Tsar Power

Tsar: Jeff Whalen exposes his sole.
Ralf Strathman

Because a girl tossed a drink in his face, punched him and left him stranded in Hollywood into the wee hours, Jeff Whalen's first moments on the phone included three rasping, indecipherable attempts at a greeting. But it was noon, and he didn't mention anything about intending to lie in bed all day thinking about some girl. He was, in fact, grateful for the call; the ring woke him up, his day's schedule had a chance.

I could hear Whalen fumbling around his kitchen, going through the necessary steps for coffee. I told him in all honesty that I thought his group's self-titled debut (out in mid-June on Hollywood Records) would prove to be the best record released all year.

"Uh, thanks, man," he croaked. "That's a great way to, uh, umgmm, umgmm, wake up in the morning."

Whalen is the singer/guitarist and main writer for an as-yet-unknown L.A. quartet named Tsar (pronounced Zar). Besides Whalen, there's drummer Steve Coulter, guitarist Daniel Kern and bassist Jeff Soloman. The band formed in 1998, after its members met in college at UC-Santa Barbara, where a few of them were studying to be journalists.

"We figured we'd be writing about music, we had no idea," he says, laughing.

As he gradually comes around, Whalen's sardonic and witty banter casually takes the piss out of everything from Limp Bizkit to his own Christian upbringing in Long Beach (he's revolting against both). He looks for the punch line in everything, like he'd be bored stiff without a gag around every corner. He's like a high school wise-ass saddled with a heady case of attention deficit disorder.

His band is a white-toothed clutter of adolescent exuberance, sexual tension for little girls and well-timed bashfulness. And it's all cleverly applied, like the tear that gets the girl. Wedged cheekbones, unruly hair and swimmers' builds only reinforce Tsar's grip on future rock 'n' roll stardom. There's none of that chest-hair-sprouting braggadocio and tunelessness popular with contemporary hitmakers like Kid Rock who routinely make abominable Great White Hope of Rock 'n' Roll pronouncements.

In 1999, after a string of gigs at Hollywood's Spaceland, Tsar found itself a band with a following. It was also the subject of a bidding war among major labels.

"After four months, we basically started getting offers," Whalen says. "That part of it happened so fast that it almost looked easy."

The record -- produced by Hollywood's senior VP of A&R Rob Cavallo (Green Day, the Muffs, Goo Goo Dolls) -- smoothes the band's obligatory, post-'70s rock irony into a reasonable and discernible singsong context. They aren't too busy lampooning themselves and the linear world floating around them just to show how clever they are or that they are above the brassy histrionics associated with rock 'n' roll.

And as much as Whalen believes in the idea of rock 'n' roll as a life-changer, he's well aware of its absurdity factor.

"I hope we have the right amount of irony. That doesn't mean that we don't believe every word of it. I mean the whole thing [rock 'n' roll] is ridiculous, anyway. You know, "Everybody face us 'cause we're jumping around and playing guitars. This guy over here, he's hitting things with sticks . . .'

"I think the irony of Mick Jagger up there. . . . He might come along and say something really heavy, or might let out a [Whalen imitates a patented, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!-era Jagger howl] or he might just be dancing around. And that's all beautiful rock that comes straight from the heart, and its also com-plete-ly silly at the same time.

"It's awesome."

What makes Tsar great is the group's ability to lure attention without resorting to inflated Kid Rock/Eminem-style tricks, the phony video imaging, PR tidbits and marketing devices used to create an "aura." Tsar's aura is innate -- that sociopathy, that abstract thing that can't be simulated or attached by some retailing scheme. When you see Tsar live, you sense it. When you listen to the record, you hear it.

Tsar songs clamor, twist and shout, exhibiting all the qualities that gave Sweet, Redd Kross, the Records and the Dave Clark Five some of the best seven-inch moments in rock 'n' roll history. The best songs of this album -- "Calling All Destroyers," "Silver Shifter," "Teen Wizard," "Ordinary Girl" and "Monostereo" -- revolve around a sugary good nature that gives way to a sex-drugs-rock-'n'-roll anthem machine at the precise moment you thought the song would go the way of the Knack's midriffs.

With rare exception, history has taught us that mining old Beatle/power-pop mother lodes begets dismal sales returns (remember Jellyfish, Tommy Keane, Shoes, or the Beat, anyone?).

Whalen prefers words like "timeless" to "back-dated" when describing Tsar's sound.

Tsar in many ways is aligned with glam -- albeit glam in the true Mott/Sweet/Ziggy sense, not the distressing Sunset Strip/"Guns" sense. Anyway, glam as an adjective leaves a vow of box office poison every time.

Since the record isn't out yet, the band has yet to see the inside of punk club staples like CBGB, much less that horrible continent called the Midwest, where mass-produced record-buying teens abide by the millions. In a sound world, a rock 'n' roll band as estimable as Tsar would break and give the kids an alternative to what Whalen describes as the "Woodstock frat-riot kind of vibe" of the moment.

Yet Whalen is convinced that the Tsar record will be huge, and why shouldn't he?

"I have no intention to go back and live in my parents' garage. When the record comes out, either the joy or the pain is brought to light."

Tsar's first big show in front of shrieking girls came recently in Stockton, California. Whalen understands that rock 'n' roll careers hinge on the understanding of little girls. And he knows how addictive it is.

"The Stockton girls were under the impression that we play for 3,000 people all the time," he says, laughing. "And we let them think that. We walk out and act like, 'Oh, here's another night where we play in front of a bunch of people.' And inside our hearts are going dum-dum dum-dum dum-dum dum-dum dum. It was insane; we had never done it before. When the house lights went down, it was ahhhhhhhhhhh [simulates the sound of shrieking throngs]. And we walk out. 'Yeah, here we are . . .' We couldn't let them know that we had never done anything remotely like that before.

"And the girls, it's like a different planet when they think you are like that. A girl might think you're cool, but if you're a rocker that everybody likes, it's a completely different world."

Whalen and Tsar are flesh-and-bone proof that the rhetoric of rock 'n' roll mythology is purely founded and spurned by a longing for chicks. He claims he doesn't understand why girls are so attracted to rock 'n' roll, and he often resorts to the old Stones "Stupid Girl" aphorisms when trying to define the whole girl thing.

"And I don't want to offend you, and I hope I don't, but girls are, you know, not so bright, really. They don't have a real developed sense of humor. And they have pretty bad taste in music, quite frankly. They like some skinny guy that maybe the wind could blow him over but who's like screamin' anyway and really mad, and seems like some kind of master of the universe in his own weird way.

"Obviously, it's all about the girls. Unfortunately, I am the only one out of the band that's single. The others have got girlfriends. I'm going like, "C'mon, you guys, c'mon, we're a rock band! We'll have some sluts! Don't you want to do this right?'"

If Whalen sounds all cock-rock, he's really not; he's just recently acquainted himself with the lingo of the patriarchal rock star -- the language of the records he grew up on. So, at worst, he's a bit clumsy. But underneath he's mindful of who shines the star booty.

On the other end of the line, I can hear Whalen take sips from a cup of coffee. For a guy who seems to have something to crow about, he's surprisingly hushed. It's like the whole girl thing ultimately has him stumped.

In a reflective tone, he breaks his momentary silence. "I don't know anything about girls, man. I'm the last guy who should be going on about 'em."

Tsar is scheduled to perform at 10 p.m. sharp on Saturday, May 27, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Headlining the show will be Big Shot Allstars.

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