The Madison band was very much of the 1980s post-punk movement, but sounded like no one else.
Editor’s note: Longtime Madison musician and journalist Tom Laskin died on June 15 in Amsterdam, where he had been living for the past few years. He was 58 years old and had endured a long fight with brain cancer. To honor Laskin’s many contributions to Madison—including as lead singer of post-punk band Appliances-SFB and a writer for Isthmus—we’ve asked a few people to reflect on his life and work. Mike Noto is a frequent contributor to this site, a great fan of all things post-punk and noise-rock, and a musician.
Many in Madison knew Tom Laskin for his principled approach to criticism, which prioritized objectivity and fairness above all else. But if Laskin’s writing was known for its analytical qualities, his performances were known for their crazed, consciously dramatic intensity and charisma. As the lead singer for Madison post-punk legends Appliances-SFB (the SFB stands for Shit-Fer-Brains, and was added after another band calling themselves the Appliances took offense), Laskin took a uniquely personal approach to punk histrionics that drew from a commitment to unrestrained, entertaining theatricality as well as the witty and disturbing menace that distinguished much of American underground music in the 1980s. The combination made for intriguing unpredictability, clever, deeply funny and unsettling lyrics, and a startlingly elastic and expressive vocal style, along with an undercurrent of professionalism that ran throughout his performances. Laskin apparently rarely sang a song the same way twice, which added to the enjoyable difficulty of pinning him down.
But Laskin wasn’t the only notable thing about Appliances-SFB. The band’s sound was also defined by William Siebecker’s rampaging, surfy Telecaster, the hammering, the agile rhythm section of bassist Ed Feeny and drummer Meredith Young, and the quietly incessant drone of Bill Feeny’s synthesizer. The group’s sound was documented on three albums: 1984’s self-released SFB, 1987’s Them/Green Door, which was released on Ruthless Records, and the later 2004 compilation 3rd And Long, which gathered together a fair amount of tracks recorded at different times during the early 1990s.
Accounts say that the records don’t quite capture the band’s live presence, but SFB is still a potent distillation of the band’s distinct amalgam of British post-punk and American noise rock: “Adventures In Radioland” and “Neo-Fascist” sound oddly like a Midwestern fusion of Bauhaus and Public Image Ltd, while the splintering guitars of “Mistakes” and “Mr. Ugly” are slightly reminiscent of the sort of twanging, warped lines that Scratch Acid’s Brett Bradford used to play.
Despite these occasional referents, though, Appliances-SFB really didn’t sound much like anyone else. Feeny and Young’s polish, swing, and technical finesse allowed them to skate rings around the occasional rhythmic stiffness of post-punk, and Laskin’s vocals snapped and bounced back and forth between wild-eyed raving, a mocking gothic baritone, elaborately sung hooks, unhinged shrieks and seemingly all points in between. Them/Green Door, an LP presented as a “double A-sided EP,” maintained nearly the same level of quality, with the intimidating grind of “Them” balanced against the hilarious Packers tribute “The Glory Years.”
After Appliances-SFB broke up in the early 1990s, members spent time on other projects. Laskin played with the experimental, heavily distorted Gargantua, as well as the sludgy Slaughterhouse Road, which also featured Killdozer’s Dan Hobson. Eventually, Laskin relocated to Paris and Amsterdam, and moved on musically to more soothing electronic sounds with his later music/videography project Cuckoo Bizarre, which, like Gargantua, was a collaboration with his wife, KT Laskin. But Appliances-SFB was the most beloved, and outside of a very limited edition of CD reissues from Milwaukee instrument store Rockhaus Music, the records have been long out-of-print. Here’s hoping that someday a more extensive reissue campaign will expose more listeners to this fierce, distinctive band.