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A Portrait of the Artists as Young Hot Freaks [P]

By Jon Rodis with Hannibal Goodfellow, Friday, January 12, 2007

The Central High School Class of '97 suspected that Nico was a space alien sent to Earth to live among the teenagers, study their social practices, and report back to the Mothership, and to this date no history of The Ronald Raygun / Hepnova regime has controverted this fact. It wasn't his Roy Orbison sunglasses, blond pompador, or the crisp, black polyester suit that he donned well into May--though all of that was suspect in the dark days of post-grunge. Contemporaneous with The Ronald Raygun, Trent Reznor and minions threatened to suck the remaining irony out of pop music; "authentically damaged" had superceded "hip" in the popular aesthetic. Deep in the throes of authenticity myself, I found Nico nearly incomprehensible at first. He was brilliant, witty, urbane, subversive, aloof, and possessed of a relentless levity--but a levity that seemed to lack warmth, in keeping with his alien metabolism. In conversation, I found he was likely to transform anything I said in his presence into a sexual double entendre, aphoristic aside, or semi-camouflaged barb--as if by careful study a trans-galactic cultural anthropologist had uncovered the mathematical algorithm for being Oscar Wilde or Prince and downloaded it into this high school junior's mind. Though he successfully infiltrated the Central High School Bobcat, Class of '97, he never could shake our suspicion that he was an alien.

Instead of beaming up to the Mothership after graduating in 1998, Nico worked at Sweet Tomatoes for the summer and then went to college, where he met John Chase, a wiry Puck with a titanic intellect and a thirst for rockabilly and rap music. The two began playing music after school, where they both worked as well, and writing songs and ideas in their Global Relations class.

While slumming around the Honors College dorms, Nico met Lee-Sean Huang, yet another Political Science major with a quiver of bon mots and a serious music jones. Lee-Sean played keyboards and produced skewed pop music when he wasn't slaying debate opponents, learning another in a seemingly endless series of languages, or guzzling Fanta. He particularly shared Nico's taste for drum'n'bass, experimental pop in the Massive Attack vien, and the powerful New York "New Music" scene that had produced Sonic Youth and Cibo Matto; his Union Jack Doc Martens, post-rave Eurotrash-skewering dress sense, and highly cultivated appreciation for food signalled that he was perhaps some kind of intergalactic funk scientist himself. Like Sun Ra, he brought a totally fresh clutch of serious music ability and a bottomless capacity for ill satire to the Raygun table. The first tracks on which they collaborated, "Telephone Tag" and "La Morsa," impressed Chase and convinced all three that they needed to form a rock and roll band tout de suite.

Unbeknownst to me (and most everyone else), The Ronald Raygun were making brilliant, witty, urbane, subversive, aloof music possessed of a relentless levity--but what I could see now, through the music, was the warmth. You can hear deep musical loves: lounge, rockabilly, surf, breakbeat, funk, bossanova, jungle, and, above all else, that now-unheard rhythmic element of rock and roll music that made even white people in a high school gym want to dance. It would be wrong to say that The Ronald Raygun made music that was unprecedented--you can hear Nico's rhythm guitar revisit the B-52's, the Who, the Cramps, Jimmy Nolen from James Brown's band and others; Lee-Sean's assortment of electronic beats and effects and his frequently inventive psychedelic organ have antedecents in and Bernie Worrell and Suicide's Martin Rev. John Chase provides deep, unconscionably on-time bass playing that finds the common ground between Lee Rocker, Billy "Bass" Nelson, and Conrad Lozano from Los Lobos, and his future wife Susan "Sue-Shi" Webb lends a voice that alternately recalls Peggy Lee and Luscious Jackson's Jill Cuniff, along with unpredictable Latin percussion and snare work. It would be equally wrong to call the band derivative. In the tradition of The Talking Heads, they synthesize musical styles for the benefit of the song rather than for the novelty of the reference. The closest analog in contemporary music is Beck--maybe you see flashes of it in LeTigre's electroclash or even Gwen Stefani and others' "crossover" music. Still, Beck's synthesis is too often a matter of musical appreciation, whereas The Ronald Raygun has genuine energy and enthusiasm. In less heretical terms: Beck is music for the hipster mind; this music is for the hipster pelvis.

Nico told me recently that people didn't know if this music was supposed to make them laugh, so the question of the hipster mind is equally germane to The Ronald Raygun's lyrics as its music: How exactly is someone supposed to respond to "Physical Tourrette's," for example? Ought one to stick out one's leg "like a battering ram"? Is "Sex Power" a satire of other sex/dance anthems or, itself, a sex/dance anthem? The Ronald Raygun does not ask such questions. If you must, by some inner compulsion, then this band is just not for you. For sympathetic listeners unaccustomed to the shades of irony in the lyrical terrain between the Connor Oberst and "Weird" Al Yankovic: Starting from Connor Oberst, add a healthy dollop of cleverness, a pinch of malice, and the will to emerge from the fetal position and oscillate wildly. This will bring you to The Smiths. From there subtract any trace of self-loathing, distribute the party hats, and light the tiki torches. Now you should be listening to the B-52's first record. (If you get to the Dead Milkmen, you've gone too far.) Add some brazen, funk-dripping sex ala Prince and the suggestion of Itchy and Scratchy / Doctor Octagon-esque violence, and you will have reached The Ronald Raygun. In other words, it's okay to laugh, but while you're laughing with your dorky, burn-out friends in the corner someone else will be ass-grinding a literary criticism graduate student on the dance floor. The genius of this band is that they will be your party band either way.

So what happened to the band? They released one official record, 1999's uncategorizable self-produced electro-rock manifesto "Tourist You Are The Terrorist," of which they pressed only 1000 copies on the Hepnova imprint. This record was an uncategorizable flurry of styles and featured raps from then-unknown MC Netmaster 10base-T. A tough year later, they put together the dark-edged, unvarnished LP "Dojo of Hardcore," which veered scarily between frenetic dance-rock born of the live gigging they'd done and disturbing dirges of self-negation and self-abuse. This record never saw wide release. The shifting tectonics of time dragged the members of Hepnova far apart geographically, but spiritually, they've maintained a freaky Karamazov-like connection. Lee-Sean was the first to get sucked into the vortex of reality, when his undeniable brilliance caused the recruiting goons at Harvard to head-hunt him away from sunny Arizona to the frigid climes of Cambridge. Chase and Susan were lured to Houston, where Chase, serving in the "Teach for America" program, introduced James Brown music into the Special Education curriculum and organized an after-school death/power metal camp to keep kids off the streets. Susan became a major presence on the fundraising scene and played drums in hot rock groups. Nico stayed behind in Tempe, slogging through his BA and making noise-saturated electrobilly and rap records under the Tsar Nicholas and Iced Weasels brands. In 2001, Nico and Lee-Sean began to record under the Hepnova name exclusively, producing an EP of covers (including the stone perfect Britney Spears medley "Hit Me Britney") and one of originals (including the dancefloor banger "Internal Ratchet Action").

Now, this fresh Web presence is bringing their music to a new audience. People who couldn't get access to their music before can hear and buy it here, and many who found their music too strange or assaultive the first time around can listen to it anew. Old fans will be delighted at the historical material and wild photos. Listeners will be surprised at how many elements of the Raygun / Hepnova sound made it into the manstream half a decade or more after the original band dissolved. The new music of Hepnova is as vital and crisp as their old music, but with an added sense of production values that used to get plowed under by their punkiness, and perhaps a maturity that makes for friendlier listening. Their new single "I Don't Want You" picks up where 90s dance music left off and adds a tuneful minimalism and hard urban-funk aesthetic. Their forthcoming self-titled album is sure to provide the soundtrack for a thousand backseat rumbles -- and this time, it won't be just the kids that are alright. The whole freak family will scoop Hepnova's new groove.

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