There's an old deejay friend of mine whose favorite saying is, "If it sells, it smells." Hypocritical theory or not, I can still appreciate the underlying psychology because everybody digs an underdog, right? We cheer for the struggling artist who has to wait tables and pawn his record collection because it just seems so, so romantic, so work-ethic, so dues-paying. We sneer at those who enjoy commercial success because, well, maybe we're jealous.
These thoughts and more are on my mind when I catch up via telephone with Gerald Collier, lead singer and songwriter for former Phoenicians Best Kissers in the World, a band that's seemingly made an effortless jump from indie garagedom to major-label verge-of-stardom. Currently touring with School of Fish in support of their MCA debut, Puddin', the Kissers are enjoying steady sales and college-radio airplay, primarily for the minialbum's lead track and first single, "Pickin' Flowers For."
"Listen, we've had a really easy ride," confesses Collier. "I feel really lucky. I've got a low threshold of pain, lemme tell ya! I couldn't have dealt with some of the things other bands go through! We certainly weren't born with gold spoons in our mouths, but we have been lucky and in more than a few right places at the right times."
Collier makes no apologies for his band's popularity. He's not unappreciative of the support he's gotten from friends, fans, record companies and radio, but he maintains that the Best Kissers have the musical goods, as well.
It all started seven years ago in Phoenix. Collier had gotten his degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and, like most college graduates these days, found no career work after tacking up his diploma. Sizing up the record- and music-store prospects around town, he reckoned that playing in a loud, punkish rock band might be a more attractive and prudent use of his education. Not to mention a means of escaping another sweltering, 110-degree Phoenix summer. (Summer was coming around and we went, 'Man, we gotta get out of here!'") To make a long story short, the Best Kissers booked a tour, took a gander at Seattle, and decided to stay. You're no doubt thinking, "Where's the easy ride in this story?" Ah, but consider the Best Kissers' timing: In 87, Seattle was no media magnet, no gold rush of bands, no Cameron Crowe/Matt Dillon film site, no thrift-store fashion shoot. Collier recalls the period as being one of fine-tuning his band in a casual and creative atmosphere.
"At the time, there wasn't any real competition to speak of," he says. "Now, I wouldn't want to be a new band starting out, there's too many. Unfortunately, human beings have this innate requirement to ruin a place once it gets popular."
By 1991, the word on a "Seattle sound" was leaking out. By then, too, the Best Kissers had undergone several lineup changes as well as having perfected a high-energy, chunky guitar-pop sound that was neither grungy nor hirsute. Positive press, sales and airplay accompanied a self-titled, five-song Sub Pop EP (ditto a pair of subsequent singles: "Take Me Home" b/w "Start All Over," for Seattle's Lucky Records; and "Broke My Knee" b/w "Split in Two," for Minneapolis' Crackpot Records). This coincided with the major-label A&R invasion of Seattle. MCA wound up snagging the Best Kissers.
"A lot of people wanted to give us money," Collier says. "Again, looking back, I don't think anyone could possibly have had an easier time of it."
There's a twist in here: MCA didn't get a Pearl Jam, a Soundgarden or a Mudhoney. And definitely not a Nirvana--although Collier says he's considering sending a large bouquet to Kurt Cobain because "two years ago, something like what we've put out couldn't have possibly enjoyed success."
What MCA did get for its money is a band that's right on the tip of what some observers are calling the next big wave. The band's music is unlabeled, but for lack of a better pigeonhole, I'll use the unwieldy phrase "raw-yet-not-grungy power pop with an attitude." The Replacements once excelled at it, but they're dusty bones now. Soul Asylum probably fit the bill as elder statesmen and are a good reference point. The Goo Goo Dolls do it wonderfully and have plenty of snot to spare. The Best Kissers sing about girls, girls, the occasional hangover and more girls (Melanie," "Workin' on Donita"). They dive headlong into their songs with six strings a-blazin', but never forget to come up with a killer melodic hook, both on the verse and on the frequently anthemic chorus. (Check out "Pickin' Flowers For": It's got as much classic pop style as it does modern teen spirit.) They even tweak the odd influence from time to time, such as the Yardbirds-style rave-up at the beginning of "Laughable." Overall, it comes off as a cross between the Plimsouls and Cheap Trick.
Most important, the Best Kissers have that rare crossover capacity, due in part to Collier's natural front-man confidence and charisma. Perhaps that's why it's been easy for him and his partners.
"We even went on a Social Distortion tour last year, hitting close to 3,000 people," says Collier, continuing with a laugh, "and if there was ever a mismatch, I would have thought that would be it, but it worked. It got pretty wild.
"I always know when we're playing really well," he says. "If people are still standing there, I look around at Stoney [Jeff Stone], our guitar player, and Dave [Swafford], our bass player, and then around to Tim [Arnold], the drummer--and if they're shaking their heads like, 'This audience is fucked, let's get 'em!', then the pedal goes down and we start on a glide. We're able to pull anything out of the bag, from a George Jones song to 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' to whatever. We just go for it!"
Collier adds that they've won over audiences on practically every stop, citing crowds in New York, Boston, St. Louis and Chicago as going "completely nuts for us." Even when they screw up, their halos remain untarnished, compared to what some bands go through.
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"Oh, man, I pulled the most asinine stunt I've ever pulled in my life [at Los Angeles' Whiskey A-Go-Go this past February]," Collier mock-moans. "I started drinking at two in the afternoon and just never really stopped. I forgot all the words, forgot how to play. The shittiest show of my life was in front of the president of MCA." With Phoenix days a relative footnote for the Best Kissers, and Seattle a mere home base (as opposed to a stylistic reference point), Collier's ready to conquer the world. And in truth, the combination of the band's commercial instincts and MCA's determined support makes for a good bet.
After the current tour is over, the Best Kissers start preproduction on their first long-player. In May, they head to Vermont to record with producer John Hanlin. Collier says they plan to shake up arrangements a bit, go for a "looser, let-it-roll, rough n' tumble kind of feel" and let their gut feelings for solid pop craft be their co-pilot.
"[Our music] is reflective of the band and how the band feels. We have an idea of how we want to be perceived and where we want to go, and we're not shooting any shit or trying to be fake about it," Collier says. "So far, MCA's into it. They've been supportive of us, so we're trying to work with them any way we can. And hopefully we'll all get paid! That might be a little naive, but I'd like to believe it--we'll see what happens.