By Phil Hood Published March 8, 2010
From left, Scott Petito, Ed Sanders, Coby Batty (Beth Reineke) Steve Taylor. This shot was taken at Scott's Woodstock recording studio, Scott Petito Productions.
The Fugs would have to be invented if they did not exist. Started in 1964 by Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg and original drummer Ken Weaver, the band was ahead of its times. From its group name to its song titles ("Kill For Peace", "Dreams of Sexual Perfection") the band had the sensibility of punks, the outrageousness of beat poets, the honesty of folk musicians, and the adventurousness of beboppers.
Though the band never had a hit; that was not even the point. They were motivated, as it says in their band history, "by a belief that there were oodles of freedom guaranteed in the US constitution that weren't being used. "The band used theatrics, poetry, music, comedy, and profanity as tools of personal and political liberation, paving the way for later groups such as the Velvet Underground, The Mothers of Invention, and others.
The band released four albums in the late '60s before going on hiatus. They reformed in 1984; the current lineup has been set for decades, with Ed, Tuli, guitarist Steve Taylor, bassist Scott Petito and drummer Coby Batty. Batty, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, is also a singer and songwriter who has played with jazz notables from Don Cherry to John Zorn. In addition to percussion he also plays synthesizers and flutes in the band. His approach to drumming is as improvisational as some of the music he admires. He admitted that he's "never really owned a set of drums" and usually plays whatever the club has with his Old Zildjians.Band: Fugs
The Fugs second life really started in 1984. You've been part of the band ever since. How did that come about?
In New York, 1979, I entered the avant garde downtown music scene as John Zorn’s first extended-technique vocalist. A year’s worth of performing in Zorn’s Game Pieces (Jai Alai, Lacrosse, Hockey, etc.) led fellow improviser Mark Kramer to invite me to collaborate on various musical projects, one of which was the Fred McMurrys. This combo included Zorn on alto sax and birdcalls, Randolph Hudson on guitars and effects, Kramer on cheap organ, tapes and toys, and myself on bass, bongos and a children’s paper trap set. It was all original material, and our MO was to make light of Beatnik conventions. We would apply black duct tape to our faces to affect goatees and such.
Somehow, the New York Rocker magazine picked up on us and put us on their cover. Subsequently, and predictably, Steve Maas of the Mudd Club asked us to play a special gig in the upper reaches of the Mudd. The omnivorous David Bowie came to check us out. When Maas spied Bowie watching from the wings, he immediately blasted Bulgarian women’s choir music from the DJ station in his balcony aerie. The Fred McMurrys’ big exclusive invitation-only show stopped dead in its tracks.
I ran off stage to ask Bowie, “What the f**k? Why is Maas doing this? Don’t we sound alright?” In his courtly manner, Bowie replied, “I think it sounds great. Keep going!”
Well, it was too late. Maas swooped down and snatched up Bowie in his beak. With a flap of his dark wings, Maas flew Bowie to his secret “laboratory” atop the Mudd … and our gig was officially over.
Well, we realized we had some power in town and decided to call on some contacts, mostly Kramer’s, to mount a show at the Mudd called “Beat Night.” The idea was to get the real Beats to participate in our schtick. Calls were made from Kramer to Allen Ginsberg, and the word spread.
To our happy surprise, the Beat generation was ready to roll. Tuli Kupferberg, Ginsberg, Ed Sanders, John Giorno and a host of others were readily available. Performance artist Ann Magnuson was the hilarious hostess/emcee with pitch-perfect send-ups between segments. The Fred McMurrys served as the house band, and MTV materialized, filming the entire six-hour event. Hundreds of people were turned away at the door, and after this marathon, Sanders’ parting words to me were, “That was great. I’ll be giving you a call.”
Three years later, in 1984, I received the call to Fug it up from a free-standing phone booth at the corner of Clay and Goshen streets in Richmond, Va. Soon thereafter, I was on a $57 Piedmont flight to LaGuardia to prepare for the first reunion show at the Bottom Line.
What was your background pre-Fugs? How did you start as a musician?
My parents were a tag-team conducting duo, and in my mother’s church choirs I was reading music before I could read words. By age 6, I was the go-to boy soprano in Richmond. In third grade, I began studying French horn at Richmond Professional Institute (RPI), and I went on to musical theater, school choirs and local rock and roll bands. Fast forward to New York late 1970s – where avant garde cellist Tom Cora got me an audition with John Zorn.
What's the Fug process? Do they come in with songs and you work out your parts? Do other folks in the band contribute ideas to you?
Tuli and Ed usually have a very strong concept of how their songs should sound. Around their melodies, guitarist Steve Taylor and I construct our harmonies. This came easily and immediately to us from our first official “sofa rehearsal” at the luxurious New York apartment building One Fifth Avenue in ’84. Generally, it’s purely collaborative and arrangements come naturally and organically.
What's different about the current Fugs album, the Final album?
Our latest release, Be Free! Fugs Final CD Part 2, is very different from our past records. No Tuli in the studio! His vocals were recorded by Fug bassist/engineer/co-producer Scott Petito in Tuli’s Soho loft apartment. It was strange to not have Tuli’s sweet and relaxed self with us in Petito’s Catskill, N.Y. studio. The four of us soldiered on, and I think we did pretty well even without the fuggiest Fug of all. While the Final CD Part 1’s songs dealt with joy and mortality, this one sees Ed’s writing go from funny nostalgia ("Goofitude") to edifyingly merry paranoia ("The CIA Made Me Sing Off-key"). Tuli shows bite with "This is a Hit Song and I Am An Artist for Art’s Sake." But his softer sweetness is beautifully manifested in the closing tune "Greenwich Village of My Dreams." It’s really a pretty good Fug record.
Do you anticipate more dates this year? Will the band go on beyond the final album?
Sanders says we look toward the spring in Greenwich Village for a club gig, and, as for the future, he has told me he’s meditating on that.
How do you approach practicing? Or getting ready for a gig?
We communicate through email about song choices, and sometimes Ed and Tuli will send demos of new songs for the rest of us to review.
When you perform nowadays, does the band improvise a lot or is it pretty tight?
We generally have it all fairly buttoned up but there are built-in passages where the dogs run free.
What's the wildest thing that's happened to you as a member of the Fugs?
In Helsinki, Finland on our first tour in ’84 we played a czarist ballroom. The promoters apologetically showed me the drums they were providing for the gig. No apology needed. These drums were a completely magical set of Gretsch drums built in the mid-1920s. They played themselves. During a devastating version of Tuli’s "The Ten Commandments," the audience en masse began to pogo, rockin' the packed ballroom. They punctuated this by smashing their beer glasses on the floor, leaving the detritus about eight inches deep. There have been a lot more wild incidents, but maybe this is the one most related to the musical Fugs.
What's the spirit, musical or otherwise, that the Fugs have that the rest of the world needs?
Love makes peace, peace makes power.
Coda: The Fugs latest album, Be Free is scheduled for release in March.