It's 9 a.m. on a Saturday, and Danny Wilde is pooped. After all, he's a working musician. He's not usually awake at this hour. Especially on weekends. "Who set this thing up, anyway?" Wilde grumbles good-naturedly about the early-morning interview.
The answer, provided by an equally groggy music writer, is Atco Records. Atco is the aggressive home team for Wilde's latest band, the Rembrandts. The label is helping push the Rembrandts' current tour, which in turn is designed to push the band's most recent disc, the imaginatively titled Untitled.
Such diligent, down n' dirty marketing methods apparently work for a band like the Rembrandts. A similar grassroots campaign two years ago helped lift the Rembrandts' self-titled debut disc to surprising success. The album was released quietly in the fall of 1990 and was subsequently pumped nonstop for a full nine months. The result was a Top 10 summertime single with "Just the Way It Is, Baby," one of the lesser cuts on the album.
Wilde says the folks at the record company "worked their asses off" to promote their brand-new band. "At the time, they were kind of a baby label with a stripped-down staff," Wilde says. "So it was a real feather in their caps to put us over the top on the first album and first song."
The Rembrandts' overnight success caught most power-pop watchers off guard--Wilde included.
"That first record was actually a demo," Wilde says, adding that he and fellow Rembrandt Phil Solem recorded the guitar-driven disc on Wilde's own 16-track home studio. "So here we were with this album," Wilde says, "which we completed for all of $5,000, and months later, 'Just the Way It Is, Baby' comes up a big hit. We were sitting there trying to figure out what was going on."
Wilde and Solem have been trying to figure things out since bumping into each other on the L.A. glitter scene of the mid-'70s. Wilde eventually secured lead-singer duties for a group called the Quick, a trendy, punky, pop-rock outfit that ranks as one of the better West Coast club bands of the period. The Quick was managed by the notorious Kim Fowley, an eccentric media manipulator once dubbed "the king of rock n' roll pimps." Fowley made his reputation as the brains behind countless overhyped, underage bands, most notably the Runaways with Joan Jett.
But Fowley's name was like a sloppy kiss of death among the hipper L.A. elements of the time. It didn't help that the Quick's lone record, 1976's Mondo Deco, was spotty, at best.
"I left the Quick out of complete frustration," Wilde says. "The worst thing was that me and the bass player, Ian Ainsworth, had been writing songs after rehearsals and we had all this really cool stuff ready to go. But the main songwriter in the group wasn't really into it. He didn't want to hear anything we were doing. We realized we were being stifled, so we split."
Wilde and his bassist buddy wound up recruiting Solem and forming Great Buildings, one of a small army of tuneful, L.A. skinny-tie bands of the post-Knack early 80s. Great Buildings survived long enough to release one cool album, 1981's Apart From the Crowd, featuring one very cool single, "Hold On to Something."
"We were in Rolling Stone and we had a great fan base here in L.A.," Wilde recalls, adding that Phoenix and Tucson were also big draws for Great Buildings. But Wilde goes on to say that the band's only album "didn't do very well. And we just got bored of it all after a while. Me and Phil and Ian were like three cooks in the kitchen, all of us writing songs. Phil and I started to form a stronger friendship, and Ian wasn't too happy with that because originally it was our band. So off he went."
Wilde and Solem went "off," as well: Wilde to a solo career and Solem back to civilian life in his native Minnesota. Wilde wound up releasing three mostly mediocre albums, one on Island Records, two on Geffen. He managed to score a Top 10 single with the rather pedestrian "Time Runs Wild," but much of Wilde's solo venture was a no-go.
"To say you had an AOR hit in those days doesn't mean much," Wilde says. "The best thing that really happened from that whole experience was that I met a lot of people who later helped with the Rembrandts." Also helpful was the fact that Wilde and Solem remained friends. The good buddies from Great Buildings kept in touch on a monthly basis, assisting each other on various projects and sending lyrics and ideas back and forth. When Wilde's solo flight stalled in 1989, the singing-songwriting pair got serious about teaming up again.
"At first we weren't sure if it was going to be strictly a writing thing with publishing contracts, or a real performing band," Wilde says. "But after a while, we realized the band idea was the way to go."
Three years and two albums later, Solem still lives in Minneapolis, while Wilde is still thousands of miles away in Los Angeles.
"We've fixed him up with a mirror-image studio of mine," Wilde says of his Midwest band mate. "I'll go back there for a month or so, and then he'll come out here for a month. We also fax stuff all the time. You know, take advantage of all the modern conveniences."
Wilde figures the long-distance tag team works because he and his partner in pop have so much in common--like, for example, oddball musical influences. "Weird stuff," Wilde says, "like Gene Pitney, Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins. And we're both big Brian Eno fans. I can't really explain that one."
Wilde and Solem also share a similar tonal quality in their vocals. The resulting harmonies mesh with a sophisticated pop songcraft to make for tuneful, sharp-cornered songs. Indeed, "Hang On to Forever" and "I'll Come Callin'," from Untitled, and the brilliant "If Not for Misery," off the Rembrandts' debut disc, feature about as finely precisioned a set of hooks and harmonies this side of the Posies and Matthew Sweet.
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But at times, the Rembrandts' considerable pop smarts give way to cutesy pretension. Untitled's "Rollin' Down the Hill" is tripped up by an irritating jumpy-jazz break. And there's an overbearing emphasis on strings littered throughout the new disc. Occasionally, as with the cello accompaniment on "Johnny Have You Seen Her?", the overt orchestration works. Most other times, it doesn't.
But Wilde enthusiastically confirms that a pair of cellists is touring with the band, along with recording regulars Pat Mastelloto (drums), David Zeman (keyboards) and David Sutton (bass). Michael Ramos of the BoDeans is also making the trip as an accordion-keyboard contributor. "We look like Chicago with all these people up there," Wilde laughs.
Accouterments notwithstanding, the Rembrandts' relevance begins and ends with the high vocal harmonies of main members Wilde and Solem. Even the weakest efforts on the Rembrandts' song list come to life when the chorus comes around and the vocals run wild.
"Phil and I have been singing together for so long that there's a magic thing that happens," Wilde says. "I guess that's why we could never really shake loose of each other.