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May 5, 1994 * Vol. 4, No. 9

El Smarto

by Mike Gibson

I lost control of the evening hours ago. I'm out at some godawful dumpster on one of those ugly nights where logic and cognitive function are lost in herbal haze and beery languor. Consequently, there's no escaping the gruesome menagerie of sociopathic barflies, shambling derelicts, and malignant weirdoes parading like so many drug-addled circus elephants through my woozy little corner of reality.

My companions for the evening, members of Knoxville's El Smarto, aren't much help. They seem to revel in this sort of madness, wallowing in it like hogs in fresh muck. After one particularly freakish outburst leads us to the brink of barroom disaster, I'm convinced that these are sick, sick men.

Truth be known, watching these bozos play live is only slightly less disconcerting. Oh, sure, their gut-level guitar pummel is plenty of fun, until some smattering of dementia or calculated dissonance drops in and throws the whole thing into gleeful disarray. You're never quite sure whether to bang your head or scratch it.

El Smarto arose like some oppressive gas bubble from the fetid, murky bowels of Fort Sanders in the torrid summer of '93, united by a love of Frank Zappa, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and potty jokes. The band's music fuses lots of seemingly incompatible notions: discipline and chaos, succinctness and complexity, studied songcraft and heavy rock release.

"We make music for the easily bored," says guitarist Brett Winston, a gnomish extrovert with Michael Dukakis eyebrows. "Our songs are mostly under three minutes, without any long guitar solos or repetitive choruses. We're not going to appeal much to the sweating masses."

Not unless the sweating masses favor smart pop and funk-tinged hard rock laced with Zappaesque humor and melodic subversiveness. Whether it be through pathologically twisted riffs (one new song features a mangled fragment lifted from the Knack's arena-punk chestnut "My Sharona") or warped song titles like "Creetorsweamy" and "Hemorrhoid Games," El Smarto just can't seem to play it straight.

"We started out as the Carbuncle All-Stars, but our bass player Bill adamantly opposed that name," says Winston. "Right now we're putting together an acoustic set—we're going to call it Unplugged-o."

The aforementioned bass player, Bill Ardison, a lanky, dread-locked virtuoso, is the only band member missing from this perilous little rendezvous. His mates are visibly nervous when I inquire as to his whereabouts. After several cryptic responses and much anxious whispering, they feed me some half-baked story about a journey of self-discovery to the jungles of Belize. After a month of bugs-and-bark subsistence, he's supposed to return to play some local gigs.

"Our biggest goal as a band right now is to release a CD sometime next summer," says spitfire vocalist Mike Walls, eager to change the subject. "After that, we'd like to release our own box set, complete with B-sides and rarities."

In the meantime, El Smarto is circulating a ten-song demo of raw but tuneful heavy weirdness. Walls is in fine form, his belting both vicious and soulful over the quirky din. Two songs, "Creetorsweamy" and "Sanpo" have received airplay on WUTK.

"Our tape really wasn't meant to be played," says drummer Jason Ratliff. (Along with his brother, guitarist/keyboardist Bo Ratliff, Jason often provides sober yin to Winston's and Walls's madcap yang. "It was a cheap recording made at an early practice. We'd like to release the CD in order to more accurately reflect what we're about—and that's applying a Zappa mentality to three-minute heavy pop songs."

El Smarto has an awkward but viable chemistry. On this night, the Ratliffs are buoys of coherence in a sea of chaos and delirium. On-stage, their low-key demeanors and disciplined rhythmic interplay anchor the looser, edgier presence of their bandmates. Like its music, El Smarto's core is tight and solid, while the outside is free-form and loopy.

"Bo and Jay have an innate ability to pick up on unusual rhythms, more so than even some very well-schooled musicians we've known," Winston explains. "Bo is so proficient on guitar that he can instantly nail any mood we need to convey—he also single-handedly rescued the Dalai Lama from Tibet with nothing but a Bowie knife and masking tape. Not many people know that about him."

I ooze back down into the booth, almost relieved that the spell of solemnity has once again been broken. I'm in no condition to ponder anything more serious than raising mug to mouth. Walls is starting to lose his grip; he's in the throes of some manic fever-dream—something about ritual sacrifices and professional wrestling.

"But we really are serious about making this band work," interjects the heretofore silent Bo Ratliff. "If we didn't do this, we'd all have to go back to college."

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