You can tell you have a good thing going when a lot of people like your band, but nobody can agree why. Less than two years into their existence, the Self-Righteous Brothers (who play the Baseball Tavern on August 1) already have a press kit worth of raves. But different supporters have taken them for everything from an avant-garde outfit to a comedy act to a garage band. What they really are, of course, is more like an avant-garde garage band with a sense of humor.
VIDEO: The Self-Righteous Brothers, "Sidecar Jesus"
Listening to their homonymous CD (on their own Black & Greene label), one hears a bunch of solid, rough-edged pop songs that go terribly wrong — in ways that usually work. Tempos get changed, instruments get added, and songwriting logic gets messed with. A prime example would be “Taint Misbehavin,’ ” which starts as the catchiest and most straightforward track on the disc (it’s perversely stuck at track 10). Having nothing to do with the similarly titled Fats Waller song, it could pass for a lost Elliott Smith, with its piano lead and yearning feel, though the banjo and sax solos hint at something more eclectic. Sure enough, by song’s end they add a blurping analog synth and a chorus of whistles, turning their own song inside-out. Elsewhere they put ska horns on a non-ska song (“Electric Boogaloo”), and tack a two-minute prog intro on an otherwise straight-ahead rocker (“When I Want To”). At such moments it seems Boston finally has its own answer to the great ’60s oddball group, the Bonzo Dog Band.
Those bits of arrangement are typical of how the two main songwriters, Jake Hall (drums/vocals) and Max Koepke (guitars/vocals), work: the former writes pop songs, the latter has the more avant ideas, and the two mess with each other’s songs. “It’s like Frank Zappa meeting the Beatles,” Koepke offers when we get together at the Druid in Inman Square. “I was thinking that we were more like John Mayer meets Blink-182,” shoots the more wise-assed Hall from across the table. “Really, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t fascinated by music like that. I have to turn James Blunt up every time he’s on the radio. I am entranced by its shittiness.”
That’s not to say that the band is on a crusade against lame radio pop; rather, they’re just some friends doing what comes naturally. Although the basic group is a trio (with multi-instrumentalist Justin McLean), there are 10 players on the disc, including producer and Apollo Sunshine member Jesse Gallagher (“I love that band because they have remarkable talent and we don’t,” Koepke says). The CD version of “Taint Misbehavin’ ” is in fact a composite of two versions: the first was deemed too straight-ahead and the second was too out-there, so they did a “Strawberry Fields Forever” and stuck them both together. “Floyd,” the CD opener, is a left-field tribute, a three-piece instrumental that doesn’t sound anything like Pink Floyd — though Hall points out that the chords are in fact identical to their “Have a Cigar.” “It doesn’t really sound like them,” he admits. “It does sync up with The Wizard of Oz, though.”
“Jake is way too poppy for his own good, and I’m way too not poppy,” Koepke notes. “That’s how we get the best out of each other.” Hall: “We live together, which makes it easy. I’ll come home and find Max in a loincloth with his eyes rolled back in his head, doing some kind of guttural noise. I’ll be writing a song and he’ll say, ‘What if we do this instead of that? Let’s put it in extra time and make it go out of key.’ And I’ll say, ‘But that doesn’t make any sense. Great, let’s try it.’ ” The two writers split the vocals equally, and they’re easy to recognize: Hall has the sweeter voice and Koepke sounds a bit like J. Mascis. Told of the resemblance, he points to a horizontal scar on his neck — the remains of an operation he had last year to remove an aneurysm from his left vocal cord: “It’s where I get my Mascis from.”
Also indicative of the band’s philosophy are the references to drinking that occur throughout the disc. Alcohol did play a part in bringing the two songwriters together. “I met a girl at a party who told me that her boyfriend needed a drummer,” Hall recalls. “She was cute, I was tanked, so I said yes. When we play now, it’s also supposed to be fun; we don’t want people coming to shows to be impressed by our musicianship. We’re rocking out, you’re getting drunk, hopefully we’re all enjoying ourselves.” And the band is still young enough to be un-jaded at the prospect of local success. “You want to know how pathetic we are?” Hall asks. “I saw our album on sale at Newbury Comics, and used my cell phone to take a picture of it. That’s where we’re at.”