When it comes to first-time videos, a lot of local bands play the party card; we see shots of dancers moving joyously and/or aggressively in a recognizable venue. Onstage, the band gives it their all, sweeping the crowd up into a rapturous state like a shaman raising a cone of power.
As templates go, the party/gig video is effective. How better to show the transcendent and powerful sum of rock ‘n’ roll plus people?
With its debut video for the swaggering, shape-shifting sauropod “Stoner Song,” Charlotte alt-rock foursome Pleasure House steps up to the plate with their version of the party scenario. Reinforcing the theme by dropping the single on the ultimate party day of 4/20, they knock it out of the park with seemingly effortless ease.
True to its name, the epic tune busts out of the gate like a true stoner anthem, with a heavy yet supple Sabbath-ready riff set to a country rock-infused shuffle.
“It’s a rock and rollin’ banger,” says drummer and band founder Ian Pasquini.
“It’s a nasty riff,” adds bassist Alex Hanifin.
In the video, shot in February, the riff seems to lure Derek Allen’s camera into a nearly unrecognizable Snug Harbor. Along with video director and editor Pasquini, Allen eschews shots of Snug’s bar and signage, focusing on the stage and dance floor, which is photographed in earth tones. There’s palpable energy in the room, but it’s cradled in a warmth and ease that makes the party seem like the real deal.
In the club, which will host a set by Pleasure House on May 4, local artists and friends of the band such as rapper Lil’ Skritt rock out and crowd surf, at one point bearing bassist Hanifin aloft. Meanwhile, local break dancers pivot, spin and do handstands on the dance floor.
Onstage, Travis Phillips sings and rocks a white cowboy hat as he slashes at his guitar strings. The squealing notes are bolstered and contrasted by Tom Cushing’s bright synthesizer. Buoyed by the band members’ backup singing, Phillips launches into an impassioned gospel-infused rendition of his nearly hallucinatory impressionist lyrics:
“At the taqueria they’re playing neon nowhere tunes/It was hard to be there but nobody asked me to…”
The tune conjures memories of dirty blues and roots champion Dexter Romweber, indie chameleons Pavement and the lumbering triceratops power of 1970s behemoth Ram Jam. Musically, the song takes unexpected whiplash turns without undercutting the guitar’s bludgeoning power and squealing cries.
“Who played the riff first?” Pasquini asks, trying to remember the genesis of “Stoner Song.” “Somebody played a riff and then there was a song.”
He credits Phillips with taking the melody in a gospel direction.
“Yes,” Phillips says. “I said [I wanted an] R&B background like a doo-wop song. [The song] includes some minor chord doo-wop, and then a bunch of fuzz pedal stuff.”
Back in the video, Phillips sings, dropping some more disquieting psychedelic imagery:
“Caught in a feeling on a red drag afternoon/Staring at the ceiling stained like tobacco juice…”
The tune comes to an extended feedback-laced crescendo, and we’re left with the feeling that we’ve been to an honest-to-God gig, complete with a post-party sense of unease, courtesy of Phillips’ lyrics. It’s that nagging sense that real-world concerns are waiting just around the corner come Monday.
Despite an initial tendency to sound like avant-rock wizards Devo, Pleasure House has been conjuring up more rock monsters like “Stoner Song,” says Pasquini. The band seems to be sitting at the floodgate of new tunes, devised organically and communally by the players.
“We all have a lot of experience playing different types of music,” Pasquini says. “So, if one of us has an idea [and] plays three notes, someone else will be like, ‘Oh, yes, like this!’ Then someone else jumps in.”
The band’s ability to sound diverse yet distinctively like Pleasure House is the result of each member calling on their varied respective musical histories.
Pathways to pleasure
Pasquini grew up in Greensboro in a musical family. His father studied classical violin and his mother earned a degree playing bassoon. Pasquini started violin lessons at age 4. He moved to Charlotte in 2008 to attend UNC Charlotte.
Pasquini has since played in a “who’s who” of cool and unusual Charlotte bands. Standout acts include Pinky Poodle Doodle, a high-energy, female-fronted rock band from Athens, Georgia by way of Tokyo. Pasquini cherishes his time with the cult band.
“They are great and passionate musicians, genuinely lovely and thoughtful people,” Pasquini says. “I was already a decent player when they hired me, but they leveled up my playing — taught me a lot about rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’.”
Pasquini also played in punk rock theatrical duo Cheesus Crust with his childhood friend Luke Hardy from 2017 to 2022. Pasquini recalls a gig where band members dressed as kaiju characters and demolished a cardboard city the band built onstage. Hardy is currently working as a physicist.
While he was pursuing his musical career, as well as his day job running sound and doing security at Snug Harbor, Pasquini also married his high school sweetheart Ashley. The pair met at a Rob Zombie/Godsmack concert at what was then called the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre.
Growing up in Collier County, Florida, Hanifin picked up the bass after his father played some Black Sabbath records for him.
“I thought [Black Sabbath’s] bass was really cool,” Hanifin says. “I wanted to do that.”
Hanifin also started playing guitar when the guitarist for his high school jazz band failed to show up for practice. At age 22, he moved to Charlotte and fell in love with the area. Hanifin has also played with romantic goth duo Buried in Roses and garage rockers Broke Jokes. He recently started playing bass for local daydream rockers Wine Pride.
Raised in New Jersey, keyboardist Tom Cushing joined The Singing Boys of Pennsylvania, a touring youth choir, when he was 8 years old. The choir toured America, performing at Disney World and Disneyland, eventually hitting the stage at the Tokyo Disneyland four separate times.
“It was a rigorous musical education that I got when I was really young,” Cushing says.
Joining and then touring with New Jersey band Terminal Reynaldo, Cushing befriended Charlotte band Sugar Glyder. Regaled with positive tales of the Queen City, Cushing moved to Charlotte with his band. When Terminal Reynaldo folded, Cushing chose to stay, launching his keyboard-based solo project Koosh.
Cushing first met Pasquini when Pasquini was shooting video of a house show where Koosh was playing.
“Koosh is one of my favorite things ever,” Pasquini says.
Growing up in Gaston County, Phillips started playing music in church at age 12. In 2011, Phillips launched punk-blues-infused Charlotte garage rock heroes Modern Primitives with bassist Darien Steege and drummer Phil Gripper. In 2017, Tim Nhu replaced Steege on bass. Modern Primitives then updated its raw meat-grinder sound with a blast of noisy guitar-led R&B. Steege returned on bass before the band called it a day in 2022.
“I hung [Modern Primitives] up,” Phillips says. “You don’t want to repeat yourself and do the same shit over and over again.”
Pasquini and Phillips met when Pasquini was shooting video of blues duo Female Gibson, then comprised of Phillips and Travis Lopshire. Phillips and Pasquini first played together in a country band called Tony Wain & the Neon Leons. The two friends subsequently played together again when Female Gibson hired Pasquini to play fiddle, but he swiftly moved to the drums.
Songwriting and sucking
Eventually, the paths of the future Pleasure House players crossed often enough that Pasquini’s and Phillips’ plan to form a band came to fruition. The pair recruited Hanifin and Cushing, along with guitarist Joe Boyland, and in August 2021, Pleasure House was launched. Despite the players’ backgrounds in rock, roots and country, the sound the fledgling group most often evoked was the herky-jerky robotic new wave satire of Devo.
The Devo phase lasted a few months. Pasquini says the group evolved their distinctive sound by being dissatisfied with most of what they wrote.
“Everybody kept on bringing songs — solo songs or songs from old bands, and we started learning them,” Pasquini says. “Then, once we’d learned enough songs, we decided they all sucked, and we started writing better songs, and then we decided those also sucked. Then we released the EP, and decided that sucked.”
For the record, the self-tiled EP, released in 2022, emphatically does not suck. The five original tunes on the collection crackle with the energy of longtime friends playing off each other telepathically. The songs are brisk and catchy, evoking the spirit of late 1970s New Wave traditionalist rockers Flamin’ Groovies.
The EP was recorded over a weekend at Baden Lake in a vacation house that belongs to Pasquini’s sister. Pasquini credits his friend Evan Clark, who engineered the sessions, for the smooth and trouble-free recording process. The band and Clark tracked the whole EP Friday and Saturday, leaving Sunday open for extracurricular activities.
“We drank a billion beers,” says Cushing.
“We watched a Lynyrd Skynyrd documentary on Sunday,” Hanafin says. “We were only going to watch five minutes of it, but then we all just shut up and sat down.”
“It was an opportunity to be really hungover,” Phillips says. “That’s the only time you’re going to watch a three-and-a-half-hour Lynyrd Skynyrd documentary.”
When Queen City Nerve speaks to the band, the members are assembled at Pasquini’s home. As members talk over one and another, yet are still able to hear and understand each other, it’s clear that their friendship and self-deprecating humor is all real. Pleasure House feels like a funny and sarcastic surrogate family unit.
The only reason Boyland left the band, Pasquini says, is that he got busy at his day job doing lighting and grip at the Fillmore Charlotte, and that he started booking too many gigs playing guitar with Charlotte pop-rock legends Paint Fumes. Phillips insists that Boyland, who gets some serious face time in the “Stoner Song” video, is still a band member in spirit.
Another reason to buy the party concept of Pleasure House’s “Stoner Song” video is the unmistakable feeling that all the band members are very close. They even acknowledge Pasquini as “Band Dad,” the group’s de facto manager — the guy that talks to bookers and sets up gigs.
Despite their self-deprecating insistence that most of their songs suck, Pleasure House seems satisfied with “Stoner Song.”
The tune started with the leviathan riff, the one that no one can remember from where it came. The riff would get played at the group’s weekly rehearsal/composing sessions, and simply would not go away.
“We went on for two months, trying not to make it a song,” Phillips says. “We finally said, ‘Oh fuck, I guess we like this,’ and then it got good. We started to record it, and I was like, ‘Oh shit, this song does rule.’”
Phillips also started writing lyrics for the tune, five full verses, which were whittled down to two.
Outside of a 4/20-appropriate nod to getting baked, he’s still trying to work out the meaning of lyrics like this:
“Babe I get so high/ But sometimes it makes me feel lonely too/ I know I should try to replace grief with gratitude…”
“It’s about being hungover, eating Mexican food by yourself, and … that’s about it,” Phillips says.
“Don’t undersell yourself,” Pasquini counters playfully. “It’s about [novelist and chronicler of a grotesquely violent deep South] Harry Crews in a corner taqueria hungover eating tacos.”
Then Phillips comes up with a second interpretation of “Stoner Song.” It’s about halfway recalled childhood memories, he says.
“It’s little ends of time,” Phillips says, “a bunch of weird shit that happened to me when I was 14, a vignette of my childhood.”
It seems those are the kind of memories with staying power.
Arcane meanings and memories aside, there are plenty more tunes on the way, the band says, including one song that reminds members of Deep Purple, and Hanifin’s tune called “Say It Again” that evokes the laconic nasal drawl of the late Mark E. Smith, vocalist for British post punk institution The Fall.
The genesis of any song, Hanifin says, is in the band’s jam room, and the process happens organically.
“We get together every week and write music and work on it,” Pasquini says. “So, there’s always new material coming out. We have a really good writing relationship where everybody trusts each other and we just do it.”
That’s how the band typically writes, Pasquini adds.
“Someone will occasionally drag in a piece of an idea,” Pasquini offers. “We credit everybody with all the lyrics on all the songs so we’re not fighting over money.”
Hanifin says, “Some things may not come to fruition —”
“…Because they suck,” Phillips finishes.
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