.... about Ant Farmers, Dixie Deer and migrating bands from El Paso
Jon Forrest Little says he writes "kinda cheesy piano show tunes." All told, he has almost 80 spaced-out, two-minute jingles in the style of Daniel Johnston (replace Jesus with nature and you'll be close). Each song started on an $80 Wal-Mart keyboard. "I don't like expensive things because when they break, you get really sad," he says. His vehicle for the songs is a solo project called Church Camp.
But Little's probably best known for something he did from ’89 to ’97: fronting the Ant Farmers, Albuquerque's seminal and immensely popular college rock band. (Started by Carl Petersen, who's now the Alibi's publisher.)
Little moved to El Paso a few years ago and was blown away by the music he heard there. He's bringing some of his favorite bands up to Burque for the first, and probably last, El Paso Showcase at Atomic Cantina this Saturday, May 10. Here's what else Little has going on.
Do you record in El Paso?
I go to Mexico to record on Pro Tools. I just walk across the bridge and Chino [Little’s recording engineer] picks me up, and we drive to his house. I do the basic tracks, spend a little bit of time singing and do as many sound effects as I can just to make people think I'm like The Flaming Lips when I'm really just shitty Jon Little with a Casio.
How do you write?
A lot of times they [the songs] start with a poem or a funny thought or a sad moment. And then I've got to figure out a way to drive the message. I guess I don't have the credentials to be any sort of leader of social justice, as much as I like the way songs deliver messages, ’cause they're easier to remember. How children remember the alphabet is through songs, or you can recall what's in a Big Mac sandwich through a tune. It's the power of a jingle. And I used to write jingles.
Yeah! I don't think I was that successful at it, but a couple of ’em hit. Not on a national level, just regional. I've always wanted to write music for musicals more than a band. That's kinda where I'm going now. But that's a grandiose goal to have, because I don't live in New York. (Laughs) I love this town [El Paso], but culturally it's not rich in those sorts of opportunities.
But you're working on a play, aren't you? Dixie Deer?
Yeah. The idea is the animals teach humans. And, lately, there's been a lot of stuff in the news about how animals are kicking ass. There was a chimp that beat humans on the IQ test. And there's the elephant that can paint like a motherfucker in Thailand. It's gonna be like a concept album, but my goal is to also have it be a play. I should call it a musical—I’ve loved those all my life. People talk about who your influences are, and people will cite the bands, but for me it's always been musicals. All of em—Oklahoma, Show Boat, even the Andrew Lloyd Webbers, I just love him.
Was the Ant Farmers your first band?
Yeah. That was my only band. I wasn't even a musician, really. I met Carl when he was playing bass in the hallway at the Laguna/Devargas dorms [at UNM]. I was a kid from Farmington and he was a kid from Los Alamos, but we both had the same taste in underground jazz.
What did you do in the Ant Farmers?
I was the singer and [in] kind of a cheerleader role. I was very theatrical onstage and would do a lot of jumping around and gymnastic-related stuff, and I could sing. We were considered a little on the wimpy side, but of that college rock sound of the time. There were people that said we sounded like REM or Yo La Tengo, sort of the softer indie-type vibe, which wasn't popular then as it is now. Now it's cool. Radiohead and some of those bands helped soften things up, but back then it was, "Oh, there's the FM-friendly-Ant Farmers" but with the fuckin' crazy frontman—that was kind of the shtick. Real palatable sound with just a psycho weirdo. And it worked—because people would go, "Let’s see what that Jon Little's gonna do next." And we played maybe as many as 100 shows a year—it was a lot.
What was your biggest show?
We did a show at both El Rey and the Golden West once for our CD release where we charged $10, and we had over a thousand paid. We were like, Wow! We just made $10,000. But that was also bringing in other bands to play with us that were the heavier Resin [Records] bands like Elephant, Big Damn Crazy Weight and the popular bands like Giant Steps.
What brought you to organize this El Paso Showcase?
I've always loved El Paso's music scene and it's never gotten a fair shake. Albuquerque's only four hours away. People always go to Cruces and Austin, but right down the street is a town that between [the bands] here and the bands I see in Mexico, I couldn't even stand up on the stage with these people they're just so damn good. I'm proud of them, and I want the people of Albuquerque to see these bands that are up-and-coming. I think El Paso's about to take off in the way Albuquerque did years ago with breaking a few acts. Beck is rumored to be moving here [El Paso]. It's affordable, and there's some really neat architecture. With this show, there's a little bit of "rah-rah-rah for my dear hometown."
El Paso Showcase
The lineup according to Jon Little
Low Luster League
"This guy live, he kills. He is like the Strokes, but with regional Mexican influences. Half of his songs are in Spanish. He will be signed—real soon. He's just good. His name's Hapa. He almost has a lo-fi thing going, very original, but very Elvis-like cause he's a damn good-looking guy. You look at him like, I can't keep my girlfriend's eyes off him. Very edgy; he's got a lot of stage presence."
"Ralpheene is power-pop, and they have the sensibilities of almost like Black Francis meets Roy Orbison—very, very good. Add this kid is a monster on vocals, with distortion guitar in a three-piece."
Mexicans at Night
"They're roots-ier. Very powerful on the politics side. They spend a lot of time in Mexico, they're playing all over. Not just Juarez, but all over Mexico and L.A."
Jon Forrest Little aka Church Camp
"As far as live performances go, they're all much better than I am."
El Paso Showcase, sponsored by us, the Weekly Alibi , is Saturday, May 10, at Atomic Cantina. Free, 21+. Be there by 10 p.m.