Jason Beers is everywhere, and that notion is both fun and a little scary. His stamp is on five new CDs that are out now, not counting his online-only, 17-song solo album. That level of output alone might seem crazy, even if all those projects weren't so unusual.
First off, he's in Wild Chipmunk and the Cuddly Poos, which accounts for three of those discs: Poked, Devoured and Followers of Baphomet. The records are extensive, demented jam sessions based around Beers' Hammond M3 organ and played by three interchangeable characters (Michael Stover, Michael Meyers and Beers) wearing Afro wigs, shiny capes and frilly shirts.
He's also known for taking his banjo to places like the Brick and the Record Bar, playing music more subtle in its perversion; he tends to like the instrument for both its "hypnotic and driving" qualities. That's before he begins to play the saw (which he has played on tracks for the Bubble Boys and the Ants) or sings "Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill!" a cappella.
His biggest move lately has been re-forming his best-known band, the Brannock Device, now featuring Marco Pascolini, of Mr. Marco's V7 and the Expassionates, on lead guitar. Beginning with its 1998 debut, Where the Hell Is Johnny Vic? (which recalled improv greats such as James Blood Ulmer and Ornette Coleman), the band has moved from what might be called managed chaos to something Beers now calls more "ratty." The seven songs on the brand-new Brannock release, King of the Soapbox Derby, range from the fragile, plaintive duet "Glass" with Abigail Henderson to the psychedelic blue-collar epic "When the Soup Is On, You Know the Bell Must Be Rung!"
On first listen, this new Brannock Device album seems a little simpler than both Johnny Vic and its 2002 follow-up, The Turtle Has Got It Made, standing in some slightly twisted territory between the Dead Kennedys and the B-52's. That's before you notice the many rhythmic breaks in the title track or its unhinged extended guitar solo. Then there's the lively harmonica on the catchy cover of the Wichita band Ulu's song "Macca" or the complex counterpoints and drum flourishes of "Pipe the Mic." There's a lot of depth to these twisted waters.
And that's Jason Beers all over. He's a tall, quiet guy, almost anonymous under his baseball cap and beard, with a sly smile that surfaces once in a while.
We sit in a restaurant in his hometown of Parkville, where he lives with his wife and two kids and works at a school for students with special needs. We talk about his life in Kansas City music, starting with the Brannock Device. He formed the band with his friends Jeremy Schutte (lead guitar) and Bernie Dugan (drums) as an extension of music that he and Schutte had been playing together since the late '80s in bands such as the Deafmutes and Phantom Limb Sensations. With Brannock, Beers would write the songs and lyrics and pitch them to the rest of the band, although he had little control over where they took it.
"I'd write these guitar parts, and Jeremy would pervert them to the point where I couldn't play them again," he says.
When Schutte left the band for work-related reasons, the future was in doubt.
"We had a significant amount of trust," he says. "If Jeremy decided to take the music someplace else, Bernie and I were going to follow him. It became pretty intuitive, so that we knew we were all going to end up at the same point."
Beers had no plans of resurrecting the Brannock Device without someone who could adequately fill Schutte's role, and he found that in Pascolini.
"I kind of like music where you have to meet someone halfway to get it, and of course Marco gets that," Beers says.
Some of the new album's more simplistic approach no doubt grew out of Beers' relationship with former Cher UK frontman Mike McCoy on the 2005 Black Rabbits release, Let It Breed.
"I learned a lot from playing with Mike — the beauty of something simple, like a couple of chords. He's a pretty wise songwriter," Beers says. "And definitely the whole point of that maybe more punk aesthetic remains to get the song and not add all the icing to it. Ultimately, I'm glad you don't have to choose."
There seems to be plenty of icing on Wild Chipmunk and the Cuddly Poos records, so much that you almost overlook the good stuff underneath, which is kind of the idea.
"You hear all these songs, like '60s novelty music, that you think are goofball throwaway songs, and maybe they were, but all of those guys are killer players, amazing musicians, and people dismiss that," he says. "Our records are kind of about putting the filler music in the spotlight."
Beers even tends to put the music before the musicians.
"I'm a big Residents fan," he says, referring to the band famous for the giant eyeball masks its members wear to protect their identities. "I like the whole idea of everyone being the same person. ... If you're not focused on the personalities, then you're just listening to the music."
While he admits that the Brannock Device is closest to his heart, Beers is hardly narrowing his output. He's got a piano CD in the works and a new band called Dead Voices, which is David Regnier and Josh Mobley from the Afterparty. "We have something recorded, and it will probably come out in the fall. Then we're talking about a live record," he says.
Though it might seem like too much of a good thing, Beers seems to be right where he wants to be: "I'm just a dude who plays music. I'm pretty content right now."
And those who get to listen in certainly ought to be.