"When you're playing music that has some humor to it, you can make all the mistakes you want," offers Chris DeAngelis of the Miami band Avenging Lawnmowers of Justice. "With serious music, one mistake and they hate you." By that yardstick, the 'Vengers should be allowed more than their fair share of errors. But though the band trafficks in detailed songcraft and above-par musicianship, serious tunes are scarce, DeAngelis says.
"A lot of folks think it has to be serious to be art, and that's silly," he declares. "With humor, people are more receptive to your ideas. And life is pretty damn serious. People don't need a musician to talk about how hard his life is."
Sort of a perennial Freaks and Geeks of the rock circuit, Avenging Lawnmowers of Justice are probably doomed to make people laugh and forget their worries. And sometimes keep forgetting. "Unfortunately, drunk people at our shows can never remember our name," DeAngelis gripes. Introducing Avenging Lawnmowers of Justice, then, sporting four shiny facets of the same crazy diamond:
Chris DeAngelis, singer, bassist, and chief songwriter. Led a new wave band in the '80s that opened for Modern English and the Thompson Twins. As an engineer, he's run the boards for almost every band in town at some point, including Marilyn Manson and the Mavericks.
Steve "Shapi" Shapiro, singer/guitarist and also the proud "resident sound designer at the Coconut Grove Playhouse." Back in the day, he led his own psych-rock project, Pagan Love.
Fernando Perdomo, singer/lead guitarist who also plays bass with Derek Cintron and has honed a love of Jean-Luc Ponty, Yes, and old Genesis tunes into a monster guitar sound somewhere between Robert Fripp and Eddie Van Halen.
Fred Butardo, former hairdresser who used to bang around with Nuclear Valdez and brings a love of fusion and Motown to the band. Played with Shapiro and DeAngelis in veteran local act the Whistling Tinheads.
Shapi and DeAngelis are both staring 40 in the face. Butardo's well past that phase. "I'm the Charlie Watts of the band," he laughs. "And I'm Bill Wyman's wife!" interjects the 21-year-old Perdomo.
On a slow Wednesday night, DeAngelis leans over the bar at the Factory, his small black-rimmed glasses perched at an odd angle atop the bridge of his hawkish nose. He pulls out old set lists from a brown leather briefcase, going over tonight's songs with his partners. Only a handful of paying patrons has arrived to complement the few barmaids and mulleted employees of Oakland Park Boulevard's purple-neoned, gorilla-mascoted rock club. "Paradise City" blares. A color glossy of Angus Young stares. "If you meet a girl who likes The Three Stooges," DeAngelis advises as he slithers off his bar stool toward the stage, "marry her."
The patchouli-scented Butardo, clad in a Speed Racer T-shirt and a knit cap, starts to set up his kit; Shapi's easy smile seems to fade as he becomes impatient to begin. And DeAngelis, with the nervous confidence of a seasoned standup comic, tests his weighted mic stand, calculating its maximum Weeble/wobble range.
When they finally get going, DeAngelis's perfect-pitch croon, perhaps the band's most instantly recognizable attribute, rises to the top and sails above each tightly wound tune like a flag. Soon after, when Perdomo and Shapi chime in for the neat three-part harmonies of "The Tailgater's Lament" (which should rightfully replace the infantile "The Moron Song" as best South Florida road-rage anthem), the stakes are raised considerably. The previous act on stage, the insufferable Noyz Avenue, could barely muster a single memorable moment. Then again, they could barely play.
"We all start and stop together," DeAngelis dryly notes, aware that his perfectionism and pop hooks make his band stand out from the usual Factory fare. After all, his touchstones include Robyn Hitchcock and Todd Rundgren. But DeAngelis's songwriting prowess and prolific output, combined with a lackadaisical style of band-leading, can create flashpoint conditions. Like the rare inferiority complex.
"There's no question his songs are the best we do," Shapi flat-out admits. DeAngelis writes about 90 percent of the band's material, with Perdomo and Shapi kicking in a song or two per record.
"If you're playing with someone else who writes, you've got to give them a piece," DeAngelis says. "I can't do it without 'em, and I don't mean that in a smarmy sort of way. I mean, I'm a bass player."
But during a typical set, outside writers get a chance to grab the handle and cut a few swaths too: A faithful, peppy "And Your Bird Can Sing," for example, or a mean, iron-pumping "C'mon, Get Happy." But the moment Perdomo shakes his wild mop of kinky hair and cranks up the dead-on squall-'n'-squeal intro to "Purple Haze" and DeAngelis magically works in the lyrics to "Green Acres," the bored bar staff is forced to take notice, even smile. "Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside," DeAngelis growls where "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky" is supposed to be, and a new respect has been won via "Purple Acres."
But they wouldn't be Lawnmowing if they didn't push it: Also in the works is a Doors polka medley, a slice of Led Zeppelin (including "D'Yer Mak'er" and "All My Love") done mariachi style, and a hardcore demolition of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." Tonight, though, the foursome cranks out more of its own melodious songs until well past midnight in front of about 25 empty tables.
So far, the band has produced a pair of homemade CDs, starting with a two-year-old self-titled batch of silliness highlighted by one anti-intellectual, balls-out free-for-all ("Let's Blow Stuff Up"), the tale of a female-fondling fiend ("David Cop a Feel"), a sermon on fiscal responsibility ("Brand New Credit Card"), and an impossibly catchy list of missing body parts masquerading as a breakup story ("Separation").
A newer item, Mow, contains the irrepressible "Tailgater's Lament," Shapi's scheming, rhyming "Scherezade," a pair of goofy Perdomo rockers ("Losers in Love" and "King for a Day"), plus a slew of DeAngelis gems, including the tongue-in-cheek ballad "Nobody" and "I Like Weed," an ode to wacky tobaccy that's more than just short-term memorable. "When I get home/and I'm tired of the bullshit/I'll go get stoned/smoke a bowl, or take a big bong hit," DeAngelis shouts over a top-drawer power-pop chorus Weezer or Green Day would sell their skateboards for. "It's the beer of drugs!" he yells during the fade-out.
For all Perdomo's guitar athleticism, Shapi's psychedelic chops, and Butardo's funk-rock fuel, a curl of country/western smoke seems to waft in and out of songs at will, which DeAngelis chalks up to his dual membership in the 18 Wheelers. "It's unintentional twang!" he assures.
Together outside their soccer-mom-style family van, the foursome shares another laugh at the idea of changing the name and dumbing down the silliness for mass consumption.
"We're dying to sell out," DeAngelis teases.
"You give me the assless pants, and I'll wear 'em," promises Perdomo.
DeAngelis laughs, realizes the pants may not be enough. The Mowers are forced to cut the only path possible. "We have to go with talent," he laments. "It's the only chance we've got. We're not young, we're not good-looking, and we're not what a major label is looking for as a pop act. But I think we've got the songs."
The verdict: Silly yet way sellable. If it really is the laughter we will remember, Avenging Lawnmowers of Justice are forever.
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