'Someone called us dark roots, which sounds more like a hair problem," offers Kevin Lacey, aka M. Incroyable, frontman of the Peculiar Pretzelmen.
Still, it may be as good a description as any. The California duo play a murky, hard-to-categorize blend of blues, folk, rag and rock — a little like the Dresden Dolls if you plucked them out of Weimar cabarets and deposited them in a dusty bankrupt carnival on the wrong side of Saturday night.
While drummer "The Deacon" plays a kit populated by collected detritus — a washboard; garbage can and lid; pans, skillets and buckets; chains, and an ornate antique kick drum — Lacey wields a wide assortment of instruments, including banjo, ukulele, pump organ, saw, accordion and several misshapen toys he built from "odds and ends." Just staring at their stage set-up inspires a certain awe, like a trip to an overstuffed thrift store or a museum of musical oddities.
"We use a lot of sort of atypical instrumentation," Lacey says, the day after a gig in Chicago. "People look at the stage before we even start and it sort of takes away any kind of preconceptions, and your ability to pigeonhole. People that haven't seen us yet get kind of wide-eyed."
The two Pretzelmen's collaboration dates to a full-scale jump blues band they both played in. But in 2005, Lacey began crafting the songs that would become the duo's debut EP, God's Anger/The Devil's Influence. He decided to drag in the Deacon to play on some tracks.
Lacey and the Deacon went on to tour with punk and indie rock bands but never received much love, let alone comprehension, from sound guys, so they started setting up in the middle of the room and playing on the floor, unamplified, letting their natural energy trump voltage.
"We could really communicate with our audience a lot better that way," says Lacey. "We were the carnival. We would be trying to tell our story and I was the barker. That's how we learned to do what we do. Force people to pay attention to you. So now we're doing the same thing but just louder and in bigger rooms."
Along the way, the amplifiers managed to make a comeback, Lacey having learned a lesson from the two solid years of touring that led up to 2007's Uncanny Eyes.
"People like to make Tom Waits comparisons for a lot of reasons, and when I listen to that record I think, 'Of course people think that about that record.' My throat was destroyed from touring with no mics," he says. "I had no voice when we recorded that record."
While they're still supporting last year's more polished Innumerable Seeds of Calamity, Lacey and the Deacon have begun to pull together material for their next album, occasionally slipping new songs into the set. They've also just released the first of what they hope to be a series of 13 seven-inch platters covering old public domain folk/blues songs, including a split single of "Spike Driver Blues" backed with Kansas City's Dollar Fox doing "Big Rock Candy Mountain."
"I want to take everyone to a destination," says Lacey, "while the whole time they're not sure if they're going to make it or where they're going to go.
"If rock 'n roll isn't dangerous, it isn't even interesting."