Story: Eric Garcia / Photo: Brian Geltner
Capillary Action want to humiliate you. Jonathan Pfeffer's solo project turned rotating avant-rock ensemble is perhaps Philadelphia's most eccentric mascot next to the Phillie Phanatic. With their latest full-length, the self-released So Embarrassing (2008), vocalist/guitarist Pfeffer and company - the current line-up includes drummer Dan Sutherland, trombonist Sam Kulik, accordionist Lauren Day, and upright bassist Spencer Russell - continue to teach its audience how to laugh at life by looking at the most painful aspects of it.
The group's unique sound is the product of blending multiple world music genres with the cacophony of punk and the compositional complexity of prog and jazz. These disparate styles are inverted, reversed, and then collided together to make wholly new sounds. So Embarrassing, for instance, harnesses Tropicalia, samba, death metal, classical, and avant-garde jazz under a strictly composed umbrella of virtuosic structure, then further pushes these styles through the filters of experimental noise and traditional pop music. Pfeffer's melodic vocals, in contrast, are big and loud, not unlike a young Sinatra.
Mike Watt, Joe Lally, and Jessica Pavone are among the notable artists with whom Capillary Action has toured and collaborated. Furthermore, releasing records under their own label, Natural Selection (formerly Pangaea Recordings), and booking their own tours has defined Capillary Action as an independent workhorse. Skyscraper recently caught up with Jonathan Pfeffer.
In the song "Gambit," it sounds like you're addressing someone with a lifestyle that completely clashes with your own. Who are you addressing exactly?
I was addressing this guitarist/friend of mine who toured with us back in 2005. He pulled a couple of idiotic stunts on that tour, so a few months afterwards we had ourselves a little pow-wow where I just kind of aired my grievances. I told him that Capillary Action wasn't a fun little summer diversion for me but something closer to a life or death matter, to which he responded, "Don't you think that's somewhat unhealthy?" I felt like the conversation was indicative of how indifferent a lot of my peers are, and "Gambit" is sort of a call to arms against that kind of apathy. In other words, doing what you love in spite of whatever anyone else thinks.
How did you get the band name?
I plucked it out of a physics textbook that was lying around. Picking a name for anything is one of the most tedious, excruciating tasks imaginable. But "Capillary Action" came together quite easily for some reason.
"You will always be self-released" - I love this line. At first I would sing it to myself as a positive affirmation, like self-freedom. Could you explain what you're singing about in "Self Released"?
That's exactly how I interpreted the lyric. At the time, I saw quite a few parallels between being single and not being "signed." You know, how when you talk to an older person, they might ask you about a girlfriend and, if you happen to be single, they might say something like, "Oh don't worry, the right person will come along someday"? They don't quite take you seriously because you're single, like you don't have your life together yet. It's the same thing with [a band] not being signed; this idea that a band isn't legitimate unless someone is investing money in them. At the time I wrote the song, I was feeling both sides of the coin pretty hard - being a single, unsigned musician - and I spent a lot of time thinking about the stigma this phrase "self-released" seems to have. "What label are you guys on?" [people would ask] - "Oh, uh, well..." - "or are you [chuckles] self-released?" I wanted to take the power back and turn a phrase that had an inherently negative connotation for me into something positive... or at least, humorous.
Please describe the recording process of So Embarrassing?
Cathartic. Grueling. Life-Affirming. We were pulling 12-hour days, non-stop for a week-and-a-half. We had a day off and, instead of relaxing, we went and played a festival with Daughters. It was a surreal experience, pulling apart and finally putting together these songs I'd been working on for nearly three years.
Did you write much in the studio?
We were on an extremely tight budget - which we actually ended up going over quite a bit - so we had to come in with our homework prepared. Colin [Marston]'s studio [The Thousand Caves] is a windowless industrial building in Woodhaven, Queens, and I found that our surroundings put me in the perfect mindset to deal with such dense music for days on end.
Did you write out every part for strings and horns, or did you have the individual players write their own parts?
I wrote out the string and horn arrangements for the majority of the record, but Kevin McHugh, the keyboard player, collaborated with me on the rest of the tunes. Kevin saved my ass by transcribing all the music I'd written, not to mention conducting the string and horn players. He's a little genius, that Kevin.
Musically, who would you want everyone to hear right now?
Everyone needs to hear the new Pattern Is Movement record, All Together (Hometapes, 2008). I've been listening to this amazing record, Concepts in Unity (1975), from Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino: grimy, hard-hitting New York salsa from the mid-1970's. People need to hear our Portland, Oregon, pals Zdrastvootie, who sound like a more psychedelic prog-pop version of the Sun City Girls. We toured with them last August and it was brutal having to go toe-to-toe with them every night. I've been listening to lots of Destination Out! (1963) by Jackie McLean. I could go on like this for a while.
"The thrill of the proverbial spill but I feel like I threw away the clock."
That line grosses my girlfriend out.
Describe your "pre-prescribed state" in "Elevator Fuck"?
It's the ultimate trance, like the perfect Paul Oakenfold or DJ Tiesto mix. The ideal "pre-prescribed state" is the exact moment when the adrenaline starts pumping through you, those specific electrons and motor neurons in your brain activate, and delicious endorphins are finally released into the white squall of your body's bloodstream.
Is there any common subject or emotion that you find yourself coming back to when creating for Capillary Action?
Mostly finding the inherent humor in horrible or traumatizing experiences and confronting fear head-on, as a way to not be scared anymore.
What is your birthday?
September 9, 1986.
Your life path number is...?
What's a life path number?
Numerology, Pythagoras, you know? Wait for it... Wait for it. [calculating]
I'm on the edge of my seat...
I'm a six. Nice. I'm a beacon of truth and righteousness!
What's next for Capillary Action?
Playing around the Pacific Northwest while I work on a new record. We've got some touring in the works for next year, but right now, I'm just going full-blast on writing new tunes. After playing So Embarrassing every night for eight months, we desperately need some fresh material.
How did your experience with Joe Lally come about? What was it like to collaborate with him?
When I was booking a tour for us and this Italian band called Zu almost two years ago, they asked if Joe could tag along for the Midwestern dates. Like any person in their right mind, I put Joe on the tour faster than nutritional yeast on popcorn. The package was going to be Capillary Action opening, Zu, and then Zu backing Joe Lally during his set. Unfortunately, Zu canceled two weeks before the tour due to a family emergency, so I called up Joe and offered our services as his backing band. Neither of us wanted to cancel the tour, especially since we had some high-paying college gigs lined up, so he agreed and the rest is history. The four of us learned 13 songs of his in one afternoon and then hit the road. Joe enjoyed us so much that he asked us to go out again later that year on a West Coast jaunt.
Day to day, Joe was the most relaxed and even-tempered person you could imagine. I imagine it was kind of an adjustment for him to be touring around with kids half his age, but I'd like to think our youthful exuberance put a shot of life into his performances. For someone to go from playing bass in one of the most influential rock bands of the last 50 years to touring small clubs and sleeping on floors to make something work takes a lot of guts. I've got nothing but love and respect for Joe.
The vibe of the tour, from my perspective, was one of hard work paying off. We'd been touring our asses off for almost three years at that point, and the Joe Lally tour was the first tour we'd done where I felt people started taking notice of us. There was nothing but great vibes on and off-stage.
Capillary Action boasts a vast amount of past and present collaborators, even those on "sabbatical." How do you choose your players for tour and studio?
I usually find my collaborators through the Woman Seeking Women personal ads. My intention was to have an all-girl backing band but, for some reason, these strange guys keep showing up every time I place an ad.
What inspired that idea?
I used to have trouble meeting women, so I thought I might have a shot with at least one if I put an all-girl band together.
Any words of wisdom?
Chris Cornell once remarked, "The worst music in the world is rock music influenced by rock music."
What started you in "rock music," or music in general for that matter?
My mom made me play an instrument so I'd be a well-rounded child. Also, seeing a Slayer video ("Seasons in the Abyss," specifically) on Beavis and Butt-head when I was eight proved to be a life-changing event. I played cello and saxophone before I picked up the guitar but I had horrible instructors, so those instruments didn't really stick. I remember I took a class when I was about eight at the Settlement Music School in Philly and the teacher kicked me out of the class because I didn't have any rhythm... and probably because I was a Jew.
What about growing up in Philly has influenced your music?
The mascot for the Philadelphia Phillies, the Phanatic, is by and large my number one musical influence.
You could write a concept album about the Phanatic. Probably run into copyright infringement, though.
I was actually planning to paint a series of detailed portraits of the Phanatic posing in the style of famous photographs, like the monk burning himself to death in protest or the Tiananmen Square tank standoff. It's supposed to coincide with this song I'm working on about why I moved away to Seattle.
How is Seattle affecting your writing?
I'm writing less frantic music these days, but I think that has more to do with the Brazilian influence.
I'm down with Astrud, but it's all about Baden Powell, Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze, Gilberto Gil, and Os Mutantes, for me at least. Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were two major influences for So Embarrassing, actually. I've also been digging these ancient Samba compilations our keyboard player picked up when he was living in Sao Paulo. I'm just trying to start the Brazilian wave. I predict it's going to be the new hip thing to do once people are done with minimalism and African guitar pop.