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.

Finn drops more science. "Those big pirate ships moved really slow. Imagine looking out, seeing a Jolly Roger on the horizon, and thinking, 'Those guys are really going to kick our asses in two or three days.'"

It's possible, I learn, to leave the freeway and make a left-hand turn onto Snelling without touching the brakes. There are no atheists in the Lifter Puller van.

Jenny shouts, "Patches down!" We obey, each covering an eye. Discussion of the advantages of binocular vision ensues.

In full garb, with Jolly Roger flying, we march into the Turf, where the band Triangle is integrating armchair drum 'n' bass and twee rondos into a surprisingly kitsch-free polyrhythmic mix.

"Originally, we were going to be dead rock stars tonight," Kuebler says. "I wanted to be Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy, but I figured it might be too hard to pull off."

Monick is explaining what a pirate song is: any tune you can rock your arm to like you're holding a tankard of rum. "You know, like 'She Floated Away' off the last Hüsker Dü record."

"You mean a waltz?"

"Yeah. Whatever."

Disguised as cowhands, Walker Kong and the Dangermakers take the stage and begin emitting their garage disco pulse for an appreciative crowd. Barone is dancing with the Jolly Roger like Bono at Red Rocks. Kong (a.k.a. Jeremy Ackerman) announces, "All right. Let's bring it down now." The groove drops to a softer vamp.

"When you bring it back up, I am going fucking nuts," Barone screams at him.

The thought of never bringing it back up flickers momentarily but visibly across Kong/Ackerman's face. "I'm not afraid of pirates pretending to be punk rockers," he taunts instead.

"We'll take your shit on!" Barone bellows. Lifter Puller draw swords and rush the stage. The Dangermakers put up a valiant struggle, shielding themselves with instruments and taking advantage of their easily defensible higher ground. Plastic blades prove no match for the solid polyurethane whomp of a Fender bass. The stage remains unboarded.

Lifter Puller has no time for wound licking. The Turf is running behind schedule, and it's evident the band will never make it back in time for their own show if we wait to see the headliners. A little after midnight, still in the Dangermakers set, we reboard the van. The Selby Tigers are safe. For now.

 

The Soap Factory used to be just that. Today it's a factory only in the Warholian sense, a scrappy gallery programmed by No Name Exhibitions, and an unheated refuge for the young, gifted, and slack denizens of the arty fringe. Tonight it has been rechristened the Cave of the Whispering Shadows, and it's plenty cavernous, even with several hundred people milling within. Strips of white fabric dangle near the entrance. The third Velvet Underground album echoes on permanent repeat from within.

A bald dude eats fire and hectors a crowd into the Castle of the Shrieking Dead Spookhouse, the baroquely disturbing haunted house next door. When he takes his act into the factory proper, an alarm erupts, inspiring mass fear of sprinklers among a crowd that has been listening to Tulip Sweet ranting like a chanteuse in her cups.

We encounter a smattering of costumes inspired by characters from Lifter Puller songs. Patrick Costello of friends the Dillinger Four is Nightclub Dwight, the shady lurker described in several songs on the new album. A woman in midriff-baring fur and heels and a man in an eye patch linger by a slab of wood protruding out of the stage, helpfully labeled "The Plank." She's "Katrina," I learn, another of Finn's lyrical creations, and he's yet another--"the Eye-Patch Guy." It's getting a little too Rocky Horror in here for me.

By the time he gets onstage, Finn looks as little like a pirate as one can in a three-cornered hat with a parrot perched atop it. After a quick Dangermakers plug ("If they were here, you'd be having a good time by now") the opening chord of "Lonely in a Limousine" sends Finn reeling away from the microphone. He leans forward, batting the mic stand back and forth like a cat pawing a captured rat. It falls, and Eye-Patch Guy scrambles to right it.

According to Monick, "The way Craig lags, it's almost a hip-hop thing, like the way Wu-Tang falls off the beat then slides back in and you go, Whoah." Or maybe it's like a rare strain of Tourette's that makes you blurt out the wrong answers to SAT verbal practice quizzes.

But his voice is a percussive force, to be sure, and producing its sounds seems to send him into a fit of intense concentration that makes him oblivious to his bandmates' antics. At the Loring Block Party earlier this year, Kuebler and Barone closed the band's set with a barrage of fireworks. Only aware of wariness in the faces in the crowd, Finn wondered afterward, "What happened?"

Kuebler gulps Jim Beam between songs. "Okay, okay. Everyone quiet," he commands. "A friend of mine just called." No one onstage or off knows what he's talking about. "She's coming by in five minutes or so. Now," he pauses, palms upraised in petition, "I want everybody to hide before she gets here."

Barone plays both guitar and keyboards, sometimes maniacally alternating between the two within the space of one song. He quickly tires of scaling his amp and leaping to the stage. Even the rope he has been provided with to swing out over the crowd is a limitation upon his need to occupy as much space as possible at all times. Suddenly, compelled by unseen forces, Barone hurtles through the air into the butt of Finn's guitar, and then into a spectacular wipeout through the drums. Monick valiantly keeps time, straining not to whack the civilian volunteers resetting his kit.

Anarchy is too ideologically loaded a word, chaos too grand. But it sure is some kind of terrific mess up there. Overheard evaluations range from an enthusiastic "definitive" to a polite "entertaining." Later those band members sober enough to comment do so sheepishly even after I say it sounded good to me. Still, I'd hate to have a tape of the show ruin my memory.

After the show, people are scavenging backstage for beer--apparently the bar has been moved sporadically this evening to keep drunks on their toes. "There's nothing back here," Monick protests. "If you're looking for anything back here besides us, you aren't going to find it." Craig Finn raises his fist toward me with a wan smile of exhausted esprit. "Aargh." It's almost 2:30 a.m. But thanks to daylight-savings time, in a half-hour it will only be two o'clock. Chalk up another Pyrrhic victory over the end of the evening.

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