“No fast-forwarding through the dialogue either,” says Chunx, MC for the soon-to-be-world-famous Oakland sex mob known as Gravy Train. “That’s the most important part.” She’s referring to a pornographic video that’s about to begin. The movie belongs to Hunx, the band’s dancemaster extraordinaire. The movie is called Here Cums Santa Claus.
“Oh, nice outfit,” quips Hunx, referring to the dark-haired chap on-screen. “Oh my God, it’s like he’s wrapped in tinsel.”
“Okay, shhhh. I don’t want to miss the story,” Chunx chides. “This is like Schindler’s List. It’s all about the setup.”
The two men in the movie are engaged in a deep conversation about what they should put under the Christmas tree this year. Their voices are barely audible against the dime-store, Casio-driven Christmas song playing in the background. One of them has a suggestion: “Us.” And with that, the song is replaced with an equally low-budget chicken-fried slow jam.
“I’m all about depth in pornography,” Chunx adds.
“Take your shirt off,” Hunx yells at the screen.
“Is that is a jockstrap?” asks keyboardist Funx, referring to one actor’s undergarments. Does Hunx wear those?
“All the time,” Hunx replies.
Then they appear: hairy asses parading back and forth across the screen. Hairy asses are bad, right?
“I like hairy asses,” says Chunx.
“I like hairy asses,” echoes Funx.
“I like hairy asses,” adds Hunx in a lascivious tone.
Recipe for partying down with Gravy Train: One cold, dingy warehouse in West Oakland; three bottles of cheap champagne; six 40 oz. bottles of cheap beer; four bags of salt and vinegar chips; five different kinds of candy, including sour punch, Swedish fish, and Twizzlers; a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon (for Drunx); gay porn (supplied by Hunx); and one copy of the band’s new CD, Hello Doctor.
“Gravy Train is the only thing we listen to,” says Hunx as the opening bleeps and beats of “Titties Bounce” kick off the CD. Yeah, that’s right: “Titties Bounce.” It’s a tune that joins such other self-explanatory titles as “Cottonmouth Blow Job” and “Burger Baby,” which is actually a song about getting knocked up by sirloin. If all this sounds a little too raunchy for your taste, then keep reading. As it happens, Gravy Train is on the fast track to success.
In less than two years, these three fly chicks and one flaming gay guy have gone from bastardizing Gary Glitter’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me” in a living room full of indifferent, not to mention offended, house party attendees to a national tour with Bratmobile, a recently released full-length on Kill Rock Stars (home to bands such as Sleater Kinney and Bikini Kill), and appearances on prestigious compilations, including New York City nightlife mogul Larry Tee’s recent electroclash collection Bad Inc. Not bad for a band that uses nothing more than two crappy keyboards and a drum machine that sells for sixty bucks on eBay.
Gravy Train’s music, from anything resembling an adult viewpoint, totally sucks. Fashioned out of low-budget beats and keyboard riffs that generally don’t extend beyond the complexity of “Chopsticks,” the group’s production values makes the soundtrack to Here Cums Santa Claus sound like a Neptunes track. Added to this are the lyrics of one MC Chunx, which are about as titillating as a money shot and about as complex: “I go to the high school, I go to the high school/To find me a bitch, a young virgin switch,” she sings on “Sippin’ 40 oz.” And while the dribble may be catchy as crabs, it’s about the furthest thing from a positive message as hip-hop can possibly get.
And then, of course, there’s the Gravy Train stage show. Featuring Funx manning the beatboxes and keyboards, Chunx on the mike, and Hunx and Drunx, aka the fly girls, pseudo-sodomizing one another through a series of so-sexy-they’re-repellent dance moves, the Gravy Train experience combines the flair of Menudo with the shock value of W.A.S.P. Dressed in red-and-white-striped short shorts, tight black T-shirts packed with shiny red sequins, and an assortment of sunglasses, headbands, and other items of flair, the band riles up its audiences like Richard Simmons on PCP. And the capacity crowds eat it up every time. A typical show features naked fans jumping onstage, multiple makeout sessions, blaring beats, and more sweat than you can shake a dick at. Oh, and by the way, we’re not talking here about back-alley midnight sex romps for the local pervs. Gravy Train’s audience is composed of the young and the restless, an assortment of disenfranchised high school kids, wayward indie rockers, sexually confused gutter punks and, well, just about all the kids in Oakland.
“There’s several parts to a Gravy Train show,” says Brontes Parnell, speaking with a fuel-injected lisp. In addition to playing in bands such as Panty Raid and Boys of Finland, Parnell is one of Gravy Train’s biggest fans and he’s usually the first one to get naked at its gigs. “The first part is you dress your best, you know, get ready for the show; the second part is to get totally fucked up — weed or alcohol is a must; the third part is dancing, as hard as you can, and there’s being naked too. Totally.”
As more and more people hop on the Train, they are discovering the truly amazing nature of this deceptively simple, deceptively superficial band. From the warehouses of Oakland to the hottest nightclubs of New York, there are those that are realizing the magic of Gravy Train as others try to figure out what exactly is the big deal with low-budget beats and raunchy lyrics.
But perhaps even more important than that is that Gravy Train has awoken a sleeping beast here in Oakland. As the home to hundreds of underground warehouses and thousands of dropouts, runaways, gutter punks, artists, and just plain dorks, the city has always surged with a kind of sexual energy that no band, until now, has truly been able to embody. But in celebrating the very nature of this community, raunchiness and all, Gravy Train has created an outlet for all the dorks of Oakland — not to mention the rest of the country — to express themselves sexually. Its music is the mating call of the poor, the smelly, the hungry, and the horny.
In other words, through nothing more than cheap instruments, no musical talent, and confrontational lyrics, Chunx, Drunx, Funx, and Hunx have positioned themselves smack-dab in the middle of a revolution. So for all of you who thought they were a bunch of talentless opportunists, perhaps it’s time to wake up and smell the Gravy.
Sex is in the air these days. Though folks were by no means celibate in the late ’90s, things had a puritanical air about them. Everyone was so busy making money and being prosperous that they forgot about sex. Perhaps sex took on the character of that elusive IPO you never managed to get in on; or maybe that of the prefab pop band, the ones that promised real emotion but delivered only entertainment. Like everything else, sex became the future, something we obsessed over but never actually took part in.
These days, with our 20/20 hindsight, it seems all too logical that garage rock (read the Strokes, White Stripes, Hives et al.) would have made a comeback at the start of this decade, replacing, as it did, the promises of pop with the immediacy of noise. And, of course, the big difference between pop stars and rock stars is that pop stars are virgins, whereas rock stars get laid (attempts to exploit this shift in pop cultural attitude are widespread; witness the new Christina Aguilera).
So while sex began to make its presence known in its own subverted way in the mainstream, the underground was bringing it back as well, only with much less reservation. The best example of this was the electroclash movement in New York City.
Named after a festival put on in 2001 by New York City personality Larry Tee, electroclash, as a genre, came to be defined by the performers who played that initial show: artists such as Fischerspooner, Peaches, Chicks on Speed, DJ Assault, and Detroit Grand Pubas.
Taking sterile, lifeless genres such as electro, minimal techno and, to some extent, bland hip-hop, the electroclash pioneers (if you could call them that) injected their music with tales of explicit sex and celebrity. Because the music was so bland, it was as if anyone with a beatbox and a sex life could make it. Suddenly you didn’t need to have talent to be sexy. Being sexy was your talent.
“To be famous is so nice/Suck my dick, kiss my ass/In limousines we have sex/Every night with my favorite friends,” sings electroclash favorite Miss Kittin.
Like most things in New York, electroclash was made popular by the thrill of exclusivity it provided its audience. Beautiful people listened to music made by other beautiful people for the purpose of meeting still more beautiful people. Even if there was a tongue-in-cheek element to it — and there certainly was — it was still the music played in many of the city’s most exclusive nightclubs.
But oddly enough, while all this was going on five thousand miles away, Gravy Train was doing something similar, totally oblivious to the fact that it was part of a larger movement, a movement shaping up not just in the New York City club scene, but across the entire country. Ultimately, what it all comes down to is sex — specifically, voicing the sexuality of your demographic, in the voice of your demographic, whether it’s leather-clad Williamsburg dykes or, in the case of Gravy Train, hamburger-scarfing fatties getting laid in warehouses.
“I was playing [“You Made Me Gay”] out at Lotus [a fancy NYC spot] just when people were listening to Fischerspooner and Peaches,” says DJ M-Crown, who spins hip-hop and electro throughout New York City. “People liked it. It wasn’t like a catchy dance tune, but crowds liked it ’cause it was different and it was underground — and at that point electro was just catching on so people were into it.”
Apparently, the same thing that people see in a Miss Kittin tune about sex in limousines they find in a Gravy Train song about smelly vaginas. Despite the fact that the band’s beats and melodies make video game music sound complex, crowds are responding to the music.
“I think it’s taking off amongst people who have had a chance to hear it in New York or DC because there is this authenticity about it that’s different than what’s going on out there,” says Allison Wolfe, vocalist for Bratmobile, whom Gravy Train toured with last year. “Gravy Train’s not trying to get big or be the next big thing in Williamsburg or whatever. They’re hanging out and eating hamburgers.”
Sitting on a well-worn couch in an unheated warehouse in West Oakland, the members of Gravy Train — in between gulps of champagne and handfuls of potato chips — are trying to get their stories straight. As members of a band that is astutely conscious of the media’s role in helping its career along, they’ve developed a shtick that’s both transparent and endearing. For example, they’re constantly slipping up and referring to one another by their real first names. It’s kind of like Snoop Dogg accidentally referring to himself as “Calvin.”
“This nun was like, ‘During Lau-‘ whoops,” Drunx pauses to correct herself as she describes an incident that occurred while attending Catholic school in Pennsylvania. “‘During Drunx’s science fair demonstration, I noticed that her kilt was really short, did you hem that yourself?’ And my mom was like, ‘No, she hemmed it, she can do whatever she wants.'”
Drunx’s skirts were always four inches too short according to the school’s “two inches from the knee” rule, and it’s at this point that Chunx and Funx realized that they had to deal with the same standard when they attended Catholic high school in Sherman Oaks and Hollywood respectively. For a second, all speculate on whether or not such a rule is in the Bible somewhere.
“I didn’t have to worry about that,” says Hunx of his strict upbringing, although he did have to worry about getting caught for smoking, burning Bibles, and trying to seduce the other boys in his class.
And there you have it: The unhinged sexual escapades that now define the existence of these four performers can all be traced back to a simple coincidence: All four attended Catholic school.
Drunx and Hunx grew up together in suburban Pennsylvania. Lascivious from day one, both had their first experience with sex at an early age. “I had boyfriends since kindergarten,” says Drunx. “I had my first kiss on the school bus.”
“I got caught humping the neighbor’s boy,” says Hunx. “My dad caught me naked on top of him in the tree house. I was seven.”
Chunx and Funx, who met through a mutual friend, were a little more reserved.
“When I was in fifth grade, I had this boyfriend and we used to square-dance together at school until this new kid moved in from Las Vegas,” relates Funx. “He wanted me, so he used to call me up and play Michael Bolton songs on the phone. That made me dump my boyfriend.”
“My first sexual experience was with a plum tree,” says Chunx, before relating the tale of a kiddie pool, adults with their backs turned, and Chunx trying to get it on with foliage.
Thanks to their affinity for plum trees and Michael Bolton, Chunx and Funx, not surprisingly, then embarked upon a long and awkward journey of sexual frustration. Though both are hella cute and totally funny, they don’t exactly fit the standard profile for attractive. In a society as superficially motivated as this one, a few extra pounds can be a tough enough cross to bear in one’s adult life. In high school it can be devastating.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m really horny and all these dudes love me,'” explains Chunx. “It was like, ‘I’m really horny and really ugly and no one wants me so I’m just gonna masturbate instead of going to all the parties.’
“Like I’d do a marathon masturbation session to the point that I made my vibrator explode and break.”
Oftentimes this kind of sexual alienation in high school can result in kids turning bookish, focusing on their studies, and attending college — where, if they’re lucky, many of these superficial hang-ups dissolve. But if you happen to attend a Catholic school where illicit drugs are more abundant than rosaries, this may not always happen.
“[My school] had the whole facade of being this really renowned, totally prestigious school,” says Chunx, who attended the private school on scholarship and subsequently found herself shoulder to shoulder with celebs such as Kirsten Dunst. “But everyone was a fucking junkie there. You can’t get a better education about drugs than a Catholic school in the valley. I learned all I needed to know there.”
Just about the only relationship Chunx had in high school was with a boy from out of town that she met at a PeeChees show at the Troubadour in LA. The boy was named Hunx. Though their fling was short-lived, it ultimately helped both individuals to define their sexuality once and for all. The drama is best expressed by “You Made Me Gay,” the unofficial Gravy Train anthem:
Hunx: “You have the ass, you have the titty/But there’s somethin’ in my pants that makes me want to go to shitty city.”
Chunx: “But menz ain’t got no pussy, they ain’t got no vagina/I’m through with you gay boyz/Drop outta mankind-a!!!”
Hot and bothered, Chunx and Funx moved to Oakland together in late 1999. According to Chunx, her prospects for getting laid changed almost immediately.
“Nobody paid attention to me in high school, and then when I moved here it was suddenly like this incestuous thing, like everyone wanted to get laid,” says the MC. “And I was like, ‘Woah, all these people want to do me — raaaaad.'”
But when one such trick turned out to be a dick, the pair found themselves ditching work in order to cope with Chunx’s mounting depression over the dude. As the legend goes, it was during one of these afternoon ditch parties, while watching daytime TV, that Chunx turned to Funx with an idea.
“I was just like, ‘Funx, I want to make songs about this dude,'” says Chunx. “Like, create art out of pain.”
It was that simple. Funx, who had taken six years of keyboard lessons, happened to have an old Yamaha lying around with which she co-opted the melody to Gary Glitter’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me” while Chunx laid down her rhymes about what an asshole this guy was. Thinking they might be onto something, the duo recruited “the best dancers we knew.”They were Hunx, with whom Chunx was now getting along again, and Drunx, who had recently moved out from Pennsylvania. As for the name, once again Chunx let her ex-fling fill in the blanks.
“[He] actually named the band. He’d be like, ‘It’s all gravy train, baby, it’s all gravy train.’ So I decided to call it Gravy Train.”
The band’s first show set a high-water mark for low-budget performance that, to this day, Gravy Train still aspires to.
“We got everyone to come into this room and we wore matching shirts that we made with puffy paint that said ‘Gravy Train,’ and we just danced to the song,” recalls Chunx. The song she’s referring to is nothing more than a tape-recorded version of Funx playing “Do You Wanna Touch Me” and Chunx lambasting the audience with her raunchy lyrics. “Everyone was like, ‘What is this and why are they making us watch this?’ I just remember watching people’s faces — they were so fucking pissed that they were being forced to watch this.”
Despite the initial negative reaction — and three subsequent months of party-crashing in which the band received a similar response — Gravy Train pressed on. They were four dorks who, for the first time, were finally getting a piece of the action and nothing was going to stop them now.
“We were so confident,” says Chunx. “We were grinning from ear to ear.”
“Even when no one was into it at all,” adds Hunx, “no one could bring us down.”
It certainly makes sense that a few producers and a couple of models in New York could turn dumbed-down beats into sex soundtracks, but could four awkward misfits from Oakland pull it off? Apparently so.
“There’s a new sexual element in geeky indie rock that hasn’t necessarily always been there,” says Slim Moon, who runs the Kill Rock Stars label. “I think it’s not just Gravy Train. I think it’s something exciting that’s going on in music right now with a bunch of different bands in a bunch of different ways. I think there’s some bands in the electroclash movement that are pretty sexy but pretty geeky at the same time. Then there’s bands like Har Mar Superstar, who’s like a total geek but his music is all about sex.”
Whatever the explanation behind this synchronicity, there are signs that even mainstream audiences are warming up to this unabashed expressionism.
During the national tour with Bratmobile, Gravy Train found themselves at a gig at the University of Wisconsin. The promoters had booked the show thinking that Bratmobile was a popular act that would appeal to the incoming freshmen and parents on hand for an orientation that day. When the tour bus showed up on the scene, everyone was instantly riddled with fear.
“Because it was like the orientation thing, it was every kind of person,” recalls Chunx. “It wasn’t like a bunch of riot grrls who wanted to see Bratmobile. We were really scared. There were all these jocks there and I just looked out and it looked like MTV Spring Break.“
“Our roadie was very concerned,” relates Bratmobile’s Wolfe. “He was like, ‘Let’s pack up, let’s get out of here, these people are gonna beat us up.’ And I was just like, ‘Marty, relax, we don’t know what’s going to happen.’ And people loved it.”
“They were so shocked to see people that weren’t all skinny wearing hardly any clothes and not caring,” says Chunx. “But by the second or third song, people were totally into it. We sold more merch there than any other city on the tour.”
Perhaps what people are responding to in Gravy Train is the simple un-self- conscious passion that these kids are putting into their music. That they’re passionate about eating hamburgers and watching gay porn and having sex in warehouses is incidental. Kids just want to be sexy again and they’re excited to see people — young or old, fat or skinny, bald or hairy — celebrating that desire again.
Gravy Train is here to stay, and so long as that’s the case, it’s going to be hanging Oakland’s dirty laundry from its beatbox for all the world to see. And isn’t it about time someone rejoiced in this city’s uniquely perverse underbelly, all these desperate dudes with their black-rimmed glasses and their sideways trucker hats, the girls with their potbellies and geeky smiles? Isn’t it about time we told the world about our body odor and our stinky dreadlocks and our unshaved armpits? Isn’t it time we started appreciating hairy asses?
Oakland is Club Med for freaks, where everyone who didn’t get some in high school can show up and feel like a player.