It’s easy to take The Thingz for granted. The Long Beach garage-punk trio are humble, self-effacing musicians who are refreshingly free of rock-star attitude and lofty artistic pretensions. They tend to play $5 shows at local dives with little public fanfare, and they rarely leave their native habitat in the LBC to chase fame in glitzier Hollywood venues.
As with The Ramones, The Dickies, The Rezillos and other groups who specialize in short, zippy punk ditties, The Thingz suffer a bit from “The Tears of a Clown” syndrome: Joke bands rarely get the same critical respect as ostensibly serious acts, and The Thingz’s overtly silly early songs, such as “Manicotti Massacre” and “I’m Glad I’m Not a Mollusk,” stood out as stubbornly absurd contrasts to the stodgy attempts at profundity by many of the prevailing alt-rock bands in the late ’90s.
Yet something curious has occurred in The Thingz’s marvelously self-contained universe over the past two decades since singer-guitarist Mike Morris and singer-bassist Kim Morris formed the band in 1998. The couple, who were dating when they began playing together and married a few years later, have continued to crank out gleefully daft punk blasts like “White Pants” and aptly titled, souped-up roots-rock workouts such as “Good Trash, Bad Trash,” on The Thingz’s most recent album, 2017’s Vault of Tomorrow.
But the record also is varied enough to include the morbidly mysterious, jangling blues of “Gospel Swamp” and the restrained punk-rock outrage of “Black Dust.” The latter track isn’t a quaintly archaic portrait of hard times in some distant Appalachian coal-mining town. Instead, it’s a sobering look at the omnipresent cloud of air pollution that hangs over Long Beach and the South Bay, filtered through The Thingz’s uniquely surreal worldview as Kim Morris laments about “the last breath of a haunted town.”
“‘Black Dust’ is about the dust from that refinery in Carson, but I speculated that it’s actually spores from outer space,” Mike Morris, 49, explains in a phone interview. “It’s sort of a local theme mutating into a science fiction theme.”
The Thingz are so enamored with their Long Beach hometown that they even posed for a memorable photograph by former Flipside staffer KRK Dominguez a few years ago in which they stood hip-deep in the dirty water of Long Beach Harbor. “I got a rash from the waist down for three weeks afterward,” Mike Morris says.
Mike and Kim Morris went through a series of drummers before Jason Cordero joined The Thingz in 2005. Cordero had been playing with Mike Morris in a new wave–style outfit called Operator when Mike asked him to fill in at the last minute on a Thingz tour of the Southwest. Without a single practice with the band, Cordero soon found himself on the road and onstage. “After a few shots of whiskey, I was fine,” Cordero says.
“I thought they were a lot of fun,” Cordero, 45, says when asked his first impression of The Thingz. “I thought the humor in Mike’s lyrics was awesome — it just seemed like an all-around good time. I appreciate playing with a guy who’s kind of a savant when it comes to that stuff.” Cordero and Mike Morris also occasionally perform together in an acoustic bluegrass-folk ensemble called The Bottled Spirits, and traces of Americana often show up in The Thingz’s more recent recordings.
The Thingz have done only limited touring on the West Coast and in the Southwest, but they were surprised at the rabid response they received on a 2008 trip to Mexico City. “I’ve never been swarmed by kids till I was in Mexico City,” Cordero marvels.
Before long, Mike and Kim Morris came to appreciate Cordero’s enthusiasm and impact on the group’s arrangements. “Jason loves the Bo Diddley beat,” Mike says of Cordero’s rhythmic drive on “Mercy Brown” and the new song “Falling Town.” “Basically, it’s one of the greatest drumbeats ever.”
“The deceptively simply Bo Diddley beat — I don’t think you can improve on it,” says Cordero, who was inspired to play drums after hearing the Burundi-style rhythms of Bow Wow Wow and Adam & the Ants. “I love the Bo Diddley beat. It’s hypnotic, and when it’s locked in, it can do wonders. My musical coming-of-age was ’78 and ’79 with Devo and Cheap Trick — whatever my older sister was listening to.”
“I mainly write them,” Mike Morris says of The Thingz’s original songs. “Then we all kick them around and arrange them, and they usually change a lot.”
Although Mike Morris is the prime architect of The Thingz’s songwriting, the original idea for the band came from Kim. “I was always listening to garage rock,” she says. “That’s always been my passion — Thee Headcoats, The Drags, The Mummies, The Oblivians, anything Greg Cartwright does, anything on Ripoff Records. … I knew other guitarists, but they didn’t have the same vision that I did. I had tried to put it together but it always ended up being more punk rock than I wanted, or more power pop.”
Duly challenged, Mike Morris, who had been playing bass with the post-hardcore band Hunger Farm, as well as 16, F.H. Hill Company and Operator, sat down and wrote some garage-rock songs on guitar. “She seemed to like them,” Mike says of Kim’s response. “We ended up starting the band.”
Since then, Mike’s songwriting has moved beyond his early obsession with the aquatic life and the pleasures of eating (and often both subjects at once) to the wider range of moods on Vault of Tomorrow, which centers on an often-mythological cast of characters that includes “silicon-based life, soulless automatons, misunderstood TB victims, disaffected cyborgs, hucksters and fog-shrouded charlatans, insect-human hybrids, ghosts of Stalingrad,” according to The Thingz’s Bandcamp page.
The group’s upcoming, as-yet-untitled eighth studio album continues Mike Morris’ fascination with bizarre subject matter, ranging from the stop-and-start garage rock of “Hound God” and the swampy irreverence of “Holy Jim” to the enigmatically dreamy blues of “Pearl Moan” and “Sinner.” The hard-rocking “Separation” envisions a future war between humans and genetically modified beings, whereas “Mammal Me” is a ruefully philosophical examination of animalistic behavior.
Several of Mike’s new songs are inspired by obscure historical incidents, such as “Lotta Moth Action,” which is based on the legendary Moth Man of West Virginia. “It seems like there’s some interesting subject matter in American folklore,” Mike says. And yet even this broader range of topics hasn’t changed the group’s essential, minimalist approach to making music.
“I think of The Thingz as rock & roll with influences of punk rock and garage rock,” Mike adds. “Different branches on the same tree.”
Most of The Thingz’s original songs clock in at well under three minutes in length. “We try to take a scalpel to the songs and work them down to their essence,” Mike explains. “If it’s 2½ minutes and I can cut it down to 1½, I will. Attention spans being what they are these days, I’d rather make my point while I still have some of the attention.”
Many of The Thingz’s songs don’t have guitar solos, and when they do, they tend to flash by quickly. “A guitar solo shouldn’t overwhelm the song,” Mike says. “I try to keep it to four bars or less.”
Recently, he’s been playing more keyboards on the group’s recordings, and Kim Morris has added a newfound element of inexplicable eeriness with her theremin parts. Is it hard to control the sounds on theremin? “It is,” Kim admits. “I’m getting better. There are notes, and you have to know where to hold them.”
Both Kim Morris and Jason Cordero are elementary-school teachers, although they work in different districts. When asked if there are any differences between controlling a classroom of unruly kids and trying to entertain a club full of cynical punk rockers, Cordero says, “If I’m going to be painfully honest with myself, I go, ‘Jason, you must really be desperate for attention,’ because in my day job I have a captive audience of 35 kids, and then at night I get up in front of strangers and beg for their approval.”
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“Teaching is a performance,” Cordero continues about his efforts to get his students interested in music. “Getting 50 kids at once to sing ‘Space Oddity’ can give you goose bumps.”
Kim Morris, who used to play with The VooDuo when they were still known as The Witching Hour, likes being based in Long Beach. “There’s so much diversity of bands. … We feel part of [the Long Beach scene], but it’s not necessarily a garage-rock scene. Unfortunately, it’s kept us from going to L.A. more because we have so much diversity in Long Beach clubs. I feel supported. I feel like people are open-minded here.”
Cordero adds, “If there’s two people there or 200, I’m having a good time.”
The Thingz perform at the Prospector, 2400 E. Seventh St., Long Beach, on Thursday, March 1, at 9 p.m.; $5. (562) 438-3839.