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On a recent Thursday night, members of David's Pegasus were keeping it down the best they could. Stylish kids gathered around them and shuffled nervously. A few were stashing half-drunk beers. One — presumably it was his name on the lease — urged them all to restrain their applause. The singer shushed into the mic. Local cops were stationed outside with sound meters, enforcing the strict 50-decibel limit established by Fayetteville's noise ordinance, just aching to write that $275 citation.
As the scruffy hipsters who rented the place became less and less comfortable with the situation, a basket was passed around half-heartedly to raise money for the fine. Barry Brinegar — guitarist, lead singer, and founder of David's Pegasus — offered up the $200 that the band had in the bank. The prospect of raising the other $75 looked grim. People don't carry cash nowadays.
Little Rock's Magic Hassle had opened up the night, presumably bringing the initial heat down, and now, after midnight, the neighborhood patience had pretty well worn thin. The renter finally rushed in from the front porch and cut them short, ballsy enough to throw an amped-up show in his living room but not quite ready to hit the curb for rock 'n' roll. The band started packing up. Five songs in and the night was over, their quietest set ever.
They kept a sense of humor about the indignity of it all. “It was almost like being on a game show, or the movie ‘Speed' or something,” remarked Stuart Field, the band's drummer.
Performing in a local living room is par for the course here in Fayetteville, where the recently opened Smoke and Barrel Tavern represents a lonely glimmer of hope for struggling independent acts looking to get seen. New home venues crop up every six months or so, each with a name like “Ameroplace” or “The Dinosaur House” or “The New Deli” (a nod to one of the first such places, “The Delicious”) to somewhat mask their locations from the authorities. Addresses spread by word of mouth. But they invariably have a short shelf life. Eventually, the bands wear out their welcome, the residents grow weary of the crowds, or the landlords drop the hammer. Sooner or later another one will spring up. There just aren't enough official venues to meet demand — and too little demand to warrant more official venues.
Despite limited outlets, David's Pegasus still manages to get out at least once a month. Earlier this year, the band played before an estimated crowd of a thousand people at the Botanical Gardens for an outdoor family event called the Firefly Festival. They're as famous as they'll ever be in Fayetteville, Ark.
Still, the band's aesthetic seems peculiarly engineered for the living room floor. Taking their cues from the early video game systems of the '80s, the band's stage show features a visual component: short animated “games” are projected on screens, the music acting as a soundtrack for strange 8-bit narratives.
According to Brinegar, “We suspected the average person would rather watch TV than go to a concert, so we essentially made the TV our [fifth] band member.” Their recorded output samples heavily from glitchy game soundtracks and features simple drum machine beats. The effect is less Crystal Castles than a kind of proto-Radiohead, their technological anxieties stuck in the age of joysticks, cartridges and tangled wires strung to faux wood grained television sets.
It all started with a game system produced by the fictitious “Atardicorp Studios.”
“I wanted to make a system that was so primitive that it was funny or endearing,” said Brinegar, who maintains an abiding love for atavistic game technology and draws from a deep well of arcane video game knowledge, sometimes second-guessing himself about minute historical points in casual conversation. When he recounts his personal inventory of systems, you feel as if he's just shared the benchmarks of his past, from the Atari 2600 straight through the Nintendo Wii. (He covets an Xbox 360.)
The defining feature of the Atardovision system is, in Brinegar's words, “limited control.” The console is supposedly outfitted with a five-pound steel single-button controller with “electroshock capabilities.” Paired with the relentlessly dark 3-inch cartridges intended for “play” on the system and the fact that audiences will never actually get to “play” the things, the effect is not so much joy and wonder but existential horror, or at least a needling unease. Indeed, despite their bright colors and often blackly humorous dialogue, these games seem anything but fun.
Their characters originate primarily from the first book of Samuel, modified by liberal doses of Greek myth and the American monster movies of the mid-twentieth century, as filtered through video games like “The Battle of Olympus” and “Castlevania.” Saul returns as Count Dracula after being killed. Pegasus is birthed from the blood-spurting neck of a freshly beheaded gorgon, then meets up with King David and flies through Olympus, or “Rainbow Pegasus Land.” Witches, vampire ponies, ghosts, and Perseus all make an appearance, joined at least once by Sacco and Vanzetti.
Asked about the religious imagery in the games, Brinegar demurs: “I like to think that I treat anybody's story equally, but I have a lot more familiarity with the Bible than I do with any other ancient book.” Raised a Seventh Day Adventist, Brinegar says that familiarity has certainly bred disillusion, but not contempt. He sees no reason to hide from his influences. “We just happen to know a lot about the Lord,” he said. His games reflect both affection for the Bible's stories and a mischievous humor regarding their place in his imagination.
Then, of course, there's the music. Though David's Pegasus boasts the full-bodied conception and multimedia execution of an art project, it's a band first and foremost. “I feel like sometimes we're turning into the Saturday morning cartoon that's based on the band,” joked bassist Paul Wolf. “Or maybe the video game that's based on the cartoon that's based on the band.”
“You can come to any of our shows, and people aren't watching us,” claims Field. “They're staring at this [screen].”
Though containing very few direct references to the Atardovision games, the woozy midtempo sound of David's Pegasus is the perfect soundtrack. Still, the music has a definite life of its own. The band has released an album, “Choose the Game” (available on iTunes), that stands up just fine without the visual aspect. Rife with potential hits and enough soul to make many a coed swoon, the album is every bit as cohesive and atmospheric as the stage show. Brinegar's voice often achieves a tinny, heavenly beauty over the easy shuffle of the music — a nostalgic, strummy sound that owes as much to the earliest mainstream rock 'n' roll as it does to Talking Heads and Jonathan Richman.
The lovely “El Dorado” paves its empty spaces with Brinegar's reverberating golden voice, proceeding slowly through a gauzy dream of paradise. “It's like chicken soup for the devil's soul,” croons Brinegar. “Stop Saying Hardcore” introduces the band's infectious “yayayaya” background vocals, which later pop up — punctuated by “hey-hey-heys” and “woo-oo-woos” — in the the bouncy “Passerby,” as well as in other songs. The earbuggy “Don't Follow My Lead” is all hooks.
It's a great album, and probably the last one they'll ever release. That model's as old as the technology the band fetishizes. They aren't finished creating music, just focusing on performance and new ways of spreading the word. While their popularity seems to have hit a frustrating ceiling in Northwest Arkansas, where they've played every house show on offer, they've only played in the state's capital a couple of times.
Maybe it's time the good people of Little Rock consider welcoming the band into their homes.
In the meantime, catch David's Pegasus and the See at the Smoke and Barrel in Fayetteville on Saturday, Jan. 17.
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