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Sure, who wouldn't like a sign from above that he or she is on the right track? For months, Sipping Soma's Mark Matson had been woodshedding his living-room sound experiments with neighbor Diedre Radford, the possessor of an exotic, eerie voice and a cheap keyboard.
Matson got just the validation he needed one night in 1995 while in the audience at Blockbuster Desert Sky Pavilion. Administering the lofty insight free of charge was none other than David Bowie, who stopped in the middle of a song, looked directly at Matson with his one brown eye and one blue eye and told the crowd of 6,000, "I'm leaving this stage if that ASSHOLE doesn't stop it!"
Okay, so it wasn't quite the sign he was hoping for. To Matson's mortification, he was standing behind some little jerk who felt the Thin White Duke's demeanor wasn't quite chilly enough and had started chucking ice at him. Even if security had chosen to escort Matson out, he'd already heard enough 20 minutes before, during Nine Inch Nails' frenetic set. "It was a wash of industrial music and shock-value theatrics wrapped up in an hour-and-45-minute temper tantrum," he recalls, and laughs.
Radford got bit by a similar Nine Inch bug many years before in her native hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. "I was going to college there in 1992 and saw Nine Inch Nails in this little bitty place called The Caine's Bar, where there are big oil paintings of Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb and Patsy Cline all over the walls. And there's Trent Reznor going 'Aaar arar arar!' I'd never seen or heard anything like them."
Reznor's brand of gloom was like a breath of fresh air to the pair, neither of whom were too enamored of the grunge scene that was still going full bore when Sipping Soma formed in 1995. "I think Nine Inch Nails changed things a lot," Radford says. "On that Downward Spiral Tour, there was a lot of big lights and weird costumes and craziness that wasn't happening for a long time."
"At least after the big synthesizer push of '97, synthesizer isn't a dirty word anymore like it was in the grunge era," Matson adds. "Before that, if you had keyboards, you were kicked off the bus, basically.
"They'd break your glasses, push you down and knock your books onto the curb until you got a Les Paul and a flannel shirt. And then you'd be somebody."
Matson's view a year ago was that Sipping Soma's brand of music was a niche market. "Music and the market have changed a lot in the last year," he says.
Last year, the pundits were telling us that electronica was it and other lower forms of music should just fall by the wayside and make way for the next millennium. Despite high chart showings for Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers, the wide-scale mainstream takeover that was predicted has yet to galvanize. Radio has also scaled back its electronica involvement somewhat. Nowadays if you hear the Crystal Method on Valley radio, it's probably background music for some car commercial.
"It's too bad that bands like Prodigy and Chemical Brothers are too far out for American ears, too electronic," Matson says. "If American radio failed to embrace most electronic fare, it's because there's no songs. On the whole Prodigy album, there's like 10 lyrics. And two words you have to bleep out. People like songs."
And people have shown they like Sipping Soma songs. The band released its first album, Mannequin Depressive, on the fledgling Undermine Records label in April. Almost immediately the Valley's leading alternative station, The Edge (KEDJ 106.3-FM), began playing the track "Subdued" in regular rotation. The entire album demonstrates a Garbage-like ability to present techno and industrial textures in songs that are instantly hummable. Undermine Records owner and the album's executive producer Don Salter notes with surprise that "the band moved from an esoteric pop project to something that we thought had much more wide-scale potential. After we got the record done, the phones started ringing, and we had to psychologically adjust to this being a bigger project than we thought initially."
The change in direction can be heard on the album as well. Its last two songs were among the first recorded. When these titles are brought up, Radford just grimaces, as if the words "happy and poppy" are anathema, on a par with "death and taxes." Although her offstage persona is persistently bubbly, any onstage amenities like talking to the audience from the stage are strictly taboo. Perhaps that's to be expected from a semi-goth girl who sings songs with bummer titles like "Body Bag" and dropped out of Arizona State University after the first couple of weeks because her business major clashed with her long black hair and fingernails.
"There were other songs we axed which were even happier and poppier," exclaims Matson. "Everybody likes that song 'Hound.' I don't necessarily like that song, but I can appreciate everyone else liking it."
Luckily, the decision to showcase Mannequin's more esoteric fare has worked in Sipping Soma's favor. Amazingly, the band had only one show under its belt at the time, an abysmal one at that.