Eighteen years after it came into existence, and after weathering various personnel changes and the ebb and flow of creativity, The Pork Torta is experiencing something of a rebirth, thanks to an addictive blend of remedial bubblegum-noise rave-ups and funky go-go garage rock.
The local band has a new album, Casual Living, ready for public consumption. The Pork Torta will celebrate with a record-release gig on Friday night, May 6, at Plush; in addition to CDs, the band also will offer a vinyl LP version of the album, appealing to the still-strong legion of turntable nerds in its audience (me among them).
The group has been trimmed back to a sleek trio, and back in the fold is original Pork Torta member Serge (of Bebe and Serge fame), a musician, raconteur and man about town who contributed songwriting, bass-playing and production to the new recording. He joins drummer Lucas Moseley and guitarist Ian McDaniel.
Serge left The Pork Torta soon after its 1993 formation, but always hovered in the background, sometimes producing its music or kibitzing when he could. He returned a few years ago, and McDaniel thinks Serge's presence as a songwriter enhances the whole Torta vibe.
But Serge says he wanted to help The Pork Torta relearn what made it special.
"We just kinda analyzed the sum of the Torta's work and tried to hone in on what made it special to begin with. The early albums have this kind of idiot-savant majesty to it. Lucas is not a traditional drummer—he had these idiosyncratic polyrhythmic beats—and Ian, also not having any formal training, pretty much learned how to play guitar by being in the Torta."
If you count cassettes and CD-Rs, Casual Living marks the seventh Pork Torta release. While discussing the new album, the current Torta members take pains to give props to former members Chris Cilla and Chris Kaufmann for helping shape the group's style.
Serge considers The Pork Torta an "isolationist" band that remains ignorant of musical trends—both to avoid aping them and to resist reacting to them.
Moseley says the band had a luxurious amount of time for recording with Nathan Sabatino at Loveland Studio. "He was adding on to his studio, and we ended up pouring the slab and doing the rough framing in exchange for doing the session. At some point, we must've been pushing it, but he let us go as long as we wanted, and it was no pressure."
The time to stretch out in the studio allowed The Pork Torta to carefully focus on the sound they wanted to create. But Moseley says it's difficult to regain the raw, untutored quality that marked the early years. "When I learned how to play drums and got better, it was so hard to take it back to what it was. When I got to the point of being able to play a good surf beat, I felt like that was what I wanted to do, and I stayed on that for about 10 years. Now, I am trying to go back to when I was just learning."
Serge notes that Zen philosophers would call that approach "beginner's mind."
All in their early 40s, The Pork Torta members have been around long enough to be considered respected elders in the Tucson music community. But you won't catch any of them making that claim. They've seen and heard enough, though, to recognize that many younger Tucson bands seem to subscribe to an aesthetic similar to that of The Pork Torta. However, Serge finds the quality of the musicianship to be generally higher these days.
"With the kids now, I think—even the bands I don't like and the bands I do like—in general, their skill level is much higher than all of our generation," Serge says. "We came from the generation where people didn't give a shit about playing well. If anything, growing up in the end of heavy metal and the old prog-rock era, it was almost a badge of honor to not play well. Those contexts are completely gone."
Two of those younger bands—Monster Pussy and Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout—also will play at The Pork Torta's record-release gig this Friday.
Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout, in particular, reminds the members of The Pork Torta of the early stirrings of Bloat Records 20 years ago. "The first time I saw them, they reminded me of all the Bloat kids when we were their age," Serge says. "They have this irreverent creativity to them."
"But they have way more talent than we ever did," Moseley adds.
The other younger bands associated with Bloat are God of the Sea and Cadillac Steakhouse. Even the mighty Golden Boots just released its new album on Bloat, Serge says. "That's a good chunk of the really relevant bands in town right now. We're in the company of some people doing great things."
The Pork Torta recognizes that, to some degree, its audience has grown up, had kids and stopped going out. And the band understands that. "I have to get a baby sitter when I go out to play now," McDaniel says.
But that puts the band's members back in the position of being hungry musical underdogs. They have had to build a new audience, so associations with some of the younger bands have helped. "It's been a real easy fit, sliding in with the Mr. Free crowd; they command this amazing audience of 20-somethings," Serge says.
The Pork Torta also has a reputation for dressing in colorful, custom-made outfits—vinyl cowboy outfits, diapers, window shades, etc. They don't always perform in costume anymore, but they do on special occasions. McDaniel hints that something may be in store for the May 6 date.
Another element that has marked the Pork Torta shows of legend has been the frenzied passion with which the band's audience usually has greeted its performances.
"Getting that back from the audience is just about the best thing," Moseley says. "Especially since now that we are older, and we are all monogamists."