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Joel Morales is beginning to piss people off.
Actually, person. One guy. Morales, the shaggy, pear-shaped, 28-year-old singer/guitarist of the lo-fi beauty pop quintet dios, is onstage at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, California. It's early March, and the sun's light is only just now fading from the L.A. skyline. The bartender's watch says it's 20 to seven, which is entirely too damned early for rock 'n' roll, but dios is onstage anyway -- such is the fate of the opening act on a four-band bill. And Morales has already alienated someone.
The singer, a too-tight sweat shirt clinging to his gut while his baggy chinos hang on for dear life, is twiddling with his guitar strings between songs. The band's sound check was woefully short -- another curse of the supporting act -- and he's using his stage time to calibrate his instrument. Problem is, the twiddling causes intermittent shrieks of feedback, which in turn causes intermittent flinching among the few who've bothered to show up this early. Which prompts an aggravated shout from a man in the back of the room: "STOP! DOING! THAT!"
Heads swivel. It's the House of Blues' sound engineer. He does not look amused.
It's not every day that decorum is breached so publicly at L.A.'s most Disneyfied rock venue, but as a live act, dios is, well, unpolished. Morales' tinkering aside, the band members -- Morales, his 21-year-old brother and co-singer/guitarist Kevin, bassist J.P. Caballero, keyboardist Jimmy Cabeza DeVaca, and drummer Jackie Monzon -- stand still and stone-faced throughout most of their short set. They don't jump, they don't kick, they don't windmill. They don't snarl or bubble or preen. They barely manage eye contact with one another. They are five Keiths and no Micks, except that they don't look cool, really, so much as they look . . . oh, like they're concentrating. Hard.
But here's the kicker: The members of dios may man the stage like a bunch of rookies, but they sound like old pros. The instruments are clean and tight, and the harmonies -- dios' gorgeous songs are all about the harmonies between the brothers Morales -- are exquisite. They're raw, yes, but they clearly have (to crib a hoary sports clich) tremendous upside.
"We're not trying to be anything other than what we are," explains Caballero, the bassist, who at times looks as though he may be onstage against his will. "We're not pretentious New York drama rockers who wear scarves and try to look like Robert Smith. It just seems kind of phony for us.
"I mean, Bowie could do that, but that's not us. We're products of the suburbs -- we're not city kids. We grew up with the malls and the arcades and the run-down crap, and whatever was around town. It's not like any of us had some kind of really artsy upbringing or anything."
In fact, they were raised in Hawthorne, the thoroughly integrated south L.A. suburb known outside music circles mainly as the place Northrop Aircraft used to be. But Hawthorne is also home of the Beach Boys, and that means more than you might expect it to mean to four Mexican kids and a Filipino (Monzon).
The guys in dios -- the songwriting Moraleses in particular -- revere the Beach Boys. They love Brian Wilson's uncanny ability to write pure pop songs, and they love his willingness to warp those songs in the studio. And the band's self-titled debut album, recorded largely in Caballero's garage, is littered with evidence of that love, most obviously on the pretty and disaffected "50 Cents," for which they lift the signature harmony from Pet Sounds' "You Still Believe in Me." Still, aside from one 35-second passage on one track, dios doesn't actually sound a whole lot like its hometown forebears, a fact lost on a surprising majority of the press outlets that have noticed the band in its still-nascent career.
"Yeah, you know, that's a big thing in England especially," says Joel. "They want to make it sound like we're carefree and sun-kissed. You know, we're just this happy, L.A.-pop, psychedelic bunch of guys. It's kind of dumb."
Dumb, yes, and a bit limiting. Says Caballero, "It's weird when people try to say that we sound like the Beach Boys. Because we probably sound more like Bowie or 'White Album'-era Beatles as far as we're concerned. I mean, we like the Beach Boys, but we like Prince, too. And we like New Order. All these things that have subtle effects on the music.
"It's a nice honor, but it's a little confining."
Caballero is right -- dios is closer to late-'60s Beatles than it is to the Beach Boys. And it's closer still to early-'70s Neil Young (Young's "Birds" is one of two covers on dios). More than anything, though, dios sounds like Grandaddy, the Northern Californian space-pop quintet with whom they toured the country in March. Though the Morales brothers lack the jittery technophobia of Grandaddy's Jason Lytle, they share his graceful gift for melody, and Joel's reedy tenor is more than a little reminiscent of Lytle's. But for all their obvious influences, dios' success won't be determined by the depth of its mimicry, but by the strength of its songs. And the songs are very, very strong.
Which may explain dios' surprising success in a relatively short period of time, the band's greenness as performers notwithstanding. Just four months removed from the release of its first EP (and two months since dios dropped), the band has already toured with the likes of Grandaddy, Saves the Day, the Shins, and, starting this week, Beulah. They played Coachella earlier this month, and in late April, none other than Morrissey declared himself a fan, tapping them to open one of his L.A. shows.
But Caballero remains philosophical. "You know, you can get a million write-ups, and you can get to play with whoever," he says, "but ultimately the real litmus test is if people are really into your record like a year, or two years, or five years, or 10 years after it comes out. That for us is kind of the most important thing."