In most professions, a deficiency of smarts would seem a serious liability. After all, don't we insist on seeing every last medical diploma a doctor can tack up on his office walls, just to make sure we're not about to be sliced and diced open by an uncertified moron?
Don't we expect our rocket scientists to be devoid of what we call the "Goober factor"?
Not so in the world of popular music, where stupid behavior is our heritage. Brian Wilson is considered a pop genius, yet here is a man who has been known to butter his head and stick it between two slices of bread. Pet Sounds or no Pet Sounds, that sure sounds dumb.
And when you're talking hooks, dumbness is actually the benchmark that all musicians strive for. Stupid is catchy. Stupid is fun. The smart money is on stupid every time. Many times a record label will send a completed album back, complaining that it is not stupid enough, that even its own doltish A&R man can't hear the stupid single.
While dumb hooks and stupid behavior are commonplace in pop, using the word "stupid" in a pop song is a bit trickier. When local lads the Refreshments reminded us that the world was indeed populated with academically challenged peoploids, they reaped great financial rewards.
But then again, look what it did to Culture Club. When Boy George stated, rather diplomatically, not only that "war, war is stupid" but also that "people are stupid and love means nothing in some strange quarters," that hurt a lot of stupid people. Hurt 'em REAL bad!
Andy Mitchell, singer/songwriter and the leading voice behind the hard-rocking power trio known as 9 Volt, wrote a clever song called "Stupid" that's turning a lot of heads, stupid and otherwise. A mere month after its release, the self-titled debut (that's 9 Volt, idjits!) was the fifth-most-added recording on college/alternative radio in the country. When asked if he wrote this song to illustrate the futility of language, how words dissolve like so much vapor when one is trying to articulate the condition of the human heart, Mitchell takes a sip of cold beer before responding with an emphatic "nah!"
"I'm singing this melody that's gonna get stuck in your head. You're gonna fucking hate this song, this stooopid song," he says, laughing.
Drummer Scott Collins is keen to point out, for those stupid people out there who know not which side of the idiot fence they fell off, that the song doesn't single out any group as being imbecilic, but rather that it is the song itself they are listening to that is being derided. "It is what it is. Self-effacing in a sense."
It's also simple, melodic and easy to sing along with, as are many of the songs on this band's smashing debut. Another contender for a single is "Alone," which one local reviewer inexplicably manages to work a Gin Blossoms reference into.
"Let's not even say that," grimaces Collins, who picks up on the fact that the only reason it could possibly remind someone of the GBs is that "there's a little tambourine on the snare drum, playing on the quarter notes. We go from a reference like Tool--to the Gin Blossoms? How do you even fit the two in the same sentence?"
Another thing that quietly rankles 9 Volt are the lame attempts by local press to draw the band into an equally lame pissing contest with Gloritone, another local trio that's getting a lot of national radio attention. If you can manage to use the right adjectives and spell checks, it does make for one compelling story. Once upon a time, there was a popular Valley band called Dish (later known as Verona) that housed both these outfits. Dish virtually split down the middle, and both shards formed power trios that snagged major record-label distributed deals, all within a year of Dish/Verona's implosion.
At the time, this scenario seemed highly improbable for Verona. "Dish drew really well. At our CD-release party, we drew 400 people. Then we had to change our name over the summer to Verona," Mitchell says, shaking his head. "And we lost a lot of college students. It seemed like our draw really came down."
Graduations are tough on bands. So are name changes. The two factors combined with the transient nature of most Arizona residents meant Verona was stuck with undetectable dead weight on its mailing list for months.
A month before Mitchell split to form his own band, Verona consisted of himself and Gloritone in its current incarnation. According to Mitchell, "The biggest thing that caused the split was that Tim [Anthonise] wanted to sing. I didn't have confidence in him as a front man or as a singer, and I couldn't step down. Tim did most of the writing in the band, and it just came to the point where he wanted to sing everything, too.
"Tim had gone on a three-week trip, and it was during that time that I said, 'As soon as he gets back, I'm quitting the band,'" Mitchell continues.
"I'd started rehearsing with [bassist] Jeff Criswell and wanted to do my own thing. Jeff got kicked out of Verona the month before. It was more of a personality conflict that [drummer] Dan Lancelot and Jeff were having. So Jeff wasn't doing anything. He was happy as hell to come over and play. Let's kick ass."
While there may have been some animosity at the time of the split, it's long since subsided, and both bands remain good friends. Collins does recall some good-natured bitchiness after Gloritone got its deal a few months before 9 Volt did. Both shared the old Verona rehearsal space for several months until "they literally kicked us out of the room. All of a sudden, they needed to kick us out because they needed to rehearse every night of the week," he says, laughing at the haughty memory.
To both bands' credit, each made a clean break, material-wise. "Gloritone started from ground zero and just threw everything away," states Mitchell. "We did too. 'Closer' was the only song I wrote in Verona which we still do."
Collins came into the picture itching to play in a kickass rock band after spending years toiling in funk and fusion outfits like Housequake and Deadly Arnaz, which later became Ethel before settling on the lactose-intolerant Ice Cream Headache. Collins reminds us that he also got kicked out of Satellite, a favorite band among the college kids. "I started that band with Stephen Ashbrook and brought in his whole first-lineup band. His next rhythm section came as a package deal, and it just clicked for them."
After one cursory look through a kitchen cupboard for a name, Mitchell, Collins and Criswell formed Sauce, playing out in Valley clubs for a year and a half. "We didn't draw that much," Collins admits. "We've never been a great promotional band. Jeff was a family man at home, and we all had full-time jobs. Nobody really wanted to do flyers. We did some demos which we duped and gave out at shows."
Sauce had songs getting regular airplay on The Edge ever since the group had something recorded. "We had tons of calls when we went on Gregg Paul's show," Mitchell adds. "Tons of chicks called in, saying 'send us tapes, send us that.' They were all underage, so that didn't help attendance."
"Nobody was really interested in Sauce," says Collins with a shrug. "It seemed like everybody at the shows was really into us, but there never was that many people. All our friends have their own lives going. Five or 10 years ago, we had friends you could count on to yell woo-hoo. But now everyone's married with kids and shit, going, 'I gotta work at 8:30 in the morning.'"
Luckily some working stiffs at NMG/Pavement Records approached them after a show. They zeroed in on "Stupid" and signed the band to its alternative label, Crash Records, which had a distribution deal with Private I Records, which has the deal with Mercury Records. Crash then sent the trio to Illinois to record with celebrated AOR producer Gary Loizzo, who'd worked with such multiplatinum acts as Styx and REO Speedwagon but was itching to get his hands dirty in the murky waters of post-grunge rock.
"We wanted something very raw," says Mitchell. "I didn't do a lot of overdubs. We captured the band live. It's actually a little shinier than what we sound like live. Raw energy like an Everclear, Foo Fighters sort of sound. Not a super-spendy album, which is what we got."
Once the album was mastered, bassist Jeff Criswell decided to quit. "He kind of freaked out because he's got two kids and he was afraid if he went out on the road he wasn't going to make enough money to support them. That's an understandable concern."
So was replacing Criswell. The search proved a laborious one, which explains why the album art gives the impression that 9 Volt is some kind of Hall and Oates pop duo--they literally couldn't find a bassist right up to the time the art was being printed. "We were fucked for pictures. We used the shots we did because Jeff is in the background and you can hardly see him. They put the song titles over him on the live shot. It's a shitty picture."
Also hindering the production of the album was the name-change thing. "That set us literally two months behind," says Mitchell. "Crash said we need a name by Monday. As soon as we decided on a name, I had some ideas for a logo and I had an artist who did our demo logo. I put major pressure on him, and this poor guy went three days without sleep and came through."
9 Volt wasn't even on the 10 pages of names the band rifled through.
"Phlegmgarden and Pokeweed were two that were up for consideration," Mitchell snickers. "Crash Records liked that Pokeweed since it's got the sex and the drugs in it." Collins' wife came up with Battery, but when that seemed to suggest assault and battery, she chimed in with 9 Volt.
Everywhere on the CD, it's the numeric spelling you see, except the spine, where it's written out. Maybe that's so brain-dead album cataloguers won't feel rushed trying to figure out what letter the name begins with.
Ah, yes, that "stupid" factor again.
With a name in place and having exhausted all possibilities for bassists locally, the guys put an ad in the San Diego Reader, San Diego being a favorite vacation spot of Collins'.
"We tried everyone we fuckin' knew. And I'm friends with what I feel are some of the best bass players around here. They were either not into what we had going or didn't think the record deal was legit or didn't feel they were going to be able to put 100 percent into the band."
From San Diego came Steve Romalio, a Jersey native who lived in Greenwich Village for a while doing session work. Before joining 9 Volt, Romalio was running his nimble fingers up and down the neck for Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
Additionally, the band toyed with adding a second guitar player, but none of the auditioners worked out. For the time being, a three-piece just seems easier to manage. "You gotta just get along with two other guys. It means not having another idiot in the band," Mitchell laughs, "another guy who's going to piss you off."
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There's a certain sonic slop provided by a second guitar that is a good thing, but you sacrifice the telepathy and purity of three players locking in, which you hear in spades on this recording, the Police/Nirvana-like interplay of tracks "Inside Out" and "3 Sides," with the rhythm guitar switching to lead in midstroke. Mitchell's voice is especially strong, a strange mix of Kurt Cobain, Burton Cummings and whoever that no-name guy in Better Than Ezra was. Certainly there are enough radio-worthy songs like "Monkey" and the pretty "Feeling Around" waiting in the wings when "Stupid" runs its course. The label is keenly watching national radio to start booking tour dates "so we're not playing to the crickets every night," jokes Collins.
That doesn't seem likely as long as "Stupid" keeps getting played on all three hard-rock/alternative stations. Here it comes again, with the DJ waxing ecstatic about 9 Volt "rising from the ash of the Phoenix rock scene."
He's quoting the official Gloritone bio. Now that's just plain stupid.
9 Volt is scheduled to perform on Monday, June 29, at Gibsons in Tempe, with Hum, and Superjesus at 8 p.m.; and on Thursday, July 2, at Mustang Sally's in Tempe at 11 p.m.