THUNDERBIRDS ARE NOW! with OXFORD COLLAPSE and ROCK PLAZA CENTRAL at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Sunday (January 28). $10. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
For a Detroit scene band, thun der birds Are Now! bash out an engaging brand of keyboard-enhanced, spiky pop that's conspicuously free of the second-hand blues riffs and R&B signifiers typically associated with their garage delinquent contemporaries.
At first I thought it might have something to do with being based in the suburban wasteland of Ferndale. But then again, if you had to fold denim all day at Urban Outfitters like singer/guitarist Ryan Allen, you'd probably be playing the blues non-stop. While Allen concedes that Thunderbirds' skewed take on the Detroit sound has environmental contributing factors, it's got nothing to do with living in Ferndale.
"I grew up in Livonia, Michigan, near the Canadian border," explains Allen from his Ferndale home. "It just so happened that the college radio station we could pick up there was broadcasting from the University of Windsor (CJAM-FM), and they used to play a lot of stuff by Eric's Trip, Thrush Hermit, Sloan and other groups coming out of the East Coast of Canada in the mid-90s.
"Listening to all of that had to have an influence on me. I think the high-vocal thing I do was inspired by Matt Murphy, and to some extent, even the way my guitar sounds is because of his Super Friendz records. As a 17-year-old, I'd spend hours fooling around with my Rickenbacker, wondering, 'How does he do that?' There was always a sense of pure fun about those bands. They just exuded this amazing youthful exuberance that really resonated with me and carried over to what I'm doing now."
That certainly helps explain why Allen still has a day job working in a mall - no one ever got rich copping Super Friendz moves - but of course, having a goofy handle like Thunderbirds Are Now! hasn't been much help in his group's slow climb to stardom. On the upside, at least they haven't been sued by the company behind the popular similarly named puppet program.
"I almost wish we had been sued so we'd have a reason to get rid of the stupid name. A former band member came up with the idea, and we went with it on a total whim. We didn't think we'd be together that long, and once we recorded an album as Thunderbirds Are Now! it was too late to change.
"One of my biggest regrets is not having the foresight to change the name earlier, because it is the stupidest name ever. Sometimes I want to blame frustrating things that happen to us on the fact that our name sucks so bad. But I try not to worry about it."
If there is a positive side to having a terrible band name, Allan has yet to find it. Evidently the band hasn't even encountered that many curious puppet fans and puppeteers wanting to share their reminiscences of favourite Thunderbirds Are Go! episodes and talk about how the Thunderbirds Are Now!'s recent Make History (French Kiss) disc changed their life.
"I wish there were enough puppet fans out there to have that happen," laughs Allen. "It's kinda funny that our drummer, Matt Rickle, went to some sort of puppet school when he was younger. I don't remember how it came up, but one day Matt sheepishly admitted that he went to puppet school, but he won't talk about it.
"He wasn't in the group when we started, so he had nothing to do with the name, but he was involved in these church youth groups and apparently attended puppet classes as part of it, although he might get mad at me for mentioning it. But he's supposed to be good at it, so maybe we should do a puppet video and let him show off his skills."