For former high-school math-club geek Joe Thebeau, understanding the subject matter of Escape Velocity (Scat), the outstanding debut LP from his band Finn’s Motel, is pretty simple.
“Escape velocity is the speed required for a body to leave the gravity of another body,” says the 40-year-old technical writer, who lives with his wife and two children in Affton, Mo., a St. Louis suburb. “I wanted to liken the daily grind to an orbit. In order to leave the gravity of that orbit, you have to work up some energy, get up some speed.”
How about a translation for those of us whose numerical expertise is limited to figuring out batting averages?
“One thing that emerged from the songs was an effort to reconcile the work life I found myself in with the life I imagined I would have at this point,” says Thebeau, a veteran of a number of went-nowhere local groups pre-Finn’s Motel. “It’s about getting by, rather than embracing any kind of heroic role, and the shame in looking back and realizing that you let life get away from you. I’m not sure I’m done reconciling it. But through writing about it, I’ve found some peace with it … some acceptance of it, I guess.”
Though Escape Velocity’s algebraic derivation may be a little murky, its universal themes of disillusionment and escape come through loud and clear thanks to Thebeau’s evocative combination of literate wordplay and Cheap Trick/Guided By Voices-fueled rock. Short, Robert Pollard-esque bursts (“Exit Strategy Failed”) and hook-laden power pop (“Concord Village Optimist Club”) neatly coexist with dense soundscapes (“Arizona Sandstorm”) and Paul Westerberg-ian melancholy (“Hangover In An Aging Suburb,” a “Here Comes A Regular” for the minivan crowd).
The parallels to Pollard are fairly obvious, if a tad facile: A prolific, late-blooming, Midwestern-bred songwriter with a fondness for beer-soaked melodies, Thebeau was plucked from his seemingly destined obscurity by Scat’s Robert Griffin.
“Where Bob is a rock ’n’ roll Lewis Carroll, Joe is like Mark Twain writing science fiction,” says Griffin, a friend of Thebeau’s who signed Finn’s Motel after hearing an early demo. “His writing is technical language but is centered on people, with layers of meaning and social commentary. At the same time, you can just rock out to it.”
“Pollard’s main impact was to make me believe that rock wasn’t dead,” says Thebeau. “And that it doesn’t matter how old you are.”
Now that he’s come to that realization, Thebeau is embracing—instead of reconciling—a rock life full of possibilities. Befitting the exploratory nature of mathematics, Thebeau doesn’t quite have all of the answers, but he knows it’s time to solve the equation.
“If I can escape the daily grind just long enough, I might figure out an inspired goal for my future,” he says. “What Escape Velocity has opened up is that it’s not too late to start over—on something. What? I haven’t figured that out yet.”