… we decided that our music would be better and more unique if [we] weren’t ‘scared’ of being stupid and un-cool.
Tomas Antona, Prindle Record Reviews interview, 2007
Formed: 1987, New York, USA
JELLO BIAFRA DESCRIBED them as ‘the missing link between R.E.M. and the Butthole Surfers’. There’s a kind of truth to that epithet, because under Alice Donut’s acid-punk slop and crude sense of humour lies a knack for melodic songwriting that could’ve made them huge. If only they weren’t so damn demented.
Alice Donut emerged from the damp ashes of a punk band called the Sea Beasts, formed at Columbia University by vocalist Tomas Antona, bassist Ted Houghton and guitarist Dave Giffen. Following that band’s dissolution, a second guitarist, Tom Meltzer, was recruited along with drummer and trombonist Stephen Moses. The group was initially named Alice Donut Liver Henry Moore: a pun on the Martin Scorsese film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. But when this unwieldy name wouldn’t fit on the marquee for a gig at New York punk mecca CBGB, where the band would become a regular fixture, the club’s owner Hilly Kristal shortened it. Alice Donut was born.
Their first demo, Dork Me Bangladesh (1987), captured early versions of songs that would appear on the band’s next few albums. On hearing one of those songs, the Meltzer-penned “Lisa’s Father (Waka Baby)”, Jello Biafra signed Alice Donut to his Alternative Tentacles label, beginning a relationship between the band and the Dead Kennedys front-man that would last for close to a decade. Meltzer soon left and was replaced by Michael Jung for the first album, Donut Comes Alive (1988). The album contained relatively straight-ahead pop-punk songs with tinges of country, funk and psychedelia, and announced Antona’s perverse lyrical obsessions – death, religion, bodily fluids – delivered with plenty of pop culture references and a knack for surreal social commentary. Alice Donut was clearly no ordinary punk band, as shown by the horrid outlandishness of songs like “Mad Dogs on a Bone” and “Love is a Fickle Thing”, while Antona’s unconventional vocal style, like Perry Farrell being molested by Alice Cooper at his growliest, lent even the album’s most orthodox material a bizarre edge.
Alice Donut’s budding grotesquery blossomed on their second album. Where the debut opened with “Green Pea Soup”, a love song to Linda Blair’s character in the Exorcist, Bucketfulls of Sickness and Horror in an Otherwise Meaningless Life (1989) sounded like the band itself was possessed, channeling the likes of Frank Zappa, Pere Ubu and Flipper and coating everything in a viscous layer of sonic spew. This noisier sound was perfected on the band’s best album, Mule, which followed in 1990. It contained enduring Donut classics like “Mother of Christ” and “Tiny Ugly World” alongside the greasy, off-kilter riffs and silly voices of songs like “Crawlpappy”, “Burlesque”, and “Roadkill”, the whole package glued together with a loopy circus-like motif repeated between songs. In the same year, Alice Donut speedily wrote and recorded Revenge Fantasies of the Impotent in response to the Gulf War, with biting social commentary to match. Amid increased touring of the States and a trip to Europe, a third guitarist, Richard Marshall, was added to the lineup, and all three guitarists appeared on the album. Produced with help from Kramer (Shockabilly, Bongwater), a heavier, more metallic sound evolved, relying on groove as much as melody, while the inclusion of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” began a Donut tradition of performing trombone-led instrumental covers.
Alas, the typical internal tensions had been festering away, and Houghton and Giffen eventually quit around 1991. Houghton was replaced on bass and occasional vocals by Sissi Schulmeister, a classically trained multi-instrumentalist who first appeared in the band’s video for “Bigger Ass” from The Ass Trilogy EP. In 1992, Kramer returned to produce The Untidy Suicides of Your Degenerate Children. Considered by some to be the band’s Dark Side of the Moon, Untidy Suicides is a concept album filled with offbeat character studies like “The Son of a Disgruntled X-Postal Worker Reflects on His Life While Getting Stoned in the Parking Lot of a Winn Dixie Listening to Metallica”. By now, Alice Donut had hit the peak of their popularity, scoring a spot on the 1993 Reading Festival bill where they treated tens of thousands of punters to their high-spirited horrendousness.
The live Donut experience was captured for posterity on 1994’s Dry-humping the Cash Cow, which hilariously parodied concert albums by dubbing in stadium crowd sounds from Frampton Comes Alive and Kiss Alive! during Antona’s eccentric between-song banter. Around this time, the singer had been working on some new music with Giffen, and in 1995 the prodigal guitarist rejoined for Pure Acid Park. Filled to the brim with heavily processed guitar sounds and non-rock instrumentation – banjo, didgeridoo, casio and kazoos – the album was an ambitious and slickly produced psychedelic pop album similar to The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, but including plenty of patented Donut oddness in the form of songs like “The Senator & the Cabin Boy” and “Mummenschantz Pachinko”. Growing increasingly frustrated at their inability to break through the alt-rock ceiling, Alice Donut called it quits shortly thereafter, but thankfully not before covering the Bee-Gees and the Hair soundtrack for a split single with Killdozer in 1996.
You can’t keep a good donut down, however, and in 1999, Moses, Jung and Schulmeister started playing together again, with Antona soon joining them for a fully-fledged reformation. Meanwhile, Giffen had started the Howler label, which put out the band’s next two albums: Three Sisters (2002), a back-to-basics punky rock album, and Fuzz (2006). With Giffen now back as guitarist, the latter was a return to their more layered and intricate work, introducing new wrinkles of musical dementia with the likes of “Madonna’s Bombing Sarajevo”, “Glam” and “Norman”. In 2010, Alice Donut was reunited with Alternative Tentacles for their tenth album, Ten Glorious Animals, while a documentary charting the band’s quarter-century career, Freaks in Love, followed in 2011.
Alice Donut took the fierce individuality and DIY creativity of punk about as far as it could go: touring relentlessly, creating their own artwork and building a cult fanbase one member at a time. Their ear for a hook made their weirdness more insidious than that of the Butthole Surfers, while their ugliness caused their country-infused pop to stick in the ears in more infectiously irritating ways than R.E.M.’s. A key band in the awkward transition from the indie punk underground to the mainstream explosion of alternative-rock in the nineties, Alice Donut unfortunately got lost in the shuffle. But for their originality, and for walking that crooked line between repugnance and contagious likeability, Alice Donut have carved out their own sticky niche in the indie pantheon.
“Lisa’s Father (Waka Baby)” from Dork Me Bangladesh (1987) – NSFW
Interview on Videowave (1993)
Live at CBGB (2004)