Conan Neutron and the Secret Friends (photo: Patric Carver)
PRF BBQ is a traveling music festival that hits cities around the United States each year. Born from discussions on Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio message boards, the festival brings folks together purely for the love of rock and roll. The festival’s had a springtime event in Oakland dubbed PRF BBQ West for the past four years and I was fortunate enough to check it out this year.
The first night of the festival occurred in the ironically dim Night Light. The night revealed an eclectic lineup, and Externs, a local San Francisco band, went on first with their Breeders-like basslines and tear-it-up, guitars-fueled power-pop. They were enjoyable and undefinably Californian – there’s something about bands from the city that unites them but is not enough to conjure up its own adjective. I’d imagine it’s a cross between latent surf rock influences mixed with the ever-present political and economic manic-depression that comes from living in a city like San Francisco. Whatever it is, they have it.
They were immediately followed by Oakland metal marauders Flat Black. The transition from pleasant punkish sound to Flat Black’s fists-first, arresting metal was jarring, and the first of many stylistic turnabouts that night. Their lead singer, an illustrated man with a chest and back that looked like my middle school crush’s Trapper Keeper, chomped through songs with a voice that seemed positively throat debriding. It was pretty powerful.
They broke out the fog machines for Bathysphere. Bathysphere is the solo project of Trevor Bajus, local Berkeley musician. Sadly, there was a problem with the sound on his first song, so it ended up being an instrumental that he dubbed “fucking up in B minor.” The rest of his set had a needling, lost-in-space vibe to it. It had the charm of surf rock, without the predictable groove.
Tiny Peloton from Los Angeles hails themselves as “existential guitar pop to keep your worries company.” Frankly, I can’t think of a better description. With running guitar and friendly yet somehow debasing vocals, Tiny Peloton was reminiscent of Built to Spill — if Built to Spill was less optimistic.
Reptoid was the most abstract, and in my opinion most entertaining, act of the first night. One part theatrics, one part technical difficulties, and two parts crushing wall of sound, Reptoid was a one-man army of machine, percussion, and sweat. Even though things did not go exactly according to plan, the otherworldly nature of what did work brought the set ultimately to another level. There were a lot of great acts at the entirety of PRF BBQ, but Reptoid still managed to be a standout.
Charmless played a poppy set that was heavy but harmless. Two members of the band wore boots, and one wore Converse All-Stars. I think that their footwear was a pretty good metaphor for their sound — I don’t mean this in an uncomplimentary way; their familiarity was comforting like an alt rock blanket. Despite their name, I was quite charmed by them. I’d go see them again.
The Tunnel was an act with absolutely no light at the end. Projecting a death rock sound with swallowing, void-challenging vocals, the San Francisco band seemed to have fallen right out of a Death Guild first date. It’s not really my thing, but for what it was, it was above par.
The next two days of the festival took place at the Mosswood Park amphitheater. Surrounded by redwoods and the Kaiser medical complex, the little sanctuary in the heart of the city pulsed out a sonic charge that lasted over two days.
Things kicked off calmly on the second day with The Underpass Brass Band playing to a handful of early spectators while the stage was set up. Kind Fall kicked off the big sound with scream rock that rattled the windows and nearby buildings – an occurrence that would continue over the next 48 hours. Perfect for the rocker with ADD, the sets ran about 30 minutes, giving each band just enough time to make an impression.
Justin Trosper of Unwound was the only solo act the first day. Though his act was technically impressive, I always have a hard time digesting band guys that are playing without a band. I always feel like I am perhaps more of a voyeur at a really amazing practice session rather than an audience member at a show. Whereas that can be exciting in its own right, it can also feel incomplete. To my ear, Trosper was very much a band guy in need of a band. Dry Land, Cinder Cone, The Mass, Love Moon, and Beat Drun Juel all provided olid sets, but the standout moments came from Motherfucker and Conan Neutron and the Secret Friends.
Motherfucker had no-holds-barred, unapologetic party rock that was devoid musically of the ironically sub-standard guitar wails so popular in today’s up-and-coming-but-ultimately-going-nowhere bands. For gritty rock, it was amazingly clean. I bought the record from the merch booth. It was the type of thing I wanted to take home.
Conan Neutron and the Secret Friends was delightful as always. Sadly, there were some technical issues with the sound on their first song, but the remainder of their set was so solid that it erased any lingering bad taste from that momentary lapse. The highlight songs of their set were probably the damp, nearly swamp-rock “Quid Pro Quo” and the sludgy “Eat the Rude.” Both songs, like most of Neutron’s work, are infectious ear worms. In fact, I’ve been humming “Quid Pro Quo” since then.
Day three started with the jangle pop of Catchlight, who were kind of a cross between Blondie and Carly Simon, if both Blondie and Carly Simon had been influenced by the likes of Weezer. Slight echoes of disco in their repetitive quick-set bass lines and digging choruses combined with smooth, strong vocals to make a complete modern rock package. Later in the day, Magpies would tap into this same well, but with a cheerier aftertaste — fun punch pop. Both bands fit well with the sun-soaked Sunday afternoon setting surrounding them.
Rip Room, with runny guitars and head-shaking bass, nearly fits into the pen with Catchlight and Magpies, but they were a little too self-referential to fall into the same category. I’d describe them as dance music for people who don’t dance. The beats are there, but the targeted audience is far too cool to move about rhythmically. All three of these bands were likeable in their own way.
Not fitting so neatly into the pastoral setting, HalphoriO played filling-loosening noise rock that was nearly too powerful to come from just two people. The duo was more than just noise, with sweeping sound that engaged. However, the extent of their noise was powerful, remarkable.
Color TV sounded good with their scratchy guitars and post-punk alt-rock sound, and Quivers brought the powerful shout-talk of third-wave punk to the stage. Cartographer invited the audience to, “come up and enjoy the sludge,” and they delivered with tales from the low end in great form. Ghost to Atom played a head-banging set that rounded out the powerful rock for the day.
Due to a long line at the bathroom, I sadly missed solo act Catastrophe Girlfriend.
The highlight of the last day for me though was the strange narrative rock opera-esque set provided by Mike Morasky of Steel Pole Bathtub and Noah Landis of Neurosis. Morasky’s teenage daughter joined them on stage on violin while Morasky narrated the tale of some cultish Radio Shack interlopers that was punctuated by heavy, pulsing rock. It was a bizarre set. The humor of the absurdity was outweighed slightly by the weird, but I loved the weird. It was one of those events you’re glad you’re there to see. I kept getting the feeling that I’d think of this performance later at unimaginable times in the untold future, much in the way that a Vonnegut novel crops up in connections to the mundane swirl we’re pushing through even though it’s the most remarkably absurd story telling around. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
After PRF BBQ came to a close, I was able to ask Jordan Sobolew, the force behind Reptoid and the man behind the sound, a few questions.
The Bay Bridged: How long have you been involved in PRF?
JS: I have been involved in the West Coast edition of the PRF BBQ fests since the first one four years ago.
TBB: How did you come to be involved with PRF?
JS: I was (and still am) a house engineer at Hemlock Tavern in SF. Conan’s former band, Victory and Associates, had played on one of the nights I was working. He must have enjoyed the way everything sounded because he mentioned that he was starting up a West Coast edition of the original Chicago-based PRF BBQ. He needed a sound guy to run the thing, and he wanted me to do it. Conan and I weren’t yet friends at that point — although we were connected through social media and we had run into each other though playing in bands around the Bay Area. It sounded like a lot of work but fun. That first year we had it at Leo’s, the now-defunct venue that was housed in the building of a long-standing (also defunct) pro audio shop. It was the first show at the venue, and the place was still under construction. The PA was delivered just hours before doors and the mixing console came directly from the factory and was being installed as the first band started playing. It was stressful, I had just come off an already intense work week and I was sick. I think I logged 90 hours total that week. This would really set the precedent for the next four years. I’ve been that guy ever since.
TBB: In what capacity did you participate in PRF this year?
JS: In this year as all years, I was responsible for all things audio. Front of house, monitors, system tech, stage patching, etc. I organize all our gear needs beforehand and figure out where we’re going to get a lot of it (excluding the backline band gear.) I setup and strike the PA with the help of some strong individuals, make sure each band has what they need and then mix every band — excluding the bands I play in. Every year I play in more bands than the previous. This year I played in three: Reptoid, Conan Neutron and The Secret Friends, and Color TV.
TBB: What’s the value of PRF?
JS: To me, and I’m sure almost all others, the PRF BBQ is all about community. It was started by the community that frequents the online forum of Steve Albini’s Chicago-based recording Studio, Electrical Audio. We spend so much time, energy, and money to meet up in several cities around the country and play our music for each other not as a commercial enterprise but because we want to hang out with our friends, play the music we love for each other, and make new friends in the process.
TBB: I really enjoyed your set at The Night Light. How do you think it went?
JS: Reptoid is a band that consists entirely of myself although I sometimes have some extra drummers. I drum, trigger synths and samples with my drums, manipulate pedals, and do vocals while drumming. I have built a very complicated system of gear to make all this possible, and there are so many possible points of failure within my system. More often than not, something goes horribly wrong. I spent half of my set trying to diagnose technical issues in front of a live audience, and I spent the other half drumming really hard and yelling. I had a lot of fun playing half of my set with the working gear and the rest being very frustrated. It left me questioning why I spend so much time doing this overly complicated thing when I could just drum in a normal band. I wax and wane on that a lot.
TBB: Can you tell me about how Reptoid developed?
JS: I’ve always had a fascination with building things, especially audio gear. It probably all started with that Home Alone Talkboy. I’ve been drumming in punk, hardcore, metal, rock, etc. bands since I was 13, but as I became more adept at building gear, I began to dream about doing some kind of weird solo project based around my drumming and the machines I’ve made. In 2013 when my band Reptilian Shape Shifters split up between Oakland and Brooklyn, I figured it was time to see that through and I started doing Reptoid. I’ve gone through a lot of iterations in my setup since then, but it’s still mostly really loud, noisy, abrasive weirdo rock.
TBB: What other projects are you involved in?
JS: Currently Reptoid is my main project. I occasionally play live in Conan Neutron and The Secret Friends, filling the shoes of Melvins drummer Dale Crover who is on the records. I am also the interim drummer in SF-based Color TV until they find a permanent replacement.
TBB: Anything else you want our readers to know?
JS: Aliens are real, the government is a hoax, play hard and never stop.