REPORT: Nobunny Live in Northampton

 

June 29 at The
Flywheel in Northampton, Mass., this son of a Jackalope mother and
human father – and a recording artist for Goner, naturally – served up
garage-slop that was anything but cuddly and furry.

 

Text & Photos By Jennifer Kelly

 

Nobunny appeared late, having waited until the very last
minute, and past it, through tense conversations between members of his band
and the staff. He came out, from god knows where, finally, face obscured behind
a dirty, long-furred, animal mask. He wore, on top, a short leather jacket, on
the lower half, not much of anything at all, black jockey shorts, a long
handcuff dangling from one thigh, and bare legs, exposing an elaborate tattoo
on one calf.  He was disguised as a
rabbit, not the cuddly, Easter-basket-filling, carrot-nibbling type, but rather
a rabid, feral, sharp-toothed version, maybe the one that mauled Jimmy Carter
all those years ago. You could have nightmares about this animal.  Forget Frightened Rabbit. This is frightening rabbit.

 

Nobunny, like many costumed superheroes (and villains), has
an origin story. He is, according to self-propagated myth, the son of a
Jackalope mother and a human father, born in the desert outside Tucson in 2001. This
makes him 10 years old, far too young for the leather and bondage get-up that
he has acquired, but perhaps half-Jackalopes mature early.

 

More prosaically, Nobunny is the alter-ego of Justin
Champlin, also of Okmoniks and Sneaky Pinks. Over the last three years, Nobunny
has released two full-lengths, several cassettes, a handful of singles and a
Cramps tribute. He is currently associated with Goner Records, which released
his second album, called First Blood,
late in 2010.

 

First Blood, like
much of Goner’s output, hews closely to early rock traditions, 1960s garage,
1950s rockabilly, Stax soul and Motown girlgroup and doo-wop. Nobunny has a
high pop tenor, edged with a ragged growl. He sounds like Frankie Valli after a
four-day bender, like Joey Ramone after a gulp of helium. The record is totally
enjoyable, but not, on its surface, very subversive. To understand how twisted
and out there Nobunny is, you have to see him perform. In his underwear. And
mask. And handcuff.

 

Nobunny’s set was a blur of short, gritty, tuneful rockers,
played fast and hard and tight, so that one song bled into another with very
little chit chat. Rattling “Hocus Pocus,” doo-wop flavored “It’s True,”
head-pounding “Blow Dumb,” motor-oil stained poppish “Live It Up,” went by in
quick succession, with only a few mutters from the front man. (Although, at one
point, he does ask for another guitar, but it’s not clear who he’s asking and
he certainly doesn’t get one.)  The
theatricality is all in his body language, as he lunges into metal-worthy rock
poses, bounds wrecklessly back and forth in front of the stage, nearly naked
after all,  preens and gestures
flamboyantly as he knocks out these rock-simple songs. The show gets most
baroque with “I’m a Girlfriend,” all palm-muted tension and falsetto’d
androgeny. With the handcuff and bondage vibe, the whole performance plays very
gay, though I gather that Nobunny is not. In any case, whatever rules you
personally have about sexuality, who ought to do it and to whom and where and
how, Nobunny gave the impression that he was out to break those rules, and
maybe a few that you hadn’t thought of yet.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nobunny played with a straight up garage rock band, a bass
player and drummer locked into bash-and-pop songs that veered from classic
Ramones punk to Stooge-y mayhem to Hasil Adkins-style rockabilly, to surprising
bursts of Beatles-esque harmony. Nobunny’s genius – the reason he unsettled as
much as he entertained — came in juxtaposing an essentially conservative,
hetero-garage playbook with the wildest sorts of gender confusion. First Blood is a ripping good time. Nobunny’s
shows are a good deal rawer and more challenging.

 

Two bands played before Nobunny. Walking Ghosts, the opener,
leaned toward the roots end of the spectrum, strutting ZZ Top-ish guitar blues
leading into a stately Band-like Americana
swagger. A cover of “The Scene Girls”, by the Cincinnati’s Prohibitionists, had a punk-ish,
rockabilly flavor, while “Start Walking”, later in the set, drew from R&B
and soul.

 

After Walking Ghosts, Amherst’s
Whirl brought some comic relief, their metal-into-hardcore punk set initially
delayed when the drummer announced, “I forgot my drumsticks.” (The bass player
meanwhile, had donned a shiny black cape, surely pilfered from a kid’s
Halloween costume, and was trying a few jumps off the main amp.)  He borrowed a pair, finally, from the Walking
Ghosts drummer, and the room filled with skate-boarding, slam-dancing,
teenagers, mostly boys, but a few girls as well.  A few churning, obliterating songs later –
they really weren’t bad, though kind of bone-headed and mindlessly aggressive –
the guitar player broke his D string and announced that he couldn’t go on
without it. Needless to say, he didn’t have any extras. A longer break this
time, again, ended when the Walking Ghosts crew stepped up. The guitarist’s father changed the string and they
played one more song.  

 

So, to sum it all, three punk bands pursued wildly different
interpretations of the house that Johnny Rotten built on a midsummer evening.  Walking Ghosts, the least punk of the three,
wafted the faint tang of cowpunk, while Whirl built on Black Flag’s experiments
welding metal into hardcore. And Nobunny, pants-less and wearing a furry mask,
a handcuff dangling from one exposed thigh, extended the Doll’s ventures into
gender-stereotype-breaking garage rock, the Ramones’ combination of bubblegum
melodies, speed and noise.  

 

 

 

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