When it comes to these musical musings, inspiration can come from almost anywhere. A recent, rockin’ road trip to San Francisco with a lady friend inspired your crusty chronicler. To wit, this particular pop piece pertains to the past rock group Phoenix Thunderstone.
The San Francisco-based Phoenix Thunderstone is an alternative rock band who has been said by some to filter cow-punk through the sometimes campy, dynamic “indieroots-punk of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion”. The group roster included (but was not limited to): Sean Heskitt (vocals and bass), Wendy Van Dusen (guitar, songwriting and vocals), Mike Huffman (drums) and Lemon de George (harmonica and percussion). The band signed to Scratchie – Mercury subsidiary label started by James Iha and Darcy of the Smashing Pumpkins–in 1996.
The group quickly hit the studio and managed to put out their premiere platter, Ride of the Lawless, later that same year. The original release contained only 8 tracks. Three of them were live.
The inclusion of live cuts was no surprise as to this day some critics feel this energetic group is better at making noise than in writing significant songs. All of the tunes were written by Van Dusen. Dusen also produce the platter and guest artists were also present. Specifically, C. S. Nutting contributed on banjo and Tim Madison played drums. The album was neither a commercial or critical success per se but they were inspired enough to cut a follow-up.
In fact, it would be exactly one year later (1997) that they would put out their second album, Stained Glass Trash. Their signature sound—a more current Jon Spencer-ized – cow punk—was now unmistakable. This album is 13 tracks of musical fire to some listeners.
It contains cuts of kitschy, crazy country-punk. The tracks are sometimes reminiscent of a blend of such bands as the Gun Club, the Stooges and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Unfortunately, it met with mixed reviews upon release as some critics felt that the record was frustrating in that the listener could “hear their potential, but it becomes clear they don’t quite know how to write the hooks and songs to realize it.” Nevertheless, other critics stated that “the moments where it all comes together are invigorating” adding that “the crackling sound of the band alone makes” the album “worth a listen”.
The following year witnessed the release of the next new album, 1998’s Picnic With the Dead on their new label Heyday Records. There are nine numbers here that seem to show another side of the band—perhaps a studio presence if you will. The songs contain a subtle, slinky sensuality.
Heskett’s vocals are somehow more comfortably delivered and perhaps more sophisticated. Van Dusen dons the duds of pouty, bad girl when she joins in on such songs as the cool cover of Prince’s “Free” and the atmospheric, desert-vibe of “She”. The original songwriting remains straightforward and simple.
The beat of the drums (courtesy of Vadge Moore, Stephen MacMurray and Grawer) drive guitarist Hugh Yerburgh’s tasty licks and Van Dusen’s bar chords over Heskett’s stripped down bass. DeGeorge fills in the holes with his odd sounds and eerie feedback via his harmonica and saxophone. One particularly creepy cut is “Moonshine Lover” complete with harmonica feedback, mind-bending guitar, an ominous bass line and Heskett’s warped, reverb-heavy vocals thrown in to complete the mix.
Whatever shortcomings this project has, critics generally agree that their sinful songs of disturbing decadence somehow seem very real. Heskett’s manic growls and Van Dusen’s sometimes seductively haunting singing meld into something uniquely their own and yet still reminiscent of such acts as the Cramps and Sonic Youth.
Throughout the decade the band was known to tour and played gigs in LA (Mr. T’s, Spaceland, Al’s Bar) on a regular basis. The 1990s would close with their appearance on a label compilation album, Man, you gotta move. More importantly, of course, was the release of their CD Phoenix Thunderstone.
This disc further demonstrated that they were a strongly instrumental band with a sound familiar and yet refreshing. Van Dusen, however, tells the press that the band’s lyrics shouldn’t be downplayed. “The other main person I work with is Sean Heskett. He is the lyricist and singer. He is truly brilliant as a writer. I find it to be an honor to work with such a great visionary person. He is the main singer and plays bass as well.”
The music here often seemed similar to punk in that the band often sounded disheveled and frenetic. They painted mental pictures of manic religious revivals, whores in heat, decadent city life and bleak, dark secrets in a psychotic and murky miasma. Their tracks also reveal other influences such as the Pixies and Birthday Party. Van Dusen perhaps admits “Phoenix Thunderstone is . . . rock oriented.”
Unfortunately, despite the explosive performances and noteworthy guitar work, the band’s work somehow never received the immediate critical or commercial recognition that many fans felt they still deserve. Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that band members sometimes had other projects in which they were interested. Van Dusen, for example, once told the press: “My main other musical project is called Phoenix Thunderstone. I write all the music, produce it, and play guitar.”
The new millennium bore witness to the release of a live recording. It was titled Live 7 and on the Reptillian label. Released on the first of the new year it would be one of the few discs fans would hear for quite some time.
The artists had other things to do. The theory that other work somehow limited Phoenix Thunderstone is further supported by another musician. In a 2001 on line interview Vadge said: “I play drums with Phoenix Thunderstone” but quickly added that he also played drums for other acts including Neither/Neither World, BillieWonka and the other band with Dusen. Chthonic Forces’ new album has me drumming on a couple of tracks but mostly with CF I conduct the music and sing/scream.”
Although Phoenix Thunderstone was apparently still performing in 2001 the individual members were more active in exploring other projects. Fans would still find their music here and there but new releases would be few and far between. For example, the band would generally become involved in so many other projects that it would not be until 2007 that they would put out any new Phoenix Thunderstone material . . . and that would only be a single track, “Joe’s Outside”, on a tribute/compilation album Life’s a Gas A Tribute To Joey Ramone. To date, it seems like Phoenix Thunderstone fans may have to be satisfied with previously-released material and checking out the new projects to which the Phoenix Thunderstone members seem to be committed.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.