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The Jester's Court

Weimar Cabaret meets Eugene Blues with local rising band Pancho + The Factory
Stephen Buettler is Pancho. Photo by Athena Delene.
Stephen Buettler is Pancho. Photo by Athena Delene.

Stephen Buettler is the principal provocateur behind rising Eugene band Pancho + The Factory. He’s also the primary songwriter and vocalist. Sitting next to me at the bar in Eugene’s Wayward Lamb, Buettler vibes like an off-duty, dock-working Pagliacci with a rock ‘n’ roll edge — due in no small part to his blue-collar handlebar moustache and black fingernail polish. He has a malleable, expressive face, a gentle, kindhearted sadness in his eyes and a soft, teddy bear-like physique that some might call cuddly.

This makes sense, because when Buettler adopts his larger-than-life on-stage persona as Pancho, he draws inspiration from clowning — both literal clowns as well as performers who fit a broader definition of foolery.

Whether you’re talking about rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest front-people, Kabuki performers or vaudevillians, Buettler says a willingness to be vulnerable is central to any performer engaging an audience. The best performers expose themselves to ridicule while heightening the inner drama to an absurd level. 

Buettler is a native Philadelphian, and he recalls one of the city’s oldest traditions, the Mummers Parade, affecting his aesthetic. 

“It’s on New Year’s Day. It’s basically these groups of guys called the Mummers,” Buettler explains. “They’re union guys, blue-collar chubby dudes. For one day out of the year they get lavishly dressed — feathers, sequins — and parade down Broad Street, which is our main street.” 

He says his love for the theater of baseball also inspires him, particularly the Philadelphia Phillies and especially the lonely, rigid yet emotive role the pitcher plays in the game. Buettler sees links between baseball pitchers, rock stars and even mariachi singers. 

On a basic level, what Buettler says he brings to the persona of Pancho, and what really turns him on as a performer, is a love for all sorts of populist-leaning folk traditions that nonetheless have strict stylizations and a focus on elevated personal experience, whether it’s a drag queen, a grizzled old bluesman or a hellfire-breathing gospel preacher. 

“It’s about being so over the top,” Buettler explains. “You really make this imprint on people. For me, being a frontman is about having a mask to dance behind. And I very much enjoy that role of being that jester, that clown, to be who I am in my room in front of an audience.”

Classically trained, Buettler relocated to Eugene four years ago, simply because it intrigued him and it seemed like a good place to be an artist. He calls his seven-piece band’s sound “rock” but also “working-class music,” or “Midwest Opera.” 

He runs the show, but doesn’t consider himself a dictator, allowing for collaboration. He laughs: “I have funny rules. I don’t let anyone wear hats on stage. Hats are too cultural,” he says.

“I’m proud of the fact we’ll get punk kids at our show,” Buettler says. “We’ll get older dudes at the end of the bar. It’s rock, it has a certain spirit and feel to it, but I want to create the expectation that if I want to do a TLC-inspired song, I’m going to write that song.”

Much of Pancho + The Factory’s music is built around familiar formulas: ’50s-era rock, 12-bar blues or Django Reinhardt-style gyspy jazz. All of it is viewed through the same subversive lens that saw the ’60s meet early punk in New York bands like The Fugs or The Holy Modal Rounders.

Three backup singers provide a gospel edge and a frequent girl-group vibe, while Buettler often sounds like Nick Cave, particularly on “Girls on Horses.” It all combines into a Cramps-esque carnival atmosphere with Buettler as undisputed ringleader — Andy Kaufman meeting Jim Morrison, or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins mixed with Iggy Pop. 

Despite claiming so much inspiration from the East Coast, the Midwest and even Berlin, watching Pancho + The Factory gives you a sense that Eugene music — a scene Buettler contends is hitting its stride — might have finally found a distinctive sound, not in a limiting kind of “local band” way, but instead in terms of finding a balance between Eugene’s punk rock and hipster sensibilities, its working-class atmosphere and Oregon Country Fair-style theatricality, while at the same time transcending it all.

Pancho + The Factory performs with Portland’s Laura Palmer Death Parade 10 pm Thursday, June 30, at the Hi-Fi Music Hall Lounge; $5, 21-plus.