want from our t-shirts, do we want to produce profit, or do we want to just consider it advertising that we pay nothing for?," Cam explained. "Our tapes — we're losing money every time we sell a tape. But it's more important that we have those tapes in people's hands.
"According to the stats, people will part with a five-dollar bill quicker than they'll part with $6," he went on. "It's one bill and that's why we decided to charge $5. Our managers were freaking.
The idea is to get the fans hooked, then down the road, the groundwork will be laid for bigger success. "Whenever we do charge $15 for a CD, people will be willing to pay for it," Cam said.
Puryear and his partner Bruce Binkley probably acquiesced to the band's wishes because they respect the band's business acumen and professional attitude.
""They're professionals. Across the board, they're professionals," Puryear said outside of the bar. "They are into it, they are dedicated and they are going somewhere. I really believe that. They're special.
"This band is so commercial, all the way across the board, that I think it will have a mass appeal. 15-year-old record buyers, right up through college. I'd buy their records, except I don't have to," Puryear said.
Inside, the band was finishing up their soundcheck. They now had several hours to kill before show time. Blocher walked in bragging about a new pinball machine down at the corner and half the entourage leaves to investigate. Bazzell was reunited with his girlfriend from Birmingham and the two snuggled and talked. The group returned and the band decided to check out the rollerblade selection at nearby outdoor shop. Making a grand entrance, they talked up their show with employees and customers and checked out the gear.
"Whenever we walk into a store and it's all of us, we can really overwhelm somebody and really make a good impression on people," Cam said. "It really pushes the band, it's like, 'Man, all the Velcro Pygmies came in today and they were the nicest guys."' Indeed, it's the band's gregarious and fun-loving personalities more than their long hair that demands attention wherever they go.
When they returned to the Ivory Tusk, the place was still dead. Cam took the opportunity to check the competition. A similar band was playing a couple of blocks down at Nick's, but Cam didn't seem too worried. If the band doesn't do well, it will be because it is Wednesday, not because there's a better band somewhere else, he maintained.
Nevertheless, it's showtime and there is a handful of people in the room at the Tusk. Although there is an undercurrent of edgy disappointment, but spirits remain high and the band is joking about the bad turnout.
"We're hurtin'," Cam said. "We're hurtin' bad," Bazzell answered.
The band was slated to get 85% of the door or a guarantee of $500, whichever was highest. It looked like they were going to make guarantee and no more. "We're going to take a bath on this one," Blocher winced.
Indeed, my first night of rock 'n' roll with the Velcro Pygmies looked like it was going to fizzle like a wet firecracker. The band stretched and got themselves hyped for the show. Some did push-ups, some went through karate moves, Blake contemplated in a booth. One by one the band members went to the men's room to change into their stage clothes. For the most part, that meant merely clean clothes, as opposed to their unofficial traveling uniform: sweatpants and t-shirts. Blake and Joe wore jeans and t-shirts most nights; Robbo sometimes wore stretch pants and fashionable shirts behind the drums. Cam consistently pulled on stretch pants and a modified muscle shirt for shows.
When the Pygmies took the stage, the 30 people in the Ivory Tusk pushed forward. A couple of fans shouted out requests. The Velcro Pygmies boldly dove into a humorous original called "Joey's New Bike." Cam wasted no time getting down into the crowd, embarrassing young coeds and making the boys laugh with his naughty humor. The crowd was into it.
And so was the band. The Velcro Pygmies could have listlessly shuffled through this off night, but instead they ripped through originals and covers with glee. Puryear's comment about their professionalism rang true. The band played to that small crowd as if they were the most important people on the planet.
Cam introduced "Detroit Rock City" as a song by "what I think is the best rock 'n' roll band of all time." That Kiss cover went over so well, the band followed it with another titled "Calling Dr. Love." The band mixed cover songs with comedy and original tunes. Sandwiched in between several Cult songs and a couple of Violent Femmes covers was Bobby Darin's "Splish Splash" — a witty in-joke among band members who seemed to be having fun "taking a bath" that evening.
The crowd swelled to about 100 and they were eating up the group's blue humor. One simulated fellatio, one ditty about masturbation, countless pelvic thrusts and one revision of a classic R.E.M. song later ("Superman" became "Condom Man") and the show was over. The house lights came on immediately and the crew began to break down the stage. In the South, fans have a curiously idiotic habit of simply dropping their beer bottles on the floor rather than pitching it in. The result: afloor covered with shards of brown glass and rolling Bud bottles. McIntyre was rewarded for his night at the mixing board with a piece of glass right through his shoe and well into his foot. He hobbled through the stage tear-down.
Cam got the band's pay, then made his rounds around the bar, tipping the door man and every bartender $10. Cam explained that tipping was actually an investment promoting goodwill towards the band — and helping to keep the door man honest. When a band plays for the money paid at the door, an honest door man can be an essential ally.
The next day we prepared for the two-hour drive to Auburn. The Velcro Pygmies were scheduled to play at the War Eagle Pizza & Supper Club or simply "the Supper Club." The stage crew arrived at 6:15 in the afternoon to set up The band and I rolled in at 8:15 to find an almost empty hole with Marshall Tucker on the stereo. A trip to the rest room revealed what was by far the scariest, most awful latrine in all nightlifeland.
It consisted entirely of a rusty trough and a thin room with one wall featuring direct ventilation to the outside world at the floorboards and ceiling. I related my horror to Cam, he shrugged it off.
It looked like the band was going to get spanked again tonight. A handful of girls played pool and eyed the band as they headed toward the "dressing room" beside the stage. But the band had a plan. The Supper Club, the Pygmies and the local Miller distributor worked out a deal that amounted to all the women drinking free, courtesy of the Pygmies. Giving away free beer is illegal, according to the ABC, so the band was technically buying the beer for the women.
There was some concern that guys might try to pull a scam for the free beer, but the band wasn't worried. "If a man comes in in drag, he can drink all the f—ing beer he wants" Straub laughed. "Yeah, if he's got the balls to come dressed in drag..." Bazzell echoed.
Guys were getting free beer through their girlfnends anyway but Cam didn't care. He was only putting out for four kegs, which ran out midway through the night. It was mostly a gesture, an attempt to attract women.
It worked By the second set, the Supper Club was a mass of swaying, singing, drinking Southern carousers. Their night at the Supper Club was an unmitigated triumph, with scores of happy dancers leaving the club with smiles on their faces. The band looked like stars on the club stage and the crowd treated them like stars too.
It was past 4 a.m. before everything was packed up. The VP contingent stopped at the Auburn Denny's for a little breakfast/dinner. That food stop put us back at Birmingham at 7:30 a.m., with the sun up and half the residents of the apartment complex already in their cars on their way to work.
I woke up at 2:30 in the afternoon and walked around the complex in an attempt to get a little exercise. Slowly, everyone finished up their hygiene thing and prepared for the drive to Tuscaloosa. A show at the Theta Chi house was planned as pan of the University of A1abama's celebration of 100 years of football. On the way out of Birmingham, we stopped at Captain D's for our big meal of the day. The day before we had eaten at the food buffet of Quincy's, a Ryan's/Ponderosa kind of place featuring the band's beloved B.F.Y.R.s, or Big Fat Yeast Rolls. Blake was still talking about the chewy rolls. He liked smothering them with honey butter.
Standing in line at Captain D's, I was introduced to a Velcro Pygmies road tradition called "cleaning." As "Robbo Bazzelli," as the band calls him, was standing at the counter with his lovely girlfriend, his sweat pants were pulled to his knees by a traitorous bandmate. Robbo reacted to the cleaning a lot more calmly than his girlfriend did. The rest of the group laughed hysterically, as did the entire Captain D's stuff but couple of cleaning connoisseurs in the band complained that his underwear didn't budge an inch, making it an incomplete cleaning. I was wearing very loose shorts and I fretted over my vulnerability for the next 14 hours.
The Theta Chi frat house was on the new fraternity row on the UA campus. The inside was messy and smelly, but an attempt had obviously been made to clean the house for the night's party. The band was set to play in the frat's party room, a garage-like cinderblock structure connected to the house at one end. Some type of activity involving mud and garden hoses had taken place earlier that day and the party room had recently been hosed out. Still, a sick beer smell and standing water thickened the air in the party room. Smells like frat spirit.
— The Pygmies' Rules of the Road
— Cam gets cleaned spectacularly
—A mini "concert" at Mississippi State
— The Pygmies and the Starkville Police