Unlocking a (Non)-Mystery: Puffy

Archaeology requires digging. Sometimes when you dig, you find buried treasure; sometimes, you find a mystery that requires even deeper digging. Then again, sometimes you just find things that, had you paid attention in archaeology class, you would know were already discovered.

For all intents and purposes, Come Home to a House Built of Flame, the lone seven-inch EP by California bedroom duo Puffy (not to be confused with the J-Pop band that uses the same name in their home country), is neither a buried treasure nor a mystery, if only because websites like Discogs exist. A couple clicks will tell you that half of this home-recorded (live to ONE track!) band, Dennis Callaci, founded the label Shrimper, a stalwart of lo-fi spew spanning over two decades. In that time, Shrimper has played a role in humbly launching the careers of a few people that even squares know about (Sentridoh, Mountain Goats, etc.). Callaci has also been in the band Refrigerator for roughly the same amount of time. There’s less info available on Puffy’s other half, Catherine Guffey, but maybe there’s just not as much to tell, at least in terms of a “music career”.

Mystery quashed. As far as “lo-fi” bands go, Callaci’s story is pretty well-documented. That’s cool, I guess… it’s still not a super-common record, and more importantly, it’s still one that I like a lot. It was also released not by Shrimper, but the excellently named Ratfish label (whose logo looks kind of like the Flipper fish with a rat head), which IS a little bit more of a mystery, but their output doesn’t really look all that different from other similar labels of their time.

As you can surely tell, filling in the blanks on this Puffy EP took the wind out of my sails, at least initially: losing that sense of mystery about a record can be such a buzzkill! If I had my druthers, I’d be allowed to use my imagination to fill in the details that this record leaves out (which is plenty: the liner notes are pretty sparse, with nary a band photo to be had).

Don’t get me wrong: it’s awfully convenient to be able to connect the dots quicker than before. It’s just boring. I miss poring through magazines and remembering names of bands and how they’re connected to the “grand design”. It was a fun hobby, and a nice challenge to one’s memory. My memory is never challenged anymore. Why bother? The internet remembers everything. Fuck, the internet knows most of MY catalog, and I can count the people who care about that without even taking off my shoes.

I was really excited to share this record as an exemplary forgotten curio of its moment, specifically the early 1990s “lo-fi” boom. This is a collector market that hasn’t fully blossomed yet (thank heavens), so you can still get interesting records for cheap. One can hardly blame the usual speculator vultures for being nervous about dipping their toes into this genre/time period: there really is a TON of this stuff out there, on all formats available at the time, and it’s a LOT to sort through to find gems. The quality ratio is almost as bad as your average gospel section. This is doubly so given that the home-recorded gems are usually mixed into a more generalized “indie rock” section at record stores (or worse,“punk/indie”, or God forbid, just “rock”). This, of course, means digging through tons of utter, irredeemable dross: for every decent record, there are 50 forgotten, and forgettable, local bands trying to catch whatever wave was highest at the time. Maybe they wanted to sound like Tad or Pavement or whatever, but by and large, they came out sounding more like a stale beer fart… or worse, like 10,000 Maniacs.

As with anything that involves trudging through so much waste, it’s exciting to find anything good, but by far the most exciting when you find a quality piece that is an as-yet-unfounded quantity. It’s partially an ego thing, I guess (“I FOUND THIS FIRST!”), but it’s also the thrill of having something new to share. Lou Barlow/Liz Phair/Bill Callahan/Beck notwithstanding, most of the lo-fi hordes stayed in the bedroom, emerging only to have children or get jobs as graphic designers. Rarely did a lo-fi artist in the 1990s get much further than a seven-inch, a tape or two, maybe a CD if they could stomach the bourgeois technology. As with the garage and hardcore bands that preceded them, the foot soldiers in the “lo-fi” revolution left a huge mess in their wake for future generations to sort through, trying in vain all the while to figure out how and why it happened.

So it is that, mystery or not, this Puffy EP remains exciting. It’s a record of the lowest fidelity and the highest quality. Using the barest means (cheap-sounding guitars, an accordion, and probably the most strained vocals in Callaci’s oeuvre), Come Home To A House Built of Flame managed to capture a great little moment, a quiet explosion of humanity. There were a lot of bands like this all over the country, and a lot of records along these lines, but it’s still exciting to find one this good, mystery or not.

UNLOCK THE NON-MYSTERY

Dustin Krcatovich is a cartoonist, writer, designer, founder of FM DUST, and a collector of certain curios and ephemera (with a focus on 20th century "junk culture"). His writing and illustration work appears frequently in The Quietus, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Esquire's Culture Blog. He is also a former editor and contributor to Secret Zen Garden,Saagara's illustrated mindfulness/wellness blog for young people. He currently resides in Portland, OR.