The return of the 'Jet Age Geniuses'

Dec 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

A couple of years ago, a lanky mild-mannered Oak Park resident named Dan Miller duded up in an off-white seersucker suit with a cowboy hat and headed downtown around dawn to run in the annual Turkey Trot. A funny thing happened on the way to the finish line: People recognized him and started shouting his name. But they shouted his alter ego's name.

"There were a bunch of people that were just, like, 'Hey! Goober!'" says Miller, a bit bemused that fitness buffs and parade enthusiasts would remember Goober & the Peas, the band he fronted, more than a decade after they last performed.

Attired in that same suit and now relaxing over a couple refreshments with bandmate and frequent collaborator Tom "Junior" Hendricksen, Goober & the Peas are preparing for their "return" show ("We didn't want to call it a reunion," says Hendricksen) the night after Christmas at their old St. Andrew's Hall stomping grounds. 

Now, according to the band, the reasons for their return are purely legal, having to do with a court-ordered appearance to answer allegations and violations ranging from travel across state lines ("Since when is it illegal to go to Toledo?!" rages Junior), vague notions of "statues" of limitations, and a manager they didn't know they had failing to alert the proper authorities to the extravagances to which Goober & the Peas have become accustomed ("Yes! We have estates and expensive cars," grants Junior, "but we don't know where the money came from!").

But just as valid a reason for returning is the continuing goodwill the band has generated from rabidly loyal fans, who are finally getting their reward for a decade-plus of asking Miller and company "When are you guys going to play again?!"

If it seems strange that folks would still have enough enthusiasm about a local band to shout out its singer's name along a parade route more than a decade later, consider the profile Goober & the Peas cut locally. During the grunge-ascendant early '90s — when flannel, self-loathing and Big Muff pedals were de rigueur — Goober & the Peas traded in a heady twist on Hank Williams and the Gun Club both playing at a holy conflation of the Grand Ole Opry and a vaudeville stage in the Catskills. Front and center was Miller's outsized Goober persona — limbs (and bales of hay) flailing, face pulled into a million expressions within the span of a few seconds, leading the Peas through crowd-pleasing hits like "(Hot Women) Cold Beer" and "Funky Cowboy," as well as such dark extrapolations of everyday situations as the eerie "Neighbors," the creepy "Don't Be Afraid" or the pure-twang of "Consider Me."

Between 1988 and 1995, Goober & the Peas parlayed their enthusiasm for simply putting on a damned entertaining show and their contrarian instinct for playing their own twisted take on country to the best of their ability into a fiercely devout local following and a dedicated base of fans catalyzed by the band's nonstop touring through the Midwest and beyond. They also released two full-lengths: The Complete Works of Goober & the Peas and The Jet Age Genius of Goober & the Peas (both on Detroit Municipal Recordings and both available digitally for the first time very, very soon).

Miller and Hendricksen — who've known each other since middle school — started Goober & the Peas with Miller's grade school pal, Jim "Shorty" Currie. During its existence, the band progressed from a show at  Paycheck's — booked just to see their name on the bill — to touring sizable venues in Europe opening for Morphine.

It was that October '88 show at Paycheck's, though, that started things down just the right sort of wrong path for Goober and company.

"The sound guy for St. Andrew's Hall was at the Paycheck's show and he had really liked us for whatever reason," says a typically bemused Miller.

"So we get a call a couple weeks later asking if we'd like to open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at St. Andrew's Hall! They wanted someone totally different to open the show. And that definitely was us."

They took the gig — as incongruous as it was — and actually won over some Chili Peppers fans.

Within a year and a half, they'd be opening for Dylan at the Fox Theatre. They recall sitting in the green room just before curtain time, wondering if rock's great bard had actually given them the blessing to go on. A few minutes before set time, they got the OK and they were off and running.

Goober & the Peas, in some respects, made their name by seizing the opportunity to be different when the moment struck — whether opening for other big names like Nick Cave, taking 1993's South by Southwest festival in Texas by storm, or upstaging folks from the then-current crop of rockabilly revivalists (such as the Reverend Horton Heat) and making the tattoos 'n' hot rods crowd scratch heads. It was all part of the fun.

Moreover, they saw that as a way through the cliques and scene clutter that gets so many bands hung up. One of the truly unusual aspects of Goober & the Peas' appeal is that they worked really hard to appeal to anyone, not just the hipsters and important folks.

"We've played shows where, during the first song, people were like, 'What is this?'" says Hendricksen. "But by the end, they appreciate it. They're fans."

"One of the things that always confused me was when around 2000-2001 or whatever, when Detroit and garage rock was really hip, and the scene was at the Gold Dollar and all that, people would say, 'You guys should get back together!'" says Miller.

"But that was never really the point. We never wanted to play for the 'right' kind of people or whatever you want to call it. There was nothing wrong with that, but we wanted to appeal to anyone."

And they took that approach too, once they started headlining their own shows. They'd invite bands to share in the fun. Case in point: Their final show in August of 1995 had Ypsi art-rockers the Plumbobs opening. Their return show this week features electro-dance-friendly rockers Silverghost.

For all the hay-kicking, Opry-meets-vaudeville fun, though, the return show has a bittersweet undertone for the band too. One of the motivators for getting back together was to pay respect to band member Mike "Boss Hoss" Miller, Dan's brother, who passed away in 2001. Besides being an ace guitar player, Mike also acted as a litmus test for new songs that Goober and Junior were writing for the band.

"We'd play him something that we were working on and he'd be like, 'What is this?'" remembers Hendricksen. "But soon enough, he'd be noodling around with it and he'd find a way into the song. And if he was able to do that, we knew we had something we could work with."

And what would a Goober show be without yet a new "Doc" on drums. Saturday features a brand-new drummer, Chris "Doc" Hammond. During its initial run, the band featured an unending cadre of drummers, each with the first-name moniker "Doc."

"Well, we would often recruit from the reform school," deadpans Hendricksen. "Many of our drummers — including the one playing Saturday's show — were former reform school residents."

"But we also have to check with the governing body, the AMA, to be sure that we can legitimately call them 'Doc,'" Miller is quick to remind.

Not everyone makes it to Doc-dom, though. In fact, Miller and Hendricksen recall fondly an early sit-in drummer, one that captures a bit of their anarchic, tweaking sense of humor. They were living together in a house in Royal Oak, "and this older African-American guy would come by and hear us playing every day. He said, 'I play a little drums,' recalls Goober. "So he came in and played with us, and he was amazing."

Turns out he was the drummer in his church choir. The band had a gig at Blondie's coming up, so they recruited the guy to play. So a country band walks into a hardcore punk club with a black drummer. Sounds like a good beginning to a bad joke, right?

"It wasn't quite like the Blues Brothers movie," recalls Miller. "But there was a certain part of the audience that thought they had us pegged, like, 'Hey, these guys are all right.' And then they see a black drummer and these dudes in suits like us and they don't know what to think. I think that's a pretty good example of our sense of humor."

In all, there were 15 official "Docs" as drummers; the most notable, of course, is "Doc" Damian Lang who also played in Elvis Hitler, the Detroit Cobras and with Miller in 2 Star Tabernacle. Oh, wait! There was also "Doc" Gillis (aka John Gillis, aka Jack White.); he became kind of notable as well. The band had the idea to have all 15 ex-drummers play this week's show, but, says Hendricksen with a grin, "There were some of them that we didn't really want to have play."

The White Stripes connection isn't a small one though. It has allowed Goober & the Peas to have a name that modern kids might still be curious about. Considering that Saturday's show is all-ages, the band is again headlining a SXSW showcase in Austin this March, the Goober catalog is being released digitally, and there's a real possibility of the band getting back into the studio together ... well, it would seem that this "return" might just have some legs. Imagine the legend if the feds bust 'em for all those Lamborghinis traveling across state lines! There's only one way to find out what happens next: Show up Saturday night.  

Goober & The Peas play Saturday, Dec. 26, at St. Andrew's Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit; 313-961-9358. With Silverghost. The show is sold out.