Halfway through one of their songs at Friday Night Live in downtown Champaign, The Underwerewolves halted the music all at once to take a phone call from Stegotron, a missile-firing dino-robot that wreaks havoc on cities. After finishing the brief conversation, lead singer Jeremy Pessin and his musical mates jumped right back into the tune — which just happened to be called “Stegotron” — as if nothing odd transpired.
It was a classic Underwerewolves moment, brought forth for pure amusement.
“It really is about entertaining,” says bass guitarist Jay Creek, aptly summing up the band’s philosophy. “We want people to come and see how serious we’re taking not being serious.”
The Underwerewolves’ Facebook fan page describes the group’s music as “dumb garage rock for dumb people,” an off description. The band’s sound is much tighter, more versatile, and more polished than what comes out of a garage. What’s more, the musicians who produce it are clever, talented, and impressive singers. As for the good-sized Friday Night Live crowd, it wasn’t evident how mentally slow the folks in the audience may have been, but they were smart enough to enjoy the music, which was clear by the singing, occasional dancing, grins on people’s faces, and enthusiastic cheering after each song.
The overly modest Underwerewolves played 16 high-energy songs that might best be described as punk rock with a 1960s feel. With his smile-inducing falsetto and lighthearted vibe, Pessin has the look of a mini Jack Black, dancing, cracking jokes, and singing (“‘sing’ is a stretch,” Pessin joked as the band was warming up) about aliens, mad scientists, and robots—“terrible people,” as he labels them.
Playing in front of the side entrance to Hamilton Walker’s on Park Avenue as the sun went down, the band’s show included energetic ditties such as “You Can Play the Cello,” “Clone City,” and “Make Like a Heck.” Midway through “Heck,” Pessin transformed into an angry, modern-day Jim Morrison, sarcastically yelling three times that “rock and roll is destroying America!”
The singer and guitarist were accompanied on stage by Creek, snappy drummer Conner Buenting, and keyboardist Will Arnold, whose musical contributions go a long way toward defining The Underwerewolves by offering added variety and styles that range from The Doors to quirkier keyboards.
“It’s just real fun to pick some really obnoxious, weird noises and try to make them go with the music,” Arnold says of his animated work.
The bearded and brown-haired foursome, all of whom wore matching black pants and shirts on stage, originally met at Windsor Road Christian Church. The same guys who wrote a song called “Party All Night (‘Til Someone Ruins Their Life)” have also played in the church’s band and formulated musical friendships through their religious affiliation. Buenting is the student ministry director of the church.
“At church, the purpose is to glorify God and to serve the community,” says Pessin, who played in the local band Vvvvv! approximately 10 years ago. “Whereas with rock and roll, it’s just really to serve the audience and give them a good time. So that’s what we try to do.”
The vision of The Underwerewolves stems from Pessin, who, like an astute entrepreneur, saw a need several years ago in Champaign-Urbana for a rock group that didn’t take itself too seriously and jumped at the chance to form one. He and his jokey bandmates are all married with real-world jobs and in some cases kids. Their busy lives mean they’re content to release one EP per year via the inspiration of Pessin’s fantastical musical narratives, which involve the happenings of Stegotron and his much smaller nemesis, Felicia, a mysterious, trans-dimensional entity disguised as a pet turtle. (In a nutshell, Felicia engages Stegotron in a battle in which none other than civilization itself is at stake. The tale from that EP was followed by a prequel EP in which a crazy scientist named Dr. Cyber-John attempts to travel back in time to kill Adolph Hitler.)
Photo taken by Logan Kurtz.
Arnold furthered the band’s multimedia presence by creating and publishing two comic books to accompany the band’s Felicia Versus Stegotron and Adventures in Time! EPs. The music and lyrics by Pessin provided a pre-built narrative for Arnold’s artwork, and the fun-loving group was on its way.
No one yet knows where this Underwerewolves underworld story is headed, but the band is too “cheap” and “lazy,” according to Pessin, to release a full-length CD or vinyl album, so the story-driven EPs will continue to be released digitally. The Underwerewolves have no plans, in fact, to digress from what’s worked so far.
“I’d hate to evolve,” Pessin jokes. “If we could regress, that would be great.”
After being convinced by those in attendance to stick around for a one-song encore, the band ended its Friday Night Live performance with, appropriately enough, the frantic “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M. In a world that can indeed sometimes feel as if it’s hurtling to some fiery, wayward conclusion, The Underwerewolves did their best to put things in lighthearted perspective for an hour-long concert, feeling fine and stirring the crowd to feel the same.