Local avant-popsters the Trash Monkeys
By John Floyd
There is a compilation disc of Miami-based bands that frequented Churchill's Hideaway, the Little Haiti haunt that has been a long-standing haven for all manner of rock and roll noise and punk-rock chaos. Issued in 1993 on Frank "Rat Bastard" Falestra's Esync label, the CD's title embodies both the ethos and the reality of the fringe denizens of South Florida's eclectic, often infuriating music scene: Music Generated by Geographical Seclusion and Beer. That isolation can no doubt be a deterrent for experimental artists working in a town that has little tolerance for indulgences such as feedback and left-field mayhem. Yet it also has produced a collective body of work defined by a sense of freedom, from the surreal punk-pop of Kreamy 'Lectric Santa to the blistering avant-garde scree of Harry Pussy and Laundry Room Squelchers.
Before them both, though, were the Trash Monkeys, a brilliantly skewed quartet formed in the mid-Eighties by 35-year-old guitarist Mark Feehan, birthed in Connecticut but a South Floridian since 1972. Born from the ashes of Feehan's early Eighties group Broken Talent, the Trash Monkeys came off like a whacked version of Guided by Voices, with a passel of bent but utterly catchy pop tunes that chronicled their obsession with Jesus, television, and housewives, as well as fuzzy guitar hooks that were alternately inventive and rooted in the minimalist pop of postpunk outfits such as Television Personalities and Beat Happening.
The group split in the late Eighties, with Feehan going on to found Stun Guns and, in 1993, joining Harry Pussy with ex-Trash Monkey drummer Bill Orcutt. The Monkeys issued three cassettes during their brief existence, the cream of which has finally been compiled on Pass Out, a nineteen-song CD that is an invaluable document of the wiggy, weird, and visionary work of four people making the most out of their geographic seclusion and, as the disc's insert puts it in the thank-you's, "barley, malt, and hops."
As is typical in a city where musical oddballs are sadly outnumbered by cover bands and professional musicians, the Trash Monkeys just sort of "fell together," as Feehan puts it. "When Broken Talent broke up, I was sitting around for a while. I had been hanging out with Bill, and he would come over and I would show him guitar licks -- stupid stuff, like "Jumpin' Jack Flash." Soon some of Orcutt's friends began dropping by and a core lineup was formed, with Orcutt on drums, Feehan playing guitar, Lloyd Johnson on vocals, and George Kelley on bass. "We practiced for about six months," Feehan recalls. "We did this awful stuff, long rambling stuff. We were into Flipper, so we were doing this atonal thing where you have a riff and then make all this noise on top of it and just play forever. Then we found that we were being really self-indulgent, so we started writing real songs."
After the band's maiden show at Churchill's in July 1986, the group became a fixture at the city's most tolerant live venue, also playing gigs at now-defunct joints such as Club Banal and the Wet Paint House, all the while committing their screwy sonic creations to four-track. "We would have different themes we would work on for several months," Feehan explains. "We had this idea that we would do a tape of made-up TV theme songs, like 'Clairvoyant Housewife.' And we had this Jesus thing going for a while: 'Jesus Is My Boyfriend,' 'Jesus Eyes,' 'Spank Me Jesus.' It was just completely insane."
As were most of the group's live gigs, which were free-for-all combinations of confrontational performance art and punk-fueled madness that made them an easy band either to abhor or adore. With a laugh Feehan recalls that while Churchill's owner Dave Daniels was very supportive, "the bartender hated us. He had a T-shirt that said, 'I hate this band' that he would put on whenever we'd come on." In honor of singer Lloyd Johnson, "We had Lloyd's 'Vaseline Night,' where he came out covered in the stuff and throwing it at people. Then there was 'Rotten Meat Night,' when Lloyd brought a bag of rotten meat and was just forcing it at people. There was always something screwed up going on at Trash Monkeys shows."
The group gradually developed a local following of sorts, but by 1989 the Trash Monkeys hung it up. "By then we were pretty much 'that wacky band,'" Feehan remarks, dispiritedly. "Bill wanted to go off and do other things, and even though there were all these tremendously talented people, there were also these tremendous egos. And it was just totally frustrating trying to get it out there. No one knows who you are, so it's hard to get gigs. Whenever you'd tell people you're from Miami, they'd say, 'Huh?' They couldn't believe that anything like that could come from Miami. It's not even on their radar screen -- any kind of unusual music coming from here."
Feehan and Kelley spent the early part of the Nineties in Stun Guns, while Orcutt and then-girlfriend Adris Hoyos were making a very precise kind of racket as Harry Pussy, often performing at the Alliance Cinema. After Harry Pussy's second single was issued in 1992, Feehan was enlisted by Orcutt. "Bill decided he wanted a little extra noise, so he called me," Feehan says matter-of-factly. "At that point they were totally ignored. But we used to play five and six nights a week at the Alliance, and we managed to chase a bunch of people out of Churchill's." Feehan was with the group for about four years, long enough to hang around for several singles and a few national tours. Eventually the grind of touring and practicing, combined with a near-nonexistent cash flow, drove Feehan from the band. "It came to a point where I'd come back from a tour and I could just barely pay the rent, then I'd have a month where I wouldn't have a single penny. We'd tour, come back, have two weeks to practice, then we were back in the van. Bill wanted to do more tours, but it wasn't going to pay my rent."
He may not get rich with the revived Trash Monkeys, but the slightly revamped lineup(with local punk legend the Eat's Michael O'Brien on drums) has been writing new songs and gigging steadily to receptive audiences throughout the area. And whatever the status of the group's finances, the upcoming release of Pass Out will at least affirm this Trash Monkeys' long-time commitment to innovation and experimentation for the sheer hell of it, as well as for the sheer fun of it. Not that it will be easy, as Feehan knows all too well. "It's been so long trying to get [the CD] together, but that's the way the Trash Monkeys are," he admits. "It's all so fractious. They can't do anything. They're just incapable. It's hard enough to get out to a gig, let alone get a CD out.