[Photo by JONATHAN VALANIA]
As you may have heard, Philly music legend/art professor Art DiFuria, Ph.D., is leaving town for greener pastures — specifically a professorship at Savannah School Of Art And Design. In advance of his farewell show with the Photon Band at Johnny Brendas on Saturday, Phawker conducted an exit interview with Dr. DiFuria. For newbies to the glories of the Photon Band, check out the exhaustive bio down below.
PHAWKER: Our first question is fill in the blank: I first came to Philadelphia because ______ but wound up staying because _____.
ART DIFURIA: I first came to Philadelphia 25 years ago because my suburb was boring and there were punk rock shows here but wound up staying because it’s a freaking vortex, why else? Few people actually get out! I can’t believe I am!
PHAWKER: Top three reasons why you stayed in this town for 25 years?
ART DIFURIA: 1. I could’ve gone anywhere, but I chose Temple. 2. Then I chose Delaware. 3. Then that vortex thing happened again.
PHAWKER: Top three things that drive you nuts about Philadelphia?
ART DIFURIA: 1. How you can walk down some streets and smell at least three or four really disgusting odors. 2. How much drivers hate people on bikes. 3. How unsympathetic to people on bikes I become when I’m driving instead of riding my bike.
PHAWKER: Top three things that you will miss the most about Philadelphia?
ART DIFURIA: 1. All my friends. 2. This town’s scrappiness and heart. 3. A three-way tie between Wawa and Scrapple and the PMA.
PHAWKER: Best thing that ever happened to you in Philadelphia?
ART DIFURIA: Meeting all of the people I’ve met over the years who have taught me so much about life, but especially meeting Nancy, the love of my life.
PHAWKER: Worst thing that ever happened to you in Philadelphia?
ART DIFURIA: Nearly getting killed in a hit and run by a reckless driver on Girard Avenue. 1991: I was riding my bike, it was raining, and this guy came peeling off of Shackamaxon and I didn’t have a chance. He gimped me good. Then the coward drove away. The witnesses got his tag number. When the cops ran it, the car was un-registered, and they decided not to pursue it. I think the guy was an off-duty cop. I still have pain on my right side from that.
PHAWKER: Best live show you ever saw in Philadelphia?
ART DIFURIA: Aww man….just one? The first time I ever saw Ruin, I thought my head would come off. They were so intense. Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen at Love Hall in 1983. I was just this scared kid in a white t-shirt and a buzz cut. The Original Sins at Pi Lam (Human BBQ?) made *everybody* know that they were NOT fucking around. I remember feeling like I had been hit in the face by a tractor trailer, **but was exhilarated by it** when they played that night. The first Pavement and GBV shows at the Khyber were great too. But I suppose the best one of all was Laughing Hyenas in the basement of the Benjamin Harrison (a house in West Philly, across from the Wurst House).
PHAWKER: Worst live show you ever saw in Philadelphia?
ART DIFURIA: Any Grateful Dead Tribute night (New Potato Caboose, anyone?) at the Khyber. There were also these nights called “MAPP night.” Good lord they were god-awful. I can’t remember what MAPP stood for (Musicians, Artists and Performers of Philadelphia?). But we used to call MAPP night “shut-in” night because the guys in the bands were just so gawky, awkward, and uncomfortable.
PHAWKER: Best gig you ever played in Philadelphia?
ART DIFURIA: Last summer’s Johnny Brendas gig was ridiculously good. But the best was probably the one we played at the Fire when Tug McGraw showed up (thanks to the Colonel). Someone actually threw black roses on stage while we played. The Tugger died later that spring. Ominous! It was one of those magical nights when I could put my hands *anywhere* on my guitar and whatever sounds came out were perfect. How does that HAPPEN??
PHAWKER: Worst gig you ever played in Philadelphia?
ART DIFURIA: I have a tape of us opening for the Lilys at the Khyber on a very pedestrian night in November of 2002. God GOD we were terrible. It was only shortly before the one attended by the Tugger.
PHAWKER: Best thing about being in a band in Philadelphia?
ART DIFURIA: Expectations are always low for Philly bands. Ha. Seriously, though, to me, being a “Philly band” always added a little extra juice to things. It made me feel okay with letting my heart lead me instead of my head. I guess that’s because I was born and bred here.
PHAWKER: Worst thing about being in a band in Philadelphia?
ART DIFURIA: I can’t think of too much. Seriously. I loved being in bands here. That’s why I was in so many. I have a high threshold for bullshit, however. The “we’re not as important as NY” inferiority complex comes to mind as something that I always thought was bullshit. I didn’t like playing with people who had that approach.
PHAWKER: Why are you leaving Philadelphia?
ART DIFURIA: Savannah College of Art and Design made me a sweetheart offer and Nancy and I agreed that we should go. I want the adventure of living on another planet.
PHAWKER: Is there anything Philadelphia could have done to change your mind?
ART DIFURIA: Woah…if only you were around the water cooler at my old job! You’d have all sorts of answers to this question. Philly, the town, did everything it could to charm me, keep me, or vortex me (as it were) for 25 years. Philly owes me nothing. And you’ll never be able to take the Philly out of this boy. I have so many friends and family up here that I’ll be back frequently. People I don’t see on a regular basis won’t even know I split unless they read Phawker!
The Photon Band: Stratosphere
RELATED: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About The Photon Band But Were Too High To Ask & More
[Photo by JONATHAN VALANIA]
BY NANKER PHELGE The son of an astrologer, who as a young man was blown away the heaviness of the long-haired, hippie church group fronted by his paisley’d out older sisters, Art DiFuria is a dreamer who is prone to writing melodic songs between the lengths of one and eighteen minutes, from whisper soft and sweet to super loud and annoyed. He’s also prone to hearing noises, songs, and voices in his head, habitual guitar playing, and learning about what artists were doing 500 years ago. DiFuria’s been in more bands than we can count, including the Uptown Bones, Baby Flamehead, The Lilys, various Brother JT projects, and We Have Heaven. But the band that matters most to him is the Photon Band.
While playing guitar for the Lilys in the winter of ’93, Di Furia picked up an issue of one of his favorite astrology mags, Welcome to Planet Earth, and read about a “band of photonic matter” that will slowly envelop the earth and change human consciousness forever. Vibes will change. Vibes were already changing. The changes will be diverse, but universal. This was exactly what he had been feeling at the time: stepped up vibrations. Songs of all types had already begun filling his head quicker than he could get them out, or even teach himself to play them. Sometimes, he’d hear a lyric, sometimes a melody. Sometimes an entire song with full instrumentation would play in his head. His dreams featured un-reproduce-able sounds with corresponding colors, and visitations from Jimi Hendrix, Syd Barrett, John Coltrane, and Sun Ra.
In fact, it seemed to Art that the Earth’s increased immersion in a so-called photon band, which had begun in 1962, but hadn’t become truly pronounced until the early 90s, seemed to explain all the music in his head. Upon reading about the so-called photon band that would envelop the earth by 2012, DiFuria realized he had a name for his new band. He had already begun filling tapes with song ideas. Now he began to label them “Photon Band.” In moments of tranquility, he’d revisit the tapes and try to finish these songs.
But what to do with all this music? This was the main challenge. DiFuria had never fronted a band before, and the Lilys was Kurt Heasley’s gig, a vehicle for Heasley’s songs. In the summer of ’94, they toured together under the Lilys moniker for the last time. After talking things over, Art and Kurt agreed to part ways, and the Photon Band was born. The first Photon Band single, “Sitting on the Sun” b/w “Superstard” (Compulsiv, ’94) was already in the can. So was Heasley’s Eccsame the Photon Band (SpinArt, ’95), lovingly titled in praise of DiFuria’s new direction.
The first single featured DiFuria on all instruments, a mode of working that he continues to embrace this day. The two songs on this first release already suggested the creative blend of influences that would become the band’s hallmark. “Sitting on the Sunn,” an ode to the warm glow achieved by sitting too close to a Sunn amplifier that was turned up to 11 while tripping, was said to sound like “Tomorrow Never Knows”-era Beatles with the Who’s rhythm section. Meanwhile, “Superstard,” featured the first of many Dylan-inspired, mean spirited, “put-down” lyrics by DiFuria (which Philadelphia gossip mongers mistook as being directed at Heasley, though that was not the case). Its beat was lifted straight from Ronnie Spector’s “Be My Baby,” and covered in a syrupy mess of guitaring that resembled the orchestrations of Glenn Branca while featuring more pick slides and slashes than Pete Townshend ever managed before resorting to smashing. The single was well received among Philly’s dope-blowing hipsters who were long aware of DiFuria’s talents, and knew the day would come when he would front his own band.
Spurred on by this first step, DiFuria found kindred spirits to join him and play loudly. The first Photon Band lineup played its first gigs in the early months of ’95. It featured DiFuria on guitar and vocals, Simon Nagle on drums, and Gary Plowman on bass. The new tunes slowly expanded the Photon Band’s palette, and suggested further depth and diversity. The amphetamine rage of Who-inspired songs like “Be Careful What You Wish” and the Live at Leeds / Fun House hybrid, “Rise Above,” were offset by the more thoughtful, slow-paced melodies of “747 (Don’t Worry)” and a still-unreleased slow version of “The Sky’s Too High.” Then there was the Mike Nesmith-inspired “I Understand,” which could’ve been sung by Petula Clark or Lynne Anderson, but in the Photon Band’s hands, became a Sonic Youth-like buzz fest. The lyrics of the fast songs usually found DiFuria in mean mode, finding fault with everyone but his friends (“you’re such a piece of cake, it’s easy to see that you fake”), or expressing general discontent with his surroundings (“this fucked up place, has lost its rhyme”). But the slower ones displayed a budding blend of modernized folk poetics, absurdism, and disillusionment that would have made the late 60s Dylan secretly envious, and would come to define later Photon Band releases. In these songs, DiFuria began to turn his hate gun on himself, and laying bare his own foibles, lovelessness, and even sadness (“it was 747 and the words have never seemed like such a joke / then she looked into my dictionary finding right away that I was broke. Don’t worry. You may be dead now, honey, but you sure have got a long long way to go”).
The early shows were loud, and sporadic. Plowman’s flirtations with hard drugs often left him wondering what note should come next. Nagle was just beginning to gain experience behind the kit. And as the only guitarist in the band, DiFuria had to keep his hands in constant motion to fill in the gaps, singing all the while. But they never stopped taking chances. Within months, they were holding their own on bills with local heavies like the Original Sins, the Strapping Fieldhands, Caterpillar, and Brother JT and Vibrolux. Unfortunately, the original lineup only managed one recording session at DiFuria’s warehouse space. However, these songs display in vivid colors just how nicely DiFuria, Plowman, and Nagle had begun to gel. The Legendary “Be Careful What You Wish” came out of these sessions, as did “Rise Above”, and an as-yet-unreleased cover of the Small Faces’ “Understanding.” But Gary had to leave for his South Carolina home and rehab. He would never come back to the fold.
Abandoned by the founding member who had provided DiFuria with the most encouragement in the early going, disillusioned by an increasingly erratic relationship with the woman he loved, and continually beset by more music than his head could handle, DiFuria went to Philadelphia’s Studio Red, run by Adam Lasus. He felt like recording alone. The result was the breathtakingly sublime “747 (Don’t Worry)”. A sad meditation on missed opportunities, bad times, fucking up, death, and re-birth, the recording had that wide-eyed, sloppy-but-intelligent feel that would come to characterize so many Photon Band recordings. Musically, speaking, the song was wonderfully elusive; to some ears, its inspiration was the more bleak songs that John Lennon contributed to The White Album. Others said the Photon Band had gone country. Only the most tin-eared listeners felt that this song was a continuation of DiFuria’s early-Who inspired direction. Darla Records released the song on a CD-single in the summer of ’96. The single also features the extraordinary “MOVE Dream.” Recorded on a 4-track between the hours of 4 and 6 AM, this acoustic instrumental comes as close to reproducing the dreamt soundscapes that inspire Art’s songs as anything the Photon Band has released to date.
Even though Art recorded their most successful song to date by himself, the forgiving drummer Nagle had unearthed a bassist who would usher in a new era for the band. In Jeff Tanner, the Photon Band found a third who clicked at every level. Within minutes of playing together, DiFuria knew it would work. Tanner knew, instinctively, how to play his songs and how to make him laugh. Later that night, the new lineup attempted an unassuming debut at a Who tribute show, but the word had spread that the Photon Band were back. What was initially a gig designed for “breaking in the new guy” became a defining moment before a packed house: their full-throttle take on the sound of the Who during their Live at Leeds phase left Philly’s scenesters feeling as though they had been pummeled. It had been a hard year. Feeling as though he had something primal to get off his chest, Art played with a new reckless inspiration at painful volume. It made Tanner turn up, and it made Simon play with more force than he ever had before. While End Of The Year polls listing the Photon Band as Philly’s Loudest Band were probably due in large part to this gig, the amp-destroying approach continues to this day, without compromise.
At the same time, plans for a full length were afoot. DiFuria, Nagle, and Tanner convened weekly to hash out the tunes. Art began bringing mics. To capture the neurotic, self-conscious, Nagle’s most daring performances, Art often had to pretend he was turning the tape recorder off. If Nagle thought he was being recorded, he would stop at the first sign of a mistake. All through the Fall and Winter of late ’97 and early ’98, DiFuria coaxed spontaneous playing out of his mates, and took the results home to track them. The result was the stunning, if a bit blurry All Young in the Soul (Darla, ’98). The band’s fierce eclecticisim had reached new heights. Of course, their by now traditional Townshend-inspired bombast of pick slides and drum fills was right up front in songs like “Anything for You”. But even in this tune, with such a tough exterior, a Jonathan Richman-inspired cheesiness is turned up to eleven in the songwriting itself: DiFuria begs the ever un-responsive female to change her view and embrace the boy who unflaggingly saw her as an angel, despite her eternal frigidity. “Exactly What is Weird” managed to blend a Kinks riff with Piper at the Gates of Dawn surrealism. The Beatle-ish “10,000 Buckets of Rain” featured the ticking of a clock throughout its first half, with the alarm finally going off all through the guitar solo. “2.37 am” somehow managed to channel Big Star through the Jackson 5 and Exile era stones. Hendrix, Buddy Holly, the Small Faces, Neil Young, and even Opal and Spaceman 3 can also be felt in between the riffs and lines of All Young in the Soul.
All through the end of ’98 and ’99, the Photon Band plowed on, gigging, and writing. With the successful release of their first album the already steady flow of requests for comp tracks and one-off singles became a flood. DiFuria took this opportunity to widen the band’s scope even more. A case in point: 1999’s Songs To Be Played At 3 AM In Post-Apocalyptic Warehouses…, which featured two songs called “End of the Century”. Both were mellower, sparser, and bleaker than anything the band had ever produced. The rest is an unending sonic adventure. The trio continued to gig, and DiFuria kept writing and recording. So far, the results are six full-length albums and a harvest of singles and comp tracks revealing an eclecticism that continues to expand like the universe itself. The Photon Band’s early tunes sounded like the Beatles with the Who’s rhythm section. But by the time of their third full-length (2000’s Oh The Sweet, Sweet, Changes, (LP, Darla)), they had incorporated influences as disparate as Simon and Garfunkel, Sonic Youth, and the MC5. Expansion continues.
It’s no accident that the Photon Band’s two middle period albums feature the words “Alone” and “Lonely” in their titles. DiFuria recorded both by himself while living in Newark, Delaware, away from the debauched hubbub of his Philly scene. 2001’s Alone on the Moon, and 2003’s It’s A Lonely Planet (both on Darla) are so filled with hallucinogenic solitude that they make Syd Barrett sound like a stable, upstanding citizen.
However, on the Photon Band’s last two releases — 2007’s Get Down Here in the Stratosphere EP and 2008’s Back Down to Earth LP, both released on Empyrean — DiFuria has abandoned the solitude of outer (and inner) space to come to terms with this world. Appropriately titled, these releases features eight outside musicians, more than on any previous Photon Band effort, including N. E. Farnsworth III from Bardo Pond and Dmitri Coats of the Burning Brides. The results are the bluesiest, heaviest, most soulful Photon Band ever. Hendrix’s ghost haunts most of the songs, especially the upbeat trio of songs that start Back Down to Earth. But by the time we reach the blue-eyed soul of “Your Doubt, Your Truth” and the Monkee’d-up Motown of “Where Did the Love Go?”, easy answers are in short supply. Of the remaining cuts, even the uplifting sounding “Whatchagonnado?” offers no solutions. Things don’t end pleasantly; on the album’s closer, “Last Call, Bad Night,” it sounds as if our initially optimistic hero has come “back down to earth” in the worst of all possible ways. After a drunken ballet of twitches and stumbles, he has collapsed with a dazed thud. While our hero may be down, he’s certainly not out. There can be no doubt that as he dozes, he’s dreaming up tunes for the next Photon Band album.