When Snagglepuss pulls the plug on its 13-year-long adventure this weekend, there won't be lot of critic-ink spilt. No box-set retrospectives are likely, fans' lives will go on and the music industry will remain the lunatics' haven it's always been. Charlotte and the Southeast, however, will be poorer for it.
The rolling-dance-party sextet celebrates the release of its fourth — and final — full-length album, Doing Music, at Snug Harbor on May 5, in what's also evolved into a bittersweet farewell throwdown. The band bids adieu to guitarist Amy Kay (nee Kennemore), who heads to UC San Diego to pursue a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology. Rather than replace her, the remaining members decided Snagglepuss will just cease to exist — though they hope to keep making music together in other various incarnations.
"I'm very happy that this band is ending because somebody in it is doing something great with their life, (and) not because there's been a falling-out or some weird bullshit," says singer/trumpeter Scott Weaver. "That's my comfort factor in this. But it's still a bummer because it's just a cool band to be in."
The typical band that loses one-sixth of its roster might choose to go on, particularly one with such a drama-free history. But Snagglepuss has always been as much a collection of friends and "an ongoing picnic or slumber party" as it has been a rock band, Weaver says. They were as likely to play an art gallery, Gay Pride parade or theme show dressed as the Royal Tennenbaums as they were your standard R&R club gig.
"It's almost more like performance-based art," says Hope Nicholls, the group's tart-tongued lyrics-writer. "We've never been on any kind of agenda — it's free time, it's like the Snagglepuss bubble. We just float and we do our thing. Everybody's doing a million other things, but we all come together on this."
Sitting on a sofa among the thrift-store-chic, high-end clothing racks and artisan jewelry displays at Plaza Midwood's Boris + Natasha boutique (run by Nicholls and her husband/bandmate, Aaron Pitkin), Nicholls and Weaver laugh and reminisce about Snagglepuss with an ease that matches their vocal give-and-take in the music. They fill in memory gaps, riff on refrains and finish each other's thoughts without rancor. It says as much about the band's close ties as any lurid Behind the Music anecdote.
Yet it would be a mistake to view those friendships as the band's most notable endeavor. For one, Snagglepuss' roots extend deep into Charlotte's rock 'n' roll history. Nicholls was the frontwoman dynamo for '80s college-rock underdogs Fetchin' Bones, and Pitkin played guitar in the band. They signed to Capitol for three of their four studio LPs, but when the label restructured, Fetchin' Bones disbanded in 1990. Nicholls and Pitkin then formed Sugarsmack, one of three Charlotte acts (Jolene and Muscadine were the others) penned to a major-label deal — this time with Sire Records — in the post-Nirvana national signing frenzy of the '90s.
When that major label experience also "shit the bed," as Nicholls none-too-delicately puts it, she was done playing the rock 'n' roll success game. Instead, she wanted to get back to the feeling of "naïveté and enthusiasm" that drew her to music in the first place. So, when Snagglepuss formed in 1999 — promptly to be awarded Best New Band by this publication — Nicholls had a different game plan in mind.
"The whole emphasis," she says, "was 'let's do a band where everybody plays instruments that they're not that familiar with, and let's everybody be buddies.' So that sound of people learning to play their instruments and barely hanging on? That was the main idea."
Kennemore was just 18 when she was recruited; she bought her first guitar and amp at a pawn shop the same day. Pitkin switched from guitar to bass for Sugarsmack, and for this band he learned to play drums. Weaver started Babyshaker the year before and still serves as its charismatic frontman; for Snagglepuss, he says, he broke out his high school trumpet skills and happily played "straight man, vocally" to Nicholls. Michael Anderson was a guitarist in Psycho Killer and fronted his own band; he bought a new tenor sax and became instrumental to Snagglepuss' signature sound. Original bassist Travis Laughlin, who had never played a musical instrument of any kind, left for New York City after the 2001 debut, The Country Club Sessions, and was replaced by then-Scrubbies' guitarist Darrin Gray.
For inspiration, Nicholls made everyone in Snagglepuss a mixtape of other learning-new-instrument acts like Pylon and LiLiPUT. Her bandmates appreciated the gesture. "The first few songs we wrote literally came together while I was learning how to play power chords," Kennemore says. "So, we were all on the same page. This dynamic contributed to the overall wacky sound that is characteristic of Snagglepuss."
That sound — a heady blend of up-tempo New Wave and punk's "this is a chord" guitar spirit, Southern-flavored college-rock vocals and early-'70s Roxy Music horns — remains Snagglepuss' sonic calling card. They may have learned to master those instruments over the course of four Don Dixon-produced LPs, but they also kept clasped tightly to that sense of adventure.
It's ironic that the zeitgeist may be circling back around to where Snagglepuss has been for more than a decade. In summer 2010, the band opened a Fillmore show for the B-52s, who were enjoying the fruits of an '80s renaissance along with the Pixies and other didn't-get-their-due-then acts. The Athens-born B-52s — Fetchin' Bones' contemporaries — asked Snagglepuss to open more dates, but the band had to decline.
The reappearance of New Wave dance rhythms would've been another factor in Snagglepuss' favor, and the socially conscious Occupy Movement suggests that young music fans may be ready to turn from indie existentialism to more hopeful and pro-active subject matter, one of Nicholls' songwriting strong suits. And of course the rock world could always use more quirky and talented musicians who happen to be ahead of the curve sartorially, too.
What's more, as a finale, Doing Music suggests the band hasn't lost a step. There may be more guitar than keyboards on these eight tracks (original keyboardist John Morris left after the third LP, 2007's Sound Report), but the songs sound both frenetically forward-looking and comfortably retro. "New Magic" is all fuzzy power chords, dirty sax bleats and cross harmonies headed toward a ticking time bomb finish; "CNS" (aka Cheap New Shit, or "our Target commercial," Nicholls jokes) and the uptown bank-speak breakdown of "Vuvuzela" reveal the band's culturally astute outlook.
"If we were able to get up and move and travel, we'd probably have done really well with this band," Nicholls says in a rare "what if?" moment.
But in the end, that wasn't what the Snagglepuss bubble was about. Instead, the band exits on a small local stage but in typical high style. In addition to the "hello new LP/so long Snagglepuss" factor, several guest and alumni appearances are planned for the final show, and the band will premiere a new video it shot with local videographer Enid Valu.
At some point, the curtain will come down on the Snug Harbor party and 13 years of Snagglepuss. Fans of the band will miss counting on the occasional 'Puss show to enliven the local scene, but no one will miss the band more than those in it, especially the person who'll be farthest from it.
"It is one of the hardest things to walk away from, not just because I will miss writing music with everyone, but also because I owe so much to everyone in the band," Kennemore says. "There has never been any pretension about what should or should not be played, or how, which has personally given me a lot of confidence to tackle the unknown in so many other arenas of my life."
Snagglepuss CD Release Party
With Alternative Champs. $5. May 5. 9 p.m. Snug Harbor. www.snugrock.com.