If you want to track the 30+ year trajectory of Philadelphia’s un-fussiest forms of alternative rock, its nose-to-the-grindstone brand of cascading noise and occasionally mirthful nuance, Stinking Lizaveta and the cast of Mt. Vengeance – two beloved power trios appearing together at Johnny Brenda’s on November 30 – is your one-stop-shopping showcase. In fact, if you are 40-and-over, and wanted to just get all of your local music scene holiday hellos out of the way, this gig is for you. 

The queen and king of West Philadelphia muscular thunder-rok, drummer Cheshire Agusta and guitarist Yanni Papadopoulos, along with Philly’ music’s mixed-bag master of disguise (Vengeance six-stringer Rich Fravel, who has played multiple melodic styles and grooves in Ashtabula, Blue, Uptown Bones and Latimer…while partners Brian Campbell played in Electric Love Muffin and currently in Poppy, and Nick Santore drummed in Valsalva. Plus, fuggadaboudit if occasional guitarist Art DiFuria joins in) took on my Two to Tango challenge with gusto. 

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The Key: Certainly you guys know each other, but I can’t honestly say that I picture you in the same crowd  – at least not at your respective careers’ starts? How did you know each other? When and where did you meet?

Cheshire Agusta: We are all Philadelphia musicians.   Going back to at least 1986, when I arrived,  Philly has enjoyed an eclectic scene.  Audiences were regularly treated to Trained Attack Dogs, Electric Love Muffin,  She Males, Scram and Dr. At Tree all in the same evening.  I have never discovered any compelling reason, aesthetic or political,  to squelch that vibe.  I think a diverse bill keeps my attention. 

Yanni Papadopolous: Rich Fravel and I met at a More Fiends show at the Kill Time back in 1993.  To this day, whenever we are hanging out at the local cafes playing backgammon, discussing geo-politics and waxing  on the finer points of Steve Albini’s production, we inevitably turn to each other and smugly say, “The message is the same.  Resistance.”

Rich Fravel: Years… decades ago… there were three clubs and nine bands in Philly. At least it seemed that way. SCRAM, Electric Love Muffin, the Johnsons, Dead Milkmen, FOD, YDI and a few art punk bands would pop up and disappear after a show or two. Of course there were more – but, it seemed that way to me, a 17 year old kid from Upper Bucks county.  National rock acts avoided Philly back then — you couldn’t really blame them. Philly was a dump — so, we had to entertain ourselves. I learned to “play guitar” by watching Rich Kaufmann from Electric Love Muffin. We’d see them at TOPS, above McGlinchey’s. Bacchanal and warehouse or basement parties. 

TK: TOPS?! That’s some memory. 

RF: My band at the time, Uptown Bones, would practice in the Temple U dorms and somehow we managed to get on some bills with these 9 bands… suddenly there were 10 bands in Philly. Then out of the blue, the Khyber Pass Pub re-opened and someone somewhere coined the term “indie-rock” and everyone and their brother realized it was really fuckin’ easy to make barely-listenable noise and have a blast.  Beer was a dollar then, and it fueled a non-stop party of loud guitar sludge rock, twee indie pop, psych noise, reggae vibes, East coast hardcore –anything and everything.

Suddenly Philly had burgeoning scene of diverse bands and new venues started to open their doors to this scene. So, long story longer…maybe a few years later the Uptown Bones were winding down and Stinking Liz was starting to blow minds with this insane hyper jazz metal noise punk — two brothers and a woman drummer, WTF??? It seems they came out of nowhere; a band that actually seemed to know how to actually play their instruments, not just for kicks, but with real skill. It was wild and strange and made me realize the game was being upped.

I started booking the Khyber and I started helping my friend Bryan Dilworth with his COMPULSIV record label, who released Stinking Lizaveta’s first record…I’d call the Stinking Lizaveta folks often for Khyber shows — and they were total pros, showed up on time, brought people out, total game changers.  Recently, my daughter, Lucy Jane, took an intro drum lesson from Cheshire. I’m not sure if Lucy will give it a go or not — but she really enjoyed watching Cheshire play.   

TK: Have you guys shared a bill with each other previously? Can you remember the circumstances that brought you together, or anything curious about the show?

CA: Hm….Latimer….did we all jump in the mosh pit at the Pi Lam together?  Perhaps multiple times?  I knew the Uptown Bones.  Art Difuria was a house mate for a time.  

YP: We did share a bill together at the Fake House. The evening was indelibly etched into my brain because a woman hung a 6-pack off of her pierced labia by hooks.  I remember Rich being rather unimpressed.

RF: Did we play some shows together? Probably. I’m guessing at Kill Time in West Philly… or maybe I dreamed it. It’s all the same. I might have been in Latimer at the time…or it was one of the last Uptown Bones shows? I’m not 100% sure. I’d wager it was Uptown Bones.

TK: What do you know or believe regarding the other, and what they do aesthetically?

YP: We are hoping that Mt Vengeance bring out some of the younger Goth and Dark Wave audience to the show.  I am a huge Cure fan.  All the really cool bands just want to be the Cure.  However, an in-depth study of the Cult will give you all you really need to know about the Eighties and Nineties.

RF: They know all the notes. We know about half of the notes. We’ve been trying to smash a bit of prog-rock complexity into song structure — territory Stinking Liz has already mastered. Aesthetically, both bands like it LOUD. I think both bands try to find the magic that’s hidden in loud sounds. When you play in a terribly loud band, weird stuff happens when you’re standing right in the middle of it, absorbing it — and it’s really physically painful on the ears, so your endorphins really kick in. You get to feel these gut-punching waves of sound. You can’t get that unless you’re in it, doing it. If that’s an aesthetic, then that’s it.    

TK: How and where do each of you believe your music has evolved from its start – to the point where it is now? Yanni and Cheshire, I believe your stuff has grown more diabolical as time has gone on. And Rich. I can’t wait to see this show. It’s been a minute. I have no idea what to expect.

CA: Stinking Liz is diabolical.  Cool.  We’ll quote you on that. I think we are making music for the year 2050; to that end, I will never settle for anything less than saying exactly what I want to say.   

YP: Stinking Lizaveta’s music started out innocently enough.  We were taking whatever we admired and fashioning  it to our own purpose.  But then, quite by chance, I picked up a book by the Marquis De Sade at a West Philly yard sale.  I remember the woman selling it to me gave me a sly knowing glance as I handed her two dollars.  I read the book, and after that, have always demanded that our music push itself to the most personal and extreme limits of our collective artistic abilities.

RF: I once tried to “learn” to play guitar, like for real, all the chords, whatever. Then I realized that blaaaah…there’s no way am I going to figure this out “for real”. But then, and this is a secret, the guitar IS pretty easy to figure out. So once you got it figured out, try to unlearn everything and start over.  Somewhere within that process you’ll write a few songs, and people will like them. As for not knowing what to expect? Yeah, me too. Imagine three, overworked Trump-hating dads playing rock songs written in three minutes and rehearsed for about 90 minutes every other week. Then add a little Sabbath, but louder, and some Pylon and Wire and a little bit of Minutemen and Television and that’s us. At least that’s what I’m hearing when we play.

TK: I’m not sure what music you’re playing, past, current…if there is anything new. What can you tell me about any new music you’re up to? What does it embrace or put forth that your older stuff might not have?

CA: There will likely be several new tunes in the set on the 30th. 

YP:  We are currently working on a melodic tune that combines some of the enchanting chordal ideas of a song called “Shinjitsu no Uta” used as the closing credits theme in the anime series Inuyasha, and the chords of “How Insensitive” by Antonio-Carlos Jobim.  As of yet the tune has no title and it will be its debut at Johnny Brenda’s.

RF:  All new stuff: total hook driven ear-worms. I stick with the tried and true mantra “DO NOT BORE US, GET TO THE CHORUS.” It’s certainly heavier than past stuff like Uptown Bones, Latimer and Ashtabula. I think it’s my last grasp at whatever’s left of my youth. Or I’m finally free.

TK: This might seem stupid since this is what you do, but, going or being on the road, playing clubs — both of you have been at this game for a minute —  do you dig touring and schlogging through clubs? Is gigging harder or easier by this point?

CA: I was a summer camp kid, so touring is a natural fit.  I can expend a bunch of energy when there’s a fixed time limit on the expenditure.  Tour life is very simple.  Get up. Drive. Play.  Do what you do.  Do it now. No excuses.  I dig that.  

YP: Playing gigs is how you find out what works about your music.  As a musician, you need the human interaction.  Recently, I saw an interview with Billy Corgan where he said it was a waste of time for people to play gigs, what with the internet and all.  I say it’s a waste of time for him to play gigs.

RF: We all have kids, and that’s THE priority for all of us. Kids are really fuckin’ expensive and ya gotta be there for them. So, there’s no way we’ll find time to hit the road again. Those days were tons of fun…but behind us.  Local gigs are fun, and we’re A-OK with that. I’ve noticed that clubs are way more organized now and the staff seem sober — which I find weird, because why the fuck would you want to work in a rock club sober? Maybe they hide it better. It’s easy though, it’s like muscle memory…carrying a stupid amp up three flights of stairs, same as ever. 

TK: In the course of a pre-show evening: what is the routine from your perspective? The ritual.  Will the two bands chat before the show? Is there a big plan of attack going into this showcase? Will each band talk among themselves? 

CA: We will pack ourselves into the back room at JBs, throw olives and smear each other with hummus.   

YP: I imagine there will be a hearty plate of hummus back stage.  I will fiddle with my guitar, playing scales and riffs to get my finger ready to fly.  All the band members will exchange pleasantries, marveling at the fact that we soldier on in this rock endeavor despite complete lack of any worldly compensation.  Then I will turn to my fellow local rockers and address the elephant in the room asking, “Do you think A.D. will actually come tonight?”

TK: Yeah, but this time, I will be there. Promise. OK. Now watch me fuck that up.

RF: Yeah — we’ll totally all hang around at load-in and after I’m sure. That’s the whole point: to be with folks that are on the sorta same wave-length, sorta. A bunch of weirdos are most comfortable around a bunch of other weirdos. Still not entirely comfortable, but, more at ease. Sorta. The Mt. V guys will chat for a bit, to review new changes in songs and to discuss whatever’s been going on lately.

TK: How do you see your audience? Is there a distinct level of interactivity, even psychic,  between you and they, or is there a deep, but passive listenership?

CA: Music is one way we can tell we are part of something much larger than ourselves. I’m grateful when people allow themselves to go along with us and influence the energy as it is shaped in the room.

YP: Audiences have expressed deeply moving things to us over the years.  I take heart in the idea that we can effectively illicit a sympathetic response from people, even if they tell me, “You rock out like my stepdad in his underwear!”

RF: I have a bit of a stage fright issue. In the past, I’d take a shoe-gaze stance and try to play like no one is listening or looking. That never worked, so now I try to creep someone out by staring at them the whole time. I like to see heads nod and I enjoy it when folks find the hooks. And I like it when people clap.  

TK: What is your impression now of the city’s music scene? You’ve witnessed so many stages.

YP: Philly has a great music scene.  It has a healthy intersection of northern chill and southern enthusiasm, intellectualism and barbaric abandon, and optimism and hopelessness.

RF: It’s wayyy too pro. I think it’s because people can now take a photo with a phone. And performers fear looking like shit for all eternity on some Facebook post. It’s made performers get their shit together, and that’s sad. My favorite show of all time was Bad Brains at the Troc when HR just walked around the stage, sat down on the stage, then walked over to his way-too-young girlfriend — he said a few words and then left. The band might have played two songs. Best show ever. A total work of art  But no one can watch it ever — it’s “legend” — cause their weren’t 1000 smartphones held up in the air. So, bands can’t be nuts in public anymore, or else their boss will find out or whatever. 

TK: I should ask, when each of you are not making music, what is that you’re doing?

CA: Raising the next generation of free thinking rockers.  I teach drums out of my house and at School of Rock Philly.  

YP: We are actually making music  when we can focus on only the moment at hand.  When you let go of the past and allow the future to be remote.  Feel the moment and settle into it, and stop thinking, just experiencing the joy or rock noise.

RF: I work in real estate, listen to tons of music, and do laundry in our East Germantown house. My wife is a very famous photographer and we get to go on mini adventures from time to time. And my daughter is 15…so, ya know, I get to do fun stuff like drive her to the mall with her friends. And I stare at my phone like everyone else.

TK: What song are you most curious as to how it will go over in a live setting on a regular basis? What is the greatest challenge of performing it live?

CA: Good question. There’s a new song from Yanni, one of his sinuous slow numbers.  In rehearsal it inspires me  to really open up but I want to be very economical and precisely musical…to use the material well but on the fly. We shall see.

YP: I always enjoy the ballads. We have a tune called a “Hero’s Return” that can be very powerful or can fall flat on its face.  Like the grandfather in “Little Big Man” said as he lay down to die, “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

RF: I wrote, as a sorta joke to myself, and as a challenge to Nick and Brian, the other Mt Vengeance dudes, a couple of songs with WAY TOO many parts. I can barely play them. So, it’ll be fun to see if we can pull them off live…but if not, fuck it. No one will notice anyway.  

TL: What will you do as soon as your set is done?

CA: I walk into the audience and continue being with people, unless I have to hump a bunch a gear, and then I go be with people.  

YP: After the show, if I’m on my game, I rinse with some mouth wash so I can talk to people.

RF: Eat a gummy and then watch Stinking Lizaveta.

Mt. Vengeance and Stinking Lizaveta will play Johnny Brenda’s on Saturday, November 30th. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.