'98's Best: Tuatara Catch The Potato Spy

Peter Buck and other Tuatarans discuss their second instrumental album.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at

1998's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Thursday, June 4. ]

There may be no words of explanation on instrumental group Tuatara's

upcoming sophomore album, Trading with the Enemy (June 23), but one

of the album's song titles -- "L'Espionage De Pomme De Terre" -- was inspired

by a vivid experience that guitarist Peter Buck said he won't soon forget.

"I was arrested for being a spy in potato town," said Buck, the Seattle-based

member of both R.E.M. and Tuatara.

He was referring to a nail-biter of an incident that occurred five years go while

he was on vacation in Africa.

"I was in Tanzania with my wife," Buck said earlier this year while discussing the

album at a San Francisco hotel, joined at a massive conference table by fellow

Tuatara members Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows/Minus Five) and

Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees).

"We were flying with this cowboy guy named Roland, a great guy," Buck

continued, "and we landed in this place called Tabora, which translates into a

yam-like root or something.

"So basically, we landed in

HREF="http://www.addict.com/interview/Tuatara/mono-

Peter_Buck_On_Visiting_Tanzania-28.ram">'potato' (excerpt of

interview). It's a former Communist country, so they're not particularly fond of

Westerners -- they think we're 'running dog lackeys,' blah, blah, blah -- and I

got out of the plane and I thought the scene was funny," Buck said. "There was a

tin shack with the name 'Tabora' written on it and a goat and a runway, so I

figured I'd take a picture of my wife against the tin shack."

Buck said he didn't know that the area they had landed in was a military

installation, but he was promptly arrested for being a spy.

"Yeah, the song was almost called 'Potato Spy,' " chimed in McCaughey with a

hearty laugh.

"We thought we'd make it more clever by making it French," Martin added.

"Things are always more clever when they're in French."

Buck continued. He said the officials who arrested him wanted his illicit film,

which he was reluctant to give up, since it contained all of his pictures from the

trip. After a heated argument and more threats, Buck said, his "cowboy" pilot

Roland finally diffused the situation by bribing the officials with sandwiches. "We

got in the plane and Roland says, 'you almost got us arrested,' and I was like,

'no, I don't think he would have arrested us for that.' And Roland says 'no, but I

have an ounce of hash in the ashtray, and that's like 20 years in prison.' I was

like, 'oh, man.' "

The trio at the conference table maintained that, unlike "L'Espionage De

Pomme De Terre," the titles of other songs on the album -- such as "The Koto

Song," "The Bender" and "Night in the Emerald City" -- were an afterthought at

best.

"The titles were last," Buck said, "totally last minute."

Even so, many of the them are immediately evocative of the moods conjured on

the album's 12 tracks, a varied mixture that Tuatara members said draw from

such sources as '70s cop rock, Japanese devotional music, lounge funk, even

African jazz.

The second Tuatara album in just over a year, the new effort is a dizzying

instrumental ride that also features the talents of charter members Justin

Harwood (Luna) on bass and Skerik (Critters Buggin') on saxophones, along

with additional musicians Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) on saxophone/percussion,

percussionist Elizabeth Pupo-Walker, two additional horn players and multi-

instrumentalist Mike Stone of the Seattle band Devilhead.

In one serendipitous title-and-music match, the polyrhythmic, Anglo-Indian spy-

movie music of the album's opener, "Streets of New Delhi," has a distinctly

Bollywood feel to it. "I've never been to New Delhi," Martin acknowledged, "but I

had this whole vision of a rickshaw chase through the streets."

"A lot of it was coincidence, really," Martin said. "But the song titles fit the

album's title totally, which came from one of the bandmembers getting arrested

for possessing Cuban cigars. He got this ridiculous citation for 'trading with the

enemy,' which is the equivalent of running guns."

As a sequel to last summer's critically acclaimed "Magnificent Seven" tour --

which featured various members of Tuatara serving as the backing band for ex-

American Music Club crooner Mark Eitzel and McCaughey's Minus 5 -- Tuatara

will take to the road in mid-June to play nightly sets of their own music as well

as sit in with touring partners Mark Lanegan, singer for the Screaming Trees,

and former Dinosaur Jr bassist and solo artist Mike Johnson.

Tuatara Tour Dates:

June 14; Washington, D.C., 9:30 Club

June 16; New York, N.Y., Bowery

June 19; Athens, Ga., Georgia Theater

June 20; Atlanta, Ga., Variety Playhouse (with Cornershop)

July 26; San Diego, Calif., Belly Up

July 27; Los Angeles, Calif., House of Blues

July 30, Portland, Ore., La Luna

Aug. 2; Seattle, Wash., WOMAD Festival