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If the Firefly family from the Rob Zombie movies (“House of 1000 Corpses,” “The Devil’s Rejects”) launched a Captain Beefheart-inspired band, the result would be something like Duluth’s own The Dark Underbelly. Since their founding in 2015 they’ve produced five albums of psychedelic horror blues rock with song titles like “Judy Garland is Dead,” “Happy Blues for Jeffrey Dahmer” and “House of Pain.” It’s strange, loud and dissonant. It’s also a blast.
Fulfilling the role of the evil bearded Firefly patriarch, Captain Spaulding, is Robert Petoletti, front man and lead vocalist. He’s actually the lone vocalist since he spends most of the time howling and yelping, which is difficult to harmonize with. Robert’s wife, Diane, plays violin and his son, Nick, is on drums.
There are actually three families involved. Eric Lund plays lead guitar while his son, Calvin Lund, plays bass. More behind the scenes, Armond Blackwater (who could pass for Otis B. Driftwood in the Zombie movies) plays keyboards on the studio albums, which are produced by his son, Ash.
Family is a common theme in their songs. “Master of Skulls,” the title of a song and EP, is the literal translation of the Polish surname of Nick’s father-in-law, “Szczerepa” (pronounced Chu-cher-apa), another album title.
You might think the kids feel weird about playing weird music with their parents, rolling their eyes and begging, “Stop embarrassing me!” but the family dynamics are too off the map. “We are all inherently weird. That’s why we get along so well,” said Robert.
Actually it was the younger Petoletti who started the band and convinced his reluctant dad to cooperate. Robert had been in some bands in the 1980s and Nick dug up the old cassettes. “I thought it would only be appropriate if it was himself to perform the reconstructed music around lyrics he wrote long ago,” Nick said.
The band name is lifted from a pulp horror novel written by Robert and self-published on Amazon. “Nick loved the title. I don’t think he cared for the book as much,” Robert said. Still the book contains choice scenes such as the protagonist arguing with a giant worm as to whether H.P. Lovecraft is far-fetched.
Other titles include “The Devil Doesn’t Want You Dead” and “The Devil Doesn’t Want Your Money.” Robert said, “Sometimes I think nobody reads them, but then I get royalty checks.” He also penned a thinly autobiographical novel, “The Backyard Postmodernist,” in which he tells about being a teenager in Duluth, eating alone at the dinner table while his mother chases his father up Tenth Avenue West with a meat cleaver. That part isn’t fiction.
Once Nick had a group of songs down and a unique sound in mind, he searched for musicians and found the Lunds through Craigslist. Said Eric Lund, “I mentioned many of my influences in the ad, one of which was Bauhaus, which I think, is the one that caught their eye.” The elder Lund is also influenced by Jane’s Addiction, Love and Rockets, Wilco and The Black Crowes, while the younger listens to Charles Mingus, Dr. Dog, Mac DeMarco and Tame Impala. The Lunds also play in a vastly different band, The Lincoln Kreekers, performing old country and gospel at senior rest homes.
Armond Blackwater is a veteran sideman who, as this article is being written, is headed for a reunion gig in Sturgis, S.D. with Steppenwolf, for whom he played 1977-78. He joined The Dark Underbelly even though he had just officially retired from nearly four decades in music and moved from Florida to Superior, his father’s hometown where his children and grandchildren live.
“I viewed a video of TDU a few months before the move and dug what they were doing,” Armond said. “They invited me to join their recording session at Ash’s Five Miles from Nowhere studio the day after my return. I barely had time to shake the trauma of the 1,700 mile drive when we met in person for the first time. And then we played. I learned the songs immediately before each was taped. I listen for what wants to be there. In their case, the songs requested a hard rock organ a la Jon Lord or Goldy McJohn, two of my biggest influences.”
TDU is still a non-paying gig, so he doesn’t play live. “I had to prioritize gigs by revenue. Too much wear and tear on equipment,” he said. So Diane, who also plays classical music with the Duluth Civic Orchestra, steps in for the shows.
Music is the family business. “If we weren’t doing this,” Nick said, “me and Bob would probably be writing a screenplay or something more ridiculous than we do now.”
The Dark Underbelly’s next show is 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4 at Blush with Night Jobs from Minneapolis and Parlor Voice from Grand Rapids, Mich. The Dark Underbelly’s albums are available at Electric Fetus, Amazon and Bandcamp.