Fake blood, Russian transsexuals, a staged birth gone bad when a stray coat hanger appears; these live show elements would be expected from hardcore death metal bands, maybe, but an unassuming trio of indie locals?
Orlando's self-described "wobble rockers" Happy Valley, who began life as an instrumental act, are a maelstrom of incongruity. Their wildly divergent musical range — elements of neo-psych, sludge-metal, funk and R&B all share an eerie space with a kitschy keytar — betrays the laser-like narrative through-line of their message: We are all mutants. The girl who wants to be an actress is one, as is the boy who should be a rock star or the young woman who births the Antichrist. The band, which claims to feel ostracized from their own music scene, is right there with them. Mutants. All of us.
"I have never felt like we fit in any part of the scene here in Orlando," says singer-guitarist Darin Hughes. "We have played with a lot of different types of bands. We play with punk-rock bands, but we are not punk rock. We play with indie-rock bands, but we are not cute or sensitive enough for them. There isn't really a niche space for us here. We don't fit in."
That sense of alienation was reinforced when the group drew criticism after they instigated a pillow fight at an Anti-Pop Music Festival showcase at downtown venue Back Booth in November 2006. They cut small holes in feather pillows and had two men beat each other with them in the center of the crowd. The pillows ripped, naturally, and the club was still cleaning up feathers days after the event.
"It was absolutely beautiful," says drummer Evan Shafran.
Their first album, Mutanten, released this month on local label Sleepy Bird Orphanage, contains a megaphone-enhanced blues number called "Become a Rockstar … Guy," in which Hughes jabs, "You are mutated from your head to your toe/But you still don't bring it all to the show." It's a cutting line, but it reflects a widely held criticism of a downtown Orlando that's too slow to embrace new sounds.
"There are a lot of critics in this world, `but` there are not a lot of participants. There need to be more critical participants," says Hughes. "I know a lot of people, especially in the scene, who have a lot of ideas but are too scared to ever follow through on them or to ever present them in a public forum."
Mutanten's opening track, "You're With Me Now," clearly establishes the band's objective: "I tell you, pretty baby/You don't know what you're in for." Each song adeptly maintains fluidity despite seemingly reckless twists and turns, and that comes from their unique style of writing; they meld 10 to 15 short clips together to form a song.
"`We were` building a jigsaw puzzle and putting it together as we went along," says keytarist Rogier van Etten. "There were only two songs written `the way` a traditional song would be written."
Their eclecticism has roots in their post-rock days (helped along by the fact that their Danish keytar player hadn't listened to guitar-based rock until he joined the band), but more than likely, it's because Happy Valley stopped giving a damn long ago.
"It's about having a good time for me. I want people to experience some kind of emotion and remember it and tell their friends," says Shafran.
Although they harp on the theme of estrangement, Happy Valley consistently pleads for solidarity. "You see you're not the only one with a problem," they sing on "Mutant Brigade," and repeat on "As You" ("See that they're just as forlorn as you?").
The inclination toward unity coincides with their overarching purpose as a band.
"I'm not trying to cure AIDS in Africa," says Shafran. "I want people to not think about their shitty day at work, their bitching girlfriend, or whatever. I just want people ... to be immersed."
"I used to be a computer nerd, sitting behind my computer and making techno music," remembers van Etten. "Now I just want to perform and be onstage and play for people."
The response they've received from even nonmutant fans suggests Happy Valley might not feel like outsiders for long. With the release of Mutanten, the band sees the tide beginning to turn.
"This is the first time that we have made an album that women have actually enjoyed," says Shafran.
Van Etten agrees. "We're trying to become the new 'N Sync."[email protected]