Fluf Likes the Price of Small Label


Otis Barthoulameu is as big and round as the name by which everybody knows him: ‘O.’

He fronts Fluf, a trio whose combination of hard-riffing clout, classy and diverse influences, punk-rooted authenticity and frequent pop accessibility would attract the interest of major labels, no matter where the band was based.

The fact that Fluf is part of the San Diego rock scene that last year emerged as a much-publicized incubator of alternative-rock talent, a potential Seattle South, has ensured big-label interest.

But any major label courting Fluf may find O too set in his roundness, figuratively speaking, to conform to the squared-off peg-holes of rock’s corporate sphere.


When a major label signs an act, it can legitimately expect some cooperation in its promotional efforts, one big part of which is splashing that act’s picture across the pages of newspapers and magazines.

O hates having his picture taken, unless it is done while Fluf is on stage performing.

When Fluf’s label, Cargo/Headhunter, sent out promotional copies of its 1993 debut album, “Mangravy,” they were accompanied by an official band portrait shot that showed three young men, none of whom happened to be in Fluf. And a recent photo session at The Times turned into a touchy game of hide-and-seek between O and the camera lens.

“It’s just standard. It’s the thing everybody’s expected to do,” O says of the tradition of rocker as reluctant camera subject. To him, that is reason enough not to pose.

“We’re not puppets. Come take pictures of us (on stage),” said O, who makes his living as an action photographer for a skateboarding and snowboarding publication. “Live, we’re doing what we do.”

O and his band-mates, bassist Jonny Donhowe and drummer Miles Gillett, won’t play in places that set age restrictions, which could cause some stickiness should a label insist that certain bar gigs would be good career moves (Fluf makes one exception to that rule, playing at the Casbah in San Diego out of respect for the bar’s contributions as an important nurturer of the city’s alternative-rock scene).

“Kids are important. Why should they be left out of the scene?” asked O, who will front Fluf in an all-ages show Friday at Our House in Costa Mesa. The band’s first national tour, a three-week cross-country trip in April, is geared to all-ages venues.


Fluf’s members have other ideas that the big leagues would probably balk at, too.

For instance, these partisans of the endangered LP make a point of putting extra songs on the vinyl versions of their albums, the exact opposite of what’s dictated by the music industry’s wildly successful campaign to blanket turntables in dust.

Moreover, Fluf’s second album, due out Feb. 21 on the San Diego-based Cargo/Headhunter label, has not one name, but three, with the title varying according to which format the consumer buys. The CD is called “Home Improvements” and will come with a 16-page booklet of pictures showing O’s idea of a well-appointed abode. The LP is called “Whitey on the Moon,” after a memorable satiric poem by the jazz-R&B; innovator, Gil Scott-Heron. And the cassette is called “Stocking the Lake With Brown Trout,” for reasons best left alone.

“No one’s ever done it before. Why be stale?” O said of Fluf’s flexible approach to naming things.


For all the above reasons, O says, Fluf is an unlikely major label prospect, even if its members are willing to enjoy the largess of big-label scouts who lately have courted them with expense account meals.

“I think major labels are overall stupid and lame,” O said during a recent interview over a newspaper’s version of an expense-accounted meal. The fare was modest contrasted with what O, Donhowe and Gillett say they have been getting from record companies. Here at a Fountain Valley salad bar, the band members were not likely to see Sylvester Stallone walk by covered in fake blood, as they did during a recent Fluf lunch at the Warner Bros. commissary in Burbank. Stallone was surprisingly short, recalls Donhowe, while the food spread was incredibly large.

Leery of being signed simply because it hails from one of the hot local scenes of the moment, Fluf is looking for a commitment that goes beyond big-label money and prestige.


“They would have to top what Headhunter does for us, which is a lot,” O said of the prospect of accepting a major label deal. Headhunter’s managers “care about what we do. They don’t just think about us as the next big thing. I can walk right into the office and talk to the head guy if I have a problem. On a major label, you’re just a little guy.”

This insistence on the personal touch and authentic interactions in the business sphere has its parallel in O’s songs.

Friendship and betrayal are two of his biggest themes. Friends who keep faith are the heroes of such poignant songs as “Peanut Butter,” from Mangravy, and the new “Mark Andrea,” which honors the former Don’t Mean Maybe guitarist who, to O’s regret, dropped out of the local scene a few years ago in favor of a life focused on marriage and career.

“That song has to do with Mark, but it’s about everybody,” O said.

In fact, O seems to be friendly with just about everybody on the local rock scene. Whether in San Diego, where he lives now, or in Orange County, where he spent his high school years and much of his childhood, he is one of the people you’re most likely to run into at a grass-roots rock show--sort of a bulky, gruffly amiable, extremely self-willed version of Woody Allen’s ubiquitous Zelig.


Gillett, who spent the ‘80s playing drums in El Grupo Sexo and Gherkin Raucous, two of Orange County’s leading alternative bands of the decade, said it was easy to underestimate O in those days. O was a guy who helped bands out as a roadie and supported them as a buddy and a fan. He wasn’t, it seemed, destined to be a shaper of the music. Once, O asked Gillett to join him in a band that would take its core inspiration from Tom Waits, whom they both admire. Gillett gave him the brushoff.

“We never played because I never took him seriously,” Gillett recalled. “He was just happy-go-lucky O, and you’d bump into him everywhere. I never thought of him as a serious-minded musician.”


That changed one day in 1990 when Gillett was hanging out at the KUCI studio in Irvine. Olivelawn, a new band that included O on guitar and Donhowe playing bass, was performing live in the studio. Donhowe, 26, recalls that Gillett occupied himself by barraging Olivelawn with strawberries as it tried to play: “He must have hit me 20 times, stained my bass, my clothes, the wall. He got everybody.”

But Gillett kept his ears open while he fired, and what he heard impressed him.

“It shook me up a bit,” he said. “I told O, ‘If Eddie (Glass, the Olivelawn drummer) ever gets hit by a train, call me.”

It would have to be a long-distance call, because Gillett was flying to New Zealand the next day, moving back to where he had spent his early childhood.

Undaunted by the distance, O did call and write. And, as he conceived of starting Fluf as a vehicle for his own singing and songwriting, he began trying to pry Gillett loose from his reclaimed roots.

In 1992, Gillett came back for a monthlong visit. He jammed with O and Donhowe, and they all saw that the music clicked. A second visit that year lasted two months, long enough to record “Mangravy,” which was released early in 1993.

“I didn’t want to come back here,” said Gillett, 30, who lives now in Irvine. “My preference for everyday living is New Zealand; I love it there. To be honest, the only reason I’m back is this band.”


“I don’t like Southern California, either,” chimed in O, who is 31. “When he goes back, I’m going with him. We made a pact that we’ll be out of here by 1999.”

Fluf’s members reserve particular scorn for Los Angeles.


“Hecho del Diablo,” from Mangravy, was a jab at the city where music-as-business has its hub.

For O, L.A. represents the impersonal forces that stand against sincerity and comradeship, the virtues he most extols in his songs.

“Nobody really cares about anybody in L.A.,” he said. “Everybody’s geared up to movie stars: ‘I saw so-and-so in this bar and got to talk to them.’ It’s so lame, so false. The theme for L.A. is ‘everybody look out for No. 1, I’m more important than everybody else.’ They’ve got to change that.”

What O and Donhowe most relish about the San Diego scene is the camaraderie and mutual support they see among the city’s alternative-rock bands. It’s something that O says is missing in Orange County.

“The thing that bums me out about Orange County is all these bands are thinking about moving to L.A. and getting on a major label,” he said. “It seems their measure of success is different from the San Diego measure. (They think) if you’re not on a major label, you’re not a success story. I think it’s the other way around. It’s about making records, not signing deals.


“The only ambition is to do things the way I want,” O concluded, adding that he got into rock music because he wanted to let people know how he felt.

“I don’t want to be a rock star. Frank Zappa did everything his way. I’m taking up where he left off.”

* Fluf, Cold Water Crane and Doo Rag play at 9 p.m. Friday at Our House, 720 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa. $3 (all ages admitted). (714) 650-8960.