growed up: (l-r) Donnelly, Hayes, and Gent, backstage
in Green Bay, Wis., 2006.
Photo: Tim Ditzman
two decades in the life of a rock band called the Figgs
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.”
don’t know why we settled on the Figgs,” Gent wonders.
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
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.”
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.