Saturday, February 23, 2008

I just found these long-forgotten pictures in a drawer. They were taken at the Middle East Cafe in Cambridge. Honestly it's been so long I can't remember, but I think this is downstairs. Or upstairs. Whichever is smaller. I don't think they had an upstairs yet. I imagine the proscenium arch isn't there anymore!

Small Factory were part of a little early-nineties Providence-Washington "Love Rock" axis, along with Honeybunch and Velvet Crush (RI) and Black Tambourine and Velocity Girl (DC). Tsunami and the Simple Machines stuff sort of squeeze into the booth, too. It was an east coast counterpart to Beat Happening and that whole K Records scene; the bridge between the two was Lois Maffeo, the vivacious folk-punk strummer/singer who lived in both Olympia and Washington, DC at various times.

It's funny how at the time it seemed like Boston, where I was living, and New York didn't really seem to have any indiepop to offer; American indiepop has always come mostly from weird, out-of-the-way cities like Providence, Champaign-Urbana, Olympia.... College kids, sure, but Boston's packed with college kids, and in the immediate pre-grunge years none of them was listening to indiepop.

I gather that Seattle was having its little scene explosion around this time, too. The difference is, the music coming out of Providence and Washington wasn't terrible. Take that, grungesters, with your flannel, your chain wallets and your testosterone poisoning!

Quite a few times I took the train down to Providence to see Small Factory or Honeybunch at Club Babyhead or the Church House. This sucked, because there was no way to get home until the morning, so I spent a few late nights hanging out in all-night diners waiting for the trains to start up again at 6 AM or whenever it was.

But occasionally someone would venture up to the Middle East or TT the Bears. Usually that someone was my favorite band, Small Factory.

Alex Kemp played a great big Martin acoustic bass guitar, which gave their music a kind of dry crunchiness underfoot, while Dave Auchenbach strummed and jangled on guitar. The drummer was Phoebe Bluesky Summersquash, a perfectly ridiculous name for a perfectly charming girl, the perky and effervescent life of any party. She was the drill sergeant, too, as Alex frequently needed reminding that his between-song banter needed some songs to go between now and then. Everybody sang, and the harmonies were what you came for; Alex sang most of the sweetly nasal leads but it was when Dave joined in that they started to soar, and when Phoebe made three in the choruses they were zinging. Just pure joy.

By the time I first saw them they had quite a local following in Providence, mostly girls -- always a good sign, boys tend to prefer bands that suck -- who would do a little choreography with hand gestures when they played their big hit "Suggestions". They were FUN, and their songs were bright and cheerful even when they felt like being morose:

Keep your chin up, and I'll watch the highway
While we drive off for someplace cheap and amazing.

It's not so stupid and it's not so dumb
I am only suggesting that we could have more fun
Than we do....

Small Factory - "Suggestions" (mp3)

Small Factory never really came across on records; the "Suggestions" single captures some of the charm, but seems thin, and plods a bit compared to the real thing; and as the other records got better the band was getting worse. Tired, I think; and they tried to rock it up. Alex started playing electric bass, Dave's guitar got louder and fuzzier. It's a funny thing, when bands become better players on their instruments they often drive out the sweetness that drew you to them in the first place. The volume goes up, the drums start to pound, and the next thing you know they're, uh, rocking out, wailing when they used to talk to you. It happened to Small Factory too.

They got an album out, and had a good tour of the UK (with Heavenly) and a crummy one in the US, and they were done, really. There were some good moments, and some good songs, but it was never the same. Another album, another tour, and then Dave split and Alex took over on guitar in the spectacularly dreadful Godrays. The less said.

But man, those early days in Providence were magic.


Fnarf said...

Daphne from the indiepop list informs me that this was the Middle East upstairs; there was no downstairs then. So I'm backwards.

Mike said...

I was planning to write about Small Factory, but never quite got the inspiration. Glad you did it instead. I'll never forget my first SF show - at Maxwell's, opening for Heavenly, the day after a specific part of my life began to end (for the better, it would soon become clear). I never missed a show from then on. If only I'd known you needed a place to stay at the Church House, I'd have convinced the WPRB DJs I was staying with to let you have a spot on our floor upstairs. (They let me crash on their hotel floor; I in turn gave them a ride back to New Jersey.)

BTW: glad to have discovered your blog. I've added you to my modest blogroll.

Fnarf said...

Hey, Mike! Long time no hear. I guess that's true of everybody, though; I live in my own tiny little world here. I guess the blog is a way to reach out. Good to hear from you again. They were a great band, weren't they?