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September 14, 1995 * Vol. 5, No. 26

Hello, Cleveland!

Stinkfoot USA takes its rock 'n' roll lifestyle not-so-seriously

by Randall Brown

Late on a muggy August evening, just south of the Knox-Union county line: the blue glow of a television flickers from inside the modest ranch-style house of the Ratliff family, the nervous scratch of rutting cicadas echoes through the pines on a lukewarm breeze, and one of a seeming endless number of cats is having kittens under the porch.

In the middle of this pristine East Tennessee moment, haloed by the flat glare of 60-watt porch lights, about all I can get out of Stinkfoot USA are inside jokes and outrageous lies about their musical plans. It's obvious from the start that these guys are smart enough to know the clichés of the "rock and roll interview," and they are eager to skewer the whole embarrassing process before honoring me with any inkling of truth.

"We're looking forward to touring Japan next month," smirks bald and burly frontman Jon Wallace, veteran vocalist of numerous Knoxville bands. "Budokan was great last year."

"Did they put out our laser-disc concert of that yet?" wonders left-stage guitarist Bo Ratliff. Wallace nods affirmation.

"We hope to be featured on ESPN2, with jocks doing their thing to groovy rock music," quips right-stage guitarist Brett Winston.

"I only have two words to say about anything," declares drummer Jason Ratliff. "Frank Zappa."

Wallace, Winston and the Ratliff brothers are part of, literally, the biggest rock band in town. Along with bassist Bill Ardison and percussionist Jason White, only the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra takes up more room on a stage. But they didn't win this year's UT Battle of the Bands by numbers alone. They won because their sound is one of the freshest in town, and they have stage presence to spare.

Disregarding fads of goth, grunge and techno, Stinkfoot USA (so named to avoid confusion with the Canadian group simply called "Stinkfoot") produces an ensemble sound that is upbeat, aggressive and, dare I say, musical. They rise above the usual run of "musician" bands, though—as in where the statement "They're really good musicians" is an apologetic euphemism for "They're really boring." They have an infectious energy and likeability that many "technical" bands lack.

Guitarists Ratliff and Winston's intelligent hooks and riffs ride along on the self-assured drive of Ardison's bass groove. The dual drum/percussive action of the other Ratliff and White provides not just a beat but flavoring, from straight-up rock to Latin jaunt. The whole package rings with stylistic echoes of Pere Ubu and rhythmic hints of the Big Boys.

"Actually, it's pretty remarkable that with so many people, our sound is really sparse," says Wallace, and he's right. There is still plenty room in a Stinkfoot song for the listener to breathe.

Wallace's acrobatic vocal expression, honed from a vocal resume ranging from the agitated punk of the STDs to the jazz smoothness of the Lawn Darts, caps the entourage off with a flair of, well, smooth agitation. His voice offers a sharp point of focus for an already tight unit, pulling hooks, riffs, grooves and rhythms into actual songs.

Wallace sums up his lyrical style simply: "I don't know if I write songs really about anything. What I try to do is make little portraits of somebody's life."

The active-but-not-too-busy nature of their sound works well with Stinkfoot's jovial attitude and stage manner. When they perform, they put on a show—especially Wallace, who does something akin to dramatic physical interpretation. His in-concert posing serves the band live just as his voice does sonically, a focus of drama amidst the jam. Between his antics and White's doodling with an amazing variety of percussion instruments, something is always happening on stage.

But perhaps the band members themselves best describe their inspiration and style.

"Before I write a lick I ask myself, 'What would Eddie Vedder do?'" claims Winston.

"Before I get up in the morning I ask myself, 'What would Eddie Vedder do?'" counters Wallace. "Then I reach for a pad of paper and write a poem."

"The truth about us is really just too boring to say," continues Winston. "A couple of us, but not all of us, are good enough to be a musicians' band. Even the people who are really good don't do solos. You know, so it's not really about that. It's like a step below that."

"Yet a step above," adds Wallace.

"To say the least," agrees Winston. "A step above with one leg up."

"We're kinda like Supertramp in way," offers Bo Ratliff.

"Which way is that?" asks Wallace with an incredulous chuckle.

"I think a lot of it comes from bands like the Minutemen," suggests Winston, offering a quite plausible reference point.

About this time in our discussion, percussionist Jason White discovers the nearby miracle of birth: "It looks like this cat is having kittens over here."

"Everybody grab one," says Bo Ratliff, looking around at the already plentiful feline population on the porch.

Wallace waxes philosophical about the blessed event. "Jerry dies and then we witness birth," he says.

It's an eerily fitting end to my evening with Stinkfoot USA, as Winston baits me with mock seriousness. "Hey, aren't you gonna ask us what we think of the local scene?"

Intrepidly, I ask the question. The reply is typical Stinkfoot smart-assedness.

"No comment."

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