Popsicle in the Desert
You can almost see the headline splashed across music-industry tabloids: "Phoenix Declared Power-Pop Capital of the World!"
Give it another year. It's only a matter of time before the former "Desert Jangle Rock Capital" sports its new title courtesy of terminally stunted A&R honchos eager to strip-mine the Valley for bands that get a hard-on stomping their fuzz boxes into overdrive. All that gets left out of this scenario is reality, the reality of a musical climate diverse enough to support everything from country-western to hip-hop.
Still, the Valley music scene has produced some fine bands that don't fit neatly into the categories of funk or bar rock--two classifications overrepresented in Phoenix. Call artists like Beat Angels, Lazy Jade, The Jennys, 9 Volt and Gloritone postpunk or power pop; the label's not so important and, anyway, there'll be a new buzz word next week further subdividing genres until only the hippest of the hip (read: somebody with more piercings and free time than you) can decipher the code.
It's the sound that matters, and the sound is loud, melodic guitars with big, catchy hooks and vocal harmonies. "Power pop" isn't as fuzzy a term as the meaningless "alternative," but fuzzy enough. Need an image to clear away the fuzz? Think about cranking Cheap Trick or early Nick Lowe while simultaneously running a blender in the kitchen. Harnessing the energy of punk without all the snarl and rough edges--at least compared to the Sex Pistols--power pop's chunky chords give air guitarists plenty to toss around after the beer kicks in.
It was groups like the Ramones, Buzzcocks and HYsker DY that blazed a path for the Superchunk generation. Locally, it's Gloritone whose uncluttered approach to songwriting is currently scoring nationwide radio play thanks to "Halfway," the single from the trio's strong debut Cup Runneth Over (RCA/Kneeling Elephant). Produced by Brad Cook, who has engineered for the Foo Fighters and, alas, Counting Crows, the debut showcases guitarist/lead vocalist Tim Anthonise's straightahead fretwork as well as the bash 'n' crash of drummer Dan Lancelot and bassist Nick Scropos. The CD reveals the band's desire to explore pop's sugary center as well as the music's bittersweet fringes.
"It is what it is," Anthonise says of his sound. "There's definitely a lot of punk influence, but then there's country influence, too. Patsy Cline to Bob Mould, we let it flow. That's what got us the record deal."
That and some hard work. Since January, according to Anthonise, the trio's logged 20,000 miles touring to get its name out before the June 30 national release of Cup Runneth Over (the recording hit Phoenix stores in mid-May). But maybe the key to Gloritone's budding buzz is simply being in the right place at the right time.
"The luck is amazing in this band," Anthonise admits readily. "A lot of luck is involved and a lot of people. There's a million great bands, but you have to have a hundred great people working with you to get off the ground. There's so many people who work with our band, it's amazing. They're all crucial."
On a big label, Anthonise claims, if all these other people aren't committed to your record, it languishes. Though Gloritone signed to RCA, the staff directly involved with promoting the band is from the smaller, fledgling Los Angeles outfit Kneeling Elephant.
So far Anthonise is happy with RCA's enthusiasm, but Gloritone's front man knows "tons of good friends" who have experienced the major-label run-around: "It's so common to not have your album released, or just get dropped. It's a standard part of the industry. Labels will sign way too many acts and they'll just put a single out with no tour money or support. They see whatever sticks against the wall, then drop all their other acts and take off with the one that got it."
This scattershot approach is analogous to giving several directors the green light to make their movies, hiring all the actors and even building the sets, only to have the studio get cold feet and scrap all but one project at the last minute. Something that happens in Hollywood all the time.
"Art is a tough racket," Anthonise says. So tough, in fact, that he says Valley bands are smart to launch their careers here rather than in one of the big cities on the coasts. "Arizona's a great place to start a band," the singer says, careful to emphasize the word "start."
"You can live here cheap, there's lots of places to practice and play. It's a really easy scene to get into. Plus, the heat makes you stay in your room and write songs. People who move to New York and L.A. are asking for trouble."
Then again, people in New York or L.A. are closer to recording-industry hubs. Might they not be noticed sooner than a three-piece toiling under the Sonoran sun? Anthonise doesn't recant what he's said about Phoenix, but he does admit: "There's a lot of great bands in this town that should have been signed a long time ago."
As though bolstering his assertions about both his luck and about Phoenix being the cradle for so much good music, Anthonise confesses that Gloritone got signed to its label after only headlining a handful of times. Even some of those shows attracted only a few dozen fans. Mostly they've opened for others, albeit others with names like the Dandy Warhols, Swervedriver and Foo Fighters, all of whom Anthonise says helped build Gloritone's following since its inception in September of 1996.
Before that, Gloritone's members honed their skills in several Valley acts, including Dish, Soul Mines and the Hatfields. "Nick played with Rain Convention for a long time," recalls Anthonise. "Dan used to play with Instant Karma which used to be Dead Hot Workshop. Buddy Edwards from the Refreshments used to be me and Dan's bass player. The local scene's kind of incestuous."
What brought Gloritone together, says Anthonise, was his desire for more control over the music he wrote. "I wrote a lot of the songs in the bands I was in, but there was always another guy that sang. I was never comfortable enough [with singing] and at the time I was just into playing guitar. Ultimately, writing my own songs for so long--writing all the melodies and lyrics--it just didn't sound correct to me [when someone else sang them]. After a while I wanted to do it myself. It's more satisfying to write, then sing and deliver the song. It sounds right."
Anthonise says Gloritone's secret is keeping its sound basic. In the past, his lyrics were sometimes forced, laid on top of music in a way he now finds artificial. This time around, only the songs Anthonise could sing and play at the same time with ease made it onto the record. "It's extremely simple material," he says of the debut. "It seems like the closer you get to that simplistic [ideal], the more the music flows."
Gloritone's other major strategy change involves how they approach the entire project of making music. "When we put this band together, we did it strictly for fun," Anthonise says. "In all our other bands, we worked our asses off to get a record deal, like that was the pinnacle thing you could do. You know, putting up fliers everywhere, telling everybody about our shows, giving away free tickets, distributing CDs. It got us nowhere and made us feel uncomfortable all the time. It seems like the easier we go with stuff now, the more things happen for the better."
This Zenlike, do-less/get-more philosophy will prove harder to maintain if Gloritone rises to national prominence, which seems more and more likely based on the early response for "Halfway." For now, the band's doing what it wants. So far nobody's anointed Gloritone the kings of Southwestern power pop.
But watch out: The A&R herd is coming. The same kind of people who pushed the lie about Phoenix being "the Best Run City in the World" will be back with more signs, more lies, this time wanting to sell us ear candy under a brand name they created.
Tell them thanks, but we're still digesting our jangle pop.
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