Six years ago, a Costa Mesa rock singer named Chad Jasmine found himself plotting an escape from musical normalcy and seeking a partner who could help him make a sonic jailbreak into "something wild, something that would take chances musically."
A friend suggested that he get in touch with Chad Forrello, a guitarist who had just graduated from high school in Corona del Mar. The friend summed up Forrello in a single word: "odd." Jasmine decided that this definitely was a call worth making.
The first time they met, Forrello and Jasmine sat down and wrote a song called "Pigs at the Fair."
Soon they formed a band, National People's Gang. Five years later, the group has just released its first album, "The Hard Swing." It is a varied, consistently interesting collection of strange but focused rockers--including "Pigs at the Fair"--interspersed with lighter songs that show a contrasting penchant for shimmering lyricism.
The band's trademarks are Jasmine's theatrical, falsetto-laden singing and wild soprano saxophone blasts, Forrello's hard-edged guitar playing and the tumbling, tribal rhythms laid down by drummer Anthony Arvizu and bassist Chuck Morris.
(National People's Gang headlines Tuesday night at Bogart's and plays Wednesday afternoon at an anti-apartheid rally at Cal State Fullerton.)
A lot has changed for the band since its co-founders' first encounter and the release this week of "The Hard Swing" on Orange-based Dr. Dream Records.
Once overtly flamboyant in its quest for "something wild," National People's Gang has come to put music before spectacle, while still giving Jasmine room to follow his theatrical inclinations.
Sitting with his band mates in the Huntington Beach home of their manager, Sam Lanni, Forrello, 23, recalled the time when he and Jasmine, 25, were just starting their partnership.
In those days, Forrello said, his own carefully conceived look included six earrings (three in each ear), an omnipresent pair of sunglasses and a hair style in which "I would always shave around my head and leave a little puff on top--very Roman. I was a very odd-looking guy, very eccentric. Now it just comes out in the music. I've changed the image and made it more internal. These bands that have an image have to try and look a certain way. You get to the point where you don't want to try. You want to be accepted for the way you are. Why (let) people have opinions about you because of the way you look when they can just listen to your music?"
Jasmine also has become a bit more circumspect in his look, if not in his athletic performing style.
Morris, 29, recalled that when he joined National People's Gang in 1984, "Chad (Jasmine) did wear a lot of makeup and garments he would construct--very geometrical. It was distracting at the time for me. I would object very loudly at times because he would show up and surprise us."
"You loved those days, though," chided Jasmine, a lanky, angular man with intense eyes but a ready smile.
"His clothes would be these strange fabrics, like wallpaper at a bad Italian restaurant," Morris said. "He was a little wild in those days."
"They were all nice clothes," Jasmine insisted, a little sheepishly.
These days, Jasmine's stage garb usually is a simple pair of shorts and a T-shirt, geared for freedom of movement more than creating an odd image.
"The Hard Swing" gives Jasmine plenty of opportunities for role playing. On "All the Elements," he sounds like a wired David Byrne as he leads the band through a galloping, rockabilly-rhythmed stomp. "The River" and "The Big Experiment" are fragmented narratives that allow him to play fractured characters against stormy musical backdrops. But on "Caroline" and "With the Fond Eyes," Jasmine turns into a dreamy romantic like Bryan Ferry, singing about love's sweet pain over suitably pretty song arrangements. Elsewhere, he conveys a deep sense of jaded irony about humankind that never quite lapses into cynicism.
In fact, Jasmine states his ideals for the band in a way that would make some '60s veterans blush with recognition of their younger selves.
The band name may sound political, he said, but the intent isn't to evoke the confrontation of clashing ideologies. Instead, he said, National People's Gang stands for the idea of a rock band as a common link between nations and peoples.
While National People's Gang is far from derivative, there are links between its accessible-but-adventurous sound and that of bands in the British theatrical-rock tradition that runs from Bowie through more recent bands like the Psychedelic Furs, the Smiths and the Cure. It is a sound that has been persistently popular among college and alternative-rock audiences.
That could stand National People's Gang in good stead as it begins to try to make a national mark.
National People's Gang is scheduled to start its first tour Nov. 10 with a show in Tucson. Members will take leaves from their day jobs (Jasmine works in a supermarket produce department and has a habit of tossing fresh fruits and vegetables to his audiences; Forrello works for a caterer; Arvizu works in a record store, and Morris is a house painter).
"We've always been very patient," said Arvizu, the articulate, shaven-headed drummer. "We've never looked to do something sensational overnight. It would be nice if we can make enough money to live, so we can turn this into our profession."
National People's Gang plays Tuesday night at Bogart's in the Marina Pacifica Mall, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach. Eggplant opens at 9:30, with admission $5. Information: (213) 594-8975. National People's Gang also will play a free show Wednesday at 1:15 p.m. during an anti-apartheid rally at the outdoor amphitheater on the Cal State Fullerton campus.