It's about 15 minutes into the conversation with local power poppers Sugar High when it starts to happen. The feeling that I've somehow ended up in an episode of The Monkees, or maybe even been cast in a local remake of A Hard Day's Night.
It could be singer Adrian Evans' west Mesa apartment, a cornucopia of pop culture, which is spurring the sense of bewilderment. From the Shonen Knife posters to the Iggy Pop standup displays -- the benefits of Evans' career as a record-store clerk -- to the album covers on the wall, it's obvious this is a group that takes its disposable entertainment very seriously (especially telling is a mounted LP cover of Van Halen I, where all the band members, save David Lee Roth -- the only real rock star in the bunch -- have been crossed out).
But more than the setting is Sugar High's obvious camaraderie, one forged from the ashes of an acrimonious breakup in 1997 and an unlikely reformation last year.
Set against the clubhouse environment, the band members come off like rock 'n' roll caricatures, almost as if each has been cast into a familiar role. There's Evans, the heartthrob front man; Sean Gens, the shy, stylish drummer; Jason Garcia, the serious-looking Mod guitarist; and bassist Pat Singleton, the wizened rock 'n' roll war-horse.
In between jokes and flurries of good-natured ribbing, Evans, whose persona is rife with a hearty dose of David Cassidy -- down to his puka shell necklace and "super cool" exhortations -- sums up the band's motivations best.
"We look at all these people," he says, pointing to the dizzying array of familiar images, "as friends. All those songs that we love, we look at them as friends. And more than anything, we want to be a part of something like that -- that people would think of what we're doing in that way."
Pat Singleton had no idea what to expect when he arrived in Arizona. A native of Cleveland, where he played with a handful of retro-billy combos like the Rat-tones, Singleton relocated to Phoenix in 1988. He bounced around, playing the occasional acoustic set at Tempe's Sun Club before eventually hooking up with a Guns n' Roses-type metal outfit.
It seemed Singleton's days as a struggling musician had come to an end when he married in 1991. "I got settled into the whole domestic thing for a few years," he recalls.
"And then we came along and ruined his whole marriage," chimes in Evans, as the rest of the group collapses in laughter.
"It's true," adds Singleton, "Autumn Teen Sound formed, and I was divorced within six months."
By '95 Gens and Evans were already veterans of a pair of underappreciated local pop combos, the Heathers and the Catholic Schoolgirls. A meeting with their future musical co-conspirator came about when Singleton answered a "guitarist wanted" ad the pair had placed.
"In a sea of Pearl Jam ads, they were the only ones with Beatles references," remembers Singleton.
The trio quickly added bassist Rusty Marlboro, and the memorably named Autumn Teen Sound was born.
The group began sharing bills with a growing legion of like-minded pop bands starting to re-emerge in the wake of grunge's passing. By 1997, the group had secured enough of a local buzz that management and record labels began calling. In a pre-emptive move against the predictably tepid instincts of music-biz marketers -- the kind that have ensured unimaginative band names like Guster, Filter, Creed -- the group decided to change identities. "We figured it would just be better to change the name before somebody asked us to. We really couldn't picture a label letting us get away with something like Autumn Teen Sound," says Evans.
Though they quickly settled on Sugar High -- a name lifted from a track on a Stephen Duffy record -- the band members only managed to play half a dozen shows under the moniker before the group, almost inexplicably, broke up.
Even now, some two and a half years later, the exact reasoning behind the split remains a mystery. While the initial speculation focused on a rift between Evans and the rest of the band created by the group's then-management, the singer insists the reasons for the separation were far less titillating.
"We were on the verge of getting a good indie deal and things were going well, but there was a lot of stress. It was a combination of that, personal friction and some outside influences that began to snowball and ended up tearing us apart," says Evans.
"Communication broke down and the band broke up," adds Singleton, curtly. "We never sat down and said, 'Let's break up.' It was just this lack of communication which got worse and worse until the band broke up and no one really knew why. I remember people asking me afterward and I didn't have an answer."
Gens and Evans went on to form Crashbar with former Jennys keyboardist and current Tulane Blacktop front man Brett Hinders, while Singleton logged time with Tempe retro-poppers the Dustbin Flowers. Neither project really got off the ground, and after a year, both sides started to feel a sense of loss.
"It gave us the time to realize how much we missed each other. I don't think we would have been able to come to the place where we are cosmically and friendship-wise without that black mark on our record," says Singleton.
When the band decided to re-form early last year, Marlboro, who had remained inactive during the split, decided to opt out of the reunion. Instead of searching for a new bassist, Singleton decided to switch to the four-string, and the group recruited local ax-handler Jason Garcia to round out the lineup.
A San Diego native, Garcia had earned his reputation as a member of the Doomsday Affair, a mod-revival/power-pop outfit that achieved a modicum of regional success in the early '90s. He relocated to Phoenix in mid-'94, joining local alt-rockers the Sport Model. Ironically, the Sport Model fell apart at the same time, and in much the same way as Autumn Teen Sound, dissolving amid confusion shortly after signing a pact with NMG Records.
Once the quartet began working together, it became apparent that Garcia's Who/Jam-inspired crunch had been the missing link in the equation. All three are effusive in their praise of the guitarist and what he's added to the group dynamic. "It was really exciting a couple months into rehearsals, because it really started to bloom once Jason felt comfortable putting his stamp on things," says Gens.
Still, the infusion of new blood did change the direction and tenor of the band. It's a balance of influences that Evans views as both healthy and significantly different from the one in Autumn Teen Sound.
"Jason is a rock guy. I mean, he will not do a 'fucking Carpenters' cover, no matter what," jokes Evans. "So there's a rock thing that's pulling us from Jason's end and more of a pop thing with Sean and I, while stylistically, Pat's the band's wild card."
"Did that sound like shit?" asks Pat Singleton as he walks offstage.
It's almost midnight on Friday at Billy Gordon's, a Tempe pub located in a strip mall. The club's stage area sits adjacent to an off-track-betting site where tired faces swill Budweiser and wager on greyhound races broadcast from California.
Despite the bassist's post-show query, Sugar High has ended its hourlong turn with a flourish, a rousing cover of the Kinks' "I Need You." Though it's opening for a popular roots-rock band, Sugar High has managed to overcome the less-than-conducive environment and win over an initially indifferent crowd.
The group's set finds the band blending old songs ("School on Saturday," "Personality Pills") with material culled from the short-lived Crashbar ("Wreck Myself," "She's Cool, Yeah" ) to newer compositions ("Scare Me," "Bad in Slow Motion").
A similar mix is also represented on the band's new EP, Ice Cream Anti-Social. Released last month, the tracks were recorded in the fall of '99 with Pollen wunderkinds Bob Hoag and Kevin Scanlon at their Flying Blanket Studios in Mesa.
"Bob had really good ideas about producing the record, and he had been hearing us play a lot," says Evans of Hoag's involvement in the project.
"We always say he's like the fifth member of the band, so it was a natural choice for him and Kevin to work on it," adds Singleton.
For Garcia, working with the notoriously detail-minded duo was essential to capturing the "essence" of the band's sound.
"Kevin is kind of known for getting these huge guitar sounds. And that's exactly what we were looking for was to get a really big guitar noise -- something like Redd Kross. More than that, they really sweated on the tracks. They wouldn't let us get away with anything less than a great take," adds Garcia.
The experience was enough of a success that Sugar High plans to return to the studio with Hoag and Scanlon this spring as they begin work on their first full-length disc, slated for a late-2000 release.
Despite the group's being together for nearly half a decade, Anti-Social is the first official recording from the Autumn Teen Sound/Sugar High camp to see the light of day. The group did have a pair of its songs appear in local filmmaker Carl T. Hirsch's Green -- which led to the band's appearance on the soundtrack of another indie flick, 1997's Whatever.
Through its precarious Hollywood connections, the group landed -- quite improbably, as it would turn out -- one of its songs, "Turbo Teen," in the recent big-budget Melissa Joan Hart teen comedy Drive Me Crazy. While the track is prominently placed in the film's opening sequence, it was excluded from the Jive Records soundtrack, which instead featured contributions from the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.
"The version of 'Turbo Teen' that's in the movie is a four-track demo version we did in 1995," says Evans. "It's amazing. It's probably going to piss off a lot of people who spent thousands of dollars to record a song and get it in the film. But God bless it, we got lucky. We call 'Turbo Teen' the little song that could."
The group has also recorded a version of Nick Gilder's "Time After Time" for an upcoming tribute album, titled Saint Nick Is Missing, a salute to the forgotten "Hot Child in the City" singer.
For Evans, Sugar High's new start has also marked the maturation of his vision for the band, a coalescence of sound and style that's been the culmination of his personal odyssey through an ever-widening record collection.
"About the time we formed Autumn Teen Sound, my tastes started getting a lot better, and we started ripping off from better people. That band was really influenced by Odyssey and Oracle and Pet Sounds," says Evans, referring to the mid-'60s pop landmarks from the Zombies and the Beach Boys. "Obviously, we never scaled those kind of heights, but those two things had a real impact on what we were doing. We started trying to put three-part harmonies on every song."
While Evans and Gens made their discoveries during the '90s reissue craze, for the elder Singleton, his first contact with the melancholy teen world of the Beach Boys came a couple decades earlier as a youth in Ohio.
"When I first got into Pet Sounds, I was so into it that I took down all my KISS posters so my walls would be as blank as Brian Wilson felt," recalls Singleton. "Then my friends who were tough guys into Aerosmith and KISS came over and were like, 'Dude, where are your posters at?' And I'm going, 'I'm into Pet Sounds -- that's where my posters are at.' They were like, 'What are you talking about? Put your fucking KISS posters back up.'"
Despite its collective Beach Boy jones, Sugar High's output isn't really reminiscent of that band's summery muse. Theirs is an amalgam of far more diverse and fully digested influences.
"Gradually, we started to discover the great tradition of music that wouldn't strictly be categorized as pop. It's become a kind of free-for-all that ranges from the Stooges to Sinatra," notes Evans, as Ol' Blue Eyes' Only the Lonely plays softly in the background.
As much as the band wears its influences on its sleeve, there is nothing retro about the tracks found on Anti-Social. Instead, they chart a steady course through a jangle of post-'60s pop songcraft -- starting with Badfinger and the Nazz, visiting the dB's and Tommy Keene and eventually winding up at the door of the Velvet Crush and the Posies. While the band clearly relies -- both musically and stylistically -- on all those elements as a touchstone, they never veer into the unbecoming trappings of nostalgia.
The group's engaging sense of melody -- especially prominent on the EP's two standouts, "100 Years to Love You" and "Scare Me" -- owes an equal debt to classic Brill Building hooks as to the Raspberries, Shoes and other purveyors of the criminally neglected subgenre of power pop.
Though less obvious on the album than in a live setting, Evans' vocals -- his reedy tone and Anglo-inspired phrasing -- are especially reminiscent of Bach's Bottom-era Alex Chilton, while Garcia's compulsive riffing and big-chord bluster come off as a convincing Y2K interpretation of founding Modfathers Townshend and Weller. At the opposite end, the rhythm section is a study in style. Singleton's very visage is a rock 'n' roll metaphor as he alternates, legs spread into a sunken Ramones posture, then straightens, bass vertical in a Bill Wyman nod. Behind everything, Gens -- his drums covered with Day-Glo stickers -- bashes away in a blur of "come on, get happy" abandon.
These days, more than anything, it seems the members of Sugar High are grateful for the gift of a second chance and the series of modest successes that have come with it.
"Every couple of weeks, there's something exciting happening for us. It started out with just getting the band back together and booking shows. Then the Nick Gilder thing happened, then Drive Me Crazy came through, and then the EP. So it's just been a bunch of good things after the other," says Evans.
Though the group plans to tread carefully in regard to its commercial future -- specifically a label deal and management -- it will begin to take some tentative first steps with a regional tour this spring. The band also plans to extend its reach overseas as it will release a European split single with U.K. popsters Medium 21 this summer.
For Singleton, the years of toil and tumult finally seem to be paying off. "I keep waiting for the real work to start," he muses. "Because with Autumn Teen Sound and all these other bands I was in, it was always like pulling teeth. I didn't realize that at the time. I just thought, 'Well, this is how you do it.' But this time around, it's been so easy, it feels right."
Sugar High is scheduled to perform on Thursday, February 24, at Patriots Square. Showtime is noon. The group will also perform on Friday, March 3, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa. Showtime is 9 p.m. Reunited and it feels so good: Sugar High, from left, Sean Gens, Adrian Evans, Pat Singleton and Jason Garcia.
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