Rob Brezsny's Band Stages Its Own Media War

By Gus Stadler
S.F. Weekly

World Entertainment War's singer, lyricist, and architect Rob Brezsny, might initially seem to be the critic's darling of a rock star. Naive enough to think that he can change the world and articulate enough to express the idea, he packs each of his songs full of enough heady words and phrases to fill a Griel Marcus-style rock critique. But "smart" bands too often find themselves labelled "critics' bands." At their worst, such terms validate boring music in the interest of new ideas.

WEW reminds us that smart music need not be the prisoner of rock academia. No matter how often Brezsny says "performance is life, entertainment is death," or sings "there's more to fear from entertainment than there is from crack or dope," WEW remains a stirring, entertaining band with a smooth, funky sound and a loose, punky attitude.

Brezsny admits, "Like entertainment, our band is almost too much to take in at once." They offer the audience an array of choices. You might give up control of your body to the lyrical rhythm section of Daniel Lewis and Anthony Guess; you might watch Brezsny and vocal accomplice Darby Gould prance around the stage as they weave their voices around each song's melody; you might be recovering from having Brezsny come out into the audience and kiss you on the ass (after asking politely) between the last two songs; you might be taking a magic marker to the phalanx of television sets guarding the front of the stage.

The harangues against media manipulation that dominate Brezsny's lyrics might wear a bit thin if not offset by the entertainment inherent in the band's personal take on show business. But WEW doesn't aim for spectacle; they activate the audience into participating in the performance. "The audience should do some of the work," Brezsny maintains, and he brings audience members into the show by interviewing them or asking them to perform some personal talent onstage. At a recent Club Kommotion gig, one fan performed a daring handstand, and another set fire to a brassiere Brezsny had been unable to ignite.

Which can all be a bit disconcerting to those accustomed to the passive, anonymous shadowland of rock clubs. "Sometimes at the bigger San Francisco clubs like the Kennel Club or the I-Beam, people don't participate in the WEW experience," Brezsny says. "Sometimes they don't even dance."

Brezsny's appreciation of randomness and spontaneity was the seed for the band's formation in January 1987. After playing for three years in the Santa Cruz-based "tribal rhythm" group Tao Chemical, while writing poetry and his now-widely-syndicated astrology column (which appears regularly in the S.F. Weekly) on the side, he decided it was time to make a choice between media. Or rather, he decided a choice had to be made. "For a week, I fasted and didn't talk to anybody," he recalls. "I took mushrooms in search of help from other sources. The last day I had a dream that I was in a raucous band called World Entertainment War." The next week he ran into old friend George Earth, a guitarist who was trying to get a band together with drummer and Camper Van Beethoven alumnus Anthony Guess. "You know any singers?" Guess asked, bringing Brezsny's "extended vision quest" to a successful close.

The embryonic band brought on Lewis to play bass. "Tribal metal folk," as the band labels its music, was born. But the group wasn't complete. "Part of my dream was that the band would have a sexual balance, a strong female presence," Brezsny remembers. He discovered Darby Gould at a softball game in Santa Cruz, singing Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston. By October 1987, the band had added multi-instrumentalist Amy Excolere and completed its current configuration.

WEW decided to concentrate its efforts on the Bay Area, giving up on Santa Cruz because, as Brezsny says, "being a hero in Santa Cruz is boring." While developing their sound ("which just emerged as if through channeling," the astrologer muses), the band found itself at odds with a local music scene for which negativity was the worldview of the day. "A couple of years ago, I was fed up with what I call the 'pop nihilism' of the San Francisco scene," Brezsny recalls. "The attitude was 'fuck everything.' It was true in poetry, too." Now, with thanks due in part to World Entertainment War, not to mention fellow "visionaries" such as Contraband and Elbows Akimbo, Brezsny feels pop music in the Bay Area brings with it a "vision of a new culture."

At times, Brezsny and band stray dangerously close to the pop utopianism of the new age movemnt. They sing about how "the spirits of the earth are so hungry for justice;" they share a joint with each other and the audience; they see themselves active in the creation of a "new culture." Brezsny spends three days a week writing his astrology column. Still, he's sensitive to the problems of the new age mentality. "We share with new age a belief that music can be uplifting and activate people's spiritual influences," he says. "But we have much feistier influences, and avoid the numbing transcendent influences of new age--wanting to leave the world.

"The new culture is a blend of rage at what exists and love [in creating] something you like," Brezsny explains. "The answer isn't just to say 'no' to what's going on, but to imbue it with your own spirit." This thinking has led to such WEW happenings as field trips to K-Mart to dance in the aisles, and such lyrics as "Tiger, Tiger, burning bright/take back the airwaves of the night."

Breznsy is currently putting down the final vocal takes for WEW's first nationally distributed album, to be released on MCA in May or June. The band recorded its first album, Televisionary, independently last year. That record's lyrics and liner notes--a list of over 100 demands that combines elements of David Letterman and [Breznsy's surrealist namesake Pope] Artaud--seem to run against all the deeply-held values of the commercial sensibility. But through a combination of lush grooves, bra-burning, humor, and respect for the audience, WEW managed to land the opportunity to spread its message far beyond the Bay Area.

For a band with an agenda, WEW is amazingly adept at including as many people as possible in the vision. "You don't need an intellectual structure to enjoy our music," says Brezsny. "I don't want to be a teacher--just having fun is great teaching." The "fun" allows WEW to achieve a sophisticated level of rapport with its audience. They succeed at wresting "smart" rock out of the critics' hands, through their faith in entertainment--especially their own visceral, sensual brand.