By Jeremy Essig
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"You have this cult of the lead singer," says Hotel guitarist/songwriter Larry O'Neal in a don't-get-me-started tone, "who's this cocky, smartass guy who dances around onstage and sings incomprehensibly." To O'Neal, the rock singer as windblown groupie hound (say, David Lee Roth) with a knack for tight pants and loose chicks, or the baubled temptress (say, Stevie Nicks) with mystic pretensions, is the aesthetic enemy. "You know what I hate about music right now?" he continues. "You look at a painting: The painting is about the painting, not about the painter. A sculpture is not about the sculptor. You read a story: It's about the story, not the writing. With music today, with these singers, it's all about them and "How cool can I be?' And it's the only art form that's so bastardized. It's the view that the art form is secondary to the artist. I don't believe that at all. My daughter's 9 now, and she listens to all that hit-radio crap, and I just can't stand it." O'Neal is right: Rock's self-importance is in dire need of deflation. But rock parody is also a tricky thing. No matter how cutting your observations, you ultimately have to use rock & roll feeding from the hand you want to bite to get your point across.
Consider "Who Needs the Peace Corps" by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. The lyrics are a not-very-subtle (or artful) jab at the hippie culture. Because the melody is a bright 5th Dimension/Sgt. Pepper pastiche, the song mean-spirited and obvious lives on irony alone. Zappa wants to show us exactly what's so funny about peace, love and understanding but instead of working as a sharp parody, the song becomes smug elitism set to B-grade rock.
In another broad parody, the "group" Spinal Tap put themselves in the (platform) shoes of the icons they fictively ridiculed. In the process they managed not only to find true joy in the goofiness and idiocy of the hard-rock conceit but to blur the line between truth and spoof in a way that's not very different from what rock & roll really is.
Hotel Faux Pas is the sort of band that'd make fun of Spinal Tap. The distance they keep from the bloated topic of rock itself lets them try on many hats. O'Neal, by day a copywriter for a local toy company, is a writer of fiction as well as music. He believes that people shouldn't presume a song is any more autobiographical than a novel and, on the flip side, that musicians should stop writing so many songs about themselves. "Listen to a song that's the point of view of a character," he says, "not the damn singer. The thing I like about songwriting is that it's so much like story writing in that you put yourself there as a storyteller." Confessionals, Hotel Faux Pas' tunes aren't.
In addition to their emotional distance, the band thrives, O'Neal thinks, on its musical diversity. "I'm the folk guy," he reveals. "I grew up on stuff like Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson British folk-rock. Mark (Cole), the drummer his background is in Kiss."
You get the idea. (The group also includes bassist/writer Brian McClelland and guitarist/vocalist Karl Dodson.) Despite near-invisibility, Hotel Faux Pas is one of the longest-running still-together bands in St. Louis. McClelland explains why they're not quite in the local limelight. "We kind of went through this phase when we were playing out pretty regularly," he says. "We did a weeknight thing at the Way Out Club and Kennedy's, when they were around. After a while we saw that we weren't going to be bringing any more people in on these real late-night Wednesday- and Thursday-night shows. We weren't expanding our audience much."
McClelland says, however, that Hotel Faux Pas will be back on marquees shortly. "What we're trying to focus on now, with the new record," he says, " is we want to play with a lot of other bands do a lot of opening slots." Though Hotel Faux Pas seem almost willfully un-St. Louis-like, they have a twisted outlook akin to our city's fave goofballs, They Must Be Giants. "I used to like them a lot," says O'Neal, "and Brian did, too. Not so much anymore. But yeah, definitely: Just that irreverence in attacking a song from different points of view and different instrumentations."
The major chain bookstores have been attacked for blanding out local flavor but at least one has done its share to sprinkle it back in. To their delight, Hotel Faux Pas have been continually booked at Borders Books & Music. "We've pretty much been playing there since last January," says McClelland. "We play at least one or two Borders a month. It's just a great way to try out new songs." McClelland says that instead of the crowd you might associate with a rock show say, oblivious beer-brained twentysomethings Hotel Faux Pas have an all-ages audience, held captive by their espressos. Whether or not it's the caffeine listening, "we've had a more receptive audience," says McClelland "a more diverse audience, than at any other club we've played."