Carry a Big Schtick
By Andy Langer
MARCH 9, 1998: I have a hard time going to see bands that take themselves seriously," says Stacie Smith. "Like when 2,000 people just paid $18 for a Wallflowers ticket and they ask, 'How do we sound?' What are those people gonna say? Or when Sheryl Crow yells, 'Does Austin know how to party?' All I keep thinking is, 'Good, more material.'" As the leader of Morningwood, a gyno-centric outfit that rocks hard but carries a big schtick, Smith doubles as frontwoman and pop satirist. Not unlike five female versions of Bono's "Fly" character, Smith and Morningwood have opted to mock pretentious rock excess by adopting it. As such, they spend a lot of time with tongue firmly in cheek, ever so carelessly walking the line between clever and stupid. As they say, "Morningwood, you either get it or don't."
Plenty have - got it - and because of this, Morningwood has become Austin's best word-of-mouth attraction, tapping into a bigger concept: that this is a town with lots of musicians, but very few entertainers. "We're simply the best bang for your entertainment dollar," says guitarist Tawnya LoRae.
Surely, at the root of that bang is the demographic theory that half of any crowd (the male half) is bound to find the notion of five admittedly oversexed women onstage entertaining. "We've often been voted 'Band You'd Most Like to Invite to a Slumber Party,'" says Morningwood's other guitarist, Kathy Ziegler.
Men with a fashion fetish will find even more to like, because Morningwood is notorious for theme-dressing; 20 different variations including straight, monochromatic colors, gowns, Eighties metal, ska, Mariachi, kimonos, prom, and high school band outfits. And for the women, there's not just general girl power and two male dancers, but also songs about good men ("Brad Pitt"), bad men ("Mystery Date"), fashion faux pax ("Cameltoe"), and dream jobs ("Fluffer").
"I think we have a broad idea of entertainment," says bassist Karen Linder. "We each bring to Morningwood a lot of different inputs."
Along with the puns, Morningwood also has its own carefully mapped mythology - complete nonsense, but it's well-executed. First, Smith, LoRae, Ziegler, Linder, and drummer Kim Powell all claim "Wood" as their onstage surname. Coincidental? Maybe. Or perhaps, as the band suggests, Stacie just got lucky when she found four other female musicians named Wood in the Austin White Pages.
Don't buy it? Okay, they really met in aerobics class, or eh, Catholic girl's school. Either way, they say they're huge in Japan; five tours of 40,000-seat stadiums. Need proof? The last song on their three-song demo is "Live at Budokan," and you can hear the exploding flashpots. And although they say their Japanese success has taught them to value their relatively low local profile in Austin, they claim to travel their "Red River Tour" (Emo's/ Stubb's/Club DeVille) in a fully-equipped bus.
Morningwood's real story is notably less glamorous. In late 1995, Smith approached Powell and Linder, who were already playing together in Phooey, with the concept for a new band called Fizz Gig & the Claptrap. Although Smith hadn't been in any bands before, the Phooey girls and Ziegler liked her vision: "Super-exaggerated rock." Until the addition of former Stick People bassist-cum-guitarist LoRae in early '97, Morningwood played and practiced only occasionally.
"We may have had three rehearsals and three songs for a year, but then again we never really had a conscious approach," says Linder. "It wasn't even like, 'Hey, let's start a girl band.' It was just a goofy way for us to hang out. In fact, we thought we were just lucky that it turned out all girls."
"A lot of times girl bands start with someone running an ad," says Smith. "But we were all friends before we were Morningwood."
With Austin being the small and incestuous town it is, that the Morningwood five had other friends in the scene seemed to make an early difference.
"Had we not known [Continental Club owner] Steve Wertheimer, what we were would have never gotten a gig anywhere else," admits LoRae.
Before long, Morningwood was outdrawing their headliners and picking up new fans through good ol' fashioned word-of-mouth. But despite Smith's pledge never to repeat a stage rap or the genuine catchiness of tunes like "Incestuous Town" or "Trucker's Delight," the first hurdle Morningwood had to clear was the local burnout factor. Yes, this was entertainment, but to how many of the same people and for how long?
"We're kind of like Disneyland," says Smith. "You can only go so many times before it gets old. But then you bring your kids there and get to see it all again through their eyes.... Sure, we used to think this stuff would only go over here, for our friends. But now they've told so many people that we know less and less of the people in the audiences. That gives us hope."
The hope, like almost every other South by Southwest entrant, is that their local schtick can be parlayed into something with a more national appeal. Last year, producer Dave McNair took the first leap of faith by bringing Morningwood into the studio for a session that yielded both a three-song demo and the initial proof that Morningwood's appeal can transcend the live experience.
First, McNair integrated Smith's stage raps and assorted banter directly into the songs. Then he gave Ziegler free reign to find samples, soundbites, and effects that make Morningwood not just funny, but also funky.
"I was in San Francisco at a wedding recently and I played the tape for my friends," says Ziegler. "They loved it, but I realized they had no idea what we do live, because the recording's not so over-the-top you'd know. And yet, if you have seen us live, it's still reflective."
Because it's stripped of the group's onstage antics, Morningwood's demo best highlights their hidden potential - the music itself. They may look like they're auditioning for the Richard Linklater version of Spice World, but they ain't the Spice Girls. For starters, the group writes and performs all their own material. And even if there's still more style than technique, critics dismissing Morningwood for their musical foundation alone are missing the point.
"Actually, there are time at rehearsals that I forget this is supposed to be funny," says Smith. "I'll be thinking we have to get this right musically, and then I'll remember, 'Oh, yeah. This is supposed to make people laugh.' We always have that to fall back on."
Maybe so, but the girls of Morningwood concede that falling too far back onto comedic rock's double-edged sword could be dangerous. As women performers, their post-Lillith, post-Spice Girls timing is undeniably good. Yet, it's equally clear that Morningwood's chances for longevity are a longshot. What's so clever and insightful now may not be next year.
"We know there's a window of opportunity," says LoRae. "We're not a band that's looking to playing Steamboat for 10 years."
More immediately, there's a SXSW buzz to be dealt with, which is a long way from last year's SXSW gig - an unsanctioned show in a hotel parking lot. And although they got some mileage out of dubbing it "South by San Jose," their on-stage invitation for interested A&R parties to meet them in the hotel's carport was intended as a joke. This year, with a real SXSW gig, demo, and a lawyer in place, they could wind up at The Four Seasons for real. Even so, Smith says her conference strategy is simple.
"My SXSW expectations? I expect our costumes will be ready in time," she says before summoning her rock star side. "Then I want to make one big rock record, a ton of money, and get the hell out of this business."
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