There's no one named Fred in Fred's Variety Group, which makes a perverse kind of sense, even if you don't know that celebrity gadabout Fred Friction used to sit in on drums and spoons or that Friction's late father, also named Fred, once led a piano-bar combo called Fred's Variety Group. At once mysterious and mundane, intimate and anonymous, the secondhand moniker perfectly evokes the South Side trio's thrift-shop appeal. No one's really the leader -- except perhaps the spectral Fred Sr. -- and all three members of the band write songs and sing.
Over coffee at MoKaBe's, lead guitarist/singer Mark Stephens, rhythm guitarist/singer Sunyatta Marshall and stand-up bassist/singer Sherman S. Sherman are having a friendly argument about their band's origins. "I think it kinda started as the Highway Matrons backing Sunyatta," Stephens muses, referring to his other, more widely known band, of which Friction is also a member.
Marshall, who is married to Stephens, shakes her head. "No, that's not how it really started," she says. "It started with [former Frederick's Music Lounge Hootenanny honcho] Bob Camp and Fred Friction and these guys Bob Camp knew from Cape Girardeau. And Hunter [Brumfield], when he was in the Matrons. It was like the Bob Camp Experience plus the Highway Matrons and me. There were, like, twenty people in it."
No one's quite sure when the current incarnation of FVG truly jelled, although they think it was probably in either late '98 or early '99. In FVG's early days, the attitude was decidedly casual. "At first we were just doing covers and songs of mine that the Matrons didn't want or that I didn't think were appropriate to them," Stephens explains. "I didn't know at first that Sherman could write songs, and he had some fabulous ones. But then, when we started writing them together, it became on an equal level with the Matrons for me, and I stopped calling it a side project.
"Some of the songs, actually, I couldn't sing that well," Stephens continues, "and there's some that, when I was writing them, I was hearing Sherman's voice going through my head."
"And there are songs I've written that I just couldn't sing," Sherman adds, "songs that were just out of my voice, where I couldn't sing the melody, like 'Slow Car' [a Marshall-voiced song from FVG's 2001 debut, Pretty Blue Pills]."
As impossible as it sounds, Fred's Variety Group seems refreshingly ego-free, more concerned with what's best for the song than with what's fair to the individual members. Let's face it: Band democracies usually suck. Give the nice-but-kinda-stupid keyboardist with the sinus condition his turn in the spotlight as a sop to his sideman insecurities, and you might as well hang it up, because your audience couldn't care less that he's a nice guy with a delicate ego. They're just thinking, 'Hey, what's with the tone-deaf dope up there, and when's he gonna shut his goddamn trap already?" But never fear: FVG is a glorious exception to this rule. Of the dozen songs on Bells and Buzzers, the trio's strange and lovely new CD, Marshall and Sherman each wrote three, Stephens wrote four and Marshall and Stephens co-wrote two. And although Marshall's rich, vibrato-drenched contralto deservedly takes center stage, both Stephens' scorched wail and Sherman's creepy baritone get plenty of action.
For Bells and Buzzers, Fred's Variety Group used three different producers: Jason Hutto (who recorded the lion's share of the CD), Liam Christie and Chris Deckard. The band members did multiple versions of each song and picked the best ones for the album. Although the mix of producers -- in conjunction with the mix of songwriters -- might in other hands lead to an incoherent mess, the album sounds remarkably unified. Hutto, Christie and Deckard all seem attuned to the FVG aesthetic -- an intoxicating pastiche of spaghetti-Western spookiness, indie-rock raucousness, cabaret-style crooning and liberal appropriations from what Greil Marcus once called "the old, weird America" -- and the ambient touches they add (a breaking bottle, a broken muffler, the pop of a beer can) underscore the band's ragged allure.
"There's a lot of variety on this album," Marshall declares, setting herself up for the joke.
"Variety is our middle name!" exclaims her husband, and the three friends erupt into goofy guffaws.
Fred's Variety Group celebrates the release of Bells and Buzzers on Saturday, April 26, at the Way Out Club, with opening acts the Sayers and the Civil Tones.