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All growed up: (l-r) Donnelly, Hayes, and Gent, backstage in Green Bay, Wis., 2006.

Photo: Tim Ditzman

To Be Continued

Celebrating two decades in the life of a rock band called the Figgs

By John Brodeur

 

The music industry may claim to cultivate new artists, but it’s plainly obvious that the machine favors nostalgia. (How else to explain a new Eagles album in 2007?) Therefore, the major labels, or what’s left of them, should be eating their hats over the fact that the Figgs continue to enjoy a healthy career—they could be on their third singles collection by now! But then, the Saratoga Springs natives were already sucked in and spit out by that system—twice—and, unlike most bands who have had the experience, they’ve survived to tell the tale. This August, Mike Gent, Pete Donnelly and Pete Hayes celebrate the start of their 20th year as a rock band, and it’s clear the Figgs have no intention of letting up anytime soon. Power-pop fans should thank their lucky stars.

As singer-guitarist Gent recalls, “Donnelly, Guy (Lyons, the band’s former guitarist) and I went to high school together and we started a band in August of ’87 [called] the Sonic Undertones.” They adopted their permanent moniker about a year later.

Singer-bassist Donnelly says, “We put up posters that said ‘Formerly Sonic Undertones, now the Figgs’ and everyone was like ‘What?! Why’d you change your name?’ ” (The answer has to do with a label deal that never materialized, in which the label head told them their original name was “unoriginal.”) “So we brainstormed for a while and came up with the Figgs and somehow decided that was the name.”

“I don’t know why we settled on the Figgs,” Gent wonders.

“It’s just like a sound—like the Troggs,” Donnelly adds. “And it’s a family name; it’s kind of like the Ramones.” Gent says he wanted to shorten the band’s name to the S.U.’s—“which is probably a better name than the Figgs”—but the new name stuck.

Lyons, then the band’s drummer, left the band in 1989, at which time Hayes, a student at Skidmore College, joined the group. “It was the lineup that it is now from ’89 to about ’92, when Guy came back,” Gent says. Having attracted quite a local following through gigging at clubs they weren’t even old enough to get into, the band was ready for something bigger. And once Lyons returned, as the band’s second guitarist, it was off to the races—within two years, they were signed to Imago, an upstart label with major distribution.

Donnelly, Gent and Hayes all point to their Halloween 1993 gig at Bogie’s—the night they signed the Imago deal—as one of the band’s defining moments. “The minute we got off the stage,” says Hayes, “we all went back to that dirty dressing room and we just knew we had nailed it. It was a really incredible time.”

“Getting the truck and hitting the road for real was a big change,” Donnelly says. “When the money came in from Imago, things really changed. That feeling of individuality was gone. It felt like you were now part of a machine that was gonna move forward and had momentum with or without you. The excitement and the fear that that brought on was pretty powerful. We went across the country in that truck a dozen times easily. I’m so grateful for that. It’s so necessary to have that kind of money to give you that boost. Had we tried to do it without any funding, we would have collapsed. The record deal gave us that leg up to take all the energy that we had and give us that extra push.”

But that deal came and went, followed by another (with label giant Capitol). By 1997, the band was back to square one. “When it went away, we had to fall back on the fact that we were a real band,” says Donnelly. “All the people were saying ‘You guys got screwed,’ and we were like ‘No . . . it just didn’t work out, but what did work out was the fact that we’re a band, and that’s what we want to be.’ It became even more clear to us that that’s what we really set out to do—to be a band, and not just try and play the game with the record industry.”

But Lyons, it turns out, was having other inclinations. As drummer Pete Hayes recalls, “We were going in [to their then-manager’s studio] to do a couple songs [for the upcoming record]. I knew something was up—it was a really fucking weird session. He had told me he was thinking about [leaving the band] around April.. . . This was deeper into the summer, and things were kind of falling apart. It’s strange what came out of the chaos. I’m so glad we didn’t just pack it in.”

The album that came out of that period, The Figgs Couldn’t Get High, would prove to be a fan favorite, and one close to the heart of Hayes. “It was like our finger that we gave to Capitol,” he says. “The performances are sick. We worked them out so hard. It was the first time where we actually went into pre-production for hundreds of hours. . . . It’s a great record that I feel like we own—even though we don’t.

Opening night: The Figgs onstage at the Bowery Ballroom, New York City, Aug. 2007.

Photo: Lynn Hanson

“Whenever I listen to it, it just reminds me of my good friend Guy Lyons. He had so many great songs on that record.”

Lyons, says Donnelly, is “still a great friend.” Donnelly shares an image of his old friend and former bandmate from the end of their last long tour, “covered head-to-toe with suds from a hot tub that wasn’t quite right. He went in the lobby of this hotel, looking for a bathroom, and there was a whole troop of Girl Scouts standing there, staring at Guy.”

With the departure of their longtime friend, the band found new life—and a new boom of creativity. It was “a very satisfying time,” says Gent. “We realized that we could actually be a good band as a trio again. After Guy left it took us a little while to get our feet back on the ground. Plus we had been through the whole major-label deal, and managers and lawyers and all that stuff, and it was just back to the three of us again.”

The 12-track, 32-minute Sucking in Stereo, released in 2000, “was the culmination of a lot of road work, and it comes across as pretty fun,” says Hayes.

Gent continues, “There was a lot less ego happening in the band. . . . [T]here wasn’t any pressure on us at all. We were having a good time on tour as opposed to doing these long tours playing in front of nobody. We got a new booking agent and we found out where our audiences were—and we were surprised that we had followings in some places. All of the touring we did in the ’90s that sucked . . . paid off, because there were little pockets where people were actually paying attention.”

About those pockets, Donnelly adds, “There is a decent group of core fans that you see continually when you go out; and, in rare occasions, you see the next generation. Whenever we go to Wisconsin it seems there’s a new younger group of people, like the records have been passed down.”

They were surprised, says Gent, that “people actually wanted to hear new music. We’re not just going around playing shit from 15 years ago or something.”

Sucking was part of a flurry of Figgs recordings released over a two-year period. (Their current discography shows 14 releases in 15 years.) Since then, the band has dropped the double-disc Palais, a collection of live tracks (Continue to Enjoy the Figgs Vol. 1), an expanded CD reissue of the 1993 Ready, Steady, Stoned cassette (Gent calls that his favorite Figgs record, “but I still cringe listening to certain songs”), and Follow Jean Through the Sea, released in late 2006. Follow Jean—another short, sharp blast that would pass for an EP by some bands’ standards—found Gent, Donnelly and Hayes resetting themselves once again. It was the first album in several years that didn’t include guest musicians.

“There are a number of songs on [Palais] that all three of us aren’t even playing on,” says Hayes. “Not one of us played on every single song on that record.”

“We were eventually gonna just give the Figgs to some other people and we were gonna retire. Get some people that look kind of like us. We were going to find them, breed them, and send them on their way. Maybe we could have, like, four franchises. . . . Just go ‘We’ll take 50 percent of your gross receipts, and we won’t have to do anything. You guys go out on the road and tour; while you’re out, we’ll be writing your songs.’ ”

All joking aside—that is, if Hayes is indeed joking—the group still have a surprisingly consistent output, especially considering their geographical makeup. (Gent currently lives in Boston, Hayes in New York City, and Donnelly near Philadelphia.)

“Every year we try to pull a few things together,” says Donnelly. “This year being our 20th, we had some big plans, but like my wife says, it’s really our 20th year until next August, so we still have time to get those things together.” He talks about releasing a Figgs anthology, “rather than boxes of outtakes and stuff like that.

“There’s lots of really cool stuff for the fans, but I would really like something for the new fans.” He adds that a disc collecting the band’s myriad 7-inch singles is being considered, as is a DVD collection, “maybe for our 25th year. It’ll take us five years to get all that stuff together.”

In the not-so-distant future, Gent says the band plan to release the Follow Jean outtakes as an EP, and a second volume of the Continue series. Also, a new studio album in 2008. And, possibly, another band member, because “Pete’s been digging playing guitar.”

In addition to all the Figgs activity, Donnelly, now 34, maintains an active schedule as a session engineer and musician in his adopted hometown (“I call this a full-time job—I’m in the studio five, six days a week.”); Gent, 35, continues working with British rocker Graham Parker, a relationship forged when the Figgs backed him on a 1996 tour, in addition to a number of other projects; and Hayes, 38, keeps steady work as a production accountant for films and TV shows (“I’m a drummer and an accountant. I like to pay musicians. . . . At the end of everything the musicians get paid. I like to tell people that’s my favorite part of both jobs.”). Calling their individual schedules “busy” would be an understatement.

While their lives keep them from being Figgs eight days a week, Gent offers a reminder that they are still very active. “People think, ‘Oh, they’re getting together to play a show,’ when we’ve been working steadily all along.”

And the band is still young, still growing. One could easily envision them lasting another 20 years or more, because above all, they’re family. Working at a more relaxed pace (sort of) has allowed them to grow as individuals, too. Hayes says the summer of 2002 was, for him, a special period because it defined “who we are as people. . . . We were all getting married—Kevin [the band’s old road manager] got married, Mike, and I, and a bunch of our friends. That whole summer we were just hanging out. We were putting together real family. It was pretty incredible. . . . It was actually the year the Figgs probably played the least.”

Donnelly echoes the brotherly sentiment. “I miss the Figgs. I miss being in the studio with them, and I miss making music with them. We’re not doing it as much as I’d like to—but we are still doing it.”

The Figgs will play at Valentine’s on Saturday, Sept. 15, with the Gravel Pit. For information, call the club at 432-6572 or visit www.thefiggs.net.



ROUGH MIX

 

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail John Brodeur at jbrodeur@metro land.net or call (518) 463-2500 ext. 145.



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