But the zoo nevertheless has held special significance for the two. For Snell, because of its association with stardom. "I was in a commercial for the zoo when I was 7 or 8. I remember going to school after it aired, and the kids were all wanting to touch me," he says dryly, on his way to view the pandas. "It was probably the most attention I've ever gotten up to this point. So it could have had an influence on my decision to become a performer. I guess I crave that."
For Nesmith, the zoo connotes a particularly influential moment in pop history. Heading toward the goats in the petting zoo, he expresses interest in re-enacting the cover photo of the Beach Boys' masterpiece, Pet Sounds.
More than anything, though, the zoo offers a similar multi-hued landscape and invitation to childlike abandon as the music the two have made over the years -- from their first group in sixth grade, the Bad Habbits, to their mid-'90s live act, Lana Becomes A Man. And it continues today in their current solo-project aliases: NeSmith as Casper Fandango -- leader of various outfits -- and Snell as Don Condescending (apologies to real-life singer/songwriter, Don Conoscenti), frontman and sole member of the Shut-Ups.
Childhood looms large on their recent releases -- the Shut-Ups' self-titled debut and Casper Fandango & His Sick Tiny Tears' How's Your Hand? -- the first two CDs put out on NeSmith's Lookit Meee! Records, both recorded at NeSmith's Magic Foot Studios (formerly in East Atlanta, but now based in Athens). In fact, there isn't much about either act that wasn't forged back in the early '80s. "We were pretty popular in sixth grade," Snell says. "That was actually the height of it for me, because you could be weird and new wave."
While their music reflects a love for all crafty, catchy sounds -- classic Brit-pop of the '60s, driving power-pop of the '70s -- new wave of the '80s looms largest. It's in the Shut-Ups' skinny-tie guitar pop jerk and in the Day-Glo studio eccentricities of How's Your Hand? Paideia's sixth-grade class of 1983, NeSmith says, "was the turning point for us. It was OK to wear loud clothing and call yourself something else. To make this electronic dorky-sounding music and have people buy it and love it. It was good to be plastic."
They had sometimes diverging tastes in music back then -- Snell favored Billy Joel, while NeSmith developed a taste for Steve Reich's minimalism. But they connected on first meeting through a mutual love of the Beatles, an obvious reference point that still appears in their music. "We were both spooked by the 'Paul is dead' stories," Snell claims, "so we came to each other for comfort."
More than anything, though, the defining influence forged back in sixth grade was, in fact, each other. "When the person you hang out with the most is as infatuated with pop music as you are," NeSmith says, "that's what you talk about mostly. We talked about girls, I guess. But mostly we talked about music."
"We talked about songs about girls," Snell adds. "Jason is probably the greatest influence on my songwriting, and it may be likewise. But I don't even know how he's influencing as I write songs, because I don't know what originally were his ideas and what were mine way back when."
In fact, with the sole NeSmith/Snell co-write ("I Think I'm Dumb") on the Shut-Ups' CD, Snell revisited a NeSmith hook written back in their school days. "Some of my best songs are scraps of paper I left accidentally over at Chris' house," NeSmith says.
It's not an uncommon phenomenon for friends -- particularly boys, particularly boys who later would cop to having been (or still being) geeks -- to bond through quirky pop music. Pop, after all, is made for easy enjoyment, no matter what age or degree of musical sophistication. And 12-year-olds can't help but be drawn to weird, highly imaginative stuff, whether it's science fiction or the experimentations of the Beatles.
In fact, NeSmith and Snell note, two other local pop bands with which they feel a kinship -- Orange Hat and Ceiling Fan -- also are the products of a collaboration between two longtime friends. Together with Kenny Howes and the Yeah! and Aromatic (which features NeSmith's wife Kay Stanton), those bands -- Casper Fandango & the Cookies (Nesmith's live band), the Shut-Ups, Orange Hat and Ceiling Fan -- form an as-yet-unnamed clique of musicians with often interchanging members and a shared obsession with classic pop, from the Beatles to Big Star to Cheap Trick to the Posies.
This crew might have all the makings of a somewhat more mature and disciplined counterpart to Athens' dippy-pop collective, Elephant 6. That is, if there was more of an inclination to present a unified face.
"It's not so much that we're such tight friends," NeSmith says of the collection of bands, "but we all like each other's music and for some reason, we befriended each other. It certainly isn't a club that we try to keep people out of. And we don't meet over coffee and say, 'OK, who's going to release the next record?'"
Perhaps, like Elephant 6, they just need a shared name to congeal around. But what? Lookit Meee!, the name of NeSmith's label, might work since it suggests the appropriate level of gleefully boyish exhibitionism for this sort of music. But all the groups don't record for the label, NeSmith says, since "they all have their own pretend labels, too."
Magic Foot, the studio at which many of these groups record, might work as a name, though its psychedelic randomness might draw it too close to Elephant 6.
"What we make could be defined as record geek rock, more than anything," NeSmith says, glancing over into the Monkeys of Makokou habitat. "People who bought a lot of records."
So, the Record Geeks? Too generic, maybe.
As NeSmith and Snell make one final pass by the exotic birds of the Atlanta Zoo, they're clearly stumped. After all, this is no fraternity. What defines these type of buddy-pop bands is their sense of geeky outsiderness, which seems antithetical to higher-level organization. You can collect the animals in the zoo, but it's not a good idea to put them all in same cage.
"We're friends because we all got into each other's music," NeSmith says, arriving at the Flamingo Plaza. "I suppose if we started making bad music, we wouldn't be friends anymore."
Casper Fandango & the Cookies open for Dressy Bessy, the Essex Green and Marshmallow Coast, Fri., March 16, at The Earl. Ticket are $7. For more information, call 404-522-3950. Jason Nesmith and Kenny Howes perform together during the Echo Lounge's St. Patrick's Day Pop Marathon, Sat., March 17. Tickets are $5 before 10 p.m., $8 after. For more information, call 404-681-3600.
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