Garbage In, Garbage Out

While radio rethinks its support for electronica, Sipping Soma emerges with electronic music that's instantly hummable

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.

"We played one show on Halloween night outside the Sail Inn, our very first-ever show, and that was a disaster," says Matson, shrugging. "The power went out three times. There was one outlet for the lights, PA, everything.

"'Someone's using the handblower in the bathroom--stop playing.' It was that ridiculous. Every time the power went out, it took me five minutes to reload all my keyboard stuff."

Worse, the band had yet to snare a permanent drummer. The core lineup of Matson, Radford and guitarist David Plagman was augmented by their friend Scott Hessel from the Jennys, who played on some of the album and designed its cover art. "Scott was filling in, but he had another gig across town with the Jennys the same night," Matson laughs. "He had to split after delays caused by the first power outtage."

With the addition of drummer Andy "The Flange" Joslin, who played on the remainder of the album, things quickly congealed. "There are two kinds of drummers," says Matson, nodding. "There's beef-eating neanderthals who wouldn't know the difference if you changed their whole drum kits around. And then there's the meticulous kind, like The Flange. Anytime someone has a nickname with the definitive article, you're immediately intrigued, aren't you? What if Richie Cunningham had befriended "A Fonz" instead of the definitive one? Perhaps Anson Williams' singing career might never have gotten the serious push it needed.

"Perhaps someday, somewhere else, you'll read the definitive article on how The Flange got his name. Suffice to say, it's not a very interesting story, it's only an appellation designed to demean his obsessive attention to detail. But consider this: If he was called "Some Flange" every time he was needed in the studio, the album would sound like planes taking off, and then where would Diedre and the gang be?"

Since "The Flange" came on board, Sipping Soma officially has played two shows (it'll also be at Gibson's on August 6). The first was at the Atomic Cafe on July 17 for a largely underage audience that went berserk for the group. "The people that are going to dig Sipping Soma are 18 to 20, in that range," says Matson. "They're just more nuts about music." The audience at the Bash on Ash show that followed several weeks later was quite receptive, although much more, shall we say, subdued. "It was an older bunch of people, radio people, various management people. We don't really have a big draw, although there were a lot of people."

People came to the front of the stage not to dance but to stare, and there was plenty to stare at besides the morphing video art screens bookending the stage. For the opening number, Radford came out in a strange shroud easily mistaken for an Elephant Man costume.

"What, you mean my Gilligan's Island grass headdress thing?" Radford wonders. "That's made of Hawaiian skirt grass stuff with some skull and crossbones in the front. I like that stuff."

The Gilligan thread is picked up later during "Subdued," when Diedre throws Pixie Sticks in the audience, while she wears an outfit and feather-riddled hat that look like something Lovey Howell would wear on a coconut-gathering expedition.

It should be noted that Matson has worked with Don Salter in two capacities, as an engineer at Don's popular Saltmine Studios in Mesa and in several bands. "While I was working with Don in the Gimmicks and the Hipgnostics, I always wanted to do something that was more electronic and industrial and I was in this jangle-rock band. I started putting this stuff together on the side, and it just took off from there."

"Mark and I have been in bands in three or four incarnations before this, and we never really got a record done because we were always sensing that it wasn't quite right," adds Salter. "All the sudden he fell into a relationship with these great musicians, and this became a viable commodity project."

Of course it was hard to ignore Radford, what with her immersion in Eastern and Indian music and all. For example, Radford labels Veena Sahasrabudhe's The First Milestone as her "fave album drunk AND sober"! Try even saying "Veena Sahasrabudhe" drunk or sober!

"I was studying Hindustani classical vocal music with a woman from Madras, India," she says. "She was a student at ASU, and she had an amazing voice. I happened to be checking out an Indian festival there with my friend, and I went up to her and said, 'Are you teaching?' I was her first student."

Both she and Matson have kept busy in the months leading up to the CD's release by performing at raves in an improvisational capacity, not as Sipping Soma but sitting in with other acts and friends like Groove Tribe. "People really dig it. Most people at raves are there to dance and not watch a show," Radford explains. "I get a real good response when I sing at raves. They're not bouncing around, but they're very attentive. It's something that's kinda lacking in live entertainment, the energy that goes through people, creating something on the spot."

But Sipping Soma is scheduled to appear at some abandoned-airstrip rave in late August. There the band is threatening to introduce special Sipping Soma Smart and Stupid drinks, served with official Sipping Soma Silly Straws.

"The smart drinks will have ginseng," says Radford. "The stupid ones will have, I dunno, Kahlua or something.

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