One nation under a grin

Mar 8, 2000 at 12:00 am

Techno’s needed a good shaking up for a long time and the Detroit Grand Pubahs are just the guys to do it. The pairing of mercurial frontman Paris the Black Fu and moody-techno producer Andy Toth has resulted in Detroit techno’s most promising (and, perhaps as importantly, least derivative) single of the last decade, "Sandwiches," which has already been picked up by Jive Electro. The New York-based electronic label aims to turn the cheeky little ditty about dance floor lust into this summer’s "Whoop! There It Is" for the DJ set by rereleasing the track at this year’s Winter Music Conference in Miami with high-profile remixes by house superstars such as Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk.

Unlike most tracks that are just DJ fodder, "Sandwiches" is a surefire hit, propelled by Paris’ ODB-meets-Rick James absurdity and Toth’s less-is-more beat. Paris’ helium-pitched croon delivers lines like "I will be the burger, baby, and you will be the bun / we can make sandwiches on the dance floor." Toth’s spare, building, dubby techno production owes more to the arty, minimal bump of Richie Hawtin and Germany’s Basic Channel label than either of Detroit’s current exports – tech-house or ghetto-tech – but the track manages to somehow combine the cool of the former with the kitsch of the latter. Besides that, it’s a helluva lot of fun, which explains why Richie Hawtin invited Paris to provide comic relief at his "Epok" New Year’s Eve party at Motor by performing "Sandwiches" live.

Detroit’s techno purists may get a little hot under their flight-jacket collars that a guy in a wig and white G-string (Paris’ preferred stage garb) is putting this kind of a face (and shimmy) to Detroit techno. Especially since a track out of the Underground Resistance techno camp, Aztec Mystic’s "Night of the Jaguar" is perhaps a more fitting torchbearer of the Detroit sound with its harder beat and dire strings, and is already a massive European hit. (So popular, in fact, that Detroit-based label 430 West is racing to put out a CD version of the song before European record companies release their own, unauthorized cover version of the track to satisfy demand for it). But if anything, the Pubahs are, Paris says, trying to get away from the more conventional dance floor-oriented techno that has been both Detroit’s trademark and albatross.

"I don’t wanna disrespect anybody in Detroit," Paris begins diplomatically, "but I’m sick of these other cats. I’m in another ballpark. These clowns are out playing basketball and I’m trying to pole vault. I went to some producers with my ideas for vocals and things like that, but I don’t think they wanted or understood what I was trying to do. They have their formulas, which I respect, but I’m trying to get away from that."

Paris is quick to point out that, ironically, Detroit techno’s heavyweights have been very supportive despite his initial creative differences with them. Carl Craig – whose jazzy and equally bizarre Innerzone Orchestra is a weekend locked in a room with Redd Foxx records away from being kindred spirits to the Pubahs already – has voiced his encouragement. Paris credits UR’s "Mad" Mike Banks with giving him perhaps the best advice of the Pubahs’ career. "He was the only one who really told me that if I wanted to really make my ideas work, I’d have to find musicians, not just guys making tracks."

Operating as they do outside Detroit’s usual techno mainframe, the Pubahs are admittedly an anomaly. Fu met Toth two years ago while working at a restaurant in Royal Oak; the pair aren’t obvious musical partners which is probably why their output thus far – which is pretty much "Sandwiches" – sounds so outta nowhere. "Andy’s more into dubby, downtempo stuff, where I’d rather be making banging tracks at 145 beats a minute," says Paris.

The Pubahs, or at least Paris, cite Richard Pryor as an influence, and there’s a sense of humor to the Pubahs’ Kraftwerk-meets-Eddie Murphy’s-James Brown impression that goes way over the heads (and perhaps business acumen) of the music industry, especially the notoriously stone-faced dance music scene.

Fu is actually an accomplished DJ in his own right, spinning at Detroit’s seminal "Poor Boy" raves with Brian Gillespie (whose Throw label originally put out "Sandwiches" last summer) under the name "Heckle and Jeckel." Fu met Gillespie while the pair worked together at Oakland Mall. At dinner the night of the Pubahs’ signing to Jive, he and Gillespie related their Fast Times At Ridgemont High-meets-Cooley High comedy sagas of bonding over their goofy sense of humor and love of beats, their exploits at the mall and, most of all – cue the heartstrings – coming together across racial boundaries. It almost sounds like better material for a script than a techno act with a singer, but the truth is – especially with their sense of humor – it could (and should) be both.

"People couldn’t figure out what we were doing hanging out together and then when they found out me and Andy were gonna do records on Brian’s label, I had people coming up to me basically saying I should find somebody black to work with," recalls Paris.

There’s an irony that a scene founded on futurism and open-mindedness would encourage segregation, but Fu is finding that with the higher profile comes more scene scrutiny. This is nothing new, as everyone from Carl Craig to Eminem can attest. But Paris says even he’s surprised by the racial split, seen perhaps most poignantly in the ghetto-tech scene. "I’m learning right now how segregated Detroit is by all the subtle animosity we’re experiencing," he admits, "Just all the twisted faces I’m seeing."

But, as the Pubahs work on their live show (and more songs) for their Winter Music Conference debut, Paris is already thinking bigger: records where the B-sides are comedy routines, outrageous stage gear, just something different, but in his slightly touched way, cohesive. His ideas are more about him and Toth in their own little funny world than trying to be part of a scene. "I wanna take acting classes, I’d rather be a comedian or a writer. If I could combine all my talents, I’d be happy," Paris admits.

As the Throw records motto says, Detroit’s a town with "too many clowns and not enough jokers." Lots of bands have in-jokes; the Pubahs are just the only ones smart enough build a career on them.

Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]. Echlin writes about all sorts of crazy music for the Metro