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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Thinking Fellers Union Local 282’s Admonishing The Bishops
Dustin Krcatovich , September 2nd, 2022 06:44

One song by this cult San Francisco band had a hand in changing Dustin Krcatovich's life, sans any information about who the hell they were. He reviews a new reissue of their leanest and meanest statement almost 30 years on

When you first get into music, rarely does your enjoyment have anything to do with the artist's personal or social context. It's the pure oomph of sound: the thump of the kick drum, the blare of a guitar, a wash of unbridled noise, a curious vocal lilt. Something gets your mind going. Then, you know, everything is different.

Most of us never try to quantify or contextualize this feeling, and are likely happier for the fact. Some of us do, and are probably musicians, music writers, or DJs (or worse yet, all three). Regardless of where you fall on that gradient, that initial teenage kick is exceedingly difficult to replicate later in life, which probably accounts for why so many people's notion of "the best music" is defined by what they liked in their school years.

It's difficult for anyone to enjoy music devoid of context nowadays, though. Every musical artist has a brand, social media accounts to tell their all-important story. To the best of my knowledge, I've never heard a Harry Styles song from front to back, but I feel like I know more about him than anyone in my graduating class just by sheer dint of being alive in 2022.

It's lame to pine for the days when it was harder to discover music, but you'll forgive the aging among us if we wish just a little that we could revisit the youthful thrill of spending months rifling through magazines and asking questions at record stores to try and get a lead on an artist who had awakened something deep within us. It was inconvenient and expensive, but that process felt fucking good, massively better than the deepest YouTube wormhole. Perhaps the only thing that was better was to love a song, know fuck all about the people that made it, and just revel in that, as I did when I first heard Thinking Fellers Union Local 282.

The band — Anne Eickelberg, Brian Hageman, Hugh Swarts, Mark Davies, and Paul Bergmann, with the latter replaced by Jay Paget somewhere in the middle — were an alien rock & roll combo which formed after the members migrated to San Francisco from Iowa in the mid-1980s. Eventually, they got popular enough to release a handful of records on Matador in the mid-1990s. As with so many records by fucked up, willfully obtuse rock bands, they received a warm welcome in critical circles and middling-at-best popular response.

It is the two most accessible of those records, 1993's Admonishing The Bishops EP and its follow-up LP Strangers From The Universe, that are being reissued to kick off a slate of archival releases on the new label Bulbous Monocle, a new project of Sublime Frequencies label co-founder and TFUL 282 superfan Hisham Mayet. Mayet was one of many 1990s San Francisco inhabitants for whom TFUL 282 are emblematic of an era.

In the 1980s and 90s, before Silicon Valley found the cybernetic sea legs it will soon use to crush us under its feet, you could still be a poor person and make art in San Francisco. As such, it had a vibrant and dedicated freak scene. The 1960s Haight-Ashbury dream may have died a brutal, stumbling death, and the city was downtrodden, but it also had a crackling energy, broad social tolerance, and very affordable rents. TFUL 282 were able to follow a bizarre, uncommercial muse in what has since become one of the most economically uninhabitable cities in the United States.

That cultural moment largely came to a screeching halt around the early 2000s, with many of the Golden Gate City's movers and shakers making their way to myriad points cheaper. Luckily, artifacts remain to tell the story: among others, Bananafish magazine, Neil Hamburger's early albums (most especially his prank calls), the 'Shut Up, Little Man!' tapes, Danny Plotnick's Icky Boyfriends rock musical I'm Not Fascinating, and indeed, the TFUL 282 discography.

You couldn't swing a cat without hitting a weird band in San Francisco back then, but TFUL 282 were particularly close to many of their peers' hearts. They were beloved by the basement-dwelling gunk trawlers at Bananafish (editor-in-chief Seymour Glass reportedly referred to himself on occasion as ‘The Sixth Feller’), but they also had enough coherent melody to creep onto a big indie label and even tour as an opener for arena shlock-rockers Live (though make no mistake, Live's audiences hated them).

Thinking Fellers weren't entirely peerless in their approach: they released records with their even weirder San Franciscan brethren in Caroliner, and did an early tour with the comparably bent Sun City Girls, whose brotherly duo of Alan and Richard Bishop inspired Admonishing the Bishops' title. Listening now, there are also clear forebears: The Residents, Sonic Youth, early Pink Floyd, bubblegum one-hitters like Sugarloaf and The Cowsills, bluegrass hoedowns, the endless thrashing multitudes of 60s garage/psych miscreants. Altogether, not the easiest stew to swallow; to further complicate matters, they were a bunch of goofballs who liked scattering blown-out recording experiments, improv jams, jokes, and covers of 70s pop hits (known among the devoted as 'Feller Filler') throughout their records.

This silly, freewheeling style all but assured that anyone partaking in an indie rock mating ritual in the mid-1990s wouldn't go anywhere near the band's catalog, probably throwing on Slanted and Enchanted, Mazzy Star, or a Mercury Rev record in their stead. One imagines that this also put a drag on any of TFUL 282's popular ambitions (how many babies were made to a Thinking Fellers record? Less than 282, one would venture).

Admonishing The Bishops, however, kicks off with 'Hurricane', a psychedelic doublewide of a song that may be the exception to the rule about TFUL 282 not being suitable for what Lou Reed once called 'Hooky Wooky'. It also remains TFUL 282's crowning moment, at least to these ears. 'Hurricane' finds the band the closest they ever got to mid-period Sonic Youth, simultaneously dissonant and lovely, but the melody also soars like Syd Barrett at his most woozy and cloud-headed. It's hard to tell if it's a love song or a horror song, but that only adds to its allure.

Photo by Gail Butensky

I first heard 'Hurricane' on a mixtape at age 15, and it was one of those pure teenage oomph experiences I mentioned earlier. Being a sheltered small-town pud, I had not yet heard anything quite so otherworldly and oddly sensual (an awkward thing to say as someone who later worked at a bar in Portland where the song's vocalist, Mark Davies, was a regular, but hey). I didn't totally get it at the time, but boy, did I like it.

For some reason, I let the band's story remain a mystery to me for many years, even as I used much of the rest of the tape as CliffsNotes for my newfound CD buying habit. This could be why 'Hurricane' swayed languidly and permanently in my memory even as other artists on that tape (Hum, anyone?) sat past their sell-by date. Until recently, I remembered it being the first song on the tape, but I checked and it was actually buried in the middle of side A. Its impact, though, would prove the hardest and longest of the lot.

It's a bold move to open an EP with something so masterful, but the rest of Admonishing the Bishops holds up, too. The rattletrap rockabilly of 'Undertaker' is the band at their most Fall-like, but it sounds even more like Railroad Jerk, their similarly underappreciated Matador labelmates from the opposite coast. The restrained mumble of 'Million Dollars', meanwhile, has some of the cool remove of their buddies in Pavement, but with tangled, proggy interludes that that band likely couldn't muster at the time. Though Admonishing the Bishops is a lean record with no room for Feller Filler, 'Father' steps the closest to indulgence, jumping from bleary squall to noise-rock propulsion before ending with a banjo-powered singalong which very clearly presages the early days of Animal Collective.

Animal Collective, in fact, would be the first to acknowledge this, and for years were one of the few bands to carry the TFUL 282 torch. Avey Tare and co. spoke of their beloved forebears regularly in interviews, and even persuaded TFUL 282 to reunite for All Tomorrow's Parties in 2011. They were never able to give them the boost they gave Vashti Bunyan in those heady days, but given that the band had lost interest in touring a couple of years before they closed up shop, it might be just as well.

As with that other San Francisco band, The Grateful Dead, a true fan will come to love the oddball asides and questionable choices made on TFUL 282's more "difficult" recordings. Nearly thirty years on, though, Admonishing The Bishops remains the band's most lean and mean statement, their best swing at immortality, their American Beauty. If I could drop people now into my worn-out teenage Vans sneakers and shitty headphones to hear them for the first time the way that I did in the mid-1990s, it would be glorious for all. That option not being available, having the music readily available again will more than suffice.

A reissued and remastered edition of Thinking Fellers Union Local 282’s Admonishing The Bishops is out now digitally via Bulbous Monocle. A vinyl edition is out on October 15 and can be purchased here.