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House of Freaks? No, It Isn't a Punk Band

February 17, 1988|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

House of Freaks may be the most misleading name for a potentially great rock group since 10,000 Maniacs, the winsome, folk-accented band led by Natalie Merchant.

Adopted by band members Bryan Harvey and Johnny Hott after seeing the phrase Hall of Freaks on an old circus poster, the name suggests an unruly punk outfit.

Yet the Freaks' music blends a highly accessible and melodic '60s pop-rock style with a darkly intense country blues spirit. The themes on the group's debut album, "Monkey on a Chain Gang," deal with such widespread concerns as survival in the nuclear age and the individual search for purpose and self-identity.

That House of Freaks name, however, is likely to send a signal to mainstream rock fans and, more crucially, to radio programmers that the band's music is too extreme for them.

As if that's not obstacle enough in the highly competitive world of rock, Harvey and Hott also have gone against the Book of Rules in another way.

There have been lots of duos, but the Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel hired other musicians to fill out their sound when they went into the studio or on tour.

With the House of Freaks, all you get are singer-guitarist Harvey and drummer Hott. There are no guest musicians on the group's LP, just released by Rhino Records, and there won't be anyone joining them on stage Friday night at Club Lingerie in Hollywood or Saturday night at San Diego State University's Back Door Club.

"We figured we would run into problems with both the name and the absence of a bass player," said Harvey during a recent interview in a downscale Mexican restaurant in Hollywood. "But we weren't interested in compromising. We liked the name . . . it seemed kinda memorable and scary, and we liked the way we sounded with just two pieces.

"I used to be in another band (the Dads) and I was so anxious to get a record deal that I was willing to follow all the rules. We did get signed by CBS Records, but the record we put out (in 1984) was so terrible that I didn't want to be in a band anymore. I went home to Richmond and began doing some things solo."

After hooking up with Hott early last year, Harvey vowed not to compromise this time. "I had enough confidence in the material to think we would get another record contract," he said. "And I figured that even if we didn't sell a lot of records, we'd end up with an album that we liked . . . and that's what happened."

And how good is the album?

"Monkey on a Chain Gang" is a work of considerable imagination and heart. Harvey's vocals often reflect the innocence and desire of the late John Lennon, while Hott's primal drumming style complements Harvey's guitar work so well that the music seems to speak as a single voice. The result is one of the most stimulating debuts by a Los Angeles-based rock group during the '80s.

There's a slight sweet, choir-boy handsomeness about Harvey, 31, and a more stark, bohemian aura about Hott, 30, that in some ways mirror the differences in their musical backgrounds.

Harvey, whose background was mostly pop-rock, and Hott, who enjoyed be-bop and jazz, were involved in separate explorations of acoustic country blues and ethnic music.

After discovering their mutual interest, Hott sat in on drums one night with Harvey. They toyed briefly with the idea of adding a bassist but decided their raw, rural sound was intriguing on its own. "It helped to be into this minimal country blues stuff because a lot of the records we listened to were just a guy with a guitar singing his songs," said Hott, during the restaurant interview.

One of their first dates after moving to Los Angeles early last year was at Madame Wong's West. There were less than a dozen people in the audience when the Freaks stepped on stage, but one of them was Gary Stewart, head of talent acquisition for Rhino Records.

In a separate interview, Stewart recalled the show. "They had sent me a tape before moving here and I liked the songs, but I thought they needed a bass player," he said. "As soon as I saw them, however, I wanted to sign them.

"The name had never been a problem. . . . In fact, I thought it was a plus. It showed me that they had personality. The bass matter was a lack of foresight on my part. The demo tape lacked energy and I incorrectly assumed it was because there was no bass. But the problem had been in the way the tape was recorded. They had an amazing energy on stage."

After listening to feelers from other, larger record companies, the pair finally signed last summer with Rhino. One track from the album--"40 Years"--is already attracting airplay on college and alternative-rock radio stations, and a video of the song is being shown on MTV.

Typical of the melodic side of the Freaks' work, "40 Years" is a strange wedding of pessimism and hope, written after the 40th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb.

Other songs on the debut LP range from "Cactusland" (a slap at conservative rock stations that ignored American rock bands in recent years) to "Long Black Train" (a look at romantic anxiety built around the sensual, Delta-music flavor of Creedence Clearwater Revival's most aggressive tracks) to "Lonesome Graveyard" and "You Can Never Go Home" (reflections by Harvey on the 1986 death of his father).

This is sensitive, affecting music that in no way suggests the crazed or offbeat images suggested by the group's name. Still, Harvey and Hott are content with their situation. They just hope the name and the novel two-man pairing don't distract from the music itself.

"We did not set out to make this a cause or an angle. We set out to make music . I don't even know if we are going to stay with this two-man format," Harvey said.

Overhearing the conversation, Hott added, "Yeah, on the second album, we might both end up playing bass."

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