House of Freaks “Monkey on a Chain Gang” and “Tantilla” (Rhino)
It was just another day at work for Bryan Harvey, a computer tech for Henrico County schools, when a couple of younger coworkers urged him to check out the White Stripes. “It’s just drums and guitar!” they told him, enthusiastically. “I was like, wait, wait, wait a second,” says Harvey.
His old band, House of Freaks, was itself an early guitar and drums duo, with Harvey on guitar and Johnny Hott playing drums. Together they formed an unlikely filter for postpunk pop songs — one woven from the Beatles and primitive blues records. And they could count George Wendt as a fan. Yes, that’s right: “Norm” from “Cheers.”
House of Freaks started in Richmond in 1986, but it wasn’t until they moved to Los Angeles the following year that things started to happen for them. “What I really liked about Los Angeles is you do a show in a dump over there, and you get a review in L.A. Weekly, and you have A&R people at your next show,” Harvey says.
House of Freaks signed to Rhino. The band’s two albums for the company, “Monkey on a Chain Gang” and “Tantilla,” have been out-of-print for years, but were recently reissued by Rhino’s “Handmade” imprint. Of the two, 1987’s “Monkey” is the most friendly — a fiery distillation of the Beatlesque pop Harvey had learned in his first band, the Dads, and Hott’s wildly inventive percussion (over the course of their career, plastic buckets, spoons and the chest of Hott’s dog all were pressed into service).
“Tantilla” is a much more self-conscious affair, steeped in cornpone. “I think we became hyper-aware of our Southern-ness,” says Harvey. “When we got out to Los Angeles, people immediately picked up on it.”
Harvey regards the reissues, especially their production, with a creator’s chagrin. “We were working at a time when the industry was still in the new wave days — big reverb, big drum sound,” he says. “Johnny and I were trying for a much more primitive sound. Finally you get tired of fighting those battles.”
Still, plenty of songs manage to shine through the digital reverb on both albums, which are loaded with bonus live tracks, outtakes and the Richmond-recorded “All My Friends” EP, which preceded the band’s ill-fated major label debut, 1991’s “Cakewalk” on Warner records. That time out it didn’t matter that the producer didn’t “get” the band. By the time “Cakewalk” was released, the success of another of their manager’s clients, a Seattle band called Nirvana, essentially drained the college rock swamp, leaving no place on the radio for two guys with a Captain Beefheart fixation and no bass player.
These days, Hott holds down a Sunday night residency at Café Diem with his Piedmont Souprize, and Harvey has a blast playing in the soul cover band NRG Krysys. And in case you’re wondering, he begrudges neither The White Stripes (nor duos like The Kills, The Black Keys, and The Raveonettes) any success. “I assume they’re probably drawing from the same sources we were,” he says. “And that’s great to finally see someone getting some sort of recognition for it.” “Monkey on a Chain Gang,” ***1/2; “Tantilla,” *** — Andrew Beaujon
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