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Back in the mid-'80s, Dan Potthast, singer and guitar player for MU330, and Theodore Moll, drummer, banged through their first practice for what would become MU330 — St. Louis' long-standing psycho-ska pioneer. The practice took place in Moll's grandma Marcella's basement, bunkered under a cozy ranch-style home near south city's Carondelet Park. Moll recalls some apprehension about the whole idea: "I remember feeling like we were going to be a huge burden on her. We played so loud, it was vibrating the floors upstairs," Moll now confesses.
As opposed to pulling the plug or chasing them out the basement door — as even the most patient grandmother would be forgiven for doing — Marcella insisted on bringing down cookies, soda and other forms of junk food to keep the already-wired teens fixed. Roughly 25 years later, MU330 has trademarked its own blend of frantic, ska-punk jitter: the kind that sounds how Pop Rocks and Red Bull would taste were they mixed together.
On December 31, MU330 will perform a special New Year's Eve gig featuring its mid-'90s lineup, which recorded Press, an album that has sold several thousand units under the esteemed imprints of Moon Ska Records NYC and Asian Man Records, based out of Santa Clara, California. That lineup is Dan Potthast, Theodore Moll, Chris Diebold, Rob Bell (all current members), as well as John Kavanaugh and Matt Knobbe. Kavanaugh officially left the band in 1994 to go back to school, and Knobbe left about a year later. Gerry Lundquist, the band's current journeyman trombone player, is unable to participate owing to holiday travel commitments. This week's show will be the first with this lineup since Kavanaugh left the band.
MU has seen plenty of lineup changes over the last couple decades, but the Press group still remains dear to Potthast. "This lineup feels really special to me because all the people in the band at that time had such deep-rooted friendships that go back to early grade school and even preschool in some cases," he says. Chris Diebold, the band's longstanding bass player, joined the band a couple weeks after its first practice in Grandma Marcella's basement. And John Kavanaugh joined a few months later.
It was this group of teenage freaks who would help MU330 settle into its own sound. Both Moll and Potthast remember having a hard time finding a niche during the band's early stages. "We tried several different genres, but ska music really seemed to come the most natural to us," says Moll. Potthast concurs, "We sounded silly when we tried to play funk, and oh ,did we try. Eventually we went more with the ska sound, which came out pretty well for us. We were never into metal as much, so when things got harder-sounding for us, we always leaned more towards the punkier side of things."
Potthast and Moll recall drawing influences by other locals like Sinister Dane and the Nukes. But the band's sound was most prominently influenced by the lively, up-and-coming ska-funkers the Urge. Potthast remembers being blown away by Urge gigs at the now-defunct Duke's venue located on Grand Boulevard at Grand Center. "The Urge was king," says Potthast. "Its original lineup were all a few years older than us, and the energy onstage was a huge influence on MU330," Potthast gushes. "When you are sixteen and you see Steve Ewing do a somersault onto the stage with dreadlocks, a Specials tattoo and then bust out a rototom solo, you're never really the same ever again. And they introduced us to ska, using horns in a band and showed us how to put on a crazy, high-energy show," says Potthast.
As the Press lineup took shape in the early '90s, MU330 had reached a jumping-off point. "We really kind of spread our wings and went from being a local band to touring across the country," remembers Potthast. "It was the lineup that we had when we made the transitional jump to dropping out of college and quitting our jobs and becoming full-time touring musicians."
And make no mistake, the band toured constantly. You'd be hard-pressed to find a St. Louis band that played more shows — both national and international. From 1988 to 2000, the band played more than 1,300 shows. "At one point we were playing over 250 shows a year," says Moll. "I remember being on the road so much that home didn't even really feel like home. We would be out on the road the majority of the year and then stay at our parents' houses when we came back. We didn't even have jobs to come back to."
These days, logistics and family life are the two main reasons the band rarely plays shows. Potthast has been living in Santa Cruz, California, with his wife, Shannon, and fellow Press-era member Matt Knobbe also lives in the city. Moll and Diebold both have families of their own to tend to in St. Louis. Still, it's not uncommon for the band to play once or twice a year. This past June, the band played a packed show at the Firebird — its first St. Louis stop in years. The week after that, MU played a sold-out show at the Asian Man Records fifteenth Anniversary party in San Francisco. "It was like we didn't miss a beat," says Ted. "Not literally, obviously."
And rather than throwing some self-aggrandizing farewell, MU330 is fine with its current play-when-we-can approach. "I never saw a reason to break up," says Potthast. "We are all friends and like to play music together, so why call it over? How many shows a year do we need to play to be called a band?" Potthast says. "There are no rules."
Roughly 25 years later, Moll and his wife and two children live in the very same house where MU330 stumbled through its first practices. The same basement Grandma Marcella graciously offered up to Moll and his teenage buddies now serves as a cozy rehearsal space and serviceable recording studio for Moll and some of those guys who were causing a racket down there as teens.
MU330 and Bagheera — Moll's haunted, space-pop project he plays in with his wife, Heather — now record all of their output in his self-built basement studio. According to Moll, back in 2006, MU actually recorded an album's worth of material there, a collection of songs that are all about monsters. "The Monsters album may end up being like our SMiLE, [the Beach Boys' long-delayed opus]" Moll half-jokes.
It would only be fitting that the band's last official album be recorded in the room where Moll and Potthast first learned how to play music together. And it's fair to say that on New Year's Eve, Grandma Marcella will be smiling down on MU330 as the band rips through its now-trademarked, caffeine-induced, hyper-ska blend.