I Am the Jellyfish That Walks Upon the Land
The Orange Mothers' Fantasia
"Painting and music are parallel arts; but as geometry teaches us, parallel lines do not intersect."
-- Bernard Holland, The New York Times, June 18, 2000
This is a family affair, everyone's invited. Rudy plays guitar ("Power Chords and Mustard" is the only song he knows.). Upstairs, daddy is trying on mama's clothes. Marshmallow girls dance with aliens. Big brother, the dope-smoking moron, is asleep in the yard. Ethan searches for his soul. Candy Clover is sitting on the clouds -- and if you look into her eyes, you just might disappear. Stinkpot is singing through a telephone. The penguins are asleep in their beds. Audy stumbles drunkenly through various Christmas carols. Never slow down. Later on, Jim Thunder is driving us all to the fair, except Rocketboy, who's giving Nancy a ride in his spaceship. The Italian girls come by rowboat. My little sister is in the stock-car race. Me and my friends, we're going to the hoochie coochie show. I'm buying drugs on the midway and trippin' out on the ferris wheel. James E. Waymsy is trippin' out on the calliope. I am the jellyfish who walks upon the land. We'll be ready for bed when we get back to the big blue house. Look -- somebody didn't do their damn dishes! Time to pack it in.
All these people are real, these lovebirds and polar bears riding the freight train. They come to life whenever four shaggy thirtysomethings unpack their equipment behind Hole in the Wall, Continental Club, Cactus Cafe, Emo's, or the Red Eyed Fly. Once upon a time, they used to sleep in the Electric Lounge before it was even called that. Sometimes they sing 'cause they're depressed. Sometimes they sing 'cause they're out to lunch. Sometimes they sing 'cause they're happy, so happy. Usually, more musicians are at their shows than in line at the free clinic. Their driver's licenses call them Ethan Azarian, Jeff Johnston, Tim Audy, and James Welch. Those who love them call them the Orange Mothers.
In May, the Mothers played to a sold-out crowd at Antone's. Most of the audience was there to see alt.country heartthrobs the Old 97's. The Mothers, who often rehearse onstage, didn't this time. Instead, they killed.
"People were coming up to me after the show going, 'Where are you guys from? Are you guys from here?'" says Mothers lead singer and lyricist Ethan Azarian. "I'm like, 'Yeah, we've been here 10 years.'"
About a month later, the Mothers played to another packed house, this time at Hole in the Wall. They weren't supposed to play at all. Their job that night was to drink beer and watch various local musicians -- Do It Now! Foundation, Hotwheels Jr., Tall, Dark, and Lonesome, Jimmy Smith of the Gourds, Lil' Cap'n Travis, Okkervil River, Grand Champeen, and the Barkers -- offer loving interpretations of Mothers songs. This was a hoot night, one of those multiband blowouts usually organized to raise money for charity and salute rock royalty like Blondie, Prince, Tom Petty, or the Ramones.
A hoot night for a local band, let alone one still together and with its third CD (Big Blue House) coming out that same weekend, is practically unheard of. Yet at the end of the night, three of the four Mothers were onstage leading the well-lubricated crowd through singalongs like "Kids Don't Know." The evening's proceeds did go to the band's favorite charity, though -- themselves. Recording Big Blue House left them $1,800 in the hole.
"That was a good time," says Audy.
"I was fine," echoes Johnston. "I think everybody was fine except Ethan."
"People kept looking at me," complains Azarian. "I could see them looking at me out of the corner of their eyes to see my reaction. I felt really uncomfortable."
"I kept looking at you, because it sounded funny at some times," Audy says, "but sometimes it sounded like, 'Man, those guys are kickin' some ass!'"
"Some of the versions of the songs sounded better than the way we do 'em," Azarian admits.
"He's got all new arrangements now thanks to those [bands]," exclaims Johnston.
Jeff Johnston says theother Mothers call him Stinkpot, because "they're hillbillies and when we practice in the summer, they've all got their shirts off and I'm the only one who doesn't stink." "Stinkpot was a little wary, us being from Vermont," Azarian says of the Dallas native's first encounter with the Mothers. "He was a little nervous."
"They were a little disheveled," agrees Johnston. "Audy sleeping on the couch. I met Ethan at a party. He was like, 'Oh, you play bass? Come on over and try out. I got a bass amp.' I come over there and the bass amp is in pieces. It doesn't work at all. He's like. 'Ah, don't worry. Just listen to the songs.'"
Audy, a fellow Vermont native who's known Azarian since both were teenagers, was impressed into Motherhood in a similar fashion.
"[Ethan] kept losing drummers," explains Johnston. "He couldn't keep a drummer so he taught Audy how to play the drums."
"He just picked me, because I was living in the house," insists Audy. "I was always in my room, which was the couch."
Keyboardist Welch says "it took a little bit of training" to get him acclimated to the Mothers, which Johnston explains as "tying James' hand behind his back."
"That's right, less notes," concurs Welch.
"He's really schooled," Azarian says. "He's such an accomplished player. All of us are self-taught."
"I don't have the luxury of being able to look at the neck of the guitar and pick out the chords," says Welch.
"I don't think Ethan does either," Audy points out. "He just guesses."
It would be easy to conclude from the Mothers' unshaven appearance, easygoing rapport, and onstage antics -- not to mention Audy's contention that his day job is "watching the Red Sox play" -- that they're the very picture of slack, poster boys for everything slovenly and noncommittal about musician life. That couldn't be further from the truth. If they come off as loose and nonchalant, it's because they work like hell to get that way.
"We rehearse a lot to get that unrehearsed sound," says Johnston.
Azarian is a staunch believer in the power of a well-thought-out set list, so much so, in fact, that it frequently drives his bandmates to exasperation. This could be because he doesn't always clue them in to what the set list is.
"We rehearse it a few times, but that doesn't mean the way we rehearse it is the way we're gonna actually play it," he says.
This frequently makes for interesting transitions at their shows, heightening even further the Mothers' well-rehearsed atmosphere of spontaneity.
"A couple of shows ago at the Continental, we were playing 'Rocketboy,'" recalls Johnston. "There's a couple of stops in the song, and we were all kinda noodling around this one stop, and then all of a sudden I just started playing 'Sunshine' in the middle of 'Rocketboy,' and I was looking around wondering, 'Are they gonna go for it or not?' James started doing it, then Audy started playing it, and we were waiting to see if Ethan was gonna do it, and he did."
"I didn't wanna do it," confesses Azarian.
"He didn't have a choice," Audy says. "It was three to one -- he got sucked in."
Many Mothers songs are so ingrained in the band's collective psyche they don't bother rehearsing them anymore. Several cuts off the band's "new" CDBig Blue House, including "Kids Don't Know," "Little Bird," and "Riverboat Gambler," have been part of their live repertoire for years. One, "Sunshine," appears on the band's second full-length (cassette only), 1997's Plane Crash City. Another, "Country Song," dates back at least a decade to the days of Hollywood Indians, the band Azarian started in Vermont and transplanted to Austin about a decade ago (see Indian Summer). Skipped over, apparently, is material from the Mothers' debut disc, 1993's 2002.
"You can always make [a song] better, in my mind," posits Azarian. "Sometimes we change songs, because we're sick of doin' 'em one way. It's interesting for us to play the songs differently."
"It makes it more interesting for the audience, too," adds Johnston. "When you hear Ethan change a line in a song that you know, you look out in the audience and you see people smiling. I smile. We'll crack up onstage."
Considering most musicians tend to take themselves and their art more seriously than the average Russian novel, the Mothers believe their absolute refusal to do so is what most endears them to their so-called peers. That, and the fact it's almost impossible not to love lyrics like "Ice cream and cocaine, how sweet this world can be. I wish I were a big giraffe, chewin' up all the trees."
"I think [musicians] appreciate the live show, because we're not professionals in the sense that we get all the notes right and play songs from the beginning to the end all the way," smiles Azarian.
"We're always laughing at ourselves and basically having a good time onstage, and I think that translates to the audience more than anything else," says Welch.
"If everybody was serious and being all uptight and looking like deadbeats up there singing those kinds of songs, it wouldn't happen," chuckles Audy.
"We're just lucky," Azarian says. "I don't think it's anything we really worked on -- we just like each other as friends and that really comes across. I think people really pick up on that."
Enough people, including members of Pong, Morningwood, and the Meat Purveyors, picked up on it last month to pack the Continental Club for the Big Blue House release party, where the Mothers welcomed the Barkers' Alice Spencer and Grand Champeen's Michael Crow -- who both appear on the CD -- onstage to help them entertain and amuse the audience. Enlisting other musicians to perform their songs is a long Mothers tradition dating back to their very first show. Azarian decided it would be a Wizard of Oz-like lark to have a "fake" band onstage pantomiming the songs while the real Mothers supplied the actual music from behind a curtain. "The plan was to do that continuously, that you'd never see the Orange Mothers," says Azarian.
Even though they had a smoke machine and everything, the fake band idea got old pretty quick; Azarian says it was just too much effort to get the ersatz musicians to learn his lyrics, which his adenoidal New England accent pronounces as 'larr-ics,' but not actually sing them.
Musically, the early Mothers were equally unrecognizable, hewing much closer to the narcotic, somnambulist sounds of My Bloody Valentine than their current kindergarten pop configuration.
"The music was pretty much shoegazing and slow and droney, not much emphasis on vocals," Azarian admits. "I just sort of mumbled things. I had a delay box."
"A lot of echo," adds Audy.
Ironically, it was an encounter with Jon Sanchez, then-leader of Austin's space rock psychedelic kings the Flying Saucers, that set Azarian on a course back toward folk-derived, image-rich pop. Sanchez had begun experimenting with a Farfisa organ, and approached Azarian with the idea of adding a layer of lush, swirling keyboards to the Mothers' sound, produced at that point by just the trio of Azarian, Johnston, and Audy.
"First, I was really skeptical," confesses Azarian, "but I was getting pretty fed up with the delay on the vocals and the slow, schlocky songs, and was changing the writing back to what I was doing earlier. Jon really added a lot. He was fun to play with. He was kinda playing at our level, because he wasn't really a keyboard player. We really got into doing three-minute pop songs."
Sanchez stuck around long enough to record most of the keyboard parts for Plane Crash City, but eventually drifted away to what Azarian calls his "million other bands." The Mothers eased into their current lineup by hooking up with Welch, a Tyler native who worked with Audy at the Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired and had studied at North Texas State University and the Naropa Institute in Boulder.
The group's stripped-down style took a little getting used to -- even now, Welch says Azarian "lets me use my left hand once in a while" -- but when they began appearing regularly at the Hole in the Wall, their smiley faced dreamsicle pop connected with patrons of the cozy Drag bar.
"People were like, 'Wow, you guys really changed!'" recalls Azarian.
But they hadn't, not really. They'd simply begun playing to their strengths. In Azarian's case, that was image-rich, animal-laden songs bordering on fairy tales with roots deep in his idyllic New England childhood.
"As a kid, I was really into fairy tales and nursery rhymes," he says. "All of that Mad Hatter and Alice in Wonderland stuff -- just that whole childlike psychedelic dream world, make-believe. I was always making up games in the woods, weird little games with kings and queens and wizards. Things like that."
The Orange Mothers are not Ethan Azarian's primary source of income. He paints, and his art is as vivid and whimsical as his lyrics. Frequently awash in rich primary colors, Azarian's canvases are at once elementary and surreal. As his songs frequently return time and again to a handful of themes -- space, birds, carnivals -- so do his paintings: cows, airplanes, ladders, houses, teacups, chairs, and cityscapes are among his recurring subjects. His artwork adorns both Mothers CDs, as well as the Meat Purveyors' More Songs About Buildings and Cows. Recently, he's added sharks and bananas to his repertoire. "I think that at some level, subconscious probably, I realize that if I'm writing and painting, it's stronger if I consolidate what I'm doing," says Azarian thoughtfully. "Working with the same themes, coming from one place, it's stronger to the listener or viewer. After so many years, you just start to perfect painting chairs or cows or writing the same kind of songs. You just get better at it."
Azarian also realizes the most successful artists are those whose work connects with the public, as opposed to those inscrutable painters and musicians whose work seemingly exists solely to give them something to do. Yet his work is highly, intensely personal.
More than simply letting his father -- whose Sixties square-dance band was Ethan's first gig -- sing "Little Birdie" on Big Blue House or recording a pair of songs on the CD with his brother Jesse, Azarian's songs ("Birthday," "Sunshine," "Fairgoers") stem directly from one childhood memory or another. In that way, his early years have never left him, enabling him to carry that sense of wonder that makes Orange Mothers songs so indelible and unique.
"I think I'm sort of stuck in seven and eight years old, because I really had a great childhood," offers Azarian, now well into his 30s. "I would say on some levels, I've had a better childhood than adulthood. I just loved being a kid. I was very lucky. I had good parents, I had 80 acres to run around on, no TV. We made up all these games.
"Our friends would come down and stay over and we'd just play games in the woods for fuckin' days," he continues. "Literally days. That was a real big influence on me, and still is. I had such a great childhood, that artistically, I draw from it continually. Now that I'm older and have gone through breakups and have to pay the electric bill and be on my own, that comes into play too, but it's still coming from a little kid's point of view."
Keyboardist Welch knows that POV well.
"Who doesn't dream about jellyfish and polar bears and giraffes? I know I do."
Indeed. Testimonials for the Orange Mothers are plentiful in Austin's musical wonderland.
"[Ethan] has managed to set up his life so there's no divisions between work and art," says Do It Now! Foundation's Tom Cuddy, ex-Hollywood Indian and friend of Azarian's since the New England days. "It's like he's gotten it all one thing, unified."
"There's something very pure about the Orange Mothers," says Jacob Schulze, guitarist for Dumptruck, the Dismukes, and the American People. "There's no bullshit, there's no posturing, know what I mean?"
"They are the most bro type guys," says Fastball's Tony Scalzo. "You know how you hook up with some band and it's like, 'Hey, this is not the kind of people we want to hang out with'? With these guys, it doesn't matter who you are, you're gonna be able to get along with them."
"The Orange Mothers make me want to drink beer and smoke pot, so I'm glad I only get to see them a couple of times a week," says Superego's Paul Minor.
"I don't ever want to think that I can't go to an Orange Mothers show," Schulze says. "I don't ever want to live in Austin where there's no Orange Mothers at least like once a month."
The Orange Mothers' Fan Appreciation Night is Wednesday, July 6, at the Continental Club.
Ethan Azarian's paintings will be on display (and for sale) at his own in-house gallery (living room), which presents "Art Hoe Down" July 13 at 5200 Leralynn, 5-9pm. Call 452-9698 (Ethan) for more info.