Aquarter century is a long time for a rock 'n' roll band to last. The Figgs, long associated with Boston without ever actually being from here, not only reached that milestone this year, they've done it with a core lineup — essentially, Guy Lyons, Mike Gent, Pete Donnelly, and Pete Hayes — that is striking in its stability. (Lyons left the band in 1997; he'll be joining the Figgs for their anniversary celebration this weekend.)
It's an accomplishment that Gent himself can only acknowledge by saying, "It's wild" and "It seems to have gone by pretty fast." But in the course of a phone conversation from his Boston home, he makes observations that suggest that the band may even have lasted in spite of itself.
"We have always, maybe to a fault, been hesitant to plan too much," he says. "We've just kind of been rolling along." And, he readily acknowledges, "when it comes to anything other than writing or playing, to promoting our band and all the business side of it, we've always been an incredibly lazy band." Yet here they are, 25 years on. They have a catalog stuffed with studio albums, comps, EPs, and singles stretching from 1992's cassette-only "Ginger" to this year's double album, "The Day Gravity Stopped" (and, appropriately, a retrospective anthology on the way). They've logged years of touring on their own and as the backing band for singer-songwriter and pub-rock icon Graham Parker, and they've developed the sort of passionate, abiding fanbase that helps an under-the-radar band persevere. So, what's been the secret to the band's success, or its longevity?
Gent points to songwriting, particularly the fact that every member of the band has regularly contributed songs. "We've been pretty prolific. Even though we haven't got a ton of attention in sales or press or audience, that's always been the thing that fueled the band, that we've always moved forward with writing, and not rested on what's happened in the past."
When asked to characterize how the band's sound has changed or developed, Gent initially replies that he thinks their records keep improving sonically. To the suggestion that, over time, the Figgs have moved from a sort of punk urgency to a wider scope, to being a rock 'n' roll band, he agrees, to a point.
The band's early records were, to his ears, "not bad, but of their time, and where the band was, and what we were surrounded by. There were obviously hints of punk in our music, because we listened to punk rock records, but it wasn't all we listened to." As its members got older, he says, they embraced the softer side of the band. "We became comfortable with pulling back a lot and playing in the pocket, playing groove. And to me, the best rock 'n' roll has all of those elements — fast, soft, loud, quiet, middle ground — the roll. People always forget about the roll."
It's something that the band was exposed to when it started playing with Parker, Gent notes. "That was one of the first lessons we learned, to pull back, that it doesn't have to be fast or loud to be powerful. Graham really steered us in that direction, which was really good for the band."
It's clear that the Figgs' 16-year association with Parker is one of the aspects of the band's history about which Gent is most proud. They first met, he recalls, through a chance encounter at an Atlanta club, where Parker was playing the early show, and the Figgs on the late shift. Gent introduced himself and started to talk to Parker about his music. "I think I impressed him with my knowledge of his catalog. I think it seriously stuck with him, because fast-forward a year later, he called our management and said, 'I just did this record, and I'm putting a tour together and I need a band, and I think that this is the band that I need.'"
The respect cuts both ways; reached by phone, Parker gives a similar overview of how he and the Figgs met ("I was at the club doing sound-check, and these young chaps wandered in"), and his remarks make clear how struck he was by Gent's knowledge of his music. "I thought, wow, that's pretty impressive, he knows all these songs of mine, not just the usual common ones." By listening to the CD that Gent had handed him, he also discovered that the Figgs "were a really good band."
Asked for a summative reflection on the band, Gent gives the nod to friendship with a purpose. "We've always been friends, and from day one, the thing was just to play music together," he observes. "Everything else — records, shows, getting more fans, all the stress and worries of being a band — that's secondary to the fact that the point is to get in a room and play music together, whether it's in front of people or just the three of us. . . . It always comes back to that one moment when we're all on the same page, and something really good is happening. It doesn't always happen, but when it does, even if it's just during one song, it's like, ah, yeah, this is why we love doing it; searching for that one moment of excellence."