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A longtime rocker checks back in with Finn’s Motel
By Thomas Crone - Photo by Bob Reuter
Posted On: 09/28/2006   


The late 1980s were a time of plenty for St. Louis rock fans, with a host of styles represented onstage here. Among the groups to basically transcend the one-time “Loop versus Landing” debate, The Finns could share stages with just about everyone, in part because of the band’s pop-rock sound and also because it seemed to have a collective winning personality that drew audiences and other bands.

After a handful of self-released cassettes and CDs, the group disbanded in the mid-’90s, with members heading their separate ways. Though almost still in the thick of things, bandleader Joe “Finn” Thebeau generally took a backseat in his following projects. After a short-lived successor to The Finns, A-OK, quickly surfaced and disappeared, leaving just a handful of demo tracks for fans, Thebeau went the sideman route.

He played a single show and did some recording with the well-regarded Prisonshake. There was a year of playing bass in the local supergroup Sexicolor. And, until very recently, he handled guitar duties for the ever-evolving Magnolia Summer, ending his active tenure with the band in late summer, after Metropolis’ The Lot festival.

“I had to stop doing it, I just got too busy with other stuff,” said Thebeau, a technical writer by day. “Chris Grabau’s real comfortable with the whole revolving-door thing. And I’d volunteered to sit in while John Horton’s gone on Bottle Rockets tours. Chris and I got along really well and I stayed with it, but I kind of had to ask him to let me off the hook.”

The main source of his recent industry is Finn’s Motel, a natural progression in Thebeau’s songwriting and recording career. The loosely affiliated band has just released “Escape Velocity” on Scat Records, a label based in St. Louis, under the supervision of – and with guitar and piano contributions from – founder Robert Griffin.

Recording on the album were Griffin’s cohorts in Prisonshake, bassist Steve Scariano and drummer Patrick Hawley. After years of playing almost exclusively in his hometown, Hawley won’t be joining them on roadtrips, which Thebeau’s planning for October and November; Pete Lang is picking up the sticks for those. Rounding out the live version of the band is guitarist James Weber Jr.

That all of this is happening is almost a surprise to Thebeau.

“I became friends with Robert long before he talked about putting out music for us,” Thebeau said. “I’d been demo-ing songs in the basement for myself and hadn’t really played them for anybody. I hadn’t felt that confident yet. They still felt demo-ey, because of the fake drums and stuff like that. But Steve and Patrick had gotten a copy of the demo – I don’t remember how, but they did – and word got back to me that they wanted to play on the recordings, if I decided to do any. That was a major booster.

“At some point, Robert was over at the house and asked to hear some songs. And he said, ‘If the rest of the songs are as good these one or two, I’d be interested in putting something out.’ That was another major boost. At that point, I hadn’t planned on doing more than learning to record. Robert’s been really helpful and involved in the editing process. … And it wasn’t always an agreeable relationship, either. It made me challenge my own positions more, which is cool. That’s better than always agreeing and patting each other on
the back.”

The 17 songs that remain from the lengthy recording sessions make “Escape Velocity” a classic piece of American rock ’n’ roll, influenced by a wide variety of sounds, sure, but not riding on any current wave or trend. Varying between up-tempo numbers and those that feature only Thebeau’s voice and light instrumental accompaniment, “Escape Velocity” is an album of depth, which takes a few listens to fully grasp, in part because the lyrical content isn’t the standard-issue fare.

“The one major theme or concept is people as particles,” said Thebeau. “I wasn’t trying to do it on purpose, that theme. But the language I use is different from most rock language. The opportunity is to weave in the laws of thermodynamics. … There’s some corporate disaffection and some elements of physics. There’s language to discuss real-time travel, like driving in an automobile. And lots of opportunities for double-meaning words.”

The album’s different for other reasons, too, including its length.

“I think one of the main reasons we cut it to that length was that I wanted it to feel cohesive, like it had a beginning, a middle and an end, and to give it good pacing. It’s pop-rock, so it’s not that textural, but I wanted to give it pace, some ups and downs in the right places. In some cases, there were songs that weren’t dovetailing in the way we wanted them to. I’m big on album sequencing.”

What’s certain is that Theabeau won’t directly remember any of this introductory stuff for Finn’s Motel.

“I am terrible with chronology,” he joked. “I’ll tell you something happened last week, and it was a year ago. If someone asks what year something was released, I’ll tell them, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s convenient at times, maddening at other times.”

All the same, this is a good time for Finn’s Motel. And, once again, a good time for fans of locally produced rock.

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