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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

fifi History 4: Don’t Eat Bricks

NOTE: Citing my notoriously faulty memory and my tendency toward “mendacious untruth” (not my words), various fifi alumni and supporters have graciously added corrections and additions where necessary throughout this series. If there are no corrections in the article below, that must indicate that my recollections are without error.

Fearing Reprisals, fifi Plays it Safe

unforget011

The Requirement of Suitable Tools, Part 2

In early 1986, Eric and I started making plans to record our third proper album, “Don’t Eat Bricks.” Neither of us was looking forward to wasting hours of studio time tuning, repairing, and re-tuning Eric’s baseball-card-augmented faux Encore, so the first order of business was purchasing a new guitar. I had heard tell of these magical places called “pawn shops” in downtown Seattle, where they had hundreds of used guitars that could be had for pennies on the dollar – less, if you were willing to haggle. Why hadn’t anyone told me about these “pawn shops” before? I wondered aloud. We scraped together our savings and headed downtown.

Eric and I drove slowly along the trash-strewn and wino-populated streets of downtown Seattle (this was before the urban renewal of the 1990’s which made downtown Seattle safe for white middle-class Starbucks customers) until we passed a pawn shop with row upon row of glorious electric guitars displayed in its (wire-strengthened and iron-security-bar-protected) window. Jackpot!

The rumors were correct in one particular: There was a staggering multitude of guitars available. The part about those guitars being inexpensive, though… not so much. Perhaps the person who told me that was referring to a different pawn shop. Eric tried five or six guitars, all of which he loved, all of which were painfully superior to his current guitar, and all of which were miles out of our price range. I tried to haggle, but every time I offered a lower price, the guy behind the counter simply said “nope” and returned the guitar to its hook on the wall. Finally, exasperated, he asked us how much money we had to spend, in cash, on our person. We told him $100, and he told us that we’d better look elsewhere. As we were dejectedly exiting the store, however, he called us back. He did have, he informed us, one other guitar. It had been sitting in the back for a while, waiting to be cannibalized for parts. One of the switches might have a short, he said. The paint job was a little “wacky,” he said. He could let us have it pretty cheap. Even at 19, I heard the subtext loud and clear: I am frankly embarrassed to display this piece of shit with the other guitars, and would only sell it to someone too ignorant and/or desperate to complain. Like you two.

The guitar was a hand-made monstrosity – oddly-shaped, too heavy, and with a pick-guard made of jigsaw-cut clear plexiglass; the better to display a wild profusion of hand-soldered and clumsily-bundled wiring. Why a simple electric guitar required all that wiring was beyond my limited understanding, so I kept my mouth shut. Still… there was something humorous and appealing about its Frankenstein appearance, and when Eric actually plugged it in, it didn’t sound half bad. Certainly better than the faux Encore, at any rate. We walked out of the pawn shop $85 lighter, and carrying our new prize.

New guitar? Check.

Around this time, I had gotten in the habit of carrying around drumsticks and banging on anything close at hand: the padded bar in my parents’ basement, the back of the driver’s seat in Paul’s car, or, if nothing else was available, my own knees. As fifi prepared to record our next masterpiece, the time seemed right for me to purchase an actual drum (or even drums, plural) to go with the sticks. After consulting the local classified ads under “Musical Instruments,” we ventured out on a rainy day to look at a used snare drum. The seller was an aging hippie living in a sort of log-cabin-ish house in the wilds of Northern Lynnwood. After discussing music for a while and hitting the snare a couple of times (adopting the casual air of a percussion expert), I forked over $35 and became the proud owner of an orphaned drum with a loose snare and a glitter finish.

Metrix Revolutions

Thus prepared, Eric and I returned to the not-very-palatial and not-particularly-well-equipped Metrix Studios to record “Don’t Eat Bricks.”

For many reasons, this is my least favorite fifi album; the red-haired, disrespectful stepchild that I sometimes wish I could disown, or at least lock away in the castle tower, thereby circumventing the rightful succession of the monarchy.

For one thing, it’s the shortest fifi album; barely 20 minutes long. For another, it contains the single most annoying (granted: intentionally annoying) song in the entire fifi canon: “The Longest Goodbye.” It also contains one song that Eric and I both regard as a failure: the lazy Thorogood spoof “Don’t Wanna Hear Ya.”

Finally, it contains the one and only fifi song that I’m too ashamed to post.

You can track our comedy education through the sources we reference in fifi songs: Woody Allen in “A Day in the Life of a Doe” is one example. When writing the songs for this album, I had recently seen the 1968 Mel Brooks film, “The Producers.” Taking a cue from that film’s central joke, I thought it would be funny if fifi wrote our own version of “the worst musical ever written” – hammering home our conception of fifi as ambitious idiots. So, where “The Producers” had its “Springtime for Hitler,” fifi had “Hitler Wasn’t so Bad.” I even copped two lines directly from the movie, e.g. Hitler was a great dancer, and a speedy house painter. In the hands of a skilled satirist – preferably a Jewish satirist, like Mel Brooks – this is volatile, but potentially funny material. In the hands of a 19-year-old Christian guy from the suburbs… eh, maybe not so funny. Though I’m clear of our intentions at the time, the song we wrote now seems crass, unfunny, and even offensive (to me).

Having said that… there are things to love about this album:

  • Eric’s Paul Rodgers-inspired vocals on “Bigoted Butter,” ending each line with a virile “whoah-OH!” or “that’s right, baby, now…”
  • The relentless punk energy of “Afraid of Food”
  • Eric’s narcoleptic “We love our fans…” in “We’re a Band”
  • The part near the end of “Bigoted Butter” where we have to pause the song for a minute because we can’t remember what happened next
  • Even though the song itself is dumb, the sax solo at the end of “Don’t Wanna Hear Ya” is pretty sweet

Don’t Eat Bricks: A Listening Guide

We’re a Band – The “We love our fans” bit was inspired by the “We love our audience” refrain at the end of “Spirit” by Bauhaus. At the very end of the song, Eric and I both spontaneously shrieked a lengthy “Oh YEAAAAAAAAH!” which left me with one of the most painful headaches of my life.

Don’t Eat Bricks – Our take on the smothering mother-son relationship ala “The Wall.” The intermittent “BOOM” is from that used snare, miked close, turned up loud, and with a heavy gated reverb. That was the one and only time we ever used that snare, but I still think we got our $35 worth. The skittering sound you hear throughout the song in the background was created in a freeware sound generation application running on a Mac Classic which I “borrowed” from my employer for the night.

The Longest Goodbye – Kind of an Andy Kaufman “it’s funny because it’s so annoying!” mentality at work here. The dialogue is from a made-for-TV “Cabbage Patch” or “Hugga-Bunch” movie, and the drum pattern was copied from Robert Plant’s “Pink and Black.” Originally, we included a bunch of other cool audio snippets on this song, including Robert DeNiro’s “This is this. This ain’t somethin’ else!” speech from “The Deer Hunter.” In the end, we felt that just the drums with the looped Hugga-Bunch dialogue produced the maximum irritation in the listener, so we left it like that. Feel free to hit the skip button.

Afraid of Food – The studio had this ridiculous guitar pedal that produced a comical “boiiinngg” sound; a sound that, frankly, no guitar player in their right mind would want to produce. Needless to say, we had to use it. Unfortunately, it was ancient and rarely-used, the on/off switch was sticky, and it was missing – or never had – a hinged foot pedal. To switch the effect on or off required stomping with all your weight on a metal push button. Eric tried many times, but ultimately found it impossible to maintain his rhythm and operate the pedal at the same time. Thus, the button-stomping job fell to me. As Eric played, I stood next to him. As he neared the end of each bar, I would jump firmly on the pedal to engage the “booiiiinnng” sound, wait for the note to fade slightly, and then jump on the pedal again to turn the effect off. The sampled dialogue is from the John Carpenter film, “Starman,” in the scene where Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen visit a truck stop diner.

A Day in the Life of a Doe – Yup, exactly the same song as on “Does its Duty” but, you know – better (e.g. remixed with slightly more reverb on the Casio).

Bigoted Butter (Part XXVII of “Evil Dairy Products”) – At the beginning of this song, you’ll hear another excerpt from the Capitol Records “Production Music” set that Jen bought for me at a garage sale. Eric sells the song with his usual 200% commitment, tossing in an “oh no, mama!” or five for seasoning. Actually, the lyrics to this song are pretty great, as is the gnarly phaser sound on Eric’s guitar.

Don’t Wanna Hear Ya – Another one of fifi’s “litany” songs, which are nothing more than a (sometimes) rhyming list of unfortunate events (“Loved you when I met you… Met you in a corner bar… You wrecked our home… And then you wrecked my car”). The sole redeeming element in this song is the fade-out sax solo by John Burton’s sister. I think Eric and I had in mind a more rockin’ sax sound – more Clarence Clemons than Dave Koz – but we had some trouble communicating that. In the end, we just put a mike in front of her and ran the tape, figuring, hey – at least we’ll get points for “broadening fifi’s musical palette.” She played a sweet and melancholy tune that didn’t really mesh with the rest of the song, but… somehow, it worked. We simply faded out all the other tracks, and let her solo close the album with a brief, tantalizing whiff of undeniable talent.

Video

  1. “Sorry ‘Bout That” Documentary, Part 4

Audio

To download any of the songs individually, just right-click on the desired track in the playlist above and select “Save link as…”

To download the entire set in a .zip file, click here.

Lyrics

In case you’re interested (and also because Robin says she can’t understand what the hell we’re singing), the lyrics for this album can be found here.

Proceed to the next chapter in the spellbinding fifi saga.

One Comment

  1. RE: The guitar

    Actually, I thought the thing was pretty light. Remember, I was used to the Korean Jimmy Page Special, which I am absolutely certain was filled with a gallon or two of concrete. This baby, which substituted ironwood with oak and 1/8-inch plastic with space-age 1/2-inch plexiglass, was a technological quantum leap for me. In addition, it had an extra little toggle switch on the horn of the Strat-style portion of the body. Apparently it was an in-/out-phase switch. “Cool!” I recall was my reply. I am sure the salesman heard the subtext loud and clear: “What’s an in-/out-phase switch?”

    Re: Songs

    Incidentally, Fifi did experience something of a international cult following. While I was stationed in Germany at HQ 8th Infantry Division (Mechanized), I befriended several members of the 8th ID Band, and in particular their guitarist, Lombardi from Miami. They rolled over in tears laughing at our work. They, of all people, got the joke. But they all agreed that “We’re a Band” actually had a special “terroire” about it. It grew on them, and eventually, at each of their performances across central Germany, SOMEONE in the band would end the show with “We love our fans.” This continued until at least the time I left Germany two years later.

    I have always felt “Afraid of Food” was one of our finest moments. It is truly hideous, but with a punk authenticity that only a handful of real punk bands actually achieved. A total rejection of guitar-wanking “virtuosity” and utterly lacking any sell-out pop sensibility, “Afraid of Food” is a true classic in every sense of the word, except for it never reached the charts, never got played on the radio, and is never actually mentioned by any authority as a song of any consequence.

    “Doe”

    DIGITAL reverb, and digital was all that mattered in the 80s.

    “Dairy”

    This has always been one of my absolute least favorite songs, which is a shame because the lyrics were pretty good. This was yet another example of delusional perceptions of our own actual abilities. The idea, I think, is still…not bad; if the Black Crowes did the music, or for that matter, any professional-quality rock band, it would likely have sounded considerably better.

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