- World/Inferno Friendship Society, with Tejon Street Corner Thieves and Bridge City Sinners, Monday, Feb. 17, 7 p.m.Black Sheep, 2106 E. Platte Ave., $15, all ages, blacksheeprocks.com
"There’s one band in every town that sounds like Tom Waits,” says Jack Terricloth, “and we’ve played with every one of them.”
It’s not that the World/Inferno Friendship Society frontman has anything against the seemingly endless parade of gypsy-punk opening acts who worship at Waits’ altar — “they’re all very nice,” he says — it’s just that he doesn’t have much in common with them.
For one thing, his vocals bear little resemblance to Waits’ famously corrugated howl, a decision that’s more rooted in self-preservation than aesthetic considerations.
“It’ll fuck up your voice, which is a constant fear,” explains the singer, who does a half hour of vocal warmup exercises before each show. “Because if you’re a singer and you lose your voice, there’s no reason they shouldn’t leave you by the side of the road.”
The other difference is World/Inferno’s undeniably eclectic sound. The Brooklyn-based band creates an exuberant mix of Weimar-era cabaret, Northern Soul and classic punk-rock, which they convey with exceedingly wry wit, razor-sharp arrangements, and a fondness for anarchy both onstage and off.
Front and center is the formally attired, lankier-than-life Terricloth, who keeps a bottle of wine nearby at all times for easy access. His voice ranges from a deep David Bowie-esque croon to a hyperactive Jello Biafra quiver, as he leads the crowd through shout-along choruses like “Go! Faster! Think! Better!” and watches approvingly when they dive into hostility-free mosh pits.
“When we started, we wanted to be Kurt Weill from The Threepenny Opera,” says the New Jersey native of his band’s late-‘90s origins. “We were all kind of tired of being in punk bands, but we were still punks. So it was like, what can we do? And someone said, ‘I know a composer who plays really fast, and it’s very political, and it’s not rock. And then we all sat down to listen to the opera — the Raul Julia version from, I think it was, ’77 — and we were all like, ‘Oh yeah, this is it, yes.’ And so we ripped it off as well as we could, which was not very well, and then came up with something completely different.”
The World/Inferno Friendship Society started off as just Terricloth and pianist/co-composer Scott Hollingsworth doing a weekly cabaret gig, and has since gone through a succession of invariably talented horn players, violinists, keyboardists, guitarists, bassists, drummers, and the occasional theremin. In virtually all incarnations, the band has always included at least two women, who tend to lessen the geek factor.
“We have a certain level of sophistication, which doesn’t stop us from stealing from rest stops,” says Terricloth. “And it’s typically the ladies in the band who’ve caused the most trouble.”
But not always. There was, after all, Terricloth’s unfortunate fire-breathing mishap. “Yeah, I used to blow fire, because I enjoyed getting people’s attention, you know, in a circus monkey kind of way, And then our drummer would pour lighter fluid on his or her drums, and when you hit them, it was glorious to see.”
Not everyone agreed. “There was a club in Manhattan called Brownie’s where the soundproofing caught on fire, and the owner was not happy. I was just laughing my ass off, and then he tried to hit me, but the girls put him in a headlock.”
Last month, the band released All Borders Are Porous to Cats, a thematically linked collection of songs that follows in the tradition of previous World/Inferno concept albums about Peter Lorre and lucid dreaming. This time, the subject matter is a cat in a hat who engages in a variety of crimes, not the least of which is illegal border crossing.
“The cat is a metaphor for the immigration crisis and how we’re not letting anyone into our country but cats,” confirms Terricloth. “Which is terrible, since America was built on immigrants. I mean, my parents were immigrants. And none of us would be here otherwise.”
And while new songs like “I’ll Be Your Alibi” and “Looks Like Blood, But It’s Probably Wine” can get a bit dark, World/Inferno’s shows are always hellacious fun.
“I’m basically an optimist or I wouldn’t still be doing this,” insists the bandleader. “I mean, I do have a healthy disdain for most things and most people, but I’m friendly about it.”