"What the hell was the name of that band?"
Nine Volt singer-songwriter Andy Mitchell is stumped. Sitting in a booth at downtown's Chez Nous lounge with drummer Andy Mendoza and bassist Stevie Flores, the three are desperately trying to recall the name of the national group they recently opened up for at the Big Fish Pub.
"Damn, they that did that 'Popular' song," says Mendoza. "You know, the one where the guy talks through it?"
Long Wong's in Tempe
Scheduled to perform on Thursday, February 8, with Vin Fiz. The group is also scheduled to perform at the Emerald Lounge on Friday, February 9. Showtime for both is 9 p.m.
It's hard enough trying to remember any '90s alt-rock radio hit, especially when there's an R&B act picking at the bones of the Temptations 20 feet away. Not even complete silence helps when we move the guessing party to a quiet apartment nearby.
After offering up a litany of guesses -- Nerf Herder, Superdrag -- they give up before finding the correct answer, Nada Surf.
Of course, the guys in Nine Volt wouldn't hold it against you for wondering, "What the hell was the name of that band?" when hearing the strains of their song "Stupid." Once the fifth most added record on college/alternative radio, the track propelled the local three-piece to the fringes of rock 'n' roll success, before a combination of label woes and an ill-fated move left the band in a state of shambles.
Front man Mitchell formed Nine Volt (originally named Sauce) in 1996 when his previous group Dish (originally named Verona) morphed into Gloritone (which -- you guessed it -- was originally named Vitamin).
"Nine Volt never really blew up that big early on," recalls Mitchell. "We were never a headlining band in town -- we used to play 10 o'clock slots. Then all the sudden, we got a record deal and as soon as we got a song on the radio -- bam! We had a shitload of people at the shows. We went from playing to 40 people to 240 people. We'd play 'Stupid' and the audience would go nuts. It was great."
The deal in question came with Crash Records, an imprint of NMG/Pavement (home to locals Windigo), which relocated from Chicago to the Valley in 1997. The label had the advantage of owning a distribution pact with Private I, a company with ties to Mercury Records.
Mostly a wholesaler of heavy metal catalogue titles, NMG/Pavement seemed eager to break new artists and promote local Arizona talent, releasing Nine Volt's self-titled debut in 1998. Ironically, after signing, Nine Volt almost immediately relocated to San Diego. The move put the band in the precarious position of having to pretend to still be a local act since they were getting loads of airplay on all three major rock stations in the Valley.
"We wanted people to buy our record because we were a local band you could see at clubs on the weekend," Mitchell says, "and local radio was really supportive of local music at the time. We tried to keep it low key, but the truth is we were in San Diego for three years. We came back at least once a month to do some shows. That went on for about a year and it was cool. Then the whole thing with the record company fizzled.
"What happened was Private I wasn't paying our record company a dime for CDs shipped or CDs sold," he continues. "They pretty much cut off Crash and just wouldn't return their requests for statements. [Crash] had put in, I would guess, about 30 grand by the time we did our record, that's including promotion paid out to radio, just to go around trying to get the song "Stupid" on the air. At one time, we were on 14 different radio stations. It got picked up on a shitload of college stations, too."
Although payola is still a dirty word in the music industry -- unless you're Limp Bizkit -- the practice is still common, albeit in a thinly disguised form. "Crash was having to pay off about 500 bucks per radio station," notes Mitchell. "You gotta pay out. It's like, 'Yeah, we'll add the record but we have this promotion coming up -- do you think you can kick in a few hundred bucks?' But Crash wasn't getting any money back from Private I and wouldn't sue them for whatever reason. They were very nonconfrontational."
Amid the financial turmoil between the label and its parent company, Nine Volt's CD got lost in the shuffle, with Crash unable to help follow up on the success of "Stupid." The band eventually rereleased its debut with three new songs, an alternate title (Swimming in Gasoline) and artwork on the DNA imprint, another Pavement offshoot. DNA, however, also did little to promote the album. And just as its relationships with label benefactors had soured, the group fell out of favor with Phoenix radio programmers, who had quickly abandoned the local-music boosterism of the mid-'90s.
Meanwhile, the San Diego scene proved to be equally disheartening for band morale. "We were playing with all the skater punk bands in that scene and it just sucked. We were playing to maybe 15 people most nights. There's no scene down there, and I'd always heard it was so cool," says Mitchell, shaking his head. "The dance clubs, dance bars are what's happening in San Diego. If you want to go where everyone's at, it's there. I was going to fuckin' dance clubs and I don't even dance."
The group found itself back playing early slots again, occasionally opening up for A-list national acts that read like a who's who of fellow alternative-radio one-hit wonders -- Brick by Brick, U.S. Crush, as well as up-and-comers like Lit and Lifehouse. Dispirited, the band broke up.
While the group's original rhythm section stayed in San Diego, Mitchell returned to Phoenix late last year determined to recharge Nine Volt with a new lineup and a handful of new songs.
His first night back in Tempe, Mitchell ran into drummer Mendoza, who along with bassist Flores had become something of a rhythm section for hire, playing with the Royal Normans since the breakup of their previous combo, the Jim Beach-led Dialectrics.
"Jim is a real good songwriter, he wrote great songs," says Mendoza. "Jim kept going his own way into a Steve Earle country kind of thing. But I'm a pop guy. I wanna play my balls off, but I still want to sing. And Stevie," he says pointing to Flores, "he's a punk."
Without hesitating, Mendoza and Flores signed on with considerably heavier and faster-paced-sounding Nine Volt. "I lucked out," beams Mitchell. "It's great to have a rhythm section that knows what the other guy is gonna do. Plus Andy's a great singer, too."
Nine Volt's return to the Valley has been a success so far, as the group has been greeted by enthusiastic crowds at a handful of early shows. And while people still recognize the Nine Volt name, they have a harder time placing the faces. Scores of fans have come up to Flores and Mendoza, telling them they saw the band three years ago recalling how they rocked.
"See, no one cares who the rhythm section is," laughs Mitchell diabolically. "Seriously, though, I prefer this lineup to the old one by far."
When Mitchell decided to restart the band, he asked his new rhythm foils if they wanted to change the name of the group. Mendoza and Flores immediately said no. "We want people to come to the shows," says Mendoza. "If someone wants to give us money to make another record and wants it changed, then we can change it. It's an old name, but it's a different band. With this lineup its kind of like ABBA meets . . . Slayer."
Actually, Nine Volt's sound is closer to a cross between the Foo Fighters and Tool; the group's unique hybrid of alt and heavy rock makes it one of the few bands able to headline pop and metal clubs alike.
In returning to his old haunts, Mitchell observes that "the local scene has died somewhat. We're playing to the same Tempe type of crowd that sees Dead Hot, Satellite and the Pistoleros -- then all of a sudden with Nine Volt, you have a mixture of different people. When we were here before, we did a lot of shows with Jesus Chrysler and Zig Zag Black. We were more in with that genre. Still, compared to San Diego, Tempe's scene is smoking."
Although the group hasn't recorded with the new lineup, the combo is preparing to go into the studio next month to lay down an EP's worth of new material. Based on the most recent demo with the last lineup, Mitchell hasn't lost his knack for penning heavy, despondent pop songs with sing-along choruses.
"The goal is to make a record and tour, but to tour for a year straight, you pretty much have to be signed to a major label. I still want to do that," admits Mitchell grudgingly. "But at the same time, I'm a little older now. Do I want to get in a van and take a shower every third day and play these little places for a year?"
"I'll take showers every four days if necessary," chimes in a more gung-ho Mendoza.
Based on his previous experiences, Mitchell admits he's wary of the whole industry trap. But with Mendoza and Flores on board, he's got a pair of players champing at the bit for a shot at the kind of large-scale commercial success that seemed within the band's grasp the first time out.
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In the meantime, the group reports that it may begin a search for the elusive second guitarist that Mitchell hasn't had since he played with Gloritone's Tim Anthonise during the Verona/Dish days.
"Before Sauce, I've always played in four-piece bands. We did three auditions since then and never found a guitarist who's the same style, or a guy we can actually deal with," says Mitchell. "Musicians are pretty tricky people. They're either fucked up on drugs, or their car is a piece of shit, it's always breaking down. Then there's the girlfriends who make them blow off practice. We never found a guy who meshed. We need an introverted lead guitarist, not a lead personality. I don't want a Steve Vai, just a guy who'll play melodies, singing backups with his guitar.
"Actually, we've got two Andys and one Steve in the band," muses a laughing Mitchell. "Maybe we should find another guitarist named Steve."