King of the Band

Capillary Action's leader takes his band through rock and jazz and back again

Brownies are great," enthuses Capillary Action's guitarist and vocalist, Jonathan Pfeffer, relaxing at his mother's house on a rare holiday break. Just back from a grueling tour where his band played 55 shows in 55 days, he's a bit worn out. The shell-shocked musician seems even more flummoxed when asked how he'd describe his band to a neophyte who isn't schooled in the lexicon of indie-rock taxonomy.

"You mean, basically, what you're asking me to do is to describe the band to my grandmother, right?" Yes, Jonathan. This is an especially tricky question for Pfeffer, whose enigmatic Philadelphia-based band regularly spans the stylistic globe two or three times over in the course of a single song.

"To describe Capillary Action, I'd say it would be like a picture of your typical rock band that had been cut into different pieces, mixed up, and stuck back together," says Pfeffer. "It's a weird rock band, with all of the parts interpreted by jazz musicians. Every part has a purpose, and it's purposely eclectic—the eclecticism isn't for its own sake, but the different parts are chosen to fit purposes of the songs."

The group came together at Oberlin College, where Pfeffer, a self-trained musician, was a regular student and the other players were enrolled in the music conservatory. While one might think that this dichotomy is key to the band's odd style, Pfeffer claims that he's always written off-kilter songs.

There is not a single band on this earth that likes to be classified. Every group purports to defy categorization, even though the majority of bands are just chasing whichever bandwagon came down the pike last week. And the only thing worse, usually, than bandwagon-jumping is self-conscious eclecticism. Believe it or not, though, Capillary Action really is different, without employing too many Dadaistic tendencies or straying into novelty-music territory.

"I usually just tell people that my biggest influences are my parents' divorce and that saying, ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,'" Pfeffer says.

Pfeffer and his band mates have been making lots of lemonade of late, apparently throwing sundry other musical fruits and vegetables into the mix, and bringing along the blender just for the heck of it. The group's newest album, So Embarrassing, delivers a selection of tunes that—just as soon as you think you've gotten a handle on a riff or rhythm—switch from sounding like The Locust to Oneida to Miles Davis, or something.

With a couple of years of incremental, albeit modest, triumphs, Capillary Action seems to be on the verge of progressing from the indie ghetto into some kind of success. The group is hot off of two tours with Fugazi's Joe Lally, outings that exposed the band to larger audiences. "Those were our first somewhat major tours," says Pfeffer. "It was an amazing opportunity.... And as of now the tours are finally sort of paying for themselves—but I'm still living with my mother when I'm not on the road."

Capillary Action's jarring musical complexity means that the band is something of an acquired taste, which is sometimes a hard sell in traditional rock venues. Pfeffer explains that while audiences are generally accepting wherever the band performs, sometimes alternative spaces really are more suited for the group's paradoxical sound. While it's unlikely that the group will ever find a niche on commercial rock radio, Capillary Action is moving into a phase where they might actually join the much dreaded and maligned music business. Stranger things have happened.

"We're on a record label, but it just happens to be a label that I run," explains Pfeffer. "I would love to be on a ‘real' record label for the sole purpose of having someone else take up the slack on the business end. As of now, I've taken this band as far as I can on my own."

And that's yet another way that Capillary Action is different. While most bands at least claim to be democratic, Pfeffer has no qualms about claiming his status as the group's driving force. "I am the king of the band," he says. "That's a way of avoiding problems. We don't have problems with democratic issues because I'm responsible for everything. The other musicians [Sam Krulewitch on keyboards and Noah Hecht on drums] all do their jobs. If you think about it, that's the way it always is: With every single successful band, it's either one or two people who call the shots."