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Tell the Alice Donut frontman that you're going to describe his band as "pseudo-psychedelic postmodern pop punk" and the former philosophy student leans back and ponders for a moment, and than declares, "I can live with that." After all it beats being tagged "quirky."
But journalistic laziness isn't the only reason that overworked rock scribes dump the Donut into a catch-all sonic ghetto; it's just not that easy to come up with a suitable genre that springs of the page and bangs the reader upside the head to describe a wild sonic stew of Led Zeppelin rock cliches, AC/DC metallic hooks, and Butthole Surfers acid-burnt excursions. "I always tell my parents' friends we're a heavy rock band with other things thrown in," says Antona.
To fully understand this band's twisted leanings, let's begin during the early '80s at New York's Columbia University. Though renowned as a center of higher learning, the college has a darker side where icy angst has withered the soul of many a sensitive freshman. Part of the campus folklore tells of a student who committed in her dorm room, which nobody noticed until the other residents were alerted by the tell-tale odor of death. Looking back Antona describes his college experience as "straight out of a novel by Dostoyevsky, with hundreds of little Raskolnikovs running around." So back then, in order to preserve his sanity, he formed the Sea Beasts with bassist Ted Houghton and guitarist David Giffen. "We played some shows, but mostly we just 4-tracked stuff and the band was composed of whoever came into the room," he adds.
After graduation, Antona, Houghton and Giffen joined forces with guitarist Michael Jung and drummer Stephen Moses, and by 1987 the Sea Beasts had morphed into Alice Donut. "We got our first gig at CBGB's before we had a name for the band," Giffen confesses, "so we were driving around after rehearsing and we made a list: the Lipstick Barber Poles, the Buffalo Flesh Batons - millions of bad names that we were all arguing over. Then we got home and turned on the TV and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore was on so we compromised and named the band Alice Donut Liver Henry Moore. The management at CBGB's said it was too long and shortened it to Alice Donut.
"Our name is kind of like waking up in the wrong bed but since it's a done deed your stuck with it." "When we went on our first tour," Antona continues, "I thought we'd be playing to a lot of people but all those illusions were soon snuffed out. You keep doing it because when the money runs out you've got to go back on the road. But it's okay because you don't end up being a band because of the cash, it's a lifestyle." Eight years and seven albums on Alternative Tentacles later, Alice Donut's commitment to the road hasn't changed. "After a while, playing live is addictive and even the bad shows are okay," Antona explains. "It's the release of getting out whatever it is that happens to be on your mind night after night." Anyone who has seen the band perform knows what Tom is talking about.
After their opening guitar salvos, the entire band seems to take a cue from Antona's high-pitched wailing abandon and go into a furious trance. As their set progresses, even the boundaries between stage and audience narrow, as both are bound in an almost spooky musical catharsis. Antona doesn't affect false modesty at this point. "When we are really hot, I walk onstage and have so much confidence it's like a tornado hitting the club. Musically, I know that we are going to be spot-on tight. You can get that way just from practicing, but there is a difference where you get loose/tight from touring constantly and that's where we are the best. Everybody is so confident in everybody else that it's like unconscious playing. That's what pure performance is all about - structured chaos." Being on the road nine months out of a year gives Alice Donut a flexibility and spontaneity while recording which most bands would consider unthinkable.
In 1990 they entered the studio and emerged nineteen hours later with their fourth release, Revenge Fantasies of The Impotent, which encapsulated their rage at the impending Gulf War. Touring has also expanded Donut's notions of just how far bands can push the envelope. "For instance," says Antona, "you go to Salt Lake City and play with a naked band that blow-torches a frozen chicken, burns an American flag for a media event, and then protests in front of the Governor's mansion about some absurd issues like the trash dumpster in their neighbourhood killing the grass on the sidewalk."
Yet Alice Donut have never been unable to find inspiration from within. The band has always been at least partially composed of covert music intellectuals. Drummer Steve Moses attended Berkelee School of Music for trombone, guitarist Michael Jung is an accomplished classical pianist, and bass player Sissi Schulmeister (who replaced Ted Houghton four years ago) studied classical guitar in Vienna. "When we started we liked punk equally to Led Zeppelin," Giffen explains, "so we would have punk verses and bombastic '70s choruses. You can hear on our first record, Donut Comes Alive, that we were into catchy melodies and heavy hard riffs, but then we got bored. So we started writing pop songs, with a heavy discordant groove. We would create melodies and then pervert and destroy them, put a layer of feedback and add these spastic bridges." it was a strategy that worked well for songs like "My Life Is a Mediocre Piece Of Shit" and "She Wants You She Loves You It's Amazing How Much Head Wounds Bleed."
Pure Acid Park, however inaugurates a new era into the band's work. "Now there seem to be a zillion bands who use huge Marshals, little sinister grooves, and an amelodic-verse-and-melodic-smash-your-head-in-chorus," Antona says. "So on this album we kept the melodies tight and short, and added a lot of harmonies. None of this was done to be more commercial, it was done to have fun. We kept the melodies pop and instead of perverting them, we perverted the instrumentation. On a song like "Big Cars & Blow Jobs," cock-rock guitar devolves into the banjo and then a trombone with New Orleans swing."
In some ways, Pure Acid Park is a return to the band's roots in spontaneity, aa most of the songs were actually created in the studio. " A lot of it has to do with the fact that we all have home recording units," explains Giffen. "You start playing around with all the shit you have lying around your appartment and you realize that you can do some really interesting, fun arrangements. It made us more confident about being adventurous. We weren't afraid to experiment and use a little 25-dollar casio toy keyboard, pots and pans, or a Kazoo."
Though the new album's sound quality is probably their best yet, Pure Acid Park's subject matter is only upbeat by Alice Donut's cynical standards. References to mutilation may be kept to a minimum and there isn't a single mention of molesting one's children, but the usual parade of losers and psychopaths check in on several tunes. "Freaks in Love," says Antona, was inspired by watching couples scoring smack on the street. He envisions the albums closer "Cain" as "taking place early in the morning, when you are drinking coffee at some diner and this guy sits next to you at the counter who you really don't want to talk to but you are too bored to just stand up and leave. The guy then proceeds to tell you this story and either he's a serial killer or you're just amused by the events he describes and you begin to feel very,very uncomfortable."
As you read this, chances are that Alice Donut will be on the road again. Will the band's rock juggernaut ever grind to a halt in the face of exhaustion and lack of financial reward? Not if Tom Antona can help it, because strangely enough, despite all his intellectual savvy, he still can't help buying into the indie-rock dream even if he hates himself for it in the morning. "It's a forced illusion on my part that being in a band is romantic and great," he confesses. "You go to someplace oyu have never been before, drink some beers, play and have a tremendous time. During those times everything is perfect and then after that you eat and shit in the van for twelve hours." (Viviane Oh)