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Music for Mutants

John Forbes and Tijuana Hercules do for the blues what gamma rays did for Bruce Banner.

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While most of his classmates were learning songs like "Itsy Bitsy Spider," John Forbes was getting his first taste of the hard stuff. "My best friend had this whacked-out older brother who would play us Captain Beefheart when we were in kindergarten," he says. "What did we know? We thought we were listening to party records. He'd play that and some Zappa stuff--when you're that age and you hear 'Titties & Beer,' it's like, whoa!"

Forbes is 38 now, but the aftereffects of that early exposure continue to show up in his music. Tijuana Hercules--Forbes's trio with percussionist and horn player Zak Piper and drummer Chad Smith--tears through not just Beefheartian blues but Tom Waits-style hoodoo, Holy Roller gospel, and jacked-up wax-cylinder folk. In May the band put out its first full-length album, and this week it's celebrating with a free CD-release show at Hyde Park Records.

The group took half its name from the cheap, anonymous pornographic comics called Tijuana Bibles, which were popular from the 1930s through the '60s and often cast mainstream cartoon characters (Popeye, Little Orphan Annie, Nancy and Sluggo) in an entirely new light. "Hercules" was the name of a seven-foot drag queen that Forbes says he "knew down south." The tunes are warped, raunchy, and reckless: Forbes delivers his salty lyrics in a raspy, wolfish howl, and beneath his bone-breaking guitar Smith and Piper pound out clattering, manic rhythms on a jury-rigged mix of drums and trash.

Raised in southern Indiana and Florida, Forbes moved to Atlanta in the late 80s, where he played in Phantom 309 with future Jesus Lizard drummer Mac McNeilly and in Dirt with Chris Lopez, who'd go on to form the Rock*a*Teens. He came to Chicago in 1993 and started Mount Shasta, which would release four scuzzy, unhinged records on the local Skin Graft label, including an astonishing clusterfuck with Japanese noise rockers Space Streakings under the name Shakuhachi Surprise. Gumballhead the Cat (right), a creation of Skin Graft's comics arm who now appears in the Reader's Section 4, began life as Mount Shasta's de facto mascot.

After the band broke up in 1998, Forbes moved in with Smith, a Michigan native who'd drummed in the group during its final days. "Man, we lived in this place, it was about the size of a shoebox," says Forbes. "We could only fit two chairs in the living room, and we had bootleg cable. We'd watch Gunsmoke and The Rifleman every night and eat pork and beans. And then one night we decided, 'Hell, let's start a band.'"

The pair took early inspiration from obscure rock, blues, and gospel songs from the 50s and 60s. "There was a big Harlan Howard, Leiber and Stoller, Chess Records fetish going on amongst us at the time," says Forbes. They worked up covers like Charlie Rich's "Who Will the Next Fool Be?," the Staple Singers' "I Wish I Had Answered," and Harvey Scales & the Seven Sounds' "Love-itis," and Forbes started contributing boozy, bluesy originals. They made a fearsome racket as a duo, but they knew they wanted another instrument in the mix. "We remembered on the old Bo Diddley stuff how Jerome Green stood there and played the maracas," says Forbes. "And so we decided to get someone who fit into the Jerome Green mold."

Tijuana Hercules debuted in spring 2000, joined by percussionist Mike Young. But Young left the group after just a few gigs, and to replace him they settled on Piper, a relative musical novice. "I had like two days to figure it all out," says Piper. "We started playing together on a Wednesday and we had a gig on Friday." He built his instrument the night before the show. "I set up four cans on a piece of iron, like a U-bolt, put that onto a cymbal stand, and added a Latin percussion setup--cowbell and tambourine."

Over the next few years the band gigged regularly in the midwest ("Bloomington, Madison--all the hot spots," jokes Forbes) and made a few short tours to the south and along the east coast. In Chicago they opened for a wide range of high-profile acts, from Holly Golightly to Hasil Adkins to the Go.

They released two EPs, a self-titled disc in mid-2001 and When the Moon Comes Up Wild in late 2002, both recorded with Greg Norman (Detachment Kit, New Black) at his home studio on the south side. BBC DJ John Peel became an avowed fan and added several of their cuts, including "Like Siamese Twins" and "Hound Dogs Ain't the Only Ones That Got to Be Lookin' Over Their Shoulders," to his playlist. A few months after the second EP came out, the band began work on a full-length. "We hammered out five or six songs the first weekend," says Piper. "Then it was pretty drawn out after that. [Norman] was booked, then we got busy." The 13-track album wasn't finished until nearly a year later. Forbes did the cover art: a cartoon pigeon and squirrel carrying their own severed heads. Inside there's a book of equally disturbing one-panel comics. "John has a history of making fun of people with his drawings," says Piper. "Like pictures of his friends getting fist-fucked by Hitler."

Recorded live in the studio, with only some vocals and Piper's occasional trombone and trumpet parts overdubbed, Tijuana Hercules (like the EPs, released on the band's own Black Pisces label) is the group's most confident-sounding effort yet. Forbes and company seem thoroughly at home in their ramshackle mishmash of raunch 'n' roll, lascivious rockabilly, and fatback R & B. The slide boogie "Whales on Every Side" dips into funky gospel a la Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the shadow of the Birthday Party looms large on "When the Moon Comes Up Wild." The band even twists Mel Tillis's poison-pen number "Mental Revenge" (a hit for Waylon Jennings) to fit its skewed aesthetic.

In recent weeks Tijuana Hercules has been touring in support of the album, but in general playing shows takes a backseat to paying the bills--Smith works as the building manager at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio, and Piper's a jack-of-all-trades for Kartemquin Films, the company behind Hoop Dreams. (Forbes has a day job too, but claims that "national security reasons" prevent him from revealing more.) They're satisfied being a part-time band, though. "It's as much about three pals getting together to split a six- or twelve-pack of beer and trade war stories and jokes a few nights a week," says Piper. "As Chad says, sometimes it feels like we're in a men's club."

For his part, Forbes would consider Tijuana Hercules a success if he learned that somebody had used its records to mess up impressionable kindergartners. "Man, sometime in the future it'd be great if some off-kilter individual came up, pointed at me, and said, 'Goddamn you,'" he says. "Or even better, if a cyclops came up to me and said, 'Hey, I was conceived while my parents listened to your music.'"

Tijuana Hercules

When: Thu 6/30, 8 PM

Where: Hyde Park Records, 1377 E. 53rd

Price: Free

Info: 773-288-6588

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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