Right now, Atlantic Records is giving the star treatment to San Diego's Louis XIV, whose first full-length for the company, The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, hit stores on March 22. But what happens if the disc doesn't sell 200,000 copies in its first week? Will Atlantic stick by the group for the long haul, or promptly drop it in favor of the next buzz-worthy combo that strikes its fancy?
Jason Hill, the vocalist/guitarist atop Louis XIV's throne, doesn't communicate the slightest concern about potential fickleness. "Look," he says from a Los Angeles hotel room hours before joining Beck at a high-profile tsunami-relief benefit. "I want to be humble about this, but at the same time, I think we're the best band they've got. To me, there's no doubt the next record will be great."
This declaration contains at least a couple of eyebrow-raisers. For one thing, Hill is already touting the quality of Louis XIV's next effort when the general public has heard only a modest sample of Secrets; Illegal Tender, an EP issued in late January, features three songs from the forthcoming long-player. For another, Hill professes an interest in humility even as he thumps his chest about the clever, cocksure rawk music he makes with multi-instrumentalist Brian Karscig and drummer Mark Anders Maigaard, assisted by guitarist Jimmy Armbrust. When this contradiction is pointed out to him, Hill emits an easy laugh.
"I mean it when I say that," he contends, "but at the same time, I realize how ass it sounds. I believe in what we do, and I believe in it more than anything else out there. I believe in my heart that what we're doing is timeless and different, and that's what we set out to do -- to make a record that people would still be talking about in 20 years. But if I read somebody else saying that, I'd think, 'This guy's an asshole!' I would! I get it, you know."
Until recently, the group's Web site, www.louisxiv.net, provided evidence to support this claim. In the since-updated merchandise section, space beside several items was filled with the following lines: "This will be bullshit text about how great the CD is and such. All lies and bloated ego talk about musical crap." These subjects are among Hill's specialties, but he understands that his brand of vigorous self-promotion goes down smoother when it's sprinkled with charm. He comes across as an amusing chatterbox whose favorite topic just happens to be himself.
Hill traces his knowledge of rock's rudiments to the stack of LPs his older brother gave him after deciding to convert his collection to CD. "I was very young -- 6, 7, 8 -- and I remember putting on this Joe Cocker album that had Leon Russell on it, Jimmy Page playing guitar, and this guy Chris Stainton on piano." The platter, 1969's With a Little Help From My Friends, wowed him because "the players on it were just incredible, and the sound was incredible, too. When I was a kid, music was stuck in Reverb Land, where everything had all this fake reverb and triggers and gates and all these things they were doing in production then, but this one wasn't like that. It sounded like Joe Cocker was singing right into my ear, and Jimmy Page's guitar was erratic and messed up and just great. Even the bad notes were brilliant -- plus, I loved the way the vinyl sounded. CDs have definitely caught up, and they're better now, but when they first came out, it was pretty poor technology, and they made it seem as if it was the greatest thing in the world. So for me, it was a moment of discovery -- like, 'This is older, but it sounds so much better.'"
Years later, Hill carried this sensibility with him to Convoy, which he formed with Karscig, Maigaard and high school pal Robbie Dodds. In keeping with Hill's back-to-basics aesthetic, the foursome cut what became 1999's Pineapple Recording Sessions in analog on a reel-to-reel. The results caught the ears of folks connected to Hybrid, an Atlantic affiliate, and led to 2001's Black Licorice. The release earned some nice reviews, but today, Hill denigrates industry veteran David Bianco's production, believing, unsurprisingly, that he could have done a superior job. Since then, he says, "I've produced and engineered everything we've done. I'm very hands-on."
Although Convoy stalled, Hill, Karscig and Maigaard remained a team. After coming up with a song called "Louis XIV," they made it the basis of a concept album about a man convinced that he was an old-world monarch -- and, in a display of his trademark showmanship, Hill decided that they needed to tape the material in France. Upon their return to the States, they burned copies of the self-titled 2003 CD themselves and began hawking them under the auspices of their own Pineapple Recording Group imprint. Thanks to their Convoy connections, some of the songs wound up on San Diego radio, boosting cumulative sales of Louis XIV and two subsequent EPs, Pink and Blue, into the 18,000-unit range. At first Hill ignored entreaties from major labels enticed by these numbers, because he and his fellows were making a nice chunk of change. But then, according to Hill, "the offers started getting really good" -- especially the one from Atlantic. His previous association with the firm hadn't gone especially well, but after spending a long night listening to records with Atlantic co-chairman Craig Kallman, he was reassured. "It was a really good feeling right off the bat with them," he says. "Everybody's been like, 'You guys are doing it right. We're not going to fuck it up. What do you want to do?'"
That's just what Hill hoped to hear. Given the highly sexed quality of the tunes slated for Illegal Tender and Secrets, he felt naked women should appear on their covers. This notion unnerved worker bees at Atlantic, who were thoroughly unaccustomed to such a request. "I don't think there's been nudity on an Atlantic cover in America since Roxy Music," Hill allows. So he reached out to his new buddy, Kallman, and convinced him that skin was the way to go. "He said, 'Okay, I'll make some calls,' and a couple minutes later, I hear from the art department, going, 'I guess it's all right,' but sounding kind of freaked out about it. Like, 'In 10 years of working for this company, I've never talked to the guy.' And now everybody is like, 'Whatever Jason wants, Jason gets.'"
Secrets will have a tough time getting stocked at Wal-Mart, since it spotlights a curvy, unclad female with song names written on her back with a makeup pen. As for the front of Tender, a pair of mommy-bags with simulated black tape over the nipples provide two reasons for noticing it -- but the songs are attention-getters, too. "Louis XIV," with Hill stuttering "Me-me-me-me is all I ever want to talk about," is good, raunchy fun, and "Finding Out True Love Is Blind" celebrates equal-opportunity horniness by way of lyrics that don't discriminate by race, color or creed: "Chocolate girl, you're looking like something I want/And your little Asian friend, she can come if she wants." The latter ditty, which is currently receiving spins on tastemaking radio stations such as L.A.'s KROQ, has drawn complaints from women who feel objectified by its rhymes. Hill is thrilled by this reaction and brushes off the criticism with cheerful machismo: "You can write a million ballads, and girls'll go, 'I love that,'" he maintains. "But the one they'll play over and over is the one that talks to them in the way they want to be talked to."
This response seems calculated for effect, as does Hill's insistence that Louis XIV is totally original even as he acknowledges his debt to the likes of AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, and T-Rex, whose late leader, Marc Bolan, inspired the Tender track "Marc." Nevertheless, there's something endearing about Hill's bluster, not to mention his certainty that he's bound for pop-music immortality. Humbly expressed, of course.
"I don't want to come across as a complete jackass for thinking I'm the resurrection of Christ," he says. "I don't at all. I just think that we made a better record than everybody else."
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