By David Rolland
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If Them Ickies singer/songwriter/guitarist Mickey Zetts hadn't watched the Marx Brothers movie Monkey Business with some friends while under the influence of LSD, South Florida might have been deprived of one of its most colorful and inventive bands. "I was watching the movie and tripping and saying, 'Oh my god, these people are my friends,'" recalls Zetts.
Apathy, a plotless musical whose characters were inspired by that night and those friends, was staged in 1995 by the Florida Playwrights' Theater in Hollywood. The songs from the show served as the early repertoire for Them Ickies, the band Zetts formed last fall with the theater's cofounder, Angela Thomas, a highly respected actress, director, and vocalist.
Zetts, a 27-year-old Fort Lauderdale native, alternately describes the quintet -- rounded out by Steve Reines on lead guitar, Ed Etheridge on bass, and Eddie Gresley on drums -- as a combination of "jazz, punk, and funk with Mersey-beat musings," "a burlesque," and a "postmodern cabaret." "When we came up with the name Them Ickies, we figured that if we're icky, we can get away with just about anything," explains Zetts, drinking a Heineken at Thomas' Hollywood apartment before a recent Octoberfest gig. "People can't put a category on us, but there is one thing they consistently say: We're fun."
When Them Ickies perform, they do so in costume, usually in '20s-style outfits augmented by A Clockwork Orange-inspired black eyeliner and faux porkpie hats. Thomas often wears flapper dresses, or, as is the case for today's gig, a Bavarian-style, red-and-white-striped skirt complete with corset and blond wig. On stage she dances the Charleston, bangs on a tambourine, and plays a slide whistle whenever she's not delivering her brash, boisterous vocals. Imagine Bette Midler morphing into a rambunctious Tracy Partridge.
The band likes to play games with its audiences, to make them part of the show. During a recent gig at Navigator's Cyber Cafe in Davie, Zetts and Thomas bantered with the crowd before introducing the "secret word," a staple of any Ickies concert. The word of the night: passion. It was the moment the teens and twentysomethings in the audience had been waiting for. Thomas paused for just a moment, then exuberantly told them, "I'm filled with passion." Screams rose to the rafters.
For Halloween the band will host the Icky Pickin' Treat or Trickin' Halloween Hayride at Navigator's. The event will feature six bands on two stages, a costume contest, games such as Find the Needle in the Haystack and Bobbing For Beer, a Smashing Pumpkins Pumpkin Toss, and, according to Thomas, "there'll be bales of hay everywhere."
Ickies music, like the band's collective persona, is relentlessly upbeat, blending the best elements of power-pop, surf rock, doo-wop, Dixieland, and other styles, and exhibiting an astute sense of pop-music history in the process. (For example, the quick chord changes of "Get Out Now" recall the Monkees.) But while the band's musical elements shine with sunny optimism, the lyrics convey a wicked bite. Song titles such as "It Must Suck to Love You," "How Can I Make You Go Away," "I Love You but I Hate Your Friends, and "If I Can't Have Him, No One Will" illustrate the venom inherent in Zetts' lyrics. But humor and sensitivity are contained within, as is evident in these lines from Apathy's "U Smile 2 Much": "They say if you're a nobody/You can still be somebody else's sweetheart/And I can tell by the look on your face/Yeah, the stupid look on your face/That you're a dreamer." And delivered with Thomas' lilting, syrupy vocals, "U Smile 2 Much" is a great example of how the band's sense of melody gives even the sharpest lyrics a mellifluous spin.
While many Ickies songs deal with human relationships, romantic and otherwise, from a slightly skewed perspective, Zetts makes it clear that he's not probing the human psyche. "I try to shy away from that 'artistic' thing, because I don't feel that way," he says. "I feel like I'm more of a craftsman. My dad was a construction guy. I build a song like he built a house. There's no real depth or deep, dark soul there."
The band has released two CDs, one featuring seven songs from Apathy, the other a sampler offering three remixed versions of songs from the first release. The Ickies are in the midst of recording their first full-length CD, with the working title The Follies From Hell. Hopeful for a Christmas release, they plan to include 15 songs culled from more than four hours of material written by Zetts. The band's biggest challenge is deciding what to leave out. "It's a faucet, man," Zetts say of his output. "I just have to turn it on, and it goes." He writes at least one new song a week, sometimes two or three.
Zetts learned to write songs without the aid of instruments, thanks to a demanding girlfriend. "I was in a relationship with a girl who didn't like me to sit in the other room and play guitar. She always wanted to spend time with me," recalls Zetts, the word time dripping with resentment. "So I'd say, 'Yeah, honey,' and I'd watch TV, but I'd work on a song while I was sitting there. So I learned how to play guitar in my head. A lot of times, I'll complete an entire song, lyrics and everything, before I'll even play the first note of it on guitar."
"Modern Irish Drinking Song" is a jig-worthy tune that addresses the inevitability of death and the importance of living a joyful life. Considering where the song was written, the following lines make a lot of sense: "Live it up and don't be hurt by those who call you a waste/Cause when they find them cold and stiff will a smile be on their face?" "I wrote 'Modern Irish Drinking Song' on a plane in turbulence, and I thought I was gonna die," recalls Zetts. "I wanted to be found grasping this. Among my ashes I wanted this to be the last thing I said to the world."
Zetts began playing guitar at the age of eight and started writing songs almost immediately. "I was always into making my own things," he recalls. "I didn't play, like, Spiderman. I would make up my own superheroes and stuff. I've done theater since I was 14, but I quit acting because I didn't want to walk around saying someone else's lines. I wanted to make something of my own."
Although Zetts attended Broward Community College, he never graduated, and, until Apathy was performed in 1995, he was mired in what he says were "vast years of just screwing up my life." Even after his musical enjoyed a successful three-month run at FPT, Zetts felt aimless. "I was at a point [last year] where I was pretty much ready to pack my life up and do a Jack Kerouac or something," he says. "I was just not in a good place, and Angela said, 'Don't go. You and me will make a band.'"
The rapport between Thomas and Zetts is a major reason for the band's creative spark. At Thomas' apartment they illustrate their comic timing with an old Martin-and-Lewis joke.
"Hey Ang, you take a bath this morning?"
"Why, is one missing?"
When asked about their plans for the band, Zetts and Thomas cry out "world domination" simultaneously, then hint at a line of merchandise, including Ickies toilet paper. In reality they don't have any such plans in mind. For Thomas, Them Ickies is a performance outlet preferable to acting at the moment. For Zetts, the band is the culmination of an extremely creative period in his life.
"I feel like I [hadn't] done jack shit," he admits. "In the last year, I feel like I've finally done something right. My entire life I was searching for the vehicle, the place, the thing to do. This band is the first thing I feel like I've done right."
Them Ickies will usher in Halloween at midnight, Friday, October 30, at FU*BAR, 909 Cypress Creek Rd., Pompano Beach (954-776-0660). The Icky Pickin' Treat or Trickin' Halloween Hayride will begin at 8 p.m. Saturday, October 31, at Navigator's Cyber Cafe, 3548 S. University Dr., Davie (954-723-0800).