Sweet 'n' Low

Valley power-pop scene takes a serious hit with the breakup of Sugar High

Only three months ago, Autumn Teen Sound heralded its name change with a big bash at Hollywood Alley in Mesa. The beloved local power-pop quartet took to the stage and played its Vic Masters-penned theme song one last time, while beneath it, a mock coffin slammed shut and buried its old name forever. Then, the band members ushered in their new incarnation, Sugar High, with a loving rendition of The Carpenters' 1973 hit "Sing." Who would have guessed on such a blissful night that only a few weeks later, the band would be splitsville?

If the Hollywood Alley show was cause for celebration, it was because Autumn Teen Sound, unlike so many other bands that undergo a moniker transplant, was not forced into this change by some litigious entity like the Hormel company or an obscure Canadian zydeco band. This change was voluntary.

See, the members of Autumn Teen Sound--dedicated though they may have been to the ethos of guitars that go jangle in the night and voices that swell with harmonic invention--knew that if you wanna play genuine power-pop in the late '90s, the odds are stacked against you. I mean, Super Deluxe writes the catchiest songs on the planet, and radio won't even throw it a crumb. What hope is there for other dedicated followers of melody?

So Autumn Teen Sound decided to find a more radio-friendly name, one that might camouflage its musical intentions just enough to get a foot in the door. The members settled on the appropriately vague Sugar High, although the band's green-and-yellow bumper stickers, modeled after the lettering for Pet Sounds, gave away its allegiance to the church of Brian Wilson. With great swiftness, the band and its producer, Billy Kirkland, pitched their outstanding new four-song demo, and got some interested responses. But according to singer/guitarist Adrian Smith, problems had been bubbling under the surface for a while.

"We did a showcase in Los Angeles for this [911] label that was effusive over the demos," Smith says. "We went down there and it went really well. But afterward, our management said, 'You know, I think the label can smell problems with the live act.'

"So I put together this little campaign meeting where we were gonna go through any single problem we could find on paper, kind of like a marriage counselor would do: 'When Betty does this, I feel like this,' you know what I mean?"

The objective of the meeting was to exchange constructive criticism, to help the band improve. But as band members began to trade observations, some raw nerves were exposed. Eventually, guitarist Pat McQuigley, stung by complaints about his drinking, walked out of the meeting.

Smith says he'd already harbored doubts about bassist Rusty Marlboro's commitment to Sugar High, and when Marlboro declined to attend a meeting to discuss the band's future, Smith decided that enough was enough. So, with no warning, a band that seemingly defined friendship and a commitment to fun was awash in irreparable dissension.

"With those two guys gone, and no one really made any attempt to resurrect it, or really fight to keep it going, that was pretty much the end of it," Smith says.

The timing of Sugar High's breakup is particularly frustrating for local pop fans, because the band's recent four-song demo suggested that after three and a half years of steady development, it was hitting a new creative plateau. Unlike so many bands that aim for the tuneful heights of Badfinger or The Flamin' Groovies, Sugar High could actually deliver the goods. Tracks like the infectious "School on Saturday" and "Creamer" glowed with unabashed love for the power of a catchy chorus and a perfectly executed three-part harmony. Sugar High consistently managed the tough trick of basing its sound around classic power-pop ideas without sounding like a nostalgia act.

The band's producer-manager, Billy Kirkland, declined to discuss the specifics of Sugar High's breakup, choosing to say only that "a band situation is an extremely personal one, and the band decision was up to the band members."

Smith says Marlboro has decided to hang up his bass, while McQuigley is looking into some possible openings with local bands. Although Smith and Sugar High drummer Sean Gens have talked a bit about launching a new band, nothing has been decided yet. Coming off what he calls the "mind-numbingly weird" experience of watching a band disintegrate before his eyes, Smith says he's not in any hurry to get started again.

"The way I feel right now is kinda like I just broke up with a girlfriend, and the last thing I wanna do is go find another girlfriend," he says. He adds, with a laugh, "Fortunately, I've gotten a lot of good songs out of the whole experience, because I'm all depressed."

Hamblin Man: A can't-miss show this week is a benefit for Bruce Hamblin at the Rhythm Room on Tuesday, February 17. An impressive collection of local and national musical giants is assembling to raise money so that Hamblin, a fallen musical hero who died of liver failure in 1996, can finally have a headstone placed on his gravesite.

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