Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright
In the early 1990s, a new generation of indie kids made gleeful, intentionally amateurish music that romanticized childlike energy and subcultural pride. Scores of cheekily playful "love rock" bands--Tiger Trap, Cannanes, the Vaselines, the Pastels, Heavenly, Some Velvet Sidewalk--found a home on Calvin Johnson's Olympia, Washington-based K Records, a syndicate for homemade music that served as a lighthearted brother to the more doctrinaire releases on the Kill Rock Stars label. Compilations like the cassette-only Let's Kiss set the stage for a series of records by a roster of pop oddballs, home-studio experimenters, happily alienated young men, and newly empowered young women. For a brief moment between 1992 and 1995, it seemed as if the indie underground had been born again.
During these years, the Twin Cities grew its own crop of Olympia-influenced groups: Lily Liver, Lefty Lucy, Low, Kittycraft, Beangirl. At their best these kiddie-poppers made music that suggested a riot at a McDonald's birthday party: They didn't thrash as much as thrash about. Yet as the '90s progressed, the kids grew up, and today kiddie pop has all but disappeared (with the exception of the on-again/off-again Lily Liver). This leaves locals with one of the few remaining and viable standard-bearers of the K sound, St. Paul's Selby Tigers.
Guitarist-singer Arzu Gökcen, bassist Nicole Gerber, and drummer Dave Gatchell formed the Selby Tigers three years ago, following the breakup of Gökcen's highly theatrical act Lefty Lucy. "I used to dress up as an angel or a devil or Wonder Woman onstage," Gökcen says over a few beers with her bandmates at the Loring Bar.
Distancing themselves from Lefty's confrontational brand of camp, the Tigers played their first show as an opener for Olympian grrrl-punks the Peechees at St. Paul's Higher Grounds Coffeehouse. Gökcen's husband Nathan Grumdahl, who booked the performance, soon joined in on second guitar and vocals. With their sloppy energy and brisk drive, the band hit the ground running, touring the West Coast twice and earning a reputation as one of the most entertaining live bands in town.
The beginnings of the Tigers can be heard on last year's six-song EP, Year of the Tigers (Bread Machine). Still formative, the band's songwriting and performances are a bit shaky. "Going Out," welds a nasty little riff to a limply sung teen-rebellion lyric. But the EP gets over on high spirits and a strident, punk lyricism that shines through the layers of opaque guitar grime. "Job Corps Riot" is a bracing snarl, while "Heartattacks" flies by at breakneck speed, as the group laments, "Why can't we pick who has heart attacks?"
Continuing in this vein, a recent four-song demo sees the Tigers hone their sound with tighter, sharper performances. Noticeable, too, is a progression away from the ultimately limiting kid-pop aesthetic and toward a measure of (gasp!) musical maturity. Still, a go-for-broke quality remains in these songs, most clearly in the rerecorded Lefty Lucy tune "Pubescent." Here Gatchell and Gökcen fire off a John Doe and Exene Cervenka call-and-response (He: "It's about a bad situa-tion!" She: "Will you shut up?") while riding a bullet train of Billy Zoom-style guitar.
Part of the band's growth can be attributed to the addition of the technically proficient musician Dave Gardner, an engineer on a number of Amphetamine Reptile releases who replaced Gerber on bass last February. And as the Tigers have improved musically, Gökcen has become more comfortable abandoning the old costumes she wore in Lefty Lucy. "After a while, there was some concern about whether people would take us seriously or not," says Gökcen. "I notice that I've been getting more respect as a musician now. I've been playing a lot longer, I'm a better musician than I was in Lefty Lucy. But looking gimmicky made it easier [for audiences] to dismiss us."
Yet even if the Selby Tigers are an excellent example of the growth seen in many of the bands that originally drew inspiration from Olympia, they're far from trading in their lunch boxes for loafers. With the increased visibility of all-ages venues like the Foxfire and the Whole Music Club, and the example of persistently developing scene leaders, from Corin Tucker to Built to Spill, several new bands are picking up where the old scene crumbled. (Gökcen lauds high school indie-rockers the Plastic Constellations.) For now the Tigers are preparing for a West Coast tour in May and June--a road trip they're hoping to use as an opportunity to record another single.
"Hopefully, we'll be visiting Clovis Studios," says Gardner, referring to the New Mexico recording facility where producer Norman Petty guided Buddy Holly through his classic sides. "I've been calling Vi Petty [Norman's widow] every day for three weeks, but she still hasn't returned my calls." A group of young folks are thwarted in their attempt to meet a rock 'n' roll widow? Sounds like an indie-rock song in the making.
Selby Tigers play Springfest at Macalester College on April 17; (651) 696-6010.
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