DISORDER ON THE DANCE FLOOR
It all began on Tio Leo’s dance floor, when a mutual friend encouraged Fanny to teach Natt some moves. The following gyrations led to his fist making a pretty solid contact with her face. The punch was more embarrassing than painful, and proved a valuable bonding experience. There was no lasting damage and no hard feelings, but it was a moment that foreshadowed some of the rough roads that Fanny and the Atta Boys have traveled to becoming rising stars on the San Diego music scene. (Note: The Troubadour does not encourage this method of making friends or recruiting band members.)
Natt Wise and Tiffany (Fanny) Christie comprise the core of Fanny and the Atta Boys (hereafter FAB for short), with Fanny the focal point on stage and Natt the musical leader and primary executor of the band’s vision. The two share songwriting, with Fanny concentrating on lyrics. They draw their inspiration from American popular music of the past: authentic music that’s comfortable at backyard barbeques and beer parties. Though the FAB sound is instantly recognizable, it’s hard to slap a one-word label on it, as it encompasses a variety of acoustic roots genres, including swing, bluegrass, jazz, and blues.
The common denominator is a sense of American history, where the music resonates with the listener’s shared background and sensibilities. Slow or fast, their songs convey high energy and are usually punctuated by a strong backbeat. The rhythm is provided by acoustic bass, banjo, and guitar; there is no drum kit. They are your friend’s band who is happy to come play for your shindig, hang out, and help finish off the keg. They would rather perform for ten enthusiastic fans than a room full of apathy (which is hard to imaging at a Fanny and the Atta Boys show – see below).
THREE SONGS, FOUR HOURS
It took a couple years after that first dance-floor meeting for the personal stars and life situations to line up and allow Fanny and the Atta Boys to fall into place as a band. Once that happened though, in the fall of 2013, it was full speed ahead.
Within a month they played their first gig: a four hour instrumental marathon backing a “pin-up fashion show” (don’t ask) at a Pomona tattoo shop. By this time, their repertoire included all of three instrumental songs. (Aspiring musicians: it is possible to do a full show playing only “Rumble,” “Rawhide,” and “Blues in E.” All subsequent gigs will be easy in comparison.) “Just brutal!” notes Fanny, a trial by fire that tempered the band into a functional unit.
Jump ahead three years and countless shows, we find Fanny and the Atta Boys careening full speed down the Americana highway. They have regular bookings at the Cat Eye Club (“Cocktail Lounge and Tiki Bar”) in the Gaslamp and the Black Cat Bar in City Heights, a hotbed for local musicians. They’ve caught the attention of local roots luminary Clint Davis and have opened for LA legends the Blasters. Sharing the Casbah stage with Wayne “The Train” Hancock (“the undisputed king of jukebox swing”) and Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys was a transformative experience; some of the stage wisdom of those road-seasoned veterans seems to have rubbed off on our friends Natt and Fanny.
Fanny and the Atta Boys is a cooperative independent outfit, but Natt is the recognized leader and driving force. He takes primary responsibility for booking, repertoire selection, and personnel. He is one of the songwriters and singers, the lead guitar player, and when called for he strums a pretty mean four-string banjo. Weekly practices are held in the La Mesa barbershop where Natt holds down his day job and continues to build his network, one haircut at a time.
Natt has covered a lot of musical ground on this journey to being the leader of East County’s home-town roots band. He first played the Casbah at age 16 with a rockabilly three-piece band, the Rumblers, but the rockstar sheen faded a bit as the underage band members were escorted outside after performing. Natt’s first musical memories, though, are at age seven taking mom-instigated piano lessons. “I hated it!” say Natt. Somehow he convinced his parents that a drum set, conveniently kept in the garage, would be a better fit for his sensibilities, and he was right.
By age 13 Natt was playing in a band called Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Julian. With a limited pool of musicians to draw from, the band consisted of a “metalhead kid, a punk rock kid (me), and an indie alternative neighbor” concentrating on an anti-racist folk-tinged repertoire. From there, Natt took his drumming into the punk scene, transitioning after a while to a series of rockabilly projects around the Ramona area.
About that time, Natt shattered his wrist skateboarding, which could have brought a premature end to his musical career. Fortunately, he tried playing guitar as physical therapy and found a deep connection to that instrument. His next project was playing doo-wop and Motown, further broadening his musical horizons. All these musical ingredients have found their place in the FAB stew.
Fanny (definitely more a “Fanny” than a “Tiffany”)—front person, singer, songwriter, and co-conspirator in all things FAB—came to the Atta Boys from a completely different musical direction. She began singing at age four and has a strong musical theater background that informs her stage presence to this day. At fourteen, she was part of the “hippie/poet” scene in San Diego coffeehouses, singing covers and originals. After some time raising a family and moving around the country, she started singing with cover bands. Not finding satisfaction there, Fanny gravitated back to the theater world. She took classes with Justin Blake in the Palm Springs area, whom she credits with expanding her musical vision.
This directly motivated her return to San Diego with the intent of making her music her life. Primarily by immersing herself in the local music scene, dancing in clubs, meeting musicians, Fanny was in the right place at the right time (legendary punch in the face included) to be the person called in to front the Atta Boys at their inception.
If you want more insight on Fanny, she refers you to the lyrics of Cher’s 1971 hit “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves,” which she claims tells her tale (presumably metaphorically) better than any biography.
THE ATTA BOYS
If Natt is the train’s engineer, and Fanny the conductor, it’s the guys in the engine room that keep this locomotive rolling down the track, and make the music jump and sparkle.
Cameron (Toby) Pykles (rhythm guitar, harmonies) is an original member who provides the solid backbeat on a classic Kay acoustic guitar. He came into the FAB orbit both through Natt’s haircuts and Fanny’s dancing on rockabilly night. His musical background includes church hymns, junior theater productions, marching band shows, and a lifelong appreciation for the classic American songs of Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Jimmy Rodgers, and Woody Guthrie. Toby counts Pour Vous in LA as one of his favorite gig spots, and would love to one day choreograph 1930s-inspired dance routines into the Fanny show. He stays in shape for the grueling life of a stage musician working in the family remodeling business and running half marathons.
Joel Tuttle (eight-string steel guitar, five-string banjo, electric guitar) was drawn to the band a year ago by its unique sound. He shares shares lead duties with Natt and is largely responsible for the fills and counterpoints that make the music so delightful. Before joining, he had not played the steel guitar, and only a little banjo. He has consciously avoided mimicking any traditional players, choosing instead to find his own path to his own style. When not filling out the Atta Boys sound, Joel can be found performing complex solo fingerstyle guitar and giving music lessons.
Pete Hamilton (acoustic bass) is the newest member, joining after the recent album recording sessions were completed. He seems to be fitting in nicely, covering a series of Atta Boy tunes in practice with no cheat sheets—even the “the wonky one in G.” Pete has played rock, country, folk, bluegrass, and gypsy jazz with the Long Beach Caravan Trio, and Matt Curreri, Joanie Mendenhall and the Ex-Friends. Pete offered to provide the Troubadour a (presumably completely imaginary) history of Fanny and the Atta Boys, which we declined but which may find its way into the canon at some point.
Every bunch of cool kids should have a clubhouse, and the FAB clubhouse is Dapper Jay’s Barber Shop & Hot Shaves in La Mesa. This is the after-hours hangout and practice location, and where the band does most of its video and photo shoots. The retro vibe provides a perfect atmosphere. There are gilded mirrors, a checkerboard tile floor, and, of course, big swivel chairs. The smell of aftershave carries out to the sidewalk, and clippers, razors, and genuine butch wax are kept at the ready. Hank Williams and Johnny Cash (the iconic middle finger shot) look down from the walls to keep things honest, and a fridge of cold Millers keeps things loose. “Just like home!” say Fanny.
The clubhouse dress code seems to consist primarily of cuffed bluejeans, which adds to the retro vibe without invoking any hipster affectations. Fanny raises the fashion bar with a red checked gingham shirt that amplifies her bright red lipstick. Her arched eyebrows under pinned-back hair accent her expression, be it a joyful smile, a blues grimace, or one of the meanest stink-eyes you’ll ever want to meet. Pete, the new kid, currently is “in intense negotiations” with the band over wardrobe requirements but has drawn the line at growing a mustache.
On practice night, a small knot of people and a large pile of equipment gather on La Mesa Blvd. After a bit, gear moves inside, tube amps warm up, speakers are positioned, instruments tuned, beers opened, and sound levels adjusted. Vintage equipment is out in force, notably Natt’s natural-finish 1957 Gibson ES-175 hollow-body electric guitar. With only an announced song title, sometimes a key signature, and a little silent musical body language for the benefit of Pete, the band runs through a set of some of the most fun tunes you’ll hear, including “Steel Guitar Rag,” “Bands-a-Rockin’,” “Freight Train Blues,’ and “Sugar Moon.” Natt and Joel trade solos; Pete and Toby keep the beat; and Fanny works the mic with croons, whoops, and snarls. The energy is high and the execution is flawless, but you wonder whether an audience would push the performance to a higher level.
A FAB SHOW
Sure enough, Fanny and the Atta Boys do bring a verve to their live performance that wasn’t present at practice, and which is hard to capture on video. The energy zipping among the members on stage pulls in the audience and makes them part of the show. On this evening, the band has headed north to play for an unfamiliar crowd in Oceanside. It it’s a weeknight, they’ll be followed by two rock outfits. Not the most promising gig, though not as bad as the Pomona tattoo parlor.
The band sets up and jumps right into the first of about a dozen songs, dialing in the PA system on the fly. The acoustics are marginal (“it sounds like the back of my closet,” someone says), and the drinkers are talkative. The dance floor is empty. It could demoralize a lesser band.
But Fanny and the Atta Boys never acknowledge the challenge. They play their first several songs with two banjos (plus bass, rhythm guitar and Fanny singing lead). This is not a sight or sound that targets the comfort zone of your general Pour House patron, but the band pulls it off. They let the audience know who they are, that they’re having fun, and that everybody is welcome along for the ride.
One high-energy song rolls into the next. No ballads tonight! Fanny keeps the crowd engaged with her dynamic facial expressions and dance-hands and feet. She uses her voice like Louis Armstrong used his trumpet, interspersing soaring melodies with growls and howls. She’s been compared to the late San Diego icon Candye Kane, known for using the stage as a platform to build a bridge from herself to her audience.
Walking in, you might think no one is paying attention, because the dance floor is still empty and there are a hundred conversations going on. Then you notice that all the chairs are shifted so the drinkers can keep one eye on the band. Feet are tapping under the tables, and people are putting on some moves as they walk across the room. And there is enthusiastic clapping after each song, even from back by the pool table.
Soon Natt puts down his four-string banjo and picks up his trusty Gibson, standing up and bringing his mic to singing position. Joel picks up a Telecaster for a few songs before turning loose on the steel guitar. Now the sound is a little fuller and a little more radio-friendly. The energy level stays high, but still lets the musicianship we saw in practice shine through. The leads are quick and clean and blend in just right. Over on the right, Pete has obviously done his homework, keeping a solid bass line up and down the neck. Toby stands just out of the spotlight, between Pete and Fanny, the tallest one on stage. (The Kay’s soundhole is just about at Fanny’s eye level.) He provides the driving backbeat plus backing and occasional lead vocals.
When given the “one more song” signal, the band switches back to the original two-banjo configuration as if to remind the audience that they have just been part of something unique. Finishing up, our friends are quickly off stage and packing up for the drive back to East County, leaving behind some good memories and some new Fanny fans.
A PECK OF DIRT
There’s an adage that “you’ve got to eat a peck of dirt before you die.” (For those who didn’t grow up on a farm, there’s about as much dirt in a peck as beer in a case.) Natt recalls the young version of himself being reminded of this by his grandma when he would complain.
A Peck of Dirt is the name of the Fanny and the Atta Boys’ debut album, an allusion to the struggles they’ve faced (stomached?) leading up to its release. Preparation for the album took months, amid continuous gigging and some band personnel changes. It felt like “the dude pushing the boulder up the hill for eternity,” according to Fanny. Additionally, the Kickstarter campaign that was intended to fund the recording fell through, which led them to a fortuitous fallback Plan B.
The album, due out this month, was recorded at Afterhours Studio at the Ramona Music Center with John Hasz. The low-pressure atmosphere there allowed the complete tracking of 12 songs over the course of a weekend. The project includes nine originals and boasts guest appearances from Clint Davis, Brandon Wallace on fiddle, and Gerard Nolan on clarinet.
Lyrically, the songs tend toward the dark side, with an occasional lighter number (see Bob Wills’ “Sugar Moon”) to relieve the tension and “cleanse the palate.” The album title A Peck of Dirt represents the adversity and struggle in the songs themselves, as well as the band’s efforts to complete the project. However, Fanny notes, “Singing the blues isn’t about having the blues; it’s about getting over the blues. It’s emotional bloodletting.”
Throughout the process, Natt and Fanny were having multiple daily conversations (“People think we’re married, but we’re not. We’ve never been in a relationship.”) to iron out all the details of the project. From graphics to liner notes to song order, it’s all them. Untold time and thought went into the track ordering to get the ideal emotional flow. Fanny says, “It’s like making a mix tape…” “…A mix tape for your crush!” finishes Natt.
With the band responsible for every aspect of the project, there is a lot of pressure to get everything just right as well as a lot of vulnerability to judgment on the product. There’s no record company to blame for picking the wrong producer or bad artwork. The result of the year-long process is that everything about the project represents the band, and the best part of the band is represented in the project. Buy the CD and judge for yourself, but listening to the rough tracks indicate they have nothing to worry about. Downloads will be available on Bandcamp and CDBaby.
ALL GROWN UP
Fanny and the Atta Boys have recently joined the roster at LA/Pasadena-based Heyday Media Group. Heyday is helping them chase down quality gigs and helping them grow professionally. Heyday has encouraged (and lovingly nagged) Natt and Fanny to do the excruciating paperwork to get their songs registered with performing rights organization BMI, setting the stage for potential licensing deals. “God bless her!” says Fanny. “It was a grownup step, but it was painful—so painful!” But, now Heyday is able to pitch their music in TV and movieland, which is a promising potential source of income to finance future projects.
Today a crowded stage has replaced Tio Leo’s dance floor as the danger zone, but the band has learned to be light on their feet and watch each others’ backs; Fanny’s risk of getting sideswiped has been brought down to acceptable levels. They are following up on media opportunities. They are writing new material, with the expectation of establishing a pattern of yearly album releases. They are starting to think about putting together a series of short tours, to introduce themselves to different audiences, with a longer-term objective of tapping into the European market for American roots music. There may be bumps in the road ahead, but for now things are looking pretty good for your favorite neighborhood band. You can keep up with them on YouTube and at www.fannyandtheattaboys.com.
Fanny sums it up. “Music, it’s what I do. That was my goal, to do it full time. Which means times are lean most of the time, but it’s been good. It’s been HARD, but most of the time I feel very positive….” And she laughs. With A Peck of Dirt under her belt, hopefully the lean times are mostly behind her.
A Peck of Dirt CD Release with the Little Miss, Clint Davis, and the Downs Family is happening on Saturday, December 10, at the Black Cat Bar, 4246 University Ave., starting at 8pm.