- From indie rock to disco, VHS or Beta no longer fakes the funk.
Unless you're friends with puppets or you know the ice cream man, you probably won't find a more enjoyably inconsequential way to spend your Monday night this week than with Louisville, Kentucky's VHS or Beta, a quartet of disco survivalists determined to fill a darkening world with the brightest, most vivid bonhomie four nerdy guys who are into music can muster. On its debut album, Le Funk, the group asks what Daft Punk would sound like if they really were punks: Armed with cellophane guitars, rock-steady bass, and a real, live drummer who wouldn't quit if you asked him to, VHS or Beta revs up a pounding glitterball of sound that packs whole weekends at Studio 54 into rock-fan-friendly morsels of abandon. The grooves are legitimate enough to convince you that Kentucky's gotten a bad rap, and the whole thing's done so guilelessly that you'd swear the place has never heard of grad school.
"We're all big fans of weird, great disco," guitarist Craig Pfunder admits from the VHS van, on a tour that will bring them to the Beachland on October 7. "Even clichéd disco, really. There's this French guy named Cerrone that we all love. But we were all born and bred on rock music -- you know, total white America."
There's the rub: Though you wouldn't know it from Le Funk, VHS or Beta, like so many new-millennium disco fetishists, did once upon a time fake the funk. "We were all playing in a few different bands," Pfunder says, "and we just decided to combine all the Louisville bands into one band." Once assembled in 1997, the baby band was largely indistinguishable from innumerable other Louisville outfits churning out a variation on the no-wave/noise/post-rock formula favorite sons Slint and Rodan had invented earlier in the decade.
"Indie-rock was obviously something that had really happened in Louisville, and so it was really natural for us to do that," the guitarist explains. "We played like that for about a year and a half, but then we decided that too many bands sounded like that, so we opted to do something different. We all sort of fell in love with electronic music at the same time. But the thing was, we didn't really want to ditch our instruments, so we changed the mindset but kept the instruments and just approached it a little differently."
If you've heard a Slint or Rodan record, you might say a lot differently. Unlike the qualified pleasures of the slow build or the impressive arpeggio, Le Funk is an irrepressibly, almost improperly, joyous listen, as unconflicted about musical hedonism as any indie-identified band this side of the Replacements on a (really) drunk night. "Heaven" kicks things off, a sly wah-wah guitar figure building steam for 30 seconds before the bass and drums kick in, themselves working up a sweat for 30 more, until the high-end melody swoops in and you're swept into an honest-to-goodness disco tune -- one not all that distinguishable from the ones your parents might've favored. "Disco Paradise" keeps the party pumping, and "Solid Gold" (you've no doubt noticed something with these titles) takes the whole gang out to the beach for a midnight roll in the sand. Even the two live tracks tacked onto the disc's end (one's called "Teenage Dancefloor") make up for what they lack in twinkling precision with enthusiastic Friday-night ambiance.
It's not smart music, but it just might be genius: In flipping the script on the late-model collage theory proffered by Beck and all those he's inspired, Pfunder and his bandmates are suggesting that making the fake real is a pursuit just as worthwhile as rendering the real fake. After all, when sophisticated recording equipment can make any kid in a bedroom sound like five or six onstage, you have to look elsewhere for a challenge.
"The difference with us is, as opposed to being producers and ripping off records, we're like any band, in that we write," Pfunder says of the VHS process. "We just start jamming. We don't program our beats, because we have a drummer, and all that stuff is on the fly. That's why it has a band feel, why there's a sort of map to it. When we're in the studio, we just make our own samples and use those, instead of getting them from an old record." This has its extracreative advantages, Pfunder laughs. "We don't have to pay royalties."
They also don't have to limit themselves to a specialized audience. "We definitely lost a few of the indie-rock people when we changed," Pfunder sighs. "But where we used to draw maybe 50 or 60 people to our shows, now we can get 800 or 1,000 to a show in Louisville. And it's all over the board, from thirtysomethings with jobs to indie-rock kids in black glasses to ravers to -- you know, your average showgoers. It's kind of a weird scene, but it's very comforting to draw from different scenes; no one group is being represented to exclude anyone else."
The band's even cultivated a following among forward-looking jam-band aficionados -- the ones drawn to trippy Pennsylvania trance act the Disco Biscuits and Toronto tech-heads the New Deal. Pfunder's surprised by the acceptance. "That scene's got no negative appeal to us; we're just not that familiar with it. They're great fans, though. But you turn on our record, and there's not a single jam part; it's all written to the measure and to the note. In the future, we want to allow more leeway for that jam element, but right now we're still trying to hone the songwriting."
All told, these guys are next-level adventurers; they're onto something brilliant and stupid at the same time. Let 'em wow you on their way there.