by Pope Penguin
The brothers Trumfio, Dave (left) and Harry (right), with T-9000 (middle).
For a brief moment in the mid-'90s, I was beginning to have hope for music. My local "alternative" station was beginning to play a wide variety of very entertaining music (to me, at least). The dark, serious grunge period was dying out. Bands like The Rentals had almost single-handedly brought synthesizers back into the mainstream consciousness (God bless Matt Sharp). The Moog Cookbook was beginning to prick the pretentious bubble of "'90s alternative" with oozing, tongue-in-cheek versions of alt-anthems such as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Black Hole Sun." Weezer was sitting pretty with the amazing success of its first self-titled album and its controversial underground masterpiece "Pinkerton," which no one knew quite what to do with (and which did far better overseas than here in the U.S. Surprised?). Quirky bands with peculiar names like Geggy Tah were getting airplay ("Whoever You Are"...y'know, the "you would let me change lanes, when I was driving in my car" song) and bands with such unlikely monikers as The Presidents of the United States of America were topping the charts. Beck proved everyone who'd called him a "one-hit wonder" wrong with his masterful "Odelay"...there was Nada Surf...Superdrag...a whole host of exciting "power pop" bands...
What did all of these bands have in common? They'd all fit into a peculiar (and *not* pejorative) genre of music I'd like to call "nerd rock": in essence, my favorite type of music. In short, it looked like music was finally beginning to not take itself too seriously again. Being a child of the '80s, it looked to me as if a new "new wave" was springing up...much to my delight.
All was not rosy, though. Like many music listeners of my kind, I was getting awfully tired of the malaise *most* music had fallen into. "Alternative," for all intents and purposes, was long dead; post-grunge and nu-metal were lurking (an offshoot of a genre that pretty much died after its godfather, Kurt Cobain, passed on); pop was looking shadier than ever; "girl bands" and "boy bands" were slowly starting to creep into the Top 40 airwaves, an onslaught no doubt started by the phenomenal success of Britain's Spice Girls.
I was a junior in college (1997, for those playing at home) when I discovered this delightful little band called Pulsars. I was flipping through a Spin magazine one evening in the lobby of a dorm (I think it may have been my then-girlfriend's dorm...not sure) and saw a two-page spread on these two strange looking guys. One of them looked like a cross between Elvis Costello, Robert Smith and Ralf Hutter of Kraftwerk...the other guy looked like a Goth Eddie Munster cum Frank Black. The title of the article: "Nerdy White Boys: For the Pulsars, new wave isn't just a state of mind; it's a way of life." Wow. Alright, I'm already sold. So I sit down and read a bit...
I read about how the band consists of a set of brothers, Dave and Harry Trumfio, and how the "third member" of their band is a big sequencer called "Theodore 9000"...how the band "fashion short, catchy electropop ditties"...how the brothers are "quirky, good-humored guys who have gotten in touch with their inner nerdiness." And the article ends beautifully: "'We don't need to be like Marilyn Manson and put in different colored contact lenses to make us look like freakazoids. We're just naturally freakazoids.'"
Well, it must have been very shortly after that that I began hunting down this band's material. I went into one of my favorite local independent record shops and managed to find their self-titled album in the used section, which meant I could preview it at one of the listening stations. The record opened with the hum of what sounded like a Moog...then a yell of "alright!...1...2...3...4..." followed by one measure of a robotic drumbeat. Then the song exploded into buzzing square waves and laconic vocals: "this is a very nice day, yeah, hugs 'n kisses all the way to Wisconsin." I didn't know what it meant, but...that *sound*! Vintage 1983! After further listening, it was apparent the first three tracks comprised a medley of sorts, as they seamlessly blended into one another. Then track four...a pop tune called "Suffocation," which I can only describe as one of the best pop songs I've ever heard. Track four (out of 16) and I was already sold. I bought it.
Much of the next several weeks (maybe even months) was spent playing that album in my dorm...throughout the cold winter months of January, February, March. Yes, as the "Star Wars" special editions were being released, I was listening to retro space rock...it was all fitting together.
The "Pulsars" album is so much of a glorious nostalgic throwback that it's almost overwhelming. I remember playing it for my girlfriend at the time who asked "this came out in...nineteen-eighty...what?" I said "actually, '97." She looked perplexed.
The album is filled with a variety of retro sounds, interlaced with an almost Brian Wilson-like approach to production, which reveals hidden layers and sounds with each new listen. "Your Lucky Day Part II" recalls the dancey twang of The B-52's first record. "Technology" sounds like it was flown in from a mid-'80s Depeche Mode album. "Silicon Teens," an ode to Daniel Miller's studio project from 1979, is a deliciously quirky piece of Kraftwerk-ian synth minimalism, and is the most synthetic song on the entire album. (It inspired me to seek out the actual Silicon Teens album, which turned out to be pretty cool but not nearly as cool as the Pulsars song). "Submission Song" has a bit of a Frank Black vibe to it. It features a laid back drum beat, slyly kinky lyrics, sheets of heavily reverbed surf guitar and some perky trumpet lines...courtesy of the famous Mr. Herb Alpert, co-owner of their record label (Almo Sounds) who happened to be working in the studio next door to the Trumfios. The one real odd man out seems to be the closer: a lilting, wonderfully woeful song called "Das Lifeboat," about faded dreams, materialism, and self-destruction...probably the most lyrically moving tune on the entire LP. It also features a big, booming orchestra conducted by no less than Tony Visconti!
But underneath all the tinkly-bonk nostalgia and lyrics about retro technology was something else: there was of course the "nerdiness," but also warmth, humor, self-effacement, meticulous care for one's craft, alienation...everything I craved in music. The music of Pulsars was the kind of music *I* would make, had I the technology and equipment.
I soon hunted down their first EP, "Submission To The Master," which contained the spacey-surf rock of "Submission Song" along with a few prototype versions of songs from their debut, as well as two very interesting unreleased songs. One, called "Chicago Swingers," was as good as anything else I'd hear by them. This was a song that couldn't be classified as straight-ahead synth-pop: it did have some warm synth pads in the background, but featured a Ventures-style drumbeat, sad lyrics and a prominent guitar...yet there was still that '80s vibe. It reminded me a bit of The Church's "Under The Milky Way." The other song was a bizarre little ditty called "Cast Iron Dog," which only reaffirmed the Frank Black influence, to my ears.
Who were these guys? I wanted more!
Later on, I quite unexpectedly ended up seeing them on a short-lived MTV program called "Oddville," that specialized in...well...odd guests. Near the end of the show, the brothers Trumfio popped up to perform "Submission Song" with just the two of them...Dave on guitar and vocals, Harry on drums. I suppose T-9000 did the rest.
This is also about when I caught wind of the fact the Pulsars had toured with one of my favorite bands, Weezer, at one point. If only I had been more in the know back then, I probably could have seen one of the greatest shows of my life (I *did* end up seeing Weezer at the fantastic Benefit for Mykel and Carli Allen, though). I also found out Dave Trumfio had his own studio (King Size) and had been doing a fair amount of production work.
The Pulsars had an official website through their label Almo Sounds that never seemed to work properly. One time, when I was actually able to access the page, I perused the picture gallery, which featured some pictures that looked not too dissimilar to the cover of Sparks' "Propaganda" album. Hmmm...one has to wonder...
Somewhere along the line, I found some very nice fan-run sites...specifically "Machine Talk," run by Joe Frese. Through this website, I got ahold of a few more b-sides and rarities: the fantastic "Logo," with its dismissal of commercialistic society and mechanized robotic voice; another, "Cool For Cats," a bizarre cover of the Squeeze tune of the same name; a ponderous, spacey reading of The Magnetic Fields' "Deep Sea Diving Suit" (which was actually the first version I ever heard). From this website, I gleaned that the boys were entering the studio again, and that they'd been pouring a lot of money into their next record...a reported $200,000, to be exact. One of them had made a comment that there would be "more banjo" on the album than the previous record, which mystified me. I hoped it was a joke. Nevertheless, I anxiously awaited this second record with baited breath. Everyone I had played "Pulsars" for had instantly fallen in love with it. The time looked right for Pulsars to become huge.
Then the synths hit the fan.
Their label, Almo Sounds--most famous for being Garbage's label--went under. With Almo selling off their artists, it looked like Pulsars' goose was cooked for sure. I asked Joe Frese if he knew what happened and he replied, "As far as I know, the master tapes and the album itself is still owned by the now-defunct Almo Sounds. They're not releasing anything themselves right now, so they'd have to sell it for it to get released...and I understand the asking price is way over the top."
Not the most positive prospect.
In March of 2001, I went to a They Might Be Giants concert where a peculiar Chicago band named OK GO was the opening act. For openers, they were pretty good and definitely caught my attention (perhaps due in no small part to their liberal use of a synthesizer). So after the show I picked up their three song EP. I walked away and began reading the back and noticed that their producer was a mysteriously named "Baron Von Trumfio." Could it be? A quick listen to track two on the EP, the great "We Dug A Hole," shed any shadow of a doubt that this was Dave Trumfio producing. The song had an unmistakable Pulsars vibe to it, with quirky, whirring synths. But the real kicker was the chorus section, which featured octave vocals which almost sounded like they could have been Dave himself. I contacted Joe Frese to let him know about Trumfio's connection with OK GO.
By a complete fluke, I eventually ran across a fellow named Jean-Christophe Santalis, who was dating a friend of mine in New York. He'd worked for Almo Sounds and had been a big proponent of Pulsars while there. We shared a few emails and he told me that Almo "did a terrible job of marketing them and nothing really happened" and that "nobody knew what to do with them." He added that "they were putting together a full band as the label was disintegrating and working on a new record but it never came to fruition ... They would have done better on a grass-roots indie that would have really tried to make something happen with smaller investments. It costs an average of $500,000 to launch a new band on a major label and if nothing happens right away they pull the plug and cut their losses."
What made all of this even more glum was the fact that I'd now had a chance to download a few of the tracks from the unreleased album. The "banjo" comment must have been a joke, as these tunes were as synth-laden as the first album...but there was a certain slickness and maturity to the production and a bit of a soaring feeling to them. One song in particular, "Float," was a marvel. Another, "Capsule," was filled with pop hooks and a typically cynical message.
A few months later, I noticed that Joe Frese had an update on his site that seemed to imply that the band had broken up. I contacted Joe and he said that he hadn't heard from anyone in the Pulsars camp in quite a while. Shortly thereafter, I came across the email address of Eric Hanna, who had played guitar for Pulsars when they had assembled a proper band. I emailed him a few questions and he courteously replied a few days later. Unfortunately, it was not good news:
"Pulsars, after having the record shelved, basically broke up. Some didn't want to start over, even though I thought it was hardly starting over since we had already made a name for ourselves ... Dave is a producer in L.A. now, and he's really making a name for himself. Harry is a dentist and living in the north Chicago suburbs, his homeland and the place he feels most comfortable I believe ... Marianne, who played keyboard, lives in San Fran and works as a physical therapist. And I am the computer geek, looking for yet another IT job here in Chicago, while also playing in Tamar Berk's band."
Another nail in the Pulsars coffin seems to be the fact that their material is apparently going out of print. Last time I checked, Amazon was listing the "Pulsars" album as being "out of stock." And I can't even recall the last time I've seen a Pulsars release in an "analog" store. My advice: pick any Pulsars material up *now* before it's gone for good.
I won't maintain that Pulsars were the best band I've ever heard, nor the #1 band of the '90s...but they were *really good* (their album would probably make it into my top 20 of all time) and I see it as rather lamentable that the band wasn't even given a fair shake. Admittedly, not everyone "got" Pulsars (not least of which was their own record label). Perhaps I'm romanticizing the band too much, but for me, they represented something very important...they encapsulated a number of things sorely lacking in the music industry, and for one brief moment, they gave me a glimmer of hope in what was to come for music in the future. Yes, the music of Pulsars was refreshingly retro and laced with '80s references, both sonically and lyrically, but most of all it made you *feel* good.
The music scene of 2003 is dominated by wannabe-metal, loud guitar/throaty vocals/faux angst bands and pappy teen pablum that barely passes for music. A band like Pulsars, with interesting arrangements, occasionally clever lyrics and real pop hooks, would be very welcome nowadays...especially in what I like to call today's "fear of synthesizers" musical climate.
But the Pulsars story is really a sad tale of an industry that ends up screwing its own artists. Almo obviously had to take a chance on the Pulsars by signing them in the first place. They had been touted as part of a burgeoning movement in the Chicago area (which, apparently, never really exploded). Spin's feature on the Trumfio brothers seemed like a pretty good endorsement. The fact that legends like Tony Visconti and Herb Alpert had lent a hand on their debut album should have counted for something. But Almo Sounds did little to nothing to promote this wonderful little band (a fact corroborated by people who worked there). With bands like The Rentals taking off, one would think the time was perfect to promote a retro sounding synth band with pop hooks. Once Almo went under, it's suspected that all promotional material for the Pulsars went down in flames. Their second album ended up never being released by another label because Almo was asking a hideously high price for the master tapes. Dirty pool, if you ask me. Sabotage, even.
In the words of
Jean-Christophe Santalis, "Maybe if people really had a chance to hear
them they would have transcended their genre and just be recognized for
songs and a great sound. All it takes is one significant program director to give it a chance and if the public responds the rest is history. Perfect example: Nirvana. They were completely different from the 80's hair metal. Somebody took a big chance and put it out there and people responded immediately."
Maybe Pulsars would have taken off...maybe not. But they should have been given the chance...and effort. How many times has this happened to fledgling bands who can't compete in the murky, green, shark-infested waters of the music industry? It is frustrating to frequently come across art that you *know* other people would really like, had they the chance to actually hear it.
"There was definitely *some* support at Almo Sounds for the Pulsars," says Santalis. "Bob Bortnick who signed them obviously had faith as well as Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert. Unfortunately, there is only so much you can do when you rely on others. In my opinion, what it came down to was the people doing the marketing and promotion (Geffen, Almo Sounds distributor at the time) not generating enough excitement. I guess when you have a plate full of artists that includes established stars (I don't remember who else was being pushed by Geffen at the time) and you're watching your back (read: your job) you tend to go with the artists that generate the most immediate positive reactions. It's just the nature of the business. The Pulsars were signed by old-school thinking: 'This is a great band. Let's sign them.' Today, sadly, it's more like: "This band is selling a lot of records already. If I sign them I'll look good. I might even have a job next month. It will impress my boss. I can convince myself that I like them because the 'numbers' are good."
So it seems that a lyric from Pulsars' own song "Owed To A Devil" proved to be too prophetic for its own good:
"So you say you
wanna be a pop star?
You better read my book
Go to my seminar
And kiss my pinky ring."
So all I own of the Pulsars very short tenure are two CDs (an album and EP), about a dozen mp3s and a handful of great memories from college and 1997 with the music of Pulsars as the soundtrack.
Like The Modern Lovers in the '70s (who recorded one of my top three albums of all time), the Pulsars were yet another cool cult band that broke up after one album before they even had a chance to hit their stride. Here's hoping all the members of Pulsars go on to bigger and better things...and, with a little luck, maybe we'll see a comprehensive two disc "Pulsars Anthology" on Rhino Records in the year 2010.
Extra special thank yous to Joe Frese, Eric Hanna and Jean-Christophe Santalis for their cooperation and unbridled support for this article.
© 2003 Crapple Records, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without the expressed written consent of Crapple Records, Inc.
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