Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash

Storming the stage with postpunk pirates Lifter Puller

Dan Monick greets me with the first of the evening's many salty aarghs. Piratically becapped, pants tapered midcalf, face smeared in black cosmetic grime, the genial Lifter Puller drummer appears less likely to shiver anyone's timbers than serve up battered fish product in Styrofoam receptacles.

A tinny Jawbox bootleg reverberates off the high ceilings of Monick's northeast Minneapolis studio apartment. His friend Jenny, visiting from New York City, sprawls on the sofa, hair bonneted in a green 'do-rag and right hand cupped inside a plastic hook that flips the pages of an ancient issue of Details. It's the night before Halloween, and in a few hours Lifter Puller are slated to play a costume party at the Soap Factory nearby. Part of our plan is to catch St. Paul indie rockers the Selby Tigers at the Turf Club beforehand. The other part is to dress up as pirates.

Stay awake: Lifter Puller members (left to right) Craig Finn, Tad Kuebler, Steve Barone, and Dan Monick
Tony Nelson
Stay awake: Lifter Puller members (left to right) Craig Finn, Tad Kuebler, Steve Barone, and Dan Monick

Monick has invited me along after slipping me a dubbed advance of the band's third and newest album, Fiestas and Fiascos. Out this week on the French Kiss imprint of Brooklyn band Les Savy Fav, the work finds singer/ranter Craig Finn flirting more boldly with melody, and his cohorts still finessing their punk assault with tinkly synths. Lifter Puller have been accumulating a rep locally and nationally since forming in 1994, but to date this new full-length is the most coherent evidence of why. Naturally, the chance to tag along with these wily postpunk scavengers has its journalistic appeal, but to bear the Jolly Roger, that skull-and-cross-boned banner we pirates fly as our dread colors--how could I refuse?

Steve Barone emerges from the bathroom, arranging a curly wig more mid-Eighties metalhead than buccaneer, his black makeup piled on way too thick. "I'm not a pirate," the guitarist jokes earnestly. "I'm a Magnum P-I-rate." He looks more like Al Jolson.

Bassist Tad Kuebler has his own makeup troubles. The stuff keeps smearing on the jersey he's borrowed from Monick. "If I fuck this shirt up, I'll take it back to the Gap," Kuebler concludes. "They let you return anything and you don't even need a receipt."

Earrings and swords and eye patches are being rationed when Craig Finn arrives. Swashbuckling the band's bespectacled frontman takes some doing. (Later, onstage, he quips self-deprecatingly about a friend's attempt to devise a "Craig Finn" costume: "He wound up going as a gym teacher.") The other band members swaddle him in an overcoat and shove a pistol in his belt. Though he has spent the day moving to a new apartment, the singer has had time to research this fact: "Blackbeard would twist bits of flaming rope into his beard so his face would be smoking when he went into battle."

Kuebler eyes the Jim Beam jug that Finn brought and relates some battle lore of his own. "Kevin Dubrow of Quiet Riot used to go onstage with a whiskey bottle like this full of iced tea," he tells me. "That's so fucking lame." The band coaxes a promise from Tad not to drink until 10:30 p.m. It's 9:30.

I wish Kuebler had started drinking already. Then someone else would have to drive the van. He passes between lanes with either oblivious impunity or superhero reflexes. He raps along with Dr. Dooom on the tape deck and discusses Halloweens past. "Last year, I was Tippi Hedren in The Birds."

Struggling to affix a plastic parrot to his shoulder in the back seat, Finn half hears him. "Topper Headon wasn't in the Byrds."

Tonight is Kuebler's first anniversary in the band. Last Halloween he replaced Tommy Roach, who'd found his double major in cultural studies at the University of Minnesota and bass theory in Lifter Puller to be rigidly incompatible. One night an exhausted Roach stepped outside the 400 Bar, lit a cigarette, and collapsed, hitting the pavement so hard he gave himself a black eye. The band played bassless that night. After the show, Kuebler joked, "I already know half your songs." Eventually, Roach chose grad school over rock, and they parted ways amicably. The band gave Kuebler a call.

Stamina figures big in the Lifter Puller mythology. Last year's EP, The Entertainment and the Arts, sounded like a weary plea to keep the party going at that point where everyone is passing or making out. This determination to rock on to the breakabreakadawn has been codified on the new album, with the rambling "Lifter Puller vs. the End of the Evening" declaring its opposition to sleep. "It's too late for liquor," gargles Finn on the track, "but we could get some 3.2."

Loose talk of boarding the Turf stage and pirating the Selby Tigers' instruments blossoms grandly into a plan to assault random bands at random clubs on random nights. Monick unsheathes his sword and growls, "Avast ye Big Wu" at an imagined Cabooze show.

Barone says, "We could sneak backstage before the show and paint a skull and crossbones on the drum kit and they'd be like, 'Oh shit. They're coming.'"

The band then exchanges a round of tour stories, which generally wind up with Barone getting so drunk that he climbs back onstage during the headlining band's set and hassles them. He performed a distracting striptease in Baltimore. Another night he lounged against the back of the stage and asked band members of the Molly McGuires for cigarettes at a show in Columbia, Mississippi. This is, after all, a man who occasionally dubs himself Hawaii, throws on some flashy rock-star gear and lip-synchs onstage to pretaped bubble-gum compositions while a sham audience of pals goes wild. Barone, who has been unwaveringly, if spacily, innocuous so far tonight, grins innocently.

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