THE INN CROWD 

Checking into Hotel Faux Pas

Rustic and full of daring couplets, Hotel Faux Pas could be the Coral Courts on acid. But the late motel (and Route 66 landmark) had more to do with being cautious than caustic. By contrast, Hotel Faux Pas makes hamburger of sacred cows. Priding themselves on humility, the band members hurl their surplus at those who could use a little.

"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."

For Hotel Faux Pas, coffee and coiffures go together nicely. "The funds we received from Borders entirely paid for our CD," reveals McClelland. "Borders basically paid for our CD." Reflecting on the disc itself, he adds, "We all wanted it to be shorter in length, but we got to the point where we couldn't carve down any more songs. We're partial to all of them. There are 21 total — five bonus tracks and 16 regular tracks. We did them at this place right in the middle of nowhere called Rock Creek Studios, which is great — 24-track and digital and all that. We wanted to make sure to get exactly what we wanted and not rush through it. We took a long time with overdubs. Some songs weren't even recorded in the original sessions — songs like "Flammable Pajamas' and "Can't Get Myself Right.' They all came in about six months after the original recording had started," McClelland says.

On the new album, Flammable Pajamas, Hotel Faux Pas gives rock the kick in the leather pants it deserves. The title song is about kids running rampant in a sick fantasy of what they'd like to do when Mom and Dad are gone. The catchy tune somehow underscores the lyrical chaos instead of working against it. And perhaps it's lyrical chaos in more than one sense: You wonder whether the track is simply an exercise in cartoonish extremism. But co-writers McClelland and O'Neal get to do in the song what the kids do at home — go nuts. And McClelland feels right at home in the Hotel. "Before I joined," he says, "it was just Larry and one other guy named Dick Mullen. They kind of had played together since they were in school. Dick went off and moved to California, and I became — as they like to say — I became Larry's new Dick."

McClelland says that fitting in with any sort of local scene is difficult. "I think it's tough if you're not a certain kind of music," he reflects. "There's not a whole lot of diversity — at least that I'm seeing. There's a lot of heavy music in town, which is great, but it's not at all what we're doing. It's hard to match us up to somebody, to make it a palatable double bill for somebody else."

You'd think they could team up with anyone. Hotel Faux Pas' friendly sound comes from a thorough understanding of pop's power as a genre-proof elixir. Catchy melodies serve to augment the lyrical irreverence, not sugarcoat the tasteless nuggets. Caught in a perfect vehicle for O'Neal's twisted musicomedy, "Cat in the Fan Belt" is a ridiculous topic that gets mired in the song's own musical excellence. It evokes, believe it or not, something from Revolver. His "Ukulele" opens with a spare, warm demonstration of the title's string-picked namesake — it sounds like a vignette from Paul McCartney's Ram — then stirs together the Lovin' Spoonful, Hank Williams and bubblegum (I haven't heard the word "k-i-s-s-i-n-g" spelled out as lyrics since the Archies song of that title). McClelland's solo compositions are relatively more normal — "Mr. Cookie Face" is power pop with a Kinks-like eye for social detail. So what if the writer's observations are purely hallucinatory? And these guys are no garage band. They play their instruments like old bluegrass pros, a rare thing in this era of regenerated DIY anarchy. The harmonies — a secret specialty — fill up every last vacancy in Hotel Faux Pas. Spacious and spacy, they're like the Byrds' choral ascents.

Hotel Faux Pas may never get a corporate sponsorship from a pajama company, but there are probably a few celebratory nightcaps in their future. "We're not doing this with stars in our eyes," levels McClelland. But he'd probably make an exception for stars like David Lee Roth. You have to see your target, you know.

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