Matt Bajda cringed when I mentioned Portraits of Past.
“I knew that was coming,” he said. “It’s gotta come up some time … whenever I talk to anyone and they find out that I was in Portraits of Past, they’re like, ‘Oh my god that’s like my favorite record. That was the best record of ’96, that just brings back memories and blah blah blah blah I loved it.'”
The funny thing: Precious few people have heard of the defunct Half Moon Bay group Portraits of Past outside the insular hardcore scene. Yet that scene’s enthusiasm is enough to inspire disgust in Matt Bajda, who, along with bandmates Andy Radin, Seth Babb, Dave Mello and Matt’s brother Dan Bajda, were spinning through Santa Barbara under the moniker Funeral Diner.
The name, stolen from a song by German industrial group Wumpscut, is perhaps the least solid part of the band.
“Dave was kind of sick of waiting for a name,” Dan Bajda said, “so he just kinda gave in, even though he doesn’t like it.”
“I still don’t like it,” Mello said.
“Tell you the truth, I don’t like it either.”
Playing for a crowd of maybe 30 at the Biko Co-Op in Isla Vista, Funeral Diner proved the vitality of its form, however under-appreciated it may be.
“I work for this radio station in San Francisco,” explained Mello. “It’s a very big corporation, mainstream kind of stuff … they advertised one of our shows and they put some of our music into it, and it was all very cheesy and bad.”
Yet, normally, Funeral Diner avoids cheese. They play a form of hardcore that is devoid of pained melodies, ranting anger, blazing licks or mosh breakdowns. Instead, they intersperse slow, ringing chord/melody interplay courtesy of Mello – not to be confused with the Dave Mello who played drums with ska-punk pioneer Operation Ivy (“There are a few Dave Mellos floating around,” he said via e-mail, “and most are in bands. I don’t get it.”) – and Dan Bajda, with bursts of screeching chaos driven by Matt Bajda’s quirky drumming.
“Someone once told us we sounded like Tool on PCP,” Dan Bajda said.
Bassist Radin holds down the bottom end without flash but without flaw, throwing in occasional screams to punctuate singer Babb’s scratchy, incomprehensible lyrics.
“I never thought of vocals in hardcore as something you need to have in the forefront,” Babb said. “I agree with the idea of them being sort of like another instrument.”
What was a little more unusual was Babb’s stage presence. He performed pretty much the entire set with his back to the audience. “When I don’t have a microphone stand,” he said, “I dunno, I just feel weird without something there … it was too small of an audience and there were too many people that I knew very well.”
The aesthetic wisdom of this posture was questionable. “[Seth] has no butt,” longtime friend Stephanie Tavares said. But the band’s overall performance was unhindered and energetic despite the small turnout.
“Instead of just four dudes standing there over their instruments,” Mello said, “at least someone’s getting a little loco.”
Babb and Radin are relatively new acquisitions. Babb came over after the breakup of his previous group, Walken (“It happened, and I’m okay with it, and may God have mercy on their souls,” he said), while Radin had worked with both Portraits of Past and Funeral Diner as a recording engineer before signing on to play bass.
“I’m in the lucky position of having been a big fan of the band before they needed a bassist and asked me to join,” Radin said.
Radin’s support is not entirely meaningless. He maintains www.fourfa.com, one of the first sites to tackle the music/cultural phenomenon known as emo, and certainly the only one to try and be comprehensive.
“It was 1998,” he said, “and I was unemployed. And I started looking for [San Diego proto-emo group] Heroin pictures on the web. And I noticed everything that had the word ’emo’ in it was about like Jimmy Eat World and Weezer and Sunny Day Real Estate … [I tried] to list a bunch of old-school records that people, when they typed ’emo,’ they’d at least get Heroin or Mohinder or something. And it turned into this brain-dump of … everything I could think of.”
“I think [fourfa.com] is listed as number one or two on Google under ’emo,'” he added ruefully.
Despite Matt Bajda and Radin’s relative fame, Funeral Diner is still working the tour circuit with the usual tales of band tension and bad luck.
“[Dan] fell asleep while driving,” Mello said. “That was pretty bad.”
“I drove the least on tour,” Dan Bajda said, “and I was the only one to fall asleep after like an hour. And I got a ticket and yelled at Andy for no reason because I was mad at the cop.”
“I got beat up by a cop once,” Matt Bajda said. “It’s not fun to live life unless you’ve gotten beat up by a cop.”
Troubles aside, Funeral Diner is at least something he can call his own. “I never really felt like I was part of [Portraits of Past]. I mean, I was in the band, but I didn’t start the band with them. I don’t know how [Seth and Andy] feel … we try to make them feel as much a part of the band as we could.”
Babb had no qualms about his status. “I play music in the Funeral Diner band,” he said. “And I make films. And I keep it real.”
A cheesy line, but certainly nothing to cringe at.