"Make us sound smart" -- Mike Mitschele
They pulled their name from a hat full of nouns and adjectives, and thus nearly became the Sausage-y Guys. For their first live show they hung "the world's biggest flyer" from the club's marquee -- "They're Coming, April 13" was all it said. They've titled their albums Love Mouth, Goodbye Poochie, Arabian Fisticuffs and worse. They played their New York City CMJ showcase dressed in lederhosen, last year's South by Southwest as dirty guys with cheesy moustaches and an outdoor show as 8-foot redneck clowns on platform shoes made from 2x4s.
They are, of course, Charlotte's Alternative Champs. Kicking around in various forms since the late '80s, high school and college buddies Mike Mitschele, Rick Randall, Dave Massi, Brent Dunn and, newest member, John Morris have improbably become one of the city's sure-fire live draws, a cocktail of the absurd and sublime that many find irresistible. Their live act is part performance art, stand-up routine, game show, porno soundtrack and rock gig, and has crossed over into "event" territory.
Their latest brainstorm is billed as the First Annual Prom Nite this New Year's Eve at the Visulite. It'll feature music from the Champs, the Poontanglers and DJ George Brazil, with cash prizes for the prom king and queen, a midnight ball drop, champagne toast, photo booth, balloons, announcements from the principal and lord knows what else they think up between now and then. The obvious question is: Prom Nite?
"We thought it would be fun for the crowd to take part in the whole dress-up thing this time," says Randall. "Tuxes are certainly an obvious choice but not mandatory. Just anything that makes you feel festive and prom-like. Kids nowadays are making their prom attire totally out of duct tape. You can look it up on the Internet.
"It will be like a normal Champs show, but at Mach 5."
"Normal" and "Champs show" are two phrases you rarely hear together. Their costumes, songs and themes can be ripped from the headlines or as provincial as their tribute to Orange Annie, a local eccentric and orange-clad bicycle enthusiast. They've suited up as softball coaches, mall walkers, sensitive songwriters and plenty of other thrift store-inspired uniforms. They've penned tributes to Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Jackson, Sammy Hagar and John Travolta, and heart-felt narratives about "Kickin' It with Chickens," a "Taco in the Mail," "The World Wide Web" and, naturally, the "Penis."
Of course, it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye because the music sucks -- in the Champs' case, that won't happen. They may be on stage dressed as auto parts store clerks surrounded by alternators and radiators, fast food drones taking Happy Meal orders over their headsets, or in one instance as a giant banana, but the music, though filled with humor, is no joke.
Their pedigrees tell the story: the Hard Soul Poets and Jolene (Mitschele); the Husbians (Randall and Massi); Come on Thunderchild and Lou Ford (Morris); and Dunn's lengthy resume is punctuated by his current job as bassist for freak folk supergroup Vetiver. He's not at this Snug Harbor pre-gig interview because he's touring with Morrissey -- 'nuff said.
MM: "We totally didn't give a shit in the beginning."
RR: "I think that's why it worked."
The Champs formed during -- and were informed by -- the heyday of the grunge/alternative rock movement, when every song was an ode to how shitty life was or the pros-and-cons of shooting smack. It was music as grey and dreary as the weather in the Seattle scene that spawned it, and seemed to make being in a rock 'n' roll band a gigantic pain in the ass. This didn't mesh with the Champs' experiences.
"We would joke around and act silly when we hung out, so why filter a big part of who we are from the music?" Randall asks.
"There were way too many serious, serious bands," Mitschele adds.
Though they began writing Champs songs before they'd heard of indie tongue-in-cheekers Ween, the chops-in-multi-genres parallels have merit. Their MoRisen debut, 2005's Welcome to Fort Awesome, comes in a variety of styles, from 80s' cock rock to Motown soul. SXSW.com declared them "like an ice cream social with Beck, Boston, Pavement and The Commodores," and you could also add some of The Cramps' world-view, "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" Frank Zappa and a liberal dollop of bad '80s synth pop. Part of what makes the shtick work so well is the Champs' ability to mimic just about any style ever recorded, but to do so with reverence and mockery.
There's also an abundance of tasteless dick and poop jokes, XXX fare that would make Ron Jeremy blush and just plain nonsense. But not only is it delivered in tight, well-played songs, it usually comes wrapped in clever conceits, like the absurd word-problem couplet from "Mathematics 101":