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August 25, 1994 * Vol. 4, No. 17


The Ray-O-Vacs (now the Kingpins) recycle pop culture debris

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

Society is falling apart, and the Ray-O-Vacs are picking up the pieces.

Not all of them, of course—just the ones they think are worth saving. Like a fake leopard-skin rec-room chair. Or a brick-red, two-foot-high meditating Buddha, with a gaudy pink plastic gem embedded in his forehead. Or the music of Ennio Morricone (the guy who wrote those spooky, twangy guitar licks for Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns).

Or, in the case of gangly guitarist Dave Kenny, a grass hula skirt he's contemplating wearing for a photo shoot outside the Chapman Highway Laundromat.

"Do you think I should?" he asks. "It might be offensive. I mean, there are people who really wear these."

The skirt waving loosely around his blue jeans, he consults with fellow axe-grinder Michael "Ponch" Goldman on other possible props. Ponch offers some heavy-duty respirator masks from the trunk of his car. Dave looks skeptical.

"Do you have any with sequins on them?" he asks.

Welcome to the end of the 20th Century. Welcome to the world of the Ray-O-Vacs, Knoxville's only surf-rock instrumental band. Formed in February by veterans of the Swamis, the Estradas and other local outfits, the Ray-O-Vacs dogmatically resist all temptations to take themselves seriously. Their dedication to not being famous, not landing a record deal, not doing much of anything but playing for the hell of it, is almost militant. And very, very refreshing.

"What happens when you get that big break?" Ponch asks. "You spend all of your time on a bus, each record sells progressively less, you end up owing some record company a jillion and one dollars and you've got nothing to show for it, really."

Besides Dave and Ponch, the quartet includes Gene Krupa worshipper Daniel Moore on drums, and a bass player who declines to give his name (for reasons entirely unrelated to the fact that he's an employee of this magazine). We talk about a couple of possible pseudonyms, but never settle on anything. The closest we get is "Shakin' T. Willie."

With the photo session complete, we retire to the interior of the band's Chapman Highway rehearsal space for an interview. Shakin' T. (or whoever) calls it "the quintessential band practice room," and it is. And then some.

The brown carpet is appropriately grimy and matted down, a few open bags of garbage and empty Budweiser 12-pack boxes sit by the door, and the drum kit and amps along the walls are flanked by a wide-ranging collection of kitsch. From the aforementioned chair and Buddha to the piles of girlie mags on the floor ("High-quality '70s European porn," Ponch assures me) to the Baywatch poster on the back wall (which the band claims was put there by someone else—most probably the Viceroys, who share the space), it's a slice of post-war American heaven, via John Waters and Russ Myer. It's also a fair visual equivalent of the Ray-O-Vacs' music.

Although their own posters call their sound "surfabiliumptious," Dave is careful to note that the Ray-O-Vacs are not a real surf band. When I ask why, Ponch responds, "Real surf music is made in California. We're in Tennessee."

Okay. So if it ain't surf, per se, what the heck is it? It's a high-octane mix of roots-rock riffs, Tex-Mex rhythms and a grab-bag of cultural references. In concert, the Ray-O-Vacs charge through one 8- or 12-bar progression after another, Dave and Ponch trading off leads while Shakin' T. (or whoever) pogos madly in the foreground. The covers range from surf obscurities to classics like Del Shannon's "Runaway" (which tears along so frenetically you don't even miss the organ), and are interspersed with reverb-laden originals like "The Haunted Bikini." Accentuating the campiness is an on-stage go-go dancer, "Sandy," in knee-high white boots and the band's trademark red sunglasses.

If the absence of vocals and the near-uniform tempos sometimes make all the songs sound alike, that's all right with the band. Instrumental rock at its best is background music, they say—think of the themes to Mission Impossible or the James Bond movies. In fact, the band's mellower pieces tend toward the neo-lounge movement.

But don't confuse the Ray-O-Vacs studied goofiness with a lack of ambition. Although all the members have white-collar day jobs, they have their own plans for multi-media world (or at least Knoxville) domination. They want to incorporate more visuals into the act—Shakin' T. suggests video monitors showing Jane Fonda's Barbarella continuously. Also "in the works" is a video of their own. Titled "The Ray-O-Vacs Versus the Planet Von," it will be an homage to the spirit of B-movies.

"You can admire artists, you can admire craftsmen, but I admire people that, no matter how untalented they are, really try hard, on a minimal budget or whatever, to produce something that they think is cool," Dave says.

"That's what we're doing," Ponch concludes.

© Metro Pulse