On Saturday, February 23rd, an era will end in Memphis music. The Hi-Tone Café, which has been the most prolific new-music venue in the city for the last 15 years, will close with a final concert by the legendary — and recently reunited — Memphis garage-punk pioneers the Oblivians. Opening the show will be another reunited Memphis band whose legend, albeit much smaller, is almost as twisty.
The Barbaras sprang out of the friendship between Will McElroy and Billy Hayes. In 2002, the pair of Cordova High School students posted a notice on makeoutclub.com, an indie-rock-themed dating site that Hayes describes as "a place for nasty hipsters to find other nasty hipsters to hook up with." They were looking for some people with similar musical interests to form a band, and they found guitarist Alex Gates.
For the next few years, they experimented, playing shows under different names, such as the Chicago Bulls. "We probably had about 20 different bands that only played one show," McElroy says. "They were very different bands in our minds, but in practice, they probably just sounded like noise."
The initial group accumulated other players, such as Bennett Foster and Stephen Pope, and eventually settled on the Barbaras as a full-time name. By then, the earlier noise-rock experiments had mutated into an indie pop sound that owed as much to the Beach Boys, '60s garage rock, and classic girl groups as it did to punk or '90s alternative.
"The Barbaras was the first band we were in when we started to have a vague idea of how to use a guitar or keyboard in some kind of musical way," McElroy says. The earlier material was "chaotic and abrasive. By the time we got to the Barbaras, pop music seemed like a real revelation to us. There wasn't any cynicism about it."
Meanwhile, their stage shows were becoming more elaborate. "Costumes were always a big part of it," Hayes says. "We're all influenced by over-the-top, hilarious bands. I got a lot of my ideas from Parliament, but it's nowhere near on the scale of Parliament. It's like dumpster Parliament."
Jay Reatard was an early fan of the group and started recording them with an eye toward putting out an album. But progress was slow, the difficulty compounded by the fact that Hayes and Pope started touring as Reatard's rhythm section. "Jay was extremely overworked," Hayes says. "When we were home from tour, it was a struggle just to get him to answer his phone, so it was a real struggle to get the record recorded."
The Barbaras' following grew in Memphis, compounded by a now-legendary set at Gonerfest in 2007. But Reatard's career was taking off, and so, with part of the band on tour for much of the year, the Barbaras languished. Finally, exhausted from touring and worn down by Reatard's increasingly self-destructive behavior, Hayes and Pope decided they wanted out. "It was just really unfun," Hayes recalls. But that decision was to have a disastrous impact on the Barbaras. Reatard still controlled most of their recorded output, and he was never one to back down from a conflict. "He said, just out of spite, 'I'm canceling the check I wrote you, and I'm deleting the Barbaras LP,'" Hayes says.
The Barbaras splintered. McElroy, Foster, and Gates formed the Magic Kids, who produced a great album but whose 2010 single "Superball" was a leftover Barbaras song. Hayes and Pope, who had garnered attention as a crack rhythm section from touring with Reatard, were recruited by the California punk band Waaves. But after recording an album and touring with Waaves, a disillusioned Hayes quit the band and swore off music. "I didn't spend three years in bed like Brian Wilson, but I was a recluse," he says.
Reatard died of a drug overdose in January 2010. But then, a break occurred. Reatard's former girlfriend and bandmate from the Lost Sounds, Alicja Trout, tracked down the musician's digital recorder and computer at a pawn shop, and on the hard drive she found the Barbaras' songs. "We thought they were lost forever," McElroy says. But with the help of Trout and Goner Records' (and Oblivians guitarist) Eric Friedl, the songs were resurrected and, late last year, released on Goner.
The occasion for the Barbaras' first show in almost five years is the closing of the venue that is the most strongly associated with the scene from which they sprang.
"I keep thinking about the first time I went to the Hi-Tone," McElroy says. "I was in high school, and I went to see some indie rock show. I think about how strange high school me would have found it that later me eventually started a weird band and would end up closing the venue."
Hayes is anxious to get back onstage. "I haven't played a show in about three years," he says. "I'm going to let out a lot of pent-up aggression on the audience. But in an entertaining way. Hopefully."
The Barbaras and The Oblivians
Hi-Tone Café, Saturday, February 23rd, 9 p.m., $15