Punk Like Me
To say that the music Archer Prewitt makes now is different from what he did in the 1980s is a gross understatement. Nowadays he’s a guitar-playing singer-songwriter who crafts radiant, introspective pop. But when he got behind the drums in KC bands the Tunnel Dogs and Mudhead, he played as though someone had handed him two rusty cleavers and told him to dismember a pig carcass in 30 seconds.
He wasn’t alone in his hardcore fire. As a student at the Kansas City Art Institute, he met a young punk from Lincoln, Nebraska, who went by the name Mott-Ly. Anyone familiar with the Crossroads arts scene will recognize Mott-Ly as the owner of the MoMO Gallery. But in the mid-’80s, during and after his time in art school, Mott-Ly was the unhinged, manic singer in both of Prewitt’s bands.
Hanging out at his 19th Street and Locust studio with a Mudhead CD caterwauling on a stereo, Mott-Ly recalls the first time he saw Prewitt. At the Art Institute, their dorm-room windows faced each other. One night, Mott-Ly saw Prewitt and some friends dancing like maniacs in Prewitt’s room. What caught Mott-Ly’s eye was Prewitt’s yellow Devo jumpsuit. Mott-Ly waved to him approvingly, and shortly afterward, the two became friends.
Their first outfit was a performance-art duo they called the Bozo Show, wherein (among other things) Prewitt would make scary-looking Ronald Reagan marionettes and put them to unwholesome purposes. A typical performance would have Prewitt freaking out on drums or bass while Mott-Ly flung bread and wine at the audience, singing “For your love!” over and over.
Thankfully, a new band called the Tunnel Dogs needed a singer and a drummer, so the two Bozos stepped in to help them manufacture some glorious, sloppy, four-on-the-floor punk.
“I was drawn to the energy and sort of the fearless sense that music could be creative without [demanding] a lot of musical prowess,” Prewitt says over the phone from his Chicago home. “You could bash away with your friends and come up with something that sounded good.”
According to Mott-Ly, his friend was indeed fearless. “Archer did some amazing dancing,” he recalls. “He’s such a skinny, wiry guy. I can’t imagine how he got away with some of the stuff he did. He did back flips off the stage.”
Madcap antics aside, their next band, Mudhead, was more musically evolved and adventurous. They were so good, in fact, that they grabbed the interest of underground heavyweights Steve Albini (whom Mudhead blew away at the Outhouse when Albini’s band Rapeman played Lawrence) and the Dead Kennedys‘ Jello Biafra before disbanding.
Judging by a CD Mott-Ly lent me, Mudhead made most of today’s hardcore bands sound like rickety sewing machines. Screaming like Elmer Fudd being raped by a werewolf on a bad acid trip, Mott-Ly could have knocked satellites out of orbit. Guitarists Beth Watson and Lori Tiller showed no mercy as they attacked their instruments and wrenched from them machine-press distortion and ear-shattering leads. Spurring it all was Prewitt’s drumming — Keith Moon-intense with breakdowns that sounded like a machine gun going off in the back of a dump truck. (Somebody with a label, please reissue this band’s recordings.)
After Mudhead broke up, Prewitt played in the Bangtails, which found him going in a poppier direction. Following that, he founded the Coctails with fellow artists Barry Phipps, Mark Greenburg and John Upchurch. It started as an experimental, kitschy lounge act, complete with horns. They recorded their first two records in Kansas City, then moved to Chicago in the early ’90s, eventually becoming the house band at the famous rock club the Lounge Ax.
“I was interested in music that was on the verge of falling apart at the time,” Prewitt says. “I was listening to a lot of Jonathan Richman. I had tapes from my friends here in Chicago, Shrimp Boat with Sam Prekop [who would later play with Prewitt in the Sea and Cake]. I was listening to those tapes and really liking fragile, barely there, kinda crappy music — the Velvet Underground. We were listening to ragged music, but it was melodic.”
They were making it, too. The Coctails’ early releases were vinyl pressings on their own Hi-Ball imprint. Long Sound, a 1993 album of experimental jazz, featured some respected musicians (not that Prewitt and co. weren’t respected, but they were no virtuosi). Then the group did a 180 with Peel, ditching the horns and going for a more straight-ahead, guitar-driven approach to its still wonky pop.
Prewitt has been on a song-focused trajectory ever since, including his work as a solo artist and in the Sea and Cake, his most commercially successful venture. He remains a visual artist, contributing illustrations to the Chicago Reader and once in a while publishing his cult-beloved Sof’ Boy comic. His fourth solo record, Wilderness, which brings him to the Record Bar Friday, is a warm, pastoral homage to his late father and his Kentucky roots. It’s way more George Harrison than, say, Anal Cunt.
Mott-Ly, on the other hand, is still pretty hardcore. He has booked around a dozen all-ages punk shows at the MoMO, providing another venue for an underage scene that had only one regular stage (El Torreon). The art he makes — Joseph Cornellesque boxes constructed out of found objects — is ragged and melodic. He intends to see Prewitt play Friday night, so if you go, don’t stand in front of the guy in the wheelchair with bright flying-saucer tattoos on one side of his neck. That’s Mott-Ly. Buy him a drink.