Sneaker Pimps co-founder and keyboardist Liam Howe is trippin' on "trip-hop."
"That term was born too quickly without enough thought to what it meant," he says. "Massive Attack's Blue Lines was written six years ago and wasn't called trip-hop until two years ago, when this term popped up and started to embrace a stupid amount of things.
"Trip-hop, to me, is Portishead. I love Portishead. We could never be compared to, say, a band like Baby Fox, but I've seen both of us called trip-hop. Republica are called trip-hop. It seems like a lazy term for any new strain of songs which happen to be electronic."
There are no short cuts to describe the Sneaker Pimps, the adventurous U.K. pop band currently breaking in the U.S. with the above-ground hit "Underground." The group's impressive debut, Becoming X, juxtaposes electronic dance, punk, folk and avant-garde music with hard doses of black humor and sarcasm.
Now, halfway through the Pimps' first U.S. tour, Howe seems genuinely surprised to find Americans embracing anything new from the U.K. For too many years, the States have endured crass, careerist Britpop imports like the Stone Roses, who were all too keen to follow in Wham's footsteps and claim the American market as if it were a birthright. This created a stateside distrust in whatever Britain sent soaring to the top of the charts (see "Spice Girls").
"I think there was a suspicion of trans-Atlantic wanna-bes, and rightly so," says Howe, who notes that electronica's American breakthrough arrives with the predictable British press backlash already nipping its heels. "As always, the English press can be vicious and turn very unreliable. We've got a really big feature in The Face this week, which is brilliant. Then you look at another magazine, and they'll moan about 'all this electronic music' and say Oasis is great. It's daft."
Howe's and co-Pimp Chris Corner's involvement with dance music hearkens to their days as Manchester club DJs in the early '90s, when they concocted odd white-label twelve inches under aliases like F.R.I.S.K. and Line of Flight. The latter name still serves as the team's production handle on the Pimps album and upcoming Neneh Cherry and Bjsrk projects. Line of Flight also has a Star Wars remix in the works.
"I think with dance music or electronic music, there's an integrity about the genre you can't ignore. It seems very, very removed from the idea of commercial success, even though it has become commercially successful," Howe says. "Bands like ours or the Chemical Brothers would be doing music whether or not it sold any records in the shops. It's a self-made market. And you have to want to do it, whether it's in a bedroom or whether you've got an audience of 20. It doesn't really matter.
"On the one hand, you have the disposable scam-fame idea of the Sex Pistols, and on the other side, you have the total authenticity of a band like Kraftwerk, a pioneer band that could've never been invented by the politics and mechanics of the pop world."
Howe says that when he was a DJ, he and Pimps bassist Joe Wilson used to host an idiosyncratic club night called "Breakbeat to Bacharach."
"We'd play Burt Bacharach, then drum-bass, and go back. A combination of strange lounge tunes and hard-core backbeats,"he chuckles. "But we didn't see that as wrong. Life has become so eclectic, so there didn't seem to be anything problematic about putting music we loved back to back. Or that a tune like 'Post-Modern Sleaze' could be influenced by Nick Drake and Voltaire. How can early '80s electro and early '70s folk be related? That's our job as musical commentators, to put together what we think is good about musical history."
The chief ingredient in the Sneaker Pimps' study in contrasts is its lead singer, the sweet-voiced Kelli Dayton, who Howe and Corner discovered fronting a raucous punk group in a Birmingham pub.
"To us, the worst thing in the world is to have a song with a social agenda, to have someone screaming into a microphone without any subtlety," Howe states. "I think one of the best ways to affect people is by sugar-coating things. You have more longevity. We made the tunes sound deceptively sweet. A track like 'Underground' is about small-town oppression and artistic claustrophobia, sung in [Dayton]'s sweet lullaby voice. It's nice to confuse people in that way."
Given Howe's description of the song's genesis, the prominent placement of "Underground" as backdrop for a sex scene in the recent Val Kilmer feature The Saint is confusing. "We had a giggle because, lyrically speaking, it's desperately unsexual," Howe says. "The tune sounds sexy and sleazy, but in terms of actual content, it's amazingly unromantic. It's a bizarre feasting on differences."
That the song samples bits of John Barry's Goldfinger soundtrack and is transplanted into a '90s movie based on a '60s spy series, Howe says, is just a happy coincidence.
Unlike the early '80s version of electronic music, which required people sound as cold and mechanical about the future as possible, Sneaker Pimps' blend of acoustic guitars, old analog keyboards and Dayton's sensual vocals serves to humanize the world of tomorrow. Howe cut his musical teeth on early synth pop, and names Joe Dulce's "Shaddup Your Face" as his least favorite song of all time because "I was a huge Ultravox fan, and that stupid song kept 'Vienna' from going to No. 1.
"We were very aware of the debate about electronic music being decidedly nonhuman. At one point, that was a great selling point. In the early '80s, every bit of pocket money I had, I used to spend it on getting synths and recording equipment. The idea was to make the music sound like it was being written by a machine as much as you possibly could."
That's why Howe credits the sampler as the most important piece of equipment for modern music. "Because it changed the idea of modern electronic music from sounding like a robot to making robots do very sonically complicated and organic things."
Howe favors warm-sounding analog keyboards that add a touch of nostalgia to this futuristic soundscape. When told the synth blips at the beginning of "Low Place Like Home" are very Doctor Who sounding, he replies, "I like the comparison."
Another standout track, "Spin Spin Sugar," features the Casio Vialtone, a tiny, hand-held, white mono-keyboard Howe received as a gift on his 13th birthday. "It's one of my favorites. I like many huge sounds out of really cheap gear."
Thus far, several of Becoming X's jokes on encroaching technology have sailed over some listeners' heads. The cover art, for instance, looks like a silicon chip with technical terms like "capacitors" and "semiconductors," and has led some to think the band is obsessed with technology. The art is actually a circuit diagram for something called the "DJ Killer," which eliminates spoken voices from your radio-listening experience.
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"That's a bit of a joke. It was something my Dad tried to get me to make when I was a kid. He was really into hobby electronics. You can eliminate the voice of the DJ. I saw it advertised in a magazine and thought, 'That's one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard,' so I had to put it in."
Another of the album's in-jokes is "Stesko Suicide," in which the Pimps fantasize about a home suicide kit being sold at a popular discount store chain. In it, Dayton writes off a useless gal pal, stamping her "over and out" and then urging "Go on, girl/Take a chance."
Sounds similar to the advice that Judas Priest got sued for administering to suicidal teens, but so far, according to Howe, "There've been no letters from concerned parents decrying there are death messages in Pimps records when you play them backwards. But I'm hoping to get something soon."
The Sneaker Pimps are scheduled to perform on Wednesday, May 21, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with the Josephine Wiggs Experience. Showtime is 8 p.m.