The Figgs celebrate 30 years of performing and recording at Underground Arts

The Figgs perform at Underground Arts on July 21.
The Figgs perform at Underground Arts on July 21. PHOTO BY MICHAEL O’SHEA

IF YOU GO

What: The Figgs plus Ben Arnold, Travel Lanes and Cookie Rabinowitz

When: Concert is on Friday, July 21 at 8:30 p.m.; doors open at 7:30.

Where: Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill Street, Philadelphia, PA

Tickets: $12 in advance, $15 at the door

Ages: 21+

Info.: www.undergroundarts.org

Artists’ websites: www.thefiggs.net, www.benarnold.com, www.reverbnation.com/travellanes, www.cookierabinowitz.com

The Figgs are one of America’s most enduring rock bands. They’re celebrating their 30th anniversary with a show at Underground Arts in Philadelphia on July 21st, as well as the vinyl release of “The Man Who Fights Himself” (Stomper), which was originally released in 2010.

In an email interview while on their first-ever tour in Japan, The Figgs’ Pete Donnelly reflected on the band’s history and how they’ve managed to keep things going since they first formed the band in high school in Saratoga Springs, NY.

“We first got together in 1987 after seeing each other play at a student concert,” recalled Donnelly. “The three of us – Mike Gent [guitar, vocals], [the band’s original drummer] Guy Lyons and myself [bass, vocals] instantly hit it off playing Jimi Hendrix and Velvet Underground songs. We called ourselves The Sonic Undertones. We wanted to be on par with the bands that we admired at the time – Hüsker Dü and The Replacements.”

Unlike most high school bands that end after high school, the band stayed together and changed their name to The Figgs “because it was undefined and didn’t really have any associations to a particular sound,” said Donnelly. “We wrote songs with abandon and played as many shows as we possibly could. We released a couple of albums on cassette and a couple of 7 inch (singles) as well.”

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The band got signed by Imago Records/BMG – a relationship that Donnelly described as “very healthy and free of any dysfunction.” They began to get radio airplay and video play on MTV.

“It was an exciting time,” recalled Donnelly. “We bought as much gear as we could and a truck and hit the road for about 7 months straight that first year of being signed. It was an incredibly formative period.”

BMG eventually dropped Imago from their roster and The Figgs lost their contract; they were subsequently signed to Capitol Records, but were let go after making only one record (“Banda Macho,” 1996).

“The good news was they had to buy us out,” said Donnelly. “So we walked with a nice lump of cash that we instantly used to make our next record, ‘Couldn’t Get High’ (Absolute A Go Go, 1998).”

But before being let go by Capitol, they developed a relationship with singer-songwriter Graham Parker.

“Graham was doing a matinee show before us in Atlanta,” explained Donnelly. “Mike knew Graham’s catalog really well and proceeded to play a handful of his songs to him right there in the dressing room. Also, we had recorded a song for a Graham Parker tribute record – ‘Passion Is No Ordinary Word’ [on ‘Piss & Vinegar: The Songs of Graham Parker,’ Buy or Die, 1996]. I guess it left an impression because after a few months we got a call from him asking if we’d consider going on the road with him as his backing band.

“At the time we were still on Capitol Records. They thought it was a terrible idea ... Nonetheless, we took the opportunity to go on the road and started a 20-year relationship with (him).”

The Figgs recorded several albums with Parker as well as the DVD “Graham Parker & the Figgs: Live at the FTC” (Image, 2010).

Over the years The Figgs’ lineup changed. Pete Hayes replaced Lyons on drums. Lyons returned to the band for a time to play guitar, but since 1997 The Figgs have returned to their original trio format with Gent, Hayes and Donnelly.

The band members all live in different locales now; Gent lives in Boston, Hayes lives in New York and Donnelly lives in the Philadelphia area. Donnelly explained that despite the logistical challenges they’re all committed to maintaining the band.

“Having each developed our own independent lives is really the key to our endurance. The band serves a great purpose for us all, it maintains itself financially, (and) we all get to leave and go back to doing our own things,” explained Donnelly. “In the earlier years when were on the road all the time there was more tension and conflict and certainly there were a few times we almost crashed and burned.”

He added: “I think collectively as a band with Figgs records and solo records we’ve released about 9 or 10 records this decade. Currently we’re halfway through the next Figgs record and both Mike and I have solo records in the works. Maybe as we’ve all been raising kids the need for artistic creativity in our lives has actually become more vital. As we have a lot less time for making music, we realize how precious it actually is.”