Bazooka Shoots Down Pretense : Former members of Orange County’s El Grupo Sexo now play a frolicksome fusion of jazz, be-bop, funk and rock.
There aren’t many bands out there like Bazooka, and we’re not even talking about their music, which is pretty unusual itself.
Saxophonist Tony Atherton recently helped erect a 75-foot abstract neon statue of an angel in his day job as a sculptor’s assistant.
Bassist Bill Crawford and his wife, Nell, are the authors of an upcoming episode of the TV series, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
And as a team, Atherton, Crawford and drummer Vince Meghrouni may unknowingly have set some sort of record for the saxophone toss.
The three also are collectively responsible for a new album, “Perfectly Square,” that offers an imaginatively conceived and unpretentiously frolicsome fusion of free jazz, be-bop, funk and power-trio rock.
Bazooka’s all-instrumental repertoire ranges from jazz, with covers of pieces by Thelonious Monk and Lee Morgan, to a couple of hard-rock standards--Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” and Cream’s arrangement of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.”
The album also features 12 original tunes in which Atherton leads the way with prolific blowing on alto and tenor saxes, while Meghrouni and Crawford run with him in a musical game of tag that gives all three players ample opportunities to be “it.”
Atherton, 32, describes his day job doing nuts-and-bolts assemblage work for Los Angeles sculptor Lili Lakich as “a lucky thing I happened upon. If I’ve got to have a job, I couldn’t order a better one. She’s fantastic, very understanding about the gig thing and coming in late.”
Crawford, 37, was no less lucky in placing a script with the producers of “Deep Space Nine,” the latest spinoff of “Star Trek.”
“The first thing they said was, ‘Are you a fan of ‘Star Trek?’ ” Crawford recalled of his initial meeting with the “Deep Space Nine” producers, before he was hired to write a script. “I said, ‘No, I’m trying to get a few cassettes to watch it.’ The old show kind of turned me off.”
Notwithstanding that lack of Trekkie credentials, Crawford and his wife wrote a script titled “If Wishes Were Horses,” and the episode is scheduled for broadcast on KCOP Channel 13 the week of May 24.
Crawford also claims credit, though not very enthusiastically, for “Psychic,” a B-grade science-fiction film he wrote six years ago with his brother, Mark. “I can’t wholeheartedly recommend you go rent the movie,” he said.
The Bazooka rhythm section also has teamed up on a 160-page film script called “The Good Life.”
“It’s about a womanizing jazz singer who burns all his bridges that keep him supported,” said Meghrouni, 35. The singer winds up on Skid Row, where he befriends “a weird Einstein” who theorizes that luck, like gravity, is a universal force that can be harnessed and manipulated.
“He feels he’s found the luck wave,” said the drummer (whose name is pronounced “muh-ROO-nee”). “So far, the luck wave hasn’t broken for us. We got a rejection from one agent who said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t handle this. Mainly I do comedies.’ ”
The thing is, the script is supposed to be a comedy.
There’s no mistaking the offbeat humor in Bazooka’s music, and in the three personalities who make it. Quips flew readily as the bearded, suit-jacketed band members chatted recently at the Huntington Beach home of their manager, Sam Lanni.
Also, any band that would give its songs titles like, “Sex Baboon in the Court of Nero,” “In Defense of Phallic Power Totems” and “Glug Glug Glug” clearly can’t be accused of self-seriousness. Then there’s “Super Stupid,” in which Atherton’s saxophone squalls and whinnies sound uncannily like a 2-year-old throwing a tantrum.
Ask why the album is called “Perfectly Square,” and Crawford asserts it’s because “the Kraft cheese slice is our platonic ideal.”
That tongue-in-cheek bent led to Bazooka’s saxophone-throwing feat, which is documented on the back cover of the band’s album.
To get the shot of a saxophone falling out of the sky in front of a tenement building, Crawford scrambled to the fourth floor of a Hollywood hotel and proceeded to hurl a saxophone out a window. Atherton and Meghrouni were waiting two stories below on a rooftop, holding a blanket to catch the falling object--a “junk saxophone” borrowed from an instrument repairman. The trio hoisted it back up on a rope, and repeated the process about 20 times. Bazooka must have set some sort of record for the sax-drop: for repetitions, if not for distance.
Atherton said the shot was inspired by a story told by his saxophone teacher, Vinny Golia, the highly regarded Los Angeles jazz player.
“Vinny Golia was in New York, going to see George Coleman,” a saxophonist whose credits include a tenure in Miles Davis’ band. “He got to the apartment house and saw this sax come flying out the window and hit the street. Moments after that, George Coleman came storming out of the apartment,” having been frustrated to the point of fury during a practice session. “That image of the sax flying out the window always struck me.”
Along with the humor, there is some real idealism in Bazooka’s music that has nothing to do with the platonic perfection of Kraft cheese slices. The players talk of breaking down barriers between musical styles and challenging rock fans’ preconceptions about jazz-influenced instrumental music.
“You listen to your old punk albums and your live Cream albums and some Ornette Coleman and Lee Morgan, and then some Muddy Waters,” Meghrouni said of the diverse sources that go into Bazooka’s music.
“You just use the stuff that moves you. Luckily, we got to the point where we got beyond putting stuff in (narrowly categorized) boxes. We’ve not even begun to scratch the surface of how you can combine things. People tend to stick to a narrow band, but we’ll always be finding stuff to do.”
The Bazooka members don’t classify themselves as jazz musicians, but as rockers who want to draw on the improvisational possibilities jazz offers.
“We never thought of (playing in) jazz clubs,” Meghrouni said. "(A friend) tried to get us a gig at a jazz club in San Jose. He gave the club manager a tape, and he said, ‘This isn’t our style. It’s a little raucous.’
“They want a certain sound that we don’t conform to. We improvise, but we’re thinking of grooves that come out of rock and funk and R & B. We get to deal with the jazz groove too, and we’ve been working on that bit by bit, (acquiring) the harmonic knowledge and the rhythmic swing. But we never thought of ourselves as a jazz band at all.”
Bazooka’s ability to rock has allowed it to go over well on bills with conventional rock bands--including two February shows opening at the Coach House for Adam Ant, the British pop dandy whose music has little to do with theirs.
“I was a little nervous about whether (Adam Ant fans) would get it,” said Nikki Sweet, the Coach House booker who arranged Bazooka’s opening slot. As it turned out, Bazooka was generally well-received, and the Coach House got several calls from Ant lovers who wanted to know more about the opening act.
“That’s not typical at all, unless the act really touches them,” Sweet said.
Atherton and Crawford first met in 1979 while working at a Huntington Beach grocery store. They soon formed a band, the Premiers, with Meghrouni.
Atherton and Meghrouni subsequently became reed-playing mainstays of El Grupo Sexo, an eclectic ‘80s band that was a leader of the Orange County alternative-music scene. Making an impression with its comic antics and costume-party stage outfits, Sexo recorded two albums for Doctor Dream records, then collapsed because of internal friction.
Atherton and Meghrouni surfaced again in Boneshake, emphasizing the funk and metal that were a part of Sexo’s eclectic sound, while keeping the wild clothes and onstage energy. But personnel defections put Boneshake in jeopardy.
Hoping to keep the band going, the two sax players called on Crawford in 1989. The bassist had served a stint in El Grupo Sexo before moving on to a Top 40 band and a day job as a video editor.
“We just wanted to keep our hand in until we found other players,” Meghrouni said. “Then we decided, ‘What the heck, if this is the only group we can keep together, let’s make it the one.’ ”
The decision to carry on as an instrumental trio, with Meghrouni switching from saxophone to drums, came after what Atherton calls “the epiphany"--a rehearsal session in which the band coalesced while working on a version of an Art Pepper song, “Red Car.”
“It really stunk, because it had more (chord) changes than we rock guys are accustomed to playing. Then, during one rehearsal, we started to rock with it,” Atherton said.
Early live shows drew a good response. Bazooka (a name spontaneously agreed upon after Atherton remarked that somebody he knew was “a bazooka of bull----") put out a self-produced cassette in 1991, then signed with SST Records.
The Southern California label had released a raft of famous punk and alternative records in the 1980s, including albums by Black Flag, Minutemen, Husker Du, Sonic Youth and the Meat Puppets. It also had shown an interest in more experimental instrumental music.
Bazooka recorded “Perfectly Square” over two weekends in July, playing live in the studio while using a direct-to-digital technique that doesn’t allow editing and overdubs to correct mistakes. That kept expenses down--it cost exactly $1,998 to record the album, according to manager Lanni--but put the band under pressure to deliver mistake-free takes while also summoning a spirit of improvisational daring.
“You’d get near the end of a song, and the pressure would be incredible,” Crawford said.
“It’s a rough way to record,” Atherton agreed. “We would be in there 12 hours a day. We’d be listening to the playbacks flat on our backs. I didn’t pick up my horn for two weeks after that.”
Meghrouni had an especially hard time of it the first weekend of recording, because he was ill with a “gnarly flu.” Atherton was sent out for medicinal spirits. It being the Fourth of July weekend, the shelves were pretty much cleaned out, and he came back with a bottle of Rebel Yell bourbon instead of the hoped-for premium Scotch.
“It was hard to drink, and that’s saying something for us,” Meghrouni said. “But it made me feel almost human. It worked.” Hence, the note on the “Perfectly Square” CD booklet that the album was “fueled reluctantly by Rebel Yell.”
Bazooka’s future trajectory calls for the band’s first touring outside of California. The five-week stint will begin May 8 with a week of dates in the Midwest, opening for Firehose. After that, Bazooka will head to the East Coast on its own.
The band members realize there are limits to how big a buzz an instrumental rock trio with strong jazz influences is apt to generate.
“I don’t think 100.3 (KQLZ-FM) will be playing instrumental music,” Atherton said. The saxophonist joked that his wildest fantasy for the band is that “we’ll be able to go part-time with our day jobs.”
“It would be nice to get a pocket of fans in every city, and maybe around the world, so we could make a meager living and do other creative things as they come to mind, and just build on them,” Meghrouni said.
Actually, “other creative things” already have come to mind, and the band has blueprints and prospective names for off-shoots and expanded versions of itself, like Super Bazooka and Bazooka Plus.
There is no need for Bazooka to stay mounted on a tripod, the members say, and in concert they have welcomed guest players from rock, jazz and avant-garde circles.
“We are serving as a kind of bridge,” Meghrouni said. “Most (musicians) in these genres don’t think they could be in another one, go across town and across the line. We want them to come in and play with us and get on the stage. We don’t care if they’re better than us.”
“We know a lot of talented people, and we’re turning a lot of people on to instrumental music in rock clubs,” Atherton said.
To accomplish that, Bazooka never wants to make its music seem like a highbrow exercise intended to elevate rock above its breeding. They do wear suits on stage (Meghrouni, in an odd habit he would prefer to shed, dispenses with shoes and socks because he says he doesn’t feel comfortable pumping the drum pedals except in his bare feet). But the point is to get those suits sweaty.
“You should be able to find a way to get across with the emotion, the sincerity and the energy,” said Meghrouni. “You’re not there to educate (audiences) and help them feel like they’re special, sophisticated. You’re there to get them down to the nitty-gritty. Shed the pretense and get down.”
Bazooka plays Saturday at 11 p.m. at System M, 213A Pine Ave., Long Beach. $5. (310) 435-2525.