You Were Always: An Oral History

By Mike Schaub

CAM HOUSER (guitar, vocals): So how did it all begin? It began with a dream. A dream about a band that would rock harder, rock louder, and rock more...more efficiently than any other band ever has. I realize I used the same verb three times in that construction, but there's really no synonym for "rock." Besides, I like the parallelism.

TOPHER HYINK (drums): It did begin with a dream, but it wasn't a dream about a band. It was a dream Aubri had about trying to find shampoo in a drugstore, but the drugstore was all out of...I don't know. It was something like that. I don't really remember what she said. I think Danny DeVito was in the dream, too.

AUBRI HUGHES (keys, vocals): That's not exactly accurate. The dream was in a grocery store, not a drugstore. And they weren't out of shampoo, they just had it stored in the frozen aisle. But otherwise, yeah, it began with that dream. I told my friends at work about it.

TIM FAEHNLE (bass): We were all working for an Internet company. This was before the bubble burst. We sold Swedish fish online. Not the candy, but actual fish from Sweden. Mostly herring, some perch, some pike. It was called eSwedishFishNotTheCandy.com. At any rate, Aubri came in with some story about a dream, something about a drugstore, and bam! Next thing you know, we'd all decided to form a band. Which was good, because the FDA had just discovered that most of the fish that we sold contained radioactive cesium-137, and our company folded. So we all needed new jobs.

DR. SUZANNE ALLEN (professor of chemistry, Idaho State University): I definitely would not recommend eating fish with radioactive cesium-137. It can cause serious gastric distress and organ damage.

AUBRI HUGHES: Anyway, all of us were basically unemployed, so we decided to just write some songs and practice all day. One of Topher's friends was pretty sure he could get us a gig at a stationery store. It wasn't an ideal venue for a first show, but we figured, hey, you've got to start somewhere. So we said OK.

TOPHER HYINK: I guess we didn't realize how wild the crowd would be. The manager got up on stage and said, "Are you ready for some rock that's tighter than the weave on a sheet of 24-pound fine linen paper?" And judging from the amount of bras thrown onstage when we started playing, they were. They were very ready indeed.

CAM HOUSER: That was probably the best show we'd played up to that point. I mean, it was the only show we'd played up to that point. But if, in some alternate universe, we'd played a bunch of shows before that, I'm pretty confident that those shows would not have been as rockin' as the one at the stationery store.

TIM FAEHNLE: That was a good one. Helped build the fan base. And it started our tradition of playing almost exclusively at non-traditional venues. We had shows at an egg nog factory, a uniform store, the break room of an accounting firm...

RICHARD ABNEY (associate editor, Rolling Stone magazine): And the crowds just kept getting bigger. Two weeks after the stationery store show, they drew a crowd of over 7,000 fans to a laundromat on 31st Street. That's huge. Especially for this part of Austin, which is crawling with hippies – not a traditional clothes-washing demographic. Getting hippies to come to a laundromat is huge, just huge.

AUBRI HUGHES: Things went pretty fast for us after that. The first album, The Drunken Squirrel's Revenge, went platinum almost immediately.

TOPHER HYINK: It didn't actually sell a million copies. It's just that all the CDs we had printed physically turned into platinum shortly after they were manufactured. Some sort of factory error. We had to melt them all down and sell it to a precious metal dealer. Luckily, we got enough to finance our first world tour.

CAM HOUSER: We couldn't agree on which countries to play. I guess that was the first sign that there was some trouble, some bad feelings among us.

TIM FAEHNLE: Cam wanted to spend all five months of the tour in Iceland. He has a thing for Bjork and smoked lamb. Aquavit, too.

CAM HOUSER: Aquavit! Hell, yeah! Ain't no party like an aquavit party! [At this point, Mr. Houser puts his arms in the air with his palms facing upwards in a "raise the roof"-type motion.]

AUBRI HUGHES: After our 45th consecutive show in Reykjavik, you could tell things had changed. Cam was spending every day drunk off his ass on Black Death schnapps. He would just lock himself in his hotel room listening to the Sugarcubes, eating bowl after bowl of fjallagrasamjólk.

AMALDUR JONSSON (Icelandic chef): Fjallagrasamjólk is a soup made from Icelandic moss. It is quite delicious. Why are you laughing?

TOPHER HYINK: It just wasn't the same after that. When we got back to the States, we decided to all go our separate ways.

TIM FAEHNLE: It was rough, man. It was rough. We had just released our Live at Budokan CD, which we had put a lot of work into. Did you know the Budokan was in Tokyo? We didn't. We thought it was in Akron, Ohio. So that was four plane tickets wasted right there. Anyway, everything had just degenerated – we were fighting all the time. Cam had started to get hallucinations from eating several hundred bowls of moss soup. Topher had been spending all his time with a Japanese-American performance/installation artist. And Aubri was working on recording an album for her other band.

AUBRI HUGHES: We decided to call it quits. I wanted to dedicate my time to my new band, Basura: A Loving Tribute to Garbage. We do Spanish-language versions of Garbage songs. Like "Soy solamente feliz cuando llueve." That's our biggest hit so far.

CAM HOUSER: Yeah, I was a little disappointed after the break-up. I mean, who wouldn't be? We had a great thing going. I miss the music, you know, just that...that feeling you get when you're on stage, that anticipation right before your set, that adrenaline rush when the show's over. Mostly, though, I miss the ladies. I remember this one night in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when we partied with, like, 15 women after the show. We totally went to a consciousness-raising meeting at the all-night fair-trade coffee house and vegan bakery. Just talking about the glass ceiling, about Bella Abzug, Germaine Greer. It was wild, man. It was wild.

TOPHER HYINK: Yeah, I remember Ann Arbor. I don't think Cam realized that the Campus Womyn's Center might not be the best place to schedule a show. They kept asking if we knew any Dar Williams songs. We didn't. At least I didn't. Cam celebrates her entire catalog.

TIM FAEHNLE: I never thought I'd see those guys again, but after we'd been broken up for about seven days, we started to think: "Reunion."

AUBRI HUGHES: It was Tim's idea. When he told Topher, you could actually see the dollar signs pop up in Topher's eyes.

TOPHER HYINK: That's actually a serious medical condition. It's not funny.

DR. JOSEPHINE SAMUELSON (Chief of ophthamology, Cedars-Sinai): He's right. It's very serious. He could die at any time. Literally, any time.

CAM HOUSER: I guess we've been back together for – what? – a good nine hours now. And it feels good, you know? It feels good.

TIM FAEHNLE: Yeah, it does feel good. I think we're all feeling good about it. Except Topher. He has that eye thing.

TOPHER HYINK: Tim's right, yeah. It does feel good, especially when the AAAIEEEE OH MY GOD MY EYES [Runs screaming from the room.]

AUBRI HUGHES: In the end, I guess you could say that Phoenix...rose from the ashes. I mean, you could say that if our band was called "Phoenix," which it's not. Or if we were a city named Phoenix. Like the one in Arizona. [Pause.] I should've put more thought into that closing line.