Beat USA Magazine
March, 1994

TRIBE - By Clark Perry

When a young band gets their big break on national radio, it's
usually not on a news program. But that's exactly what happened when
the Boston-based group Tribe found a song from their latest disc,
Sleeper, making headlines in the nation's capitol.
Last fall, as the fight to fund the supercollider was getting
geared up in Congress, a symposium hosted by the American Physical
Society chose Tribe's song "Supercollider" to open the proceedings.
This moody sonic landscape features provocative lyrics about an
obsessed scientist who's left his family and "gone to Texas/To watch
the holy fire burn..."
Word-of-mouth made Tribe a favorite with the supercollider
set, and the subsequent exposure on National Public Radio and other
broadcast networks prompted the group's label, Slash, to accept an
offer to film the song's video at the supercollider facility in Texas.
In what many critics call a short-sighted move, Congress voted
to cut the funding for the supercollider after already pouring a few
tons of money into its construction. The members of Tribe can take
some comfort in knowing that they got to use the most expensive music
video set in history. And they also won over a few fans who might
never have heard of them otherwise, because the unexpected success of
the song also landed them a Thanksgiving gig on NBC's Late Night with
Conan O'Brien.
Tribe's certainly been looking for widespread acceptance since
it formed in the mid-1980s. The band -- Janet LaValley on vocals,
Eric Brosius on guitar, Terri Barous on keyboards and vocals, and Greg
LoPiccolo on bass -- met through a series of classified ads and
informal jam sessions. They took the usual route bands take: writing
songs, playing live shows and making demos. During this time Tribe
began to register mightily on the overcrowded Boston music scene, and
their lively performances attracted a devout following. For the last
five years, Tribe's taken honors in the the annual Boston Music Awards
as well as the Boston Phoenix/WFNX Reader's Poll.
Several of their early demos were reworked for the band's
slick 1991 major-label debut, Abort. The critics raved upon its
release, but audience reception outside of the northeast was
conspicuously quiet. Tribe is a hard sell to people who've never
heard them, and most rock writers seem to have a hard time pinning
down just what it is they do so well.
You can pretty much boil it down to this: Tribe is a
passionate and literate rock group that's unafraid to explore other
musical styles and genres. They're experimental in their approach,
but with a firm footing in rock and pop traditions. There's much more
to Tribe than that, but it's a good starting point. Just don't ask
anyone in the group to define their sound, because they're likely to
tell you not to think too hard about it. "We just write songs, and if
it's a good song, we play it," says LaValley matter-of-factly. "We're
not a funk band or a folk band or a metal band, but if we write any of
those songs and they're good then we'll play them."
LaValley's voice is one of the richest to arrive on the
popular music scene since the early-1980s heydey of singers like Pat
Benatar and Deborah Harry. When she auditioned for Tribe in 1986,
she'd simply been singing for the fun of it. "I didn't sing with any
professional bands before that," she claims. "I sang with friends'
bands back in New York and I sang in the school choir, but I never
said that this is what I want to do."
She cites a wide range of musical influences and
inspirations: the glam-pop of David Bowie and Todd Rundgren, the
soulful rhythms of Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, the heartfelt
introspection of John Lennon and Joni Mitchell. You can feel all of
these in her distinctive vocals, and she's got the uncanny ability to
seamlessly shift among them within a song -- sometimes within a single
LoPiccolo also claims he wasn't planning to be a bass player,
although he knew he wanted to make music. "I've been sort've of a
do-it-yourself kind of guy," he says. "I was a fan, an electronic
music enthusiast into synthesizers, computers, that sort of stuff."
He picked up the bass during jam sessions with other aspiring
musicians -- one of which was keyboardist Barous, who'd known
LoPiccolo for some time.
Ask LoPiccolo for musical influences and you get another broad
listing of musical styles from the last two decades. "When I was in
college, I was into grandiose art-rock like Yes, Genesis, that kind of
stuff," he remembers. "Then when the 80s came around I got into
hardcore, like the Dead Kennedys. Some of the Boston bands like
Volcano Suns and the Zulus were also big influences. When we first
started the band, that's what we were excited by. That was the time
that the Pixies and Throwing Muses were just starting to happen."
Brosius' guitar work also displays a wide range of sound; he
seems equally comfortable laying down power chords or strumming gentle
melodies. Terri Barous' thoughtful keyboards often recall the Cars,
Ultravox and other pop-minded groups. All these diverse sounds and
influences helped to craft Sleeper, which is possibly the most fitting
album title of the year: a relatively little-known disc that has the
power and polish to win over the masses.
Everyone pitches in on songwriting chores, with Brosius and
Barous reportedly doing a lot of the work, but "Supercollider" was
written by LoPiccolo, who says he got the idea after reading a
magazine article about it. "It just popped into my head complete,
this guy who was gonna go out west and build this huge alien thing,"
he says. "It was neat in that alternative rock fans I talk to on the
net automatically assume that's it's a cynical put-down of big
science. But when the people at the actual facility talked to us,
they said we really hit the nail on the head. They didn't take it
ironically at all."
"Supercollider" isn't the only pulse-pounding track here.
Sleeper's filled with some great tunes that benefit from the
willingness of producer John Porter (School of Fish, the Smiths) to
let Tribe capture some of the raw energy they bring to their live
There are several unabashed romantics in the group, judging
from the number of songs here about lost and unrequited love. "Red
Rover" is an infectious lament from a person who refuses to accept a
lover's departure, and it quite nicely picks up the rhyme of the
children's game: "Red Rover, Red Rover, send Willy on over/He must be
there, I have these letters tied in twine." Later, the disbelieving
narrator exclaims, "He still insists the story's over," and it's hard
not to feel the heartbreak.
"Mr. Leiber" has a premise similar to Vladimir Nabokov's novel
Lolita, only with a slight twist -- it's about a young girl terribly
infatuated with a very old man. The driving keyboard riff is
hopelessly optimistic, almost childlike, and is complimented perfectly
by Barous' quiet, gentle vocals.
"Sing to Neptune" begins as a haunting ballad about a woman
who's lost several lovers to the sea: "Was a man/Was the one/Went to
sea/Now he's gone." In the middle of the song, the guitars and
keyboards take over and transform it into a beautifully dark
instrumental. There's "Making A Plan," with its strong blues-flavored
backbeat, and twisted pop gems such as "Dogflower" and "Romeo Poe."
The strong title track finds a witch attempting to conjure up
the perfect lover, and the ingredients of her desperate spell provide
some startling imagery: "Owl's wing, make his voice ring/May flies,
give him green eyes/Boil little cauldron." Iit turns out that
songwriter Barous based her lyrics on the recent discovery that one of
her ancestors had been burned as a witch. LaValley's foreboding
vocals are propelled forward by Brosius' metallic guitar work, and
it's no wonder that the group uses this tune to open most of their
live shows.
Tribe sounds pleased that they've been able to capture some of
their live energy on Sleeper. "It was more of an attempt at
spontaneous live sound," says LaValley. "On Abort, everybody recorded
their parts independently and there was a lot of experimenting with
song form. This time it was just going in and doing a song."
LoPiccolo confirms: "We played a lot more live and there was
a lot less sequencing and over-dubbing. The whole arrangement process
was a lot more casual. John went with the flow, sat back and let
things happen."
But one couldn't exactly describe the Sleeper sessions as
low-key; there was considerable tension in the air concerning David
Penzo, the group's original drummer. Not long after the recording
sessions, Tribe replaced Penzo with drummer Mike Levesque, citing
artistic differences as the reason for the split. "It's always
stressful to record, and the band was going through a rough time,"
admits LaValley. "It had been coming to a head for a long time."
"We're still good friends," Brosius told the Boston Phoenix
last summer, "but we'd gone in different musical directions. We were
trying to get something out of him that he couldn't give us."
Such a move was sure to cause pain for a group as close-knit
as this one. At one time, the members of Tribe even shared a house in
Brighton, just outside of Boston -- they'd practice in their basement
studio and later regroup upstairs for dinner and TV. Now everyone is
over 30, and they've decided it's time to withdraw into private
quarters. Brosius and Barous (who married recently) still live in
that house in order to keep the band's jam space.
The old Brighton house probably also serves to remind them
that they're not the only band on the block, and that's a perspective
vital to Tribe. "That's where a lot of the bands in Boston live,"
says LoPiccolo, "and there are a lot of bands in Boston."
Now that Tribe has some momentum from "Supercollider," they've
got a good chance to stand out from the rest. Not only are they cool
with the physicist set, but they're probably the only band with an
Internet address listed on the disc booklet. LoPiccolo's the
self-appointed techno-head of the group, and he usually directs all
interested parties to a special Tribe discussion group that's managed
by a friend. Here Tribe fans can e-mail each other tour dates,
concert reviews and other information concerning their online band.
"It's useful because if we play someplace we can post it and
people know that we're going to be there," says LoPiccolo. "We played
in San Francisco a little while ago and posted it on the net. Sure
enough, a dozen people showed up who'd read about it there. It's a
good way for our hardcore fans to keep in touch."
The Internet allows fans as far away as France and Australia
to converse with stateside Tribe enthusiasts. It's something LaValley
encourages, although she's got reservations about getting online
herself. "It's cool that it's out there and people are getting the
word out," she admits. "But the whole computer things kinda creeps me
out -- the facelessness of it, the anonymity."
She'd rather be seeing the fans in person, and who can blame
her? "I've always felt, 'Just let me at 'em!' The exhibitionist
quality of being up there on stage, I just absolutely love it. I've
always loved the spotlight,"she says.
And she may get her chance, as Tribe is currently negotiating
to go on a major tour of the country. In the meantime, they're
putting together more demos and getting geared up for a return to the
studio, although LaValley hopes it isn't too soon. She'd obviously
like Tribe to hit the road and win over some new fans. "I like
playing every night," she says. "That to me is wonderful...You just
learn so much and it's so exciting, and there's the whole challenge of
getting a new audience and making it work for them.
"Yes, we are beloved here in Boston," she points out with a
wry laugh, "but there's no guarantee out there, and I really love
that!" There's a boldness to her laugh, and you know it's a challenge
the whole band is eager to accept. If Sleeper is any indication,
they'll have no trouble meeting it, none at all.

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