It’s December 1980 in Worcester, Massachusetts. At the community radio station WCUW, outsider psych-folk legend Bobb Trimble is playing songs from his recently self-released debut LP, Iron Curtain Innocence, when one of his fans, a second-year Clark University student named Kris Thompson, stops by to introduce himself. The two become fast friends, and by the first of the next year, Trimble starts hanging around for basement practices and house show parties put on by The Prefab Messiahs, a band Thompson just started playing in.
The Prefabs started in 1981 as a project coordinated by Xeth “Xerox” Feinberg, a college senior recently returned from some time abroad in the UK. During one drunken night in Europe spent criticizing '80s consumer culture and the general state of things, a peer of Xeth’s made a reference to the “prefab messiahs” who were controlling the American mainstream mindset: Ronald McDonald, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and other “friendly face[s] of corporate fascism.” Hyped up on some German Expressionism classes he’d recently taken, Xeth knew he eventually needed to start a band with this name. When he returned to the US, facing forthcoming graduation into a rough economy and bleak post-grad prospects (sound familiar?) he did just that, and the Prefab Messiahs were born-- a noisy psychedelic band commited equally to writing weirdo pop songs and being socially critical punx. The band lasted about 16 months.
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Flash forward thirty years. Last night, at the Middlesex Lounge in Cambridge, MA, Xeth is on stage fronting the Prefabs for the first time since 1998; the songs specifically criticize Regan-era consumerism and the '80s mainstream mentality, but they seem just as relevant in 2012.
“I had a vision driving home from the shopping mall,” sings Xeth, on “Prefab Son.” “Dishpan hands grabbed for me and I began to fall / Twinkie wrappers bind the dreams the Golden Arches state / Walking down the aisles there, I saw the Savior's face.” It’s the B-side of a 7-inch the band released last year, preceding a reissue of their Peace Love and Alienation EP via Gary War and Taylor Richardson’s Fixed Identity label. In support of the latter, the Prefabs are currently in the midst of a four-night “micro-tour” which brings them to Northampton, MA tonight, Brooklyn's Death By Audio, tomorrow, and to their hometown, Worcester, on Saturday.
The Prefabs play on the floor of the dim-lit bar before projections that include the animated likenesses of the band members themselves (not unlike the ones that appear in the Xeth-directed video for "Desperately Happy" that we posted on Tuesday). We see kaleidoscopic renderings of The Prefabs and Bob hanging in Worcester in the '80s; one projection is of a robot with a face that reads, “1984 is coming."
The Wednesday night show is attended by a mix of young, newly converted fans, long-time Prefabs devotees, former college radio DJs, and some randos who just happen to be at Middlesex that night. The set covers all of their hits: “Beyond All That” (“The fads will come and they will go, you'll get sucked in and dragged below / There's one thing you'll never understand, that there's a reason behind the man”); “Desperately Happy” (“That’s why I tell you / Don’t sing their harmonies”); “Sacred Cow” (“They're grinding down the sacred cows / for burger meat and puppy chow”).
In typical Prefab Messiahs fashion, guitarist Matt Michaud wears a McDonalds' employee button-down shirt. Kris Thompson has a stuffed doll of Ronald McDonald hanging from his neck. On their drummers’ kit is a “Prefab Messiahs” logo with a re-purposed image of the McDonalds’ golden arches.
On one old song, switches up the lyrics to an updated 2012 version, singing, “When technocratic fever fills the meat space of your mind / and the gurus and the profits are just Tweeting all the time / and the lady at the Starbucks knows your name, / are you the gamer or played by the game?”
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Weeks before, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I meet up with Kris Thompson at his Cambridge home, a third-floor apartment in a big purple house. A poster with the words “No Wal-Mart, No More Big Boxes” is stuck in a flower patch outside, protesting the imminent introduction of the big-box retailer in his neighborhood, Watertown.
Thomson sits in his living room between stacks of records and walls of books (tomes on Dadaism and Surrealism are perched up prominently) as he flips through a short stack of square, fading photos, snapped in the early '80s. Images of the Prefabs hanging around Clark University. Shots of keg parties. Basement shows in Western Mass. One is an alternate version of the album art for the aforementioned Fixed Identity release.
One day in late 1980, Kris remembers, he and his friend Mike were walking around campus when they noticed a flyer reading, "talentless guitarist and drummer seeking bassist and lead guitarist to form post-punk new wave pop pseudo-psychedelic band.” "Xeth and [original drummer Al Nidle] had posted it,” Kris recalls; an early incarnation of the group met up shortly thereafter in Kris' dorm room, where they jammed on tiny amplifiers.
“Al set up all of these glasses of water with different levels of water in them and was playing them with pencils or something like that. There were two things from that very first practice that made it onto the cassette and the CD-R. That set the tone for the certain spontaneity [that defined the band].”
The Prefabs released their first tape, Flex Your Mind, in 1981; there were only around 50 copies. The release included two or three studio recordings, but was captured mostly from live shows and living room jams, on a hand-held cassette recorder. In 1998, when the Prefabs reunited to play a 20-year anniversary show for an old Worcester zine called “Wormtown”, they released a re-mastered version of that tape via CD-R. “I think people started finding out about us starting with that CD-R,” says Kris.
As the Prefab Messiah who has stayed most tuned-in with contemporary underground music communities, Thompson acts as the band’s show-booker, publicist, and archivist. “We only lasted 16 months," he reminds me. "I wished it had lasted longer, so between that and having a bit of an archivist personality, I hung on to pictures, hung on to recordings. And then in recent years, seeing a crop of new scrappy post-punk and garage-pop bands, I thought people would appreciate what we were doing. As turns out, Fixed Identity was interested.”
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Bobb Trimble, who produced two of the band's songs back in the day, still has framed Prefabs 7-inch in his apartment. During a recent phone conversation, he went on at length about the first Prefabs shows, his love for the first Prefabs tape, and how they were received in Worcester (“Locally, they were pretty legendary”) and elsewhere (“They were definitely underappreciated”).
“The thing about the Prefab Messiahs is . . . the songs are really, really complicated,” says Trimble, who has guested in the “Prefabs Messiahs franchise” during occasional reunion shows. “They’re so intricate [...]. but they don’t sound that way when you hear them. It’s hard to play these songs; [Matt's] all over the frets on just about every song.”
“I think the best thing they ever released was that cassette, Flex Your Mind,” he adds. “It’s a very rare tape, but I think people who love the Prefabs would love to have a copy.” Bobb warns that although this mini-tour “probably won’t be their last hurrah,” it’s likely that “if you don’t see them this time it will be probably another five years before you can see them again."
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During my interview with Thompson, he hands me a xeroxed pamphlet documenting the history of the Prefab Messiahs’ 80s adventures: articles from local newspapers, scrappy comics and cartoons, show flyers for gigs with Mission of Burma, and a re-print of Xeth’s September 1981 zine, entitled “The Neo- Dadaist Magazine: The Magazine for Central Massachusetts."
Flipping through its pages, I can’t help but think of the similarities between the Prefabs’ imagery and the sort of neo-Dadaist, surrealist, and situationalist-inspired re-appropriation of mainstream American iconography produced by magazines like Adbusters. Though this sort of culture jamming has surely existed for years, at a time when Adbusters and #OWS have brought it to a greater mainstream pop culture consciousness than ever before, the Prefabs’ anti-art seems particularly relevant.
“We were in college, and in a few years we’d be out of college,” explains Kris. “Thinking about what the world was like, Reagan had just come in, we were getting some bad feelings about the way things were turning, the idealism of the '60s and '70s was giving way to this materialism and mall culture…”
According to Kris and Xeth, in the 1980s the Prefab Messiahs joked about franchising their band and creating a Prefab Messiahs in every city. It's funny to think about that concept in terms of the indie music ecosystem of today, where the idea of "prefab" alternative celebrities and meticulously “branded" bands playing the exact same show in every city across America doesn't seem that far off. Teenage fans of alternative music can scoop up Ticketmaster tix to catch Live Nation tour after Live Nation tour, and see the same show whether they’re in Michigan or North Carolina. In a way, in our national context of corporate indie rock stardom, the world that the Prefab Messiahs thought about parodying is practically a reality.
“Now there’s so many people doing bands, there’s a comfort zone about it,” says Kris. “People don’t seem to be putting out that much in way of challenging ideas. There’s comfort to a lot of music today, even underground music. And that might even be something people are going through. You know, 9/11 sucked and the economic downturn sucked, so let’s make music a comfortable thing.”
In today’s context, its rare to stumble upon a band who are just as resistant to the “your-band-is-your-brand” mindset as they are outwardly critical of it. Even thirty years later, the Prefabs' ethos is still a breath of fresh air.
"Anyone who goes to see the Prefab Messiahs won’t be disappointed at all,” says Bobb Trimble. “Because they are so inspiring and mind-blowing... When you see the Prefab Messiahs, really, it makes you sit up and think.”