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EMOTIONAL SMOKE - They Were a Band or Something...
By Steve Marky
Article From Music Mover Magazine, September 2005. Used with permission.
The genesis of Emotional Smoke started as the brainchild of guitarist and demolitions expert Bill Namffihcs in 1989. Namffihcs was an 80's and southern rock guitar player who used to dabble in home made explosives and recreational chemical delivery devices in his spare time. A home schooled chemist and self taught guitar player, Namffihcs gathered novice guitar player Nik Ray and bassist Him Jess for frequent jams in the Jess House band room in east Tennessee. “If you wanted something blown up, Bill was the man to go to. I once saw him blow a tree up down in the woods behind my apartment with a huge pipe bomb. No reason for it, he just wanted to blow it up, and he did it well", remembers Ray. Ray was a budding artist and Jess was a freelance photographer at the time. Both were into a variety of rock/punk based music. The proto band, called Pornfarm, was unique for its freeform keyless instrumentals, which usually started with a common note but soon delved into each member playing not only in a different key, but also in out of sync tempos that soon devolved into a collage of unintelligible soundscapes of black noise. The band went through several drummers, due to the fact that drummers would ususally quit the band after the first session.
“They were great band, but they sounded like s**t"said Carl Chupa, former friend of the band mates. “I had the privilege of hearing one of those early performances and it was something I'll never forget, and something I don't care to ever remember, or even talk about...ever. Anyone around the band in those days would probably prefer not to speak of what a session was like. It is like the memory has been blocked from our minds. That's the last I'll say about it&rdquo.”
The band soon fragmented due to arguments over set lists and the fact that Jess, a self proclaimed bass player, was accused of never actually learning to play the instrument. After one of the bands frequent weekend “acid-tripping" get togethers, that included friend and computer programmer /game designer Fejj Korbly and his hippie girlfriend Tia, Namffihcs went missing and was never heard from again. He was sorely missed and his band mates and friends went into depression for a long period thereafter. Rumors surfaced that Namffihcs had been killed by one of his own home made chemicals, a compound he jokingly showed off to Ray one day that could oxidize any organic matter in seconds. It was believed he accidentally spilled this substance on himself and he was completely consumed. “I heard the cops found a three foot wide black hole burnt through the floor of his apartment the week he disappeared” told Jess, “So people thought he kinda went out that way, you know, but I think he really just hated us and moved away to start another band. Probably changed his name. He always said we were f****ng jerks, and I guess we were. He was really good at insulting us. He came up with some creative ones.” Jess also went missing himself several years later. All that remained after Namffihcs disappearance was a series of songs on cassette tape, which have since been, lost, stolen, or burned.
The early 90's brought a new incarnation of the band with guitarist Ray joining forces with friends and proto-musicians Fejj Korbly on drums, and Tia, now his wife, on keyboards. The name Emotional Smoke was chosen for the band because they felt all of the good band names had been taken. “We could not come up with anything better” said Ray. “All the cool names were used and new bands were just stringing two or three random words together for their bands, like Spank Jello or Pumpkin Salve, and we did not want that. We did not want to sound like one of those stupid bands.” Korbly and Tia agreed. “I saw Spank Jello (an 80's post-punk band from Atlanta) play once” remarked Korbly, “and I remember thinking they were probably one of the greatest bands I had ever heard, maybe the greatest, but I decided to never listen to them again because their name was just lame. I can't stand bands with lame-ass names.” “Our name was cool” remembers Ray. “I think we got it from a Cars song lyric. I don't remember. It's probably not that cool”.
The newly formed Emotional Smoke only played cover songs in the early days, anything from the Ramones “Sedated” to Pink Floyd's “Comfortably Numb”, a very eclectic set list that also included songs by The Stooges, ELO, and The Modern Lovers. “None of us could play very well, or keep time, so we played the simplest crap we could learn and played it over and over” comments Ray. Ray took over vocals after a short stint with local vocalist and porn video director John Slewart did not pan out. “We tried a few shows with John”, remarked keyboardist Tia, “but all he wanted to do was change all the correct song lyrics to ones about Shaft and the Superfly. It got old really fast.” Slewart's frequent bursts of slide-whistle solos did not go over well with band mates either. Ray also remembers those shows. “After that first slide whistle solo I knew he had to go. No f****ng way I was going to be in a band with a whistle.” Ray, though he could not actually sing, was drafted as lead vocalist with drummer Fejj doing double duty as backing vocalist. One fan of the band in those days, Carl Chupa, remembers Ray's vocal style. “He kind of reminded me of an annoying kid on the playground, you know, from elementary school days. Yeah, it was something like that.” Slewart, for his part, had this to say about his ejection from the band, “I never wanted to sing in that band anyway. Too many egos. I really just dropped by to play their Nintendo and eat their food.”
Emotional Smoke played low rent clubs in Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida from 1991-1992 but eventually holed up in the local East Tennesee club circuit when out of town venues refused to invite them for return engagements. Al Collpechero, a friend and manager of the band in those days, remembers what shows were like. “It was messed up, man. You should never go from a song like the Ramones' Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue to Pink Floyd's Money, then into something like The Trogg's Wild Thing, but they did. They had no semblance of what songs went together and what songs didn't, but you know, sometimes it worked. Not often, but sometimes it was like beautiful magic, man. But, no matter what song they covered, they all seemed to sound like the Ramones doing Frank Zappa. Weird, man. Weeeeeird. I didn't like them, but hey, it was money, man. I needed a job”.
The band was known for its twenty-minute plus cover of The Modern Lovers classic “Pablo Picasso.” Tia remembers, “Ray would go into the second guitar solo on that song and it was like we didn't even exist. Fejj and I had no intention of playing that f****ng song for half an hour, but we had no choice. He just would not stop playing the solo and end the song!.” Ray was noted to overindulge on most songs that had guitar solos, an indulgence that unfortunately led to the band being banned from returning to most venues it played. “You can't do that s**t 'round here”, comments Jim Stack, owner of the Sweetwater club, Booz N Blooz. “People come in here to drink and listen to country and southern rock! Not to listen to some sh*thole guitar player go all Eric Hendrix on them. You gots to have some twang now and then, and no song should be more than three minutes. Tops. The demo tape they sent me was all Stevei Ray Skinnerd n all that, which I like, but when they actually got here and played, all I heard was s**t.”
In 1992 the band was pretty much relegated to playing one venue, the Flat Creek Band Room in Sevierville, Tennessee. The Band Room club, though small, was noted for its fine acoustics and carpeted walls. “It smelled like cat piss, the beer was warm, the PA system was s**t, and no one ever stayed around past the first set, but we liked it”, noted Tia. “It was a gig, I guess”, remembers Korbly. “We liked it because there was no echo, no room sound because of that old carpet”, remarks Ray. “We could create our own room ambiance by hooking a digital delay up to the vocal mike. It picked up everything, drums, bass, and gave it that slap back we needed, especially on a song like Pablo Picasso. The lighting rig was primitive, but suited our needs. You couldn't see anything through the smoke anyway. The owner let us play all night, even after everyone left. That's when we practiced out own stuff.” Tired of simply playing cover songs the band had begun to write its own unique brand of music, recording live through the Band Rooms cheap Radio Shack eight-channel mixer board onto a Tascam four track cassette recorder. Most of those tapes have been lost, stolen, or burned.
Ray had some instrumentals he had written on guitar, Tia had her own on keyboard, and Korbly had a handful of lyrics. They soon began cobbling these together and that was when Emotional Smoke began to really “smoke.” One of their first songs was “Fire Song”. At over seven minutes it was a song simply too ambitious for the band at the time. “It would have been our anthem had we ever been able to play it, but it could not be played”, remembers Korbly. “It was like Stairway to Heaven meets Apocalypse Now”, states Ray. “No band could have played that song. It was simply too great a song for one band to play”, Notes Tia. “Maybe two bands could have attempted it at one time, but not one. I think we were only able to play it through one time.” All attempted recordings of this near legendary song have since been lost, except one demo tape. Former friend Carl Chupa remembers, “It's like that song could not stick to tape. It was too good to be recorded. After playing through they would go back and check the tape and there would be nothing there! I still remember the way it sounded, kind of like a helicopter in your head, if your head was covered in burning kerosene.”
The band abandoned “Fire Song”, vowing to return to it one day, and in 1993 moved on to write other Emotional Smoke staples such as “Dumbass (so are you)” and “She's My Baby”. “Dumbass was the first song with lyrics I ever wrote. It's kind of autobiographical. I was going through and emotional catharsis at the time and just wrote what I felt”, remembers Ray.
Lyrics from Dumbass (So Are You)
Well, I'm a dumb ass, a**hole loser, baby.
“She's My Baby” was a Tia penned tune with catchy lyrics by Korbly. “It was a favorite tune for our regulars. We mostly played it for encores, when people were a bit too drunk to notice we were a bit too drunk to play. Always a satisfactory close to a show” noted Ray.
Lyrics from She's My Baby
She's my baby, she sings the blues.
Soon the band had compiled a catalog of songs that included the staples Waste of Time, King of the CIA, Going Down, and the lengthy favorites Dead End Day, and Passage. “Waste of Time was the second song I wrote in the band”, remembers Rae. “I was bored and did not care about anything so I wrote a song about that to try and get other people to feel the same way.”
Lyrics from Waste of Time
Cruising down the road
King of the CIA, the bands first song to get airplay on alternative rock radio stations, was a punk song that alleged Elvis Presley was actually J.F.K's killer. “It's not just a song. It's the truth. People need to be made aware of what really went down”, comments Korbly. Ray remebers the song's genesis. “It came from a dream a friend told me about. Well, an enemy actually, not a friend. But, when I heard it, heard how sincere and detailed he was in the description of the dream, I knew it had to be true. I thought, the best way to communicate this to the world was through music, so I put it in a song.” Tia comments,“It's true. Why do you think they stole J.F.K.s brain? Becuase one day they knew we would have the technology to read brain thoughts, and then one day someone would decide to read Kennedy's last thoughts, from that old brain stored in a jar in the Smithsonian. They could not have that, just in case he happened to see Elvis in the grassy knoll, so they stole his brain after the autopsy. It is kept in the same secret warehouse where they are keeping the Ark of the Covenant.”
Lyrics from King of the C.I.A.
But thru it all I continued to rock
The heavy metal song Going Down is a song about something important, but none of the band members can actually remember what the important issue was that the song refers to. “The dangers of kings, or being a king? Somthing like that”, says Korbly. “Or maybe is was about the dangers of Elvis being king? I don't know. I don't like to interpret lyrics for people. Everyone has thier own interpretation, and if I explain it I may shatter someone's image of what they thought the song was about. I don't like to point out when people are wrong. Especially on such an important issue, like what this song is about.”
Lyrics from Going Down
I think I've figured it out
The eleaborate, multi-part songs Dead End Day and Passage were two of the bands longer songs, and most difficult songs to play live. Frequently the band would get halfway into one of these songs and then forget how to play them simultaneously. Tia recalls. “We would usually get bored halway through, then one of us would forget which song we were doing and get scared they were playing the wrong part. The other band members could sense that fear and uncertainty, and it would spread to them. The next thing you know, we all change to the song we thought we were supposed to be playing, which of course was a different song for each member, and it all crashes. But you have to keep going. You can't stop playing or the audience will sense something's wrong. That is actually how we wrote most of our new material!”
Lyrics from Dead End Day
The music so strange, in perpetual change
Lyrics from Passage
The the song that turned out to be the Emotional Smoke anthem was Down to the Dregs, a fan favorite and their most requested song. When asked to explain what the song was about Ray only says “It's about a slutty vampire, I think". Korbly, who wrote the songs lyrics, disagrees, claiming “She's not a slut". At nine minutes and seven seconds, Dregs was an exercise in endurance. “We liked the longer songs because it meant less song names to write down for set lists", remarks Tia. If you have a lot of song names you have to write them real small to fit on the paper, then they are hard to read under the stage lights. We like big, easy to read letters, so that meant longer songs." Ray remembers differently. “During a set people most people have to piss at least once, so we figured we would make longer songs so when they got back from the john they would still hear the same song playing and not feel they missed out on anything". Tia remembers it this way, “I didn't care how long those songs were, as long as someone gave me a piece of paper with the cord changes on it, I would follow them. The problem I had is when certain people would change the cords that had been established. You know, you can't play along with someone who is re-writing the song as you are playing it. Sometimes the other two band members would do these extended, made up jams and forget I was there, which was annoying. I would usually take a smoke break and get something to eat when that happened. It was also a good time to meet with the fans and take requests. They thought it was all part of the show.”
Lyrics from Down to the Dregs
Another day passes, the sun goes down
In addition to the bands lengthy songs they also wrote a variety of instrumental pieces to jam out to. These ranged from the speedy “Intense” and “Brain Spiders” to the somber “Dead End Day” and the haunting “Invasion of '53”, a tribute to the tv show “War of the Worlds”. “Intense was always a crowd favorite”, remarked Korbly. “When people started to zone out on you we would ram that one down their throats. Got their blood pumping again, the bastards.” Longer experimental instrumentals soon entered the sets, such as the elusive “Erehwon” (nowhere backwards), a song that was never played the same twice.
There were tough crowds some days and Ray remembers one rough night at the Band Room. “Some f***hole was getting pissed because we would not play Dreggs, so he popped me in the eye with a bottle cap. I jumped off stage and rammed the neck of my G&L strat into his face. Fejj got in there and jammed a drumstick in the guys ear, popping his ear drum.” After the man was unconscious, Tia pulled a tube of super glue from her purse and glued his thumbs inside his nostrils. Emotional Smoke was banned from the club for six months, had to pay the customer's medical bills, but Ray was happy he had to replace his broken G&L strat, which he hated. The replacement was a new black Fender strat-plus he had on layaway for six months at a local music store. “That strat became my main axe. Once I got that thing, I yanked two of the trem springs out the back to make the strings all squishy, then I could really play. It was built tough too. I could slam the bottom of the body into my amp and it would make the amp reverb spring crash and make this wonderful noise like the earth splitting open. It got those who were not paying attention to us playing to look up.”
In 1996 the band released their first album, Sounds from the Grave Volume 1, in both LP and CD formats. Recorded from 1993-1996, the disk featured an eclectic mix of the band's tunes and carried this disclaimer in the liner notes, “Always try to forget everything after use. Die happy.” Clearly not professionally recorded, and released on the fledgling Pooping Dog record label, the songs did not the get the distribution or the airplay push it deserved. The disk did manage to get its way into the hands of fans however, and word of mouth created a healthy cult following for the Smoke's brand of rock. A line of merchandising soon followed which included t-shirts of the bands skeleton mascot, affectionately named “Emo", and other oddities like decoder rings, talking skull banks, branded 9mm tracer rounds, embroidered logo undergarments, and Emotional Smoke branded cigarettes. Most of these items could only be acquired through the bands fan club, which apparently was almost impossible to join. Keyboardist Tia remembers “Fans had to ask us to join, but we would only let fans ask when we were not playing, but when we were not playing we would not talk to fans. I only talked to fans during songs, when I was bored, but in between sets I completely ignored them". “If they bought us drinks, and handed over the $20 membership fee, we always let them join," claims Ray. “Anyone who thought they could not join was just not trying hard enough,” notes Korbly.
As is bound to happen when bands get commercialized, the Smoke produced the inevitable Christmas holiday '45 single. “Santa's Bleeding” and its B-side“The Day Rudolf Did Cocaine”, both recorded with a childrens choir. It was released in December 1996, again on the Pooping Dog label. I don't know why I wrote those songs“, says Ray. They were sick and defiled the true spirit of Christmas”. The original master tapes, owned by Pooping Dog, have since been lost, stolen, or burned, which is a good thing according to the band members. All that survives are rough demos of the songs.
As the band's popularity grew they were able to charge more money for shows, but that increased revenue was not enjoyed by all members of the band. The bands management, One Note Promotions, was taking only a small amount of their funds for its duties, but band members decided any amount not in thier pockets was too much and fired thier management. Korbly remembers, “Nik was in charge of the cash after that, and he would get the green at the end of the shows from the clubs and pay the bills, but sometimes the split would come up short when it was handed out to us. Then at the next gig he would show up with a new guitar - a new Gretch or a Rickenbacker, or Les Paul, or whatever. We'd ask where he got the cash and he would say he saved it up, or he was making payments, but we knew he was blowing our share. Pretty soon he had, like thirty guitars! We could only fit three or four guitars in our van, and he had thirty! He was addicted so we had to take over the bank from him. I had no money for my f****ng drum skins, the bastard." “I don't know what was happening,” said Ray, “but I felt it was important that I owned one of every type of guitar ever made. I was worried something would happen to my strat and I would need a second guitar for a gig, but I never stole anyone's money. That is a lie.”
Arguments like this and financial troubles eventually led to the band's break up. They played one last show at the Flat Creek Bar, Christmas eve of 1999. Later that night, after the bar had closed, the entire building collapsed into a heap of rubble due to its extreme age and shoddy construction. Four people were killed in the collapse. “We should have been in there when it happened” said Korbly. “That should have been the way we ended. Our fans should have been in there too, so we could have all gone out together.” Guitarist Ray quit the music business and went on to work for a butter knife manufacturer as their lead designer, and is responsible for creating the first “fantasy” butter knife. He still plays guitar and actually wrote a jingle for his employer to use in ads, though to date, it has never been used. Drummer Korbly started a lucrative solar powered t-shirt business, but became addicted to online games and is currently in treatment. His company went bankrupt when it was learned the chemicals he used in his solar paint cells were highly toxic and damaging to the ozone layer. Keyboardist Tia moved into the fine art field, painting '80s cartoon characters in oil using renaissance-like art techiques and styles, and created a huge following for her Smurf-Van-Go line before being sued and forced out of business by the copyright holders. Rumors of a band reunion have largely been just that. Rumors. The ex-band memebers have all said they would never work together again, unless paid an outrageous sum of money, or if there was concrete proof that Elvis was still alive, or if JFK's brain was ever found. The only legacy that remains of the band are the few recordings that still exist. It is known that every show they ever played was recorded from the master boards, but only a few of these recordings have ever surfaced. Sadly, most have been lost, stolen, or burned.
Steve Marky - Music Mover Magazine