Onstage, Famous FM guitarist John Evans eyes the angry athletes with interest. As Evans strums jagged riffs, his jaunty voice issues a veiled threat: Sometimes the wheels come off my nice-guy machine. Undaunted, the musclemen continue to migrate. Mushroom clouds on the screen light their faces with an apocalyptic glow. The far-from-jocular jocks scowl once more at their audio-visual antagonists ... then simply walk away.
Safe at home weeks later, Evans admits that graphic battlefield carnage and disconcerting dramatizations of brutal gay-bashing incidents might make for sobering Saturday nights. But although the March 22 juxtaposition of MTV Beach Party time-slot and CNN content was jarring for unsuspecting tourists, that night's show might have been even more stunning for Famous FM fans. This trio performs no overtly political material, nor is it ambiguously aggressive (like the all-instrumental but obviously pissed collective Godspeed! You Black Emperor). Famous FM's music is melodic enough to earn it an invitation to Chicago's International Pop Overthrow, a hummable-hook-based happening at which the group plays on Thursday, May 1. Its concise, catchy tunes are unlikely to incite moshing, let alone rebellion.
But Evans was becoming increasingly irate about current events. So he looked for a way to express his anguish without overwhelming his power pop with heavy-handed lyrics. He started splicing together visual statements -- various racist atrocities and military casualties, assorted assembly lines (including one for Twinkies, which, sadly, doesn't reveal how the filling gets inside) -- with text that ranges from obtuse ("This is the pyro of the mind") to ironic ("It's not about oil").
Given its relatively limited audience, Famous FM isn't taking too great a risk. But even if the group did get a big break, one that made the first half of its name apt, Evans says he wouldn't alter his approach.
"People say, 'I don't think that celebrities should use public appearances to present their views,'" Evans explains. "Well, if you're a celebrity, do you forfeit your right to comment? But you have to watch that line between using your art as a means to comment on society and just being on a soapbox and preaching."
The first time Famous FM delivered its multimedia presentation, Evans crossed the line. He elaborated aloud, spelling out what the pictures already rendered obvious and turning audience members into TV viewers. The group became translucent, and its music evaporated.
Eventually, Evans assembled a five-part program only loosely related to his band's set list. It seems as if there's subconscious synchronicity at work -- an onscreen smack to the face coincides with a snappy drum fill, a cathartic chorus detonates in perfect time with an on-camera explosion -- but the songs keep playing between segments, with the same musical statement serving as the soundtrack to unconnected visual concepts. Famous FM's gig at the Hurricane on Saturday, May 3, will be its seventh. New footage will be included; older Iraq-related material will be altered or eliminated as dictator-removal developments demand.
Since taking the complementary approach, Famous FM has received plenty of compliments. For Evans, that's a mixed bag. Though he appreciates the positive feedback, it can be frustrating to get accolades when you're anticipating dissent. After all that provocation, he couldn't even get four guys who excel at hand-to-hand combat to tangle. "I'd hoped for more of a reaction," he says.
So if you defaced the Dixie Chicks cover photo on this week's Entertainment Weekly, if you circled the block on 47th Street for hours to shout down protesters, or even if you're just a traveling athlete with a low tolerance for Bush bashing, Evans wants to extend you an invitation. Come to curse the quick-cut edits, the snide remarks about globalization and capitalism, the still-shrouded-in-mystery Twinkies. Perhaps you'll stay for the music.