This is the story of a band that opened its doors to anyone who wanted to join, caught some crazy-good mojo wind in its sails, wound up playing two of East Tennessee biggest festivals and dedicated a song about a too-hot practice space to a former Daily Times reporter who accidentally set himself on fire.
It’s a bizarre, labyrinthine tale of lucky breaks and strange coincidences, but if I’ve learned anything in my short time as a fan of Temp Job — the band — it’s that anything is possible with this collection of musical misfits, and it will, without fail, blow your mind because of how crazy-fun it is.
The story begins with Chris Rusk, known to most folks around here as a drummer. Back when Old City Java in Knoxville used to host punk and indie rock shows, he made his bones there and at The Pilot Light, primarily with the almost-made-it-big outfit Royal Bangs, but also in any number of short-lived projects that exist solely in the memories of long-time scene-goers: Midnight Bomber What Bombs at Midnight, Powersnake, The Cheat, Dixie Dirt, Twinkiebots and Ross the Boss, to name a few.
He’s probably the only local musician to be served a cease-and-desist order while setting up for a soundcheck at The Pilot Light — from an attorney representing Ross Badgett, the haircut magnate who owns the Ross the Boss chain. They attempted to strong-arm Rusk, who was 18 at the time, for all of his Ross the Boss “earnings,” which essentially amounted to pocket lint. In response, he changed the band’s name to Russ the Buss.
But I digress. Currently, he’s part of three other projects in addition to Temp Job — Ex-Gold, Caps and God’s Buffet. But the one that’s getting the most traction is the one that started on a lark. Ex-Gold, a punk outfit that often features Rusk — as the guitarist and singer, stealing beers from audience members and chugging them mid-show or performing in a gimp mask — lost guitar player Colin Woods to a move to Nashville. Woods moved back to Knoxville and wanted to play with Rusk again.
“Rather than be back as Ex-Gold, I said, ‘Why don’t we start a new band?,’ with no real plans on what it would be,” Rusk told me this week. “I said, ‘Hey, I bought a bass, so I’m going to play bass.’ It was as uninspiring as that in the beginning.”
They recruited a few other local folks and started out as more of a No Wave, punk ensemble that didn’t quite work. The other members stepped away, and Rusk found himself at a show over at The Birdhouse, a community arts space in Knoxville’s Fourth and Gill neighborhood, feeling pleasantly inebriated and in the mood to collaborate.
“I think I asked four random people that night to play guitar in our band, and only one (Dexter Webb) called back,” he said.
He found himself musically smitten, however, by two ladies performing an ESG-style hip-hop/dance punk set that night. Ty Murray and Mia Lucas met at the University of Tennessee, got involved in hip-hop and spoken word together through the Study Break Cypher group and discovered a mutual love of alternative and rock. Rusk invited them to a Temp Job practice, and from the beginning, it was electrifying … even if they didn’t know what to make of him at first.
“He was like, ‘We’re in a band; would you guys like to join?’ And I told Mia, ‘I don’t know who this little short dude is, but we might as well go!’” Murray said. “It turned out to be the perfect thing we needed. We had only been invited to do hip-hop; we had never had someone say, ‘We have all these instruments, so come and sing and do what you like.’ For veterans of the scene to say, ‘Come play some music and do whatever you want,’ it was great.”
“When we were piecing together what we wanted to do before Mia and Ty were involved, it was way noisier and way darker and way more punk,” Rusk added. “I was really wanting to rip off some No Wave stuff, but we didn’t know what we were doing. As soon as Mia and Ty came in, I felt like it became their band.”
And for good reason: With the two ladies up front free-styling and singing over a cacophony of instruments, whirling dervishes of energy alongside a team of horns and keys and guitar and bass and whatever else may strike the band’s fancy, it’s a full-on funk-punk dance party. Over time, Sam Stratton and Ryan Schaefer — Rusk’s longtime Royal Bangs pals and bandmates — came on board, alongside Charice Starr (of any number of Pilot Light-centric groups), and by the time the open-door membership swelled to eight people, they decided to cap it.
They played their first show on Super Bowl Sunday 2018, and immediately, Pilot Light owner Jason Boardman recruited Temp Job for a slot at the venue’s Big Ears Festival companion showcase. Earlier this year, Temp Job played Waynestock, the annual fundraising festival in Downtown North Knoxville, and for Rhythm N’ Blooms earlier this month, they turned the shimmering hot asphalt of East Jackson Avenue into a dance party of a couple hundred frenzied fans.
It was there I discovered their connection to Waylon Cunningham, the former reporter for The Daily Times who soon will attend graduate school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. They dedicated a song, “I’m on Fire,” to him, and before they launched into the frenetic number, Ty gave a little background.
“So last fall, I went to this punk show at a DIY space, and they had all these candles lit, and it was really cool,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone there, but I was one of the performers. At some point at the party, I smell something burning, and the next thing I knew, this girl runs up pointing and yelling, ‘Dude, you’re on fire!’ I turned around, and indeed, this guy’s back was engulfed in flames! And I thought, ‘Is this a stunt? Because if it is, it’s really cool, and if it’s not, what do we do?’”
She ended the story by giving a shoutout: “So this one goes out to you, Waylon! We’re glad you’re OK!”
At this point, my head swivels like Linda Blair’s in “The Exorcist.” There’s only one Waylon I know of who caught on fire, only one Waylon it could possibly be —The Daily Times’ own Texas transplant who’s since moved on to greener pastures, Waylon Cunningham. It happened back in October, and Waylon gave the lowdown on his Facebook page:
“I was at a small gathering and show last Saturday,” he wrote on Oct. 26. “It was a completely wonderful night with friends, complete with poker, portraits done by strangers, and some unreal acoustic sets. The whole venue was decorated with Christmas lights and candles, which looked phenomenal, but also set me on fire. It happened when I was leaning over a table to talk to my friend, and in the middle of a sentence, I had to ask her, do you smell that? I looked and one of the candles had set a small flame on my thick wool coat. Thinking quickly (but not intelligently) I threw the coat off — exposing my extremely flammable and also-on-fire polyester shirt to the air. It erupted in flames. And now, I was on fire. It didn’t feel like much to be honest. Doctors would later tell me that this was because my nerves burned up quickly. They would also tell me that had I been on fire any longer than the few seconds I was, my injuries would have assuredly been far more severe.”
Ironically, he told me this week, he was asking about a particular girl at the party who had remarked on his cuteness when he drifted into the candle’s orbit.
Murray remembers someone tackling Waylon, and although the burns were severe, they didn’t seem so … at first. Waylon popped up to his feet, and someone went to brush off his back, Murray said, “and his skin was coming off on their fingers.”
Waylon was hospitalized, had to undergo surgery for some severe burns — third degree over 15% of his body, he said, that required skin grafts — and was left with some serious scars, but he’s none the worse for wear. And while “I’m on Fire” was written before his injuries, it’s forever associated, at least by Murray, with the Flaming Waylon Incident.
“We actually wrote the song last year sometime, because our practice space gets really hot when the fan is off, and when we go in and practice, it starts off very rowdy,” she said. “The guys had a song written out on bass, drums and guitar, and they would play, and we would start to freestyle over it, record what we did, then go home and work on lyrics. I just remember at practice repeating, ‘I’m on fire, I’m on fire, don’t put me out!’
“I never knew what happened to Waylon until some people at that party told me, and then I saw him in person at a Temp Job show. I just told him, ‘Dude, we have this song, and even though we didn’t write it about you, we’re gonna do it in your memory!’”
It’s a hot one, and despite the incendiary circumstances, Waylon was flattered. It was a Pilot Light gig, and he remembers feeling particularly impressed that the band’s funk attack wasn’t causing structural damage. In the midst of a throng of sweaty fellow dancers, he looked up during a between-song break when Murray pointed him out and dedicated “I’m on Fire” to him.
“That was probably the greatest moment of my life and made catching on fire worth it, just for that moment,” he said. “I’m serious when I say that’s probably one of the top 10 moments of my life, being in The Pilot Light and just having this funk band point to me and dedicate a song to me.”
You can see Temp Job perform it, along with the rest of the band’s repertoire, next Thursday, June 13, when the band opens for Alanna Royale at Barley’s Knoxville. I can’t guarantee you’ll burst into flames, but you will dance hard enough that it might seem like a possibility. And because of scheduling logistics for eight band members and some interesting irons in the fire, it’s the final Temp Job show on the books for the next few months.
“We’ve surprisingly been able to do all the stuff we’ve been wanting to do, but it is like herding cats almost, because everyone’s got crazy schedules,” Rusk said. “Sometimes I can’t even believe we’re still a band. I kind of joke around that it’s called Temp Job for a reason, because there’s no way this (stuff) is going to last.”
Here’s hoping that it does, because we all need a little more party in our lives, and Temp Job fills that bill nicely.