The Philly wunderkind behind the beloved Photon Band talks songwriting, pop and punk, the Lilys and other fellow City of Brotherly Love bands, and upcoming plans.
BY TIM HINELY
Art DiFuria first came on my radar in the mid-‘80s when I saw him in a band called Tons of Nuns on stage at the Kennel Club in Philly. He seemed kinda like me, a “normal” punk (no mohawk, leather jacket, etc.) but I noticed his choice of footwear was cool. He had slippers on which I thought was about the most punk rock thing you could do (I wore mine in public a few times after that and got some odd looks/comments). A few years later I saw him in Uptown Bones and remember him being the same guy in Tons of Nuns and made a mental note. Fast forward a few years (early/mid-‘90s by now) and I had left the east coast for the west coast and began hearing rumblings of a band called Photon Band who began releasing singles in 1995-ish (yes, the Lilys, who Art played with for a time, have a record called Eccsame the Photon Band and as far as who inspired who well……read below).
The stuff I’d heard by Photon Band seemed to be a real inspired stew of whatever was/is in Art’s head at the time. A wiggy blend of psychedelic rawk with illegal u-turns all over the place. The stuff is good. On paper it could seem like the workings of a shot-out guy whose brain was addled by Clorox and Pop Rocks who lives in his mother’s basement and jams for jams sake, but no. These are honest to goodness songs by a truly talented songwriter and regarding Photon Band there’s more to come (again see below).
I shot Art some questions and he was more than happy to spill the beans on his childhood as well as what Philly band should’ve made it (also what was was more hardcore, the Ardmore, PA or Exton, PA scene). Thanks so much to Art for really making this interview come to life (or “Pop!” as the kids say). Take it away….
Where did you grow up? Was it in the city of Philly or a suburb?
I grew up in a place that was basically “nowhere,” culturally speaking: Exton PA. Its redeeming quality was that there were endless woods and creeks out there. It wasn’t as developed as it is now and so you could get on your bike and just ride or walk forever, and just think and dream.
Did your parents or any siblings influence musically?
There was always all kinds of music playing in our house. We had this gigantic TV / Stereo system with this posh turntable and huge speakers. On Sundays, after church and before the Eagles games, my dad played a lot of Perry Como, Al Martino, and of course Sinatra. Hearing those big, fluffy recordings on a deluxe stereo was mesmerizing, even though the music wasn’t really my thing. My mom could play the piano, too. We had one in our house (which is now in my huse!). But my sisters were the biggest influence. They would eventually take over the stereo from my dad by whining about the old goombah music and they’d put some Beatles on. Of course, in my little kid mind I was like “holy SHIT, what is THIS?” That was all a huge influence. My sisters are older than me by 7 and 10 years and they could both play guitar. The one closer to me in age majored in music in college, so she was always talking about music all through junior high and high school. It was the early 70s, so it was a very folky thing that she and my oldest sister were into, that whole heaviness-with-an-acoustic-guitar scene was very big then. And our local Catholic church, trying to be hip, dispensed with the organ and had a “guitar group” play the hymns. 10 or so teenagers looking wholesome on the outside but seeming a bit fiendish below the surface, as all teenagers do, was really cool to me. I was really little and hated going to church already, but I did like the sound of the guitars being tuned as we walked into the church. In my little kid mind I associated the big crucifix over the altar with the sound of guitars being tuned. It seemed ominous, like there was something profound about to happen. My sisters also had the first three Monkees albums, which made an indelible impression on me.
Do you remember the first record you ever bought with your own money?
Well, my folks were giving me records from an early age. They gave me “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” in 1973 and I had my own little turntable to play it on. I wore the grooves out on “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce and also the Raspberry’s “Go All the Way.” My first purchase, I remember very well because it pissed off my dad. I bought “The Who Sing My Generation.” I had become obsessed with them because I had seen footage of Townshend smashing his guitar and Keith Moon going nuts on drums. I had just seen the commercial for The Kids are Alright on TV on a Friday night and was supposed to do some yard work for my dad on that Saturday. He gave me the money in advance of the work because he had some errands to run. Then my sister invited me to go to the mall with her. Of course, I ditched the yard work and went to the mall and spent the money without having done any of the work. When I came back with the album my dad was waiting for me. Man, the tongue lashing that followed was intense.
Where was your first punk show? Love Hall? Somewhere else? Who played and what year was it?
We could get to Philly pretty easily on the R5 and by the early 80s, we were taking it upon ourselves to do so. The “other” record store at the mall, called Grand Records, was way better than the establishment one, Sam Goody’s. Grand Records actually carried the SST catalog, which was my entre into punk. I had Land Speed Record and The Punch Line because of that store. You could buy buttons and patches there that said “The Jam!” and “Fuck Art, Let’s Dance!” on them. They also had a little bulletin board with show posters and flyers. It was mostly new wave stuff, all pink and day-glo, about shows at the old Latin Casino, which had been renamed Emerald City. But one day, there was this black and white “xerox” flyer for a show at Love Hall with Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen. I had to go! It said that Love Hall was on Broad and South so I knew I could find it easily. I went by myself. I was scared shitless, this 16 year old kid with a new buzz cut so as to not look lame, wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, and combat boots just purchased from I.Goldberg’s. I scuffed them up on purpose right after I got them so they didn’t look too shiny and new. I was a LONG way from home. Once I got there, I didn’t talk to anyone. I just made myself invisible and watched the whole thing happen. Those bands were way better than I could have ever imagined. I left that show with a whole new concept of music. I think I went to see the Born Again era Black Sabbath that same fall and there was no contest in my mind as to which show was the real thing. But there was nobody at my high school that could relate to my Love Hall experience. They were all either wishing John Bonham hadn’t died, or to decide whether or not Rush’s Signals was a betrayal or a master stroke. Those are valid pursuits, too, and I didn’t become a punk overnight, or ever, really; becoming one narrow thing seemed dumb to me. But I did become a huge fan of it because of those bands.
I first saw you in Tons of Nuns in 1985 or maybe ’86. Was that your first band?
I had played in cover bands in Exton, which is how I learned to play “live” instead of just playing along with records at home. But yep, the Nuns was my first real band. It started as Bernadette Rappold on guitar, Brian Sussman on drums, and Mike Logan (aka Spayce Mann, who currently plays with Brother JT) on bass. Then Mike decided to bail and Bern switched to bass. That sort of became our identity, that trio. And that was how I learned to play guitar in a trio: trust the other two.
What was next, Uptown Bones? How long did that last?
Between Tons of Nuns and Uptown Bones, there was Holy Smoke. Tons of Nuns started to feel too kooky, too gimmicky. I could’ve stayed in it and slowly changed that, but I had my head up my ass. It started to feel like it wasn’t growing, but that’s probably because I wasn’t willing to give it a chance. So I told those guys I wanted out. They stayed together and got Bill Rudolph to play guitar. He later founded Rotgut and then Rear Admiral. They also got a really great guitarist named Dan who could play circles around me. Brian and Bern turned the Nuns into a much better band after I left. I think my leaving gave them a burst of energy, like “we’ll show him!!” And it was probably a lot more fun for them without this pain-in-the-ass brooding perfectionist around who wanted things to be more serious. When Mike Logan heard I left the Nuns, he wanted to jam again. We were very tight buds and quickly got songs together with a drummer named Jay Jurina who was also in Sky Grits. We felt like Holy Smoke had no limits; we used to do long instrumentals, ballads, really fast stuff, heavy Sabbath sounding tunes, you name it. And we had a lot of gigs in a really short time during the spring and summer of 87. But then Mike left Philly without really explaining why. Jay and I tried to keep the band going, but I was really thrown for a loop. I had lost my best friend and didn’t know why. I sort of blamed myself and thought, “well, all I’ve really done is start this kooky band that got better after I left, and then started this other one that wasn’t good enough for its co-founder. I must suck at this.” So I decided to lay low and not be a front man. I went to see the Uptown Bones whenever they played. They were guys who came to Temple a year after I did. They were a spunky little band with super spazzy energy. Plus, they were tight with Eric DeJesus (the Raw Pogo on the Scaffold / Easy Pop Art guy, and eventual best man at my wedding) who had been showing me his poems and stories which were so fucking excellent I couldn’t believe it. They were, in my mind, a “real rock band.” And I could see right away that Rich Fravel, the singer, was probably the best front man I’d ever get to play with. We all sort of spoke a language that nobody else understood. We were like a little scene of our own, wherever we went. When their original bassist Scooter drifted away from them, I stepped in. We started to click right away. That momentum lasted from the spring of ’88 through to our last tour in France in the summer of 93; two full length albums, three tours, and a bunch of singles. But then, we grew tired of each other and could see that it wasn’t going anywhere. We opted out.
Tell me about your involvement in the Lilys? Had you known Kurt previously? How long was your tenure in the band?
I had been messing around with this totally spontaneous band called the Psychic Enemies. It was me, Wayne Hamilton from Suffacox, and Simon Nagle, future Photon Band drummer. We purposefully avoided writing songs. We would jam for hours and never repeat a riff. We’d show up at gigs and do the same. But after awhile, we just couldn’t sustain it. Somehow, all that freedom felt like a dead end. So I was sort of putting word out there that I was looking for a gig. I had my hand inside a turkey on Thanksgiving eve 1993 and Bryan Dilworth and Mike Lenert came up the stairs of my warehouse and said “you’re playing in the Lilys.” I had heard In the Presence of Nothing and Amazing Letdowns and was pretty impressed. And I loved Bryan and Mike. So I said “yes.” We had a gig in DC like a week later. I didn’t know Kurt when I joined, but we instantly got along and had all sorts of things to talk about. I thought the Lilys were set up to do a lot more than we did. We had three songwriters and access to two cool recording studios in Philadelphia because I had my own 16-track and the drummer, Dave Frank (who had been in the Wishniaks) was co-owner of Studio Red with Adam Lasus. I figured we would just be recording our White Album for the next 15 years or so, you know? At least, that’s how I wanted it to work. But it wasn’t my band, and so I respected Kurt’s way of doing it which was to stay true to whatever his inner ear told him to do with his songs. That usually didn’t involve us.
Am I missing any bands in between? Did you do a stint in Robert Hazard & the Heroes that we don’t know about?
Ha…never hung with Hazard or the A’s or the Hooters, heaven help us. But I did play with a lot of other bands. I can’t remember them all, but here are the main things: I played with Baby Flamehead, which was such a breath of fresh air for me, such a pleasure. From about 94 to 2010 when I moved to Savannah, I also played either guitar, bass, or drums in a bunch of John Terlesky’s projects: Suffacox, Vibrolux, Brother JT, and even late period Original Sins. In the mid-2000s, I also played drums for We Have Heaven (Eric DeJesus’s band) and Ex Reverie. The latter is Gillian Chadwick’s prog vehicle. I loved those drumming gigs so much. I was sad to have to bow out of Ex Rev especially, because I had too many other commitments.
How/when did the Photon Band come about? Did you have a vision for it?
Even though I pulled back from being “the guy” after Tons of Nuns, I couldn’t stop the flow of ideas for songs. It seemed to be on the increase. Sometimes, they were so complete when I’d hear them in my head or dream them that I thought it was a cosmic phenomenon of some sort, like there are songs flying around out there in the ether and they choose people. And for some reason I was receiving more and more songs. I had been amassing cassette tapes of song ideas. At the same time, I’m really into astrology because my mother had been into that when I was a kid and it fascinated me. So I picked up this astrology magazine and there was an article in it by a woman named Barbara Hand Clow stating that since around 1962, the earth had gradually been entering into this band of photonic matter that would ultimately encompass our world and blow consciousness wide open. It made sense to me because I felt like that was happening to me. “Photon Band!” I thought. “If I ever start a band, that’s what I’ll call it and anything I write or record will go under that name. Its identity will be that it encompasses all the variety that comes out of me.” At the time, I was in the Lilys and my hopes for that band to become a vehicle for me and Mike Lenert as well as Kurt was dissipating. I left in late ’94 and told Kurt I wanted to start my own band under the name Photon Band. It was an amicable parting. He named the next Lilys album to honor that idea. That Lilys album, Eccsame the Photon Band and the first Photon Band single, “Sitting on the Sunn” came out at around the same time.
I know in the Photon Band you play all or most of the instruments. Did you learn all of those as a kid or pick them up along the way?
I taught myself guitar. Bass wasn’t hard to do after that. And drums came together just by sneaking behind the kit before practice, during break, and after practice and getting a few minutes in here and there. I love playing drums but man, if I don’t keep practicing, the next time I sit down, the drop off is more severe than it is with either bass or guitar. And whether it’s live or in the studio, I really need Jeff Tanner there. His ear understands where I’m trying to go better than anyone I know. His approach to playing bass is really important. And when we were a four piece, what he was doing on guitar was starting to take on its own identity that was re-shaping the songs. As far as drumming goes, Simon, Brendan, and Patrick have done all the best drum parts on our records. It’s only very occasionally that whatever I’m able to do on drums has worked better than them. I’m lucky to have had those guys as willing foils.
Is Photon Band still going? If so what’s next?
Yes. Since I moved to Savannah, I still record, and we still gig, though much less frequently. Pure Photonic Matter Volume 1 came out in 2013 and Songs of Rapture and Hatred came out in 2015, thanks to Nod and Smile Records. We did release shows for both and a few gigs before and after. In fact, from the fall of 15 through the fall of 16, we played three gigs. I think those three gigs were the most we played over a single year’s span since I left for Savannah. But then I had to finish this book I’ve been working on for quite some time. The publisher was getting antsy, so I had to put the music aside. The next thing will be two albums; one will be the next installment in the Pure Photonic Matter series. Another, probably done around the same time, will be an album of very long songs, sloppy, poppy, noisy, and primitive, with lots of jamming (think White Light White Heat). I’m also putting together a live album from all of the recordings I’ve got from over the years. And I’m going through all of the old DATS and cassettes. There are a number of songs that I’ve earmarked for another album of singles, comp tracks, and outtakes album: Our Own ESP Driven Scene: part II, I suppose. But I’ve also discovered a huge number of tunes that are either finished or nearly finished that I never released, plus also totally different versions of some of the songs that have come out. So over the next few years, I’m going to release an archive of sorts, probably on Soundcloud and Bandcamp.
How did you land in Savannah, GA? Are you involved in any kind of music/art scene down there?
I’m an art historian. I was teaching at Moore College of Art and Design in Philly but started looking around for a better gig. The money there wasn’t great and there was quite a bit of dysfunction and acrimony between faculty and administration. I got a very good offer from Savannah College of Art and Design and off we went. The job, raising two kids, and going forward with my plan to publish the work I had been doing on a sixteenth-century Netherlandish artist named Maarten van Heemskerck have effectively kept me from getting out and involving myself in the scene down here. But now, I have basically taken care of Maarten (that’s the book I mentioned above). I feel like there will come a time soon when I can start saying “ya know any good drummers?” or “ya need a guitar player?” I’d like to get something together down here, another three-piece, sort of a Photon Band South. But what I’d also really like to do even more is just become the guitarist for a really good, no nonsense rock and roll band where I don’t write the songs.
Who are some of your favorite current bands?
Weeding through the shit to get to the good stuff requires time, doesn’t it? It’s good that there are some nice places to hang out here in Savannah that let their younger staff choose the music, otherwise I might have no idea. Some of the Ariel Pink I’ve heard, I really like. The Dear Hunter has made some albums I like and so has Ty Segall. But those are by now, pretty old, right? I like bands that do interesting things with guitars, so I really loved the first Garden State album, also pretty old by now. I haven’t heard anything by them since then that suggests that they’re still committed to weaving together guitar lines the way they did on that first album. Sheer Mag’s guitarists do that really well! On Dead Waves have some good songs, and I like everything I’ve heard by Bass Drum of Death. I really like that song called La La La by Hoops, too. It’s a never-ending quest, isn’t it? There are plenty more bands who have a song or two that blow my mind: the Wavves, the Panic Buttons, Suzi Chunk, Eagulls, to name a few.
What are your top 10 desert island discs?
Oh shit! Okay…
Neil Young: Time Fades Away
John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band
Stones: Beggars Banquet
Stooges: Fun House
The Who: Live at Leeds (the expanded version, because it has more tunes on it)
Stereolab: ABC Music
Flying Burrito Brothers: Gilded Palace of Sin
MC5: High Time
Rites of Spring
That’s nine. Then I’d lay the following four albums on the floor, have someone mix them up, and pick one blindfolded:
Sun Ra: We Travel the Spaceways from Planet to Planet
Mr. Airplane Man: Come on DJ
The new Ty Segall album
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Pig Lib.
Any final thoughts? Closing comments? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
Hmmmm…well, to close the loop on the Mike Logan / Spayce Mann story, all these years later, he came into JT’s orbit and now he has the role that I once had in JT’s band. We’ve reconnected and it feels so good to have that whole thing come full circle in such a cosmic way. It’s not just that we understand each other. We reconnected because he’s playing music with someone whose music is dear to us both. That’s our shared musical DNA, the stuff that resonates with our souls, determining our paths and bringing us in contact with the right people. That’s cosmic.
BONUS QUESTION; What is one Philly band that really shoud’ve made it?
I know the popular answers are Ruin and the Electric Love Muffin, and that’s definitely true, especially the latter. The Muffin were so important for a lot of people, especially me, and they were as good as, or better than, any of their contemporaries. But in a better world, the real answer is either the early period of the Original Sins, or F.O.D. There’s no question that of all the bands of my lifetime that the industry missed, they sure did blow it with the Sins. JT should have a huge audience. If the industry was less shallow, either the Sins or JT would’ve “made it.” And to me, F.O.D. are the Experience, the Who, the Minutemen, the Sex Pistols, and Sun Ra’s Arkestra all in one brilliant three piece. I don’t think there’s a live band that can touch them.