On a Saturday night in mid-July, the Paper Heart is in a groovy time warp. Tonight is the second evening of a special two-day celebration of Russ Meyer's 1970 cult classic movie Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which chronicles the chaotic rise and fall of a fictional female rock band in psychedelic 1960s Los Angeles.
After the movie, a new local band called The Love Me Nots is supposed to take the stage. The audience looks promising until promoters mention an after-party with the film's stars at a downtown hotel. The announcement clears out a huge chunk of the crowd.
Even if people hadn't known there was a band playing tonight, they've noticed the two hot chicks with bouffants in black-and-white dresses and go-go boots. The women singer and organ keyboardist Nicole (just "Nicole," as in just Cher or just Madonna) and bassist Christina Nuñez comprise the estro-half of The Love Me Nots, and they're the most authentic-looking people at this psychedelic-era event. Amazingly, more than a few people have mistaken the twentysomething women as stars of the 36-year-old film.
The Love Me Nots
Scheduled to perform on Thursday, August 24
By the time the band starts setting up equipment onstage, there are only about 30 people left in the audience.
"Hello, everyone, we're The Love Me Nots," Nicole announces from the stage. "And this is our first Phoenix show. Sort of."
The band played its first-ever show at the Surly Wench in Tucson the previous night.
The Love Me Nots launch into the first song of the set, "Move In Tight," with Nicole pounding away at her keyboard and Nuñez coolly stomping around the stage in her boot heels. Drummer Jay Lien looks like a punk rock Muppet behind his glittery blue drum set; his curly, disheveled black hair flops around his face while he bounces in his drum seat like a rubber ball on a paddle. Guitarist Michael Johnny Walker, a strapping 6'1" six-string slinger with a taste for vintage guitars, leans into every solo with passion.
After the song, someone in the small crowd enthusiastically screams out, "YEAH!"
Nicole leans into the microphone and responds with a sexy, husky, "Yeah . . . fuck yeah . . . ," which produces an aroused silence from the audience.
Band members and critics have alternately described The Love Me Nots' tunes as "spy mod go-go," "psychedelic surf fuzz," "garage rock," and various hyphenations thereof. Whatever you want to call it, the band's music is fun and fast most songs clock in at around three minutes, and taken as a whole, the group's set is much like a 30-minute magic carpet ride through the hipper-than-hippie '60s, with listeners flying over New York on colorful polka dots alongside Nancy Sinatra, instead of over San Francisco on tie-dye with Jerry Garcia.
The songs are short, sweet ditties with as much bop-and-pomp as anything Phil Spector produced in the '60s, but right now, everybody's transfixed on the females onstage. When The Love Me Nots finish their 30-minute set, a handful of guys wrangle their way through the late-night traffic inside the venue to get to the gals and congratulate them on a great set.
At the end of this month, The Love Me Nots will fly to Detroit to record the band's debut CD with renowned producer Jim Diamond, a former bass player for The Dirtbombs who's produced such influential garage revival acts as The White Stripes, The Gore Gore Girls, and The Go. After that, the band plans to shoot its first video with Tim Gassen of Purple Cactus Media, author and producer of The Knights of Fuzz book series and DVDs, which chronicle the garage and psychedelic revival from the early 1980s on. In October, the band will play at Los Angeles' famous "Club Au-Go-Go," the city's longest-running '60s night.
The band's demos are already getting airplay in the U.K., and the group's gained a lot of fans not to mention valuable industry contacts on MySpace.com, a site that's quickly become one of the best marketing tools for indie and unsigned bands in the Digital Age.
The Love Me Nots might be on the verge of a breakout. Or a breakup. The truth is, nobody knows what's really going to happen. After all, this band was just supposed to be a "side project."
As of this writing, The Love Me Nots have been together for barely four months. But all four members of the band have histories in the local music scene. Together, they've clocked in several hundred hours on local stages.
Nicole's first foray into the local rock scene was as the singer and keyboardist in the '80s-sounding mod rock group Blue Fur (currently on hiatus), a band known for playing massive amounts of gigs sometimes more than one a day. "We'd basically play anywhere, anytime, for free," Nicole says.
Jay Lien and Michael Johnny Walker are both members of The Sonic Thrills, a band that's shared the stage with a slew of punk rock luminaries, including the MC5 and X.
The Love Me Nots are current band number three for Lien; in addition to pounding skins for The Sonic Thrills, he also drums for rock/punk/metal band The White Demons.
Christina Nuñez's "other" group is The MadCaPs, a "spy go-go jazz band" best known for playing in the back of a moving truck during First Friday Artwalks, and for crashing a Beck and Flaming Lips concert at Gammage Auditorium in 2002, drawing a massive crowd including the Flaming Lips when they set up and started playing by the exit after the show.
For all of their experience, none of The Love Me Nots has ever been able to quit his or her job for music. Walker works as a graphic artist at the Arizona Republic. Nuñez bartends at The Rogue. Nicole doesn't want her last name or her profession revealed (for very good reason). Lien helps his wife Carrie run the two vintage clothing stores she owns in Brooklyn called Beacon's Closet. But while it might be easy to take off from a job and tour the world, Lien also has a two-month-old son at home and doesn't want to be away from him for long stretches of time.
Before they became half of the band, Walker and Nicole bonded over his old record collection and started writing songs together. Then they started dating, and eventually moved in together. They estimate they've been a couple for eight or nine months, and they'd already written most of the basic tracks together that would become The Love Me Nots' repertoire when they started looking for a rhythm section.
Their first choices were Lien and Nuñez, but at first they didn't think their dream team was going to come through. Nuñez said she wasn't sure if she had time for another band, but Nicole assured her it was just a side thing and wouldn't take up much of her time. Walker said the same thing to Lien, who initially didn't want to commit to the project at all. "I didn't think we were going to play out or anything," Lien says. "I didn't want it to be a thing like with my other bands, where I have to come out and play. Michael fucking duped me."
"Yeah, I thought [The Love Me Nots] would be a band that practiced, like, once every six months and do a show here and there," Nuñez says.
But the first rehearsal surprised everyone.
"The first fucking practice, it was like, 'Whoa! We don't have to jam, we don't have to figure things out,' it was just immediate," Nñez says. "I've never had that happen. I've never showed up to meet people and jam with them, and had that. We had a whole fucking set the first practice."
"It fits easily," Nicole says. "So we're gonna work it, and we're gonna see where it goes."
In addition to playing retro-sounding tunes, The Love Me Nots also have a calculated '60s go-go image, something far removed from today's "shoegazer" trend, which the members discuss between songs at rehearsal one night. The band's look has gotten it more attention than its songs, but at least its image fits its sound.
"We're just trying to get a cool look together, because I think a lot of bands over the past 20 years or so have forgotten that it's still show business," Walker says. "We were just trying to come up with something that looked appealing onstage, instead of just four people up there."
"You need to have a signature look, where you think of a band in your head and you see that, you get a visual component," Nuñez adds.
Walker and Nicole drew up three sketches for dresses, all with the black-and-white mod motif The Love Me Nots use. Then they had the dresses custom-made (Nicole's mom made hers), and started hunting for black and white go-go boots. Nuñez had a hard time finding go-go boots for her size 5 1/2 feet, but eventually nabbed a couple pairs on the Internet. The guys already had plenty of black and white clothing, so the band's color scheme wasn't a stretch for them.
When it comes to their sound, The Love Me Nots fit into the broad category of "garage rock." The genre, often characterized by primitive recording, fuzzy guitar, reverb effects, and spacy organ keyboards, enjoyed its first big wave of success during the years 1963 to 1967, when several garage bands had national hits, including The Count 5 ("Psychotic Reaction"), The Seeds ("Pushin' Too Hard"), and The Standells ("Dirty Water").
By 1970, the genre seemed to have died out entirely, only to be revived and mixed with punk in the mid-'70s by bands like The Dictators and The Fleshtones. In the 1980s, bands such as The Chesterfield Kings and The Fuzztones revived the spirit of '60s garage rock, but the genre is experiencing perhaps its biggest revival yet right now, with bands like The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Vines, and The Hives getting heavy radio airplay and selling millions of records.
The Love Me Nots are attempting to recapture the sound and style of the original '60s garage rock wave. Walker plays a Mosrite-Ventures guitar and keeps an army of fuzz pedals at his feet, alternately playing through a '65 Super Reverb issue amplifier and a blond Fender Twin Reverb amp. Nicole plays an old Farfisa keyboard, a signature sound of the '60s psychedelic garage scene, popularized in songs like "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians, and "House of the Rising Sun" by The Animals. She sings through a boxy, vintage Shure 55 microphone and tries to mold her singing to a '60s style.
"I'm trying to develop a more blasé, tougher, devil-may-care sound in this band," Nicole says. "More like you'd get in a slinky James Bond theme from the '60s."
On a humid, clear Wednesday night in the historic Encanto district downtown, The Love Me Nots are practicing in a small backyard guest house that's been converted into a rehearsal space/studio. The group's barely two songs in, and they've already broken a sweat.
Some of the songs the band is rehearsing, like "Keep Talking" and "Move In Tight," sound totally vintage, with stomping, start-and-stop rhythms, fuzzy guitar, and the ethereal strains of the Farfisa organ. Other tunes, like "Heart on a Chain," have more of a punk feel, with hard-driving rhythms and fiery six-string solos, while others dabble in blues ("Broken") and goth ("Cry"). But inside every song is a retro soul. And maybe some booze.
Nicole is steadily sipping shots of tequila throughout rehearsal. The shots don't get her noticeably drunk, but they do lend a scratchy quality to her voice, which comes in handy. "This is my Janis Joplin tribute," she says, before the band begins to play "Broken." This song sounds very different from the rest of The Love Me Nots' repertoire it's very slow and "shuckling" (as Joplin might have said), and features a soulful guitar solo from Walker.
The band kicks the energy back up for "Heart on a Chain," a song that Nicole says is also known as "Jay's Antics Song." That's because throughout the song, Lien is twirling his drumsticks, popping up out of his seat, and making googly-eyed, puffy-fish faces at his bandmates.
The whole band is clearly having fun. Walker sticks out his tongue during a solo, Nuñez bounces around and makes faces at Lien, and everybody smiles at each other. This is the group's final rehearsal before heading to Flagstaff for a show at the Monte Vista on August 11, and for now The Love Me Nots don't have the pressure of a record label's expectations or a jam-packed tour itinerary. Yet.
On July 8, almost two weeks before The Love Me Nots played their very first show at the Surly Wench, the band's songs got airplay for the first time, on a free-form college radio station in Reading, England, called Blast 1386.
The first song to air was "Keep Talking," followed by this declaration from DJ Mark Watkins: "That's a track called 'Keep Talking' by a band called The Love Me Nots . . . just remember you heard it here first. And they hail from Phoenix in Arizona. That's a new sound that's coming out of that city in America."
Watkins' show, "The Mark Watkins Music Show," only airs over a 10-mile radius in Reading and the Thames Valley, but it also streams online at www.blast1386.com. While scouring the Internet for new, unsigned bands to play on his show, Watkins landed on The Love Me Nots' MySpace page (www.myspace.com/luvmenots) and listened to the songs the band had posted, all of which were very rough demos with less-than-impressive sound quality, recorded in a garage at the band's third rehearsal.
"I loved their unique, fuzzy sound and their enthusiasm," Watkins says. "Yes, their cool image helped, too, but the substance is there, and that's important."
So Watkins contacted Nicole and she sent some MP3s for him to play. Watkins has played The Love Me Nots' songs on his show several times since then, sandwiched between songs by artists like The Beach Boys and Suzi Quatro. He also aired an interview with the band on August 12. Watkins says "the response so far has been good" to The Love Me Nots' songs, and he says the band could make inroads in the U.K. if it got some U.K. gigs together.
"I'm positive they would very quickly build up a following here, leading to bigger and better things," Watkins says.
As if having songs from their third rehearsal played on the radio in the U.K. wasn't weird enough, The Love Me Nots managed to grab the attention of figures in the national garage scene almost overnight, including Dan Electro, who booked the band to play in October at Club Au-Go-Go, "a monthly sixties sound experience" that's been held at The M Bar on Vine Street in Los Angeles for more than five years. Electro says he chose The Love Me Nots because "I know they can rock, and half the band is pretty hot."
And then there are the songs: quick and catchy, just the way producer Jim Diamond likes them. "I like pretty simple songs that are about three minutes long," Diamond says. "They get right to the point. I liked their stuff it had kind of a surfy, twangy feel, and guitars and drums you can't beat it."
Tim Gassen, who's been in the underground garage scene for the past 25 years as a singer and producer (Purple Merkins, Marshmallow Overcoat), columnist (Magnet), and video director (The Fuzztones, The Cynics, The Woggles), is considered an authority on the national garage scene, and he speaks with unfettered excitement about the band. Gassen, who lives in Tucson, went to The Love Me Nots' first show after the band contacted him via MySpace.
"They were really, really, really good, especially for such a young band. They've only been together for a little while I think they said they'd only had about a dozen rehearsals and they came down here for their first show, and absolutely blew me away," Gassen says. "I have seen maybe 10,000 bands play in my life . . . I have seen too much music, and it really is difficult to get me excited about a new band. And these guys and ladies just killed me! Their style, their attitude on stage, the whole presence."
Sometimes, MySpace.com can level the playing field between a band with a ton of experience, money, and a great location, and a band like The Love Me Nots, which started with nothing but a handful of rough demos in a city that's known more for its hot summer days than its hot bands.
The Love Me Nots hooked up with Jim Diamond the same way they connected with Mark Watkins, Dan Electro, and Tim Gassen on MySpace.com. The site (which Rupert Murdoch's News Corp purchased from site founder Tom Anderson for $580 million in July of 2005) reported a membership of 50 million registered users in March of this year, but that number's certainly grown since then, as an average of 4,000 new users sign up on the site every day, making MySpace a huge networking and marketing tool for musicians, who can post their profiles and MP3s for tons of people to see and hear on MySpace Music.
Three artists in particular owe a large part of their success to MySpace: U.K. garage rockers The Arctic Monkeys, U.K. pop star Lily Allen, and U.S. rock band Hawthorne Heights. The latter used MySpace to promote its debut album, and subsequently sold half a million copies of the disc.
In Allen's case, she uploaded some of her songs to her MySpace profile against the wishes of her label, Regal Records and soon, people started e-mailing her songs everywhere, including NME magazine and The Observer, who both did stories on her. Soon after, the demo for Allen's song "LDN" was being played on BBC Radio One, and this past July, Allen's song "Smile" reached No. 1 on the U.K. pop charts, bumping Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie" out of the top spot.
The Arctic Monkeys didn't even know what MySpace was when the band's record became the fastest-selling debut album of all time in England until news stations and publications started asking them about the amount of publicity the band's fan-created MySpace profile had generated. (As of this writing, The Arctic Monkeys' profile showed 68,452 friends and 2.6 million song plays.)
But MySpace alone won't make a band famous, especially considering the amount of artists who now have profiles on the site (about 35 million in 77 genres). The "garage" category, where The Love Me Nots fit, contains more than 36,000 band profiles.
The Love Me Nots have only had a profile on the MySpace site since May 26, but as of August 16, the band had 2,274 people on its Friends list, and 8,722 total song plays. And, of course, MySpace made getting ahold of a producer a lot easier for the band members. They just found Diamond on MySpace, asked him to listen to their songs, and record them. The band will fly to Detroit at the end of August no small feat, considering that both Walker and Nuñez are terrified of flying and record 10 songs with Diamond. In four days.
"I've done a million records in four days," Diamond says. "It's up to the band they've got to be well-rehearsed. Because obviously, in four days, you don't have the luxury of going, 'Oh, let's try another take, but save that one,' and going back three days later to compare the two. You've gotta know your song bang! That's the way I like to do it."
When asked what he sees as the band's strengths, Diamond takes a long pause. "Well . . . they have a great look, which is very, very important these days . . . they've got a mixed group there's women, and there's men and that always helps."
That the group is co-ed seems to be a big selling point for Gassen, too. "The two-girl/two-guy thing is very striking and dramatic," he says.
And as good, striking drama and rock 'n' roll goes, there's the real romance within the group between Walker and Nicole. As for relationship problems interfering with the band, the two say they haven't had an argument yet. "There's been tension here and there, but we don't get mad, we just sit down and talk about it," Walker says.
"And I think the dynamic really depends on your bandmates, too, and how they are with it," Nicole says. "I don't think it's really been problematic yet."
Lien and Nuñez laugh about it. "They were always making out at practice," Lien says.
"Or, like, doing it in the corner," Nuñez jokes.
The Love Me Nots have spent their first few months of existence on a rocket trajectory, with very little down time. The fledgling group's dynamic is like a hot new relationship, where the first few months are full of excitement and expectations for the future. If there's a similar "honeymoon period" for bands, The Love Me Nots are in the midst of theirs. It's especially "honeymoony" for Walker and Nicole, who usually walk with their arms around each other and "have a secret couple language," according to Lien.
But everything isn't exactly roses and wine, either.
"Nobody ever talks to us," Lien says of he and Nuñez, who were not a part of the Blast 1386 radio interview or the interview that led to a story in Flagstaff Live!. In fact, the latter story dubbed Lien "the silent partner" and only mentioned Nuñez once. Walker and Nicole tend to handle all of the band's press, and when Lien and Nuñez tease the couple about their relationship during an interview, Walker calls them "the peanut gallery." On several occasions, Nicole starts talking over Nuñez when she tries to answer a question.
So what's going to happen when the band's stuck in a studio together, working nonstop for days straight, or crammed into a van night after night during a lengthy tour?
"We'll just talk shit. Like any family," Nuñez says.
"I haven't seen any personality conflicts here," Lien adds. "We all have the same sensibilities."
But what if they do have a real chance at success? How much energy can the members continue to devote to The Love Me Nots, given that all of them are in other bands?
"This is the question that's gonna make all our bands pissed off at us," Nuñez says into the recorder.
Lien is quick to point out that all of their bands have a lot of fans and the potential to do great things, but nobody objects when Walker says, "We've all been doing this for so long. I think everybody's ready."
"I think if the opportunity presented itself, any one of us would make it happen, however we had to do it," Nicole says. "We'll make stuff happen, just like we've done already."
But Lien and Nuñez are less committal. "It'd be cool to be able to pay my rent and not fucking kiss people's asses at a restaurant all day," Nuñez says. "But even if this does make something crazy huge, we can still do our other bands."
As for what's going to happen once the band finishes recording its debut album, nobody really knows. The plan is to shop the record around at indie labels like Dionysus and Get Hip, both of which have a lot of garage bands on their rosters, as well as some European labels. And they'd like to tour the places in Europe where they have a lot of MySpace fans, like Italy, Greece, Spain, France, and the U.K. What the band doesn't plan to do is play a lot of shows in Phoenix.
"We want to play in Phoenix for good shows and good crowds and make the most of what Phoenix has, but I think what we're doing has a lot of appeal elsewhere," Nicole says.
When jokingly asked if they're going to come back from recording in Detroit and announce that they broke up, nobody laughs.
"We might," Nuñez says. "We started as a side project. We might come back hating each other."
"You never know," Nicole says. "We'll come back and be playing country music."
"We'll come back as a sideshow project," Nuñez says.
Everybody chuckles at this, and the tension is finally broken.
On a mid-August Friday, The Love Me Nots have a gig at the Hotel Monte Vista in Flagstaff. After everybody gets off work, they convene at the band's rehearsal space, load their gear into a rented van, and make the drive to Flagstaff. Once they arrive, they unload everything, grab a quick dinner at a nearby restaurant, and head back to the Monte V.
The group barely has time for a drink before they have to cart their instruments and amps on stage, set them up in seconds, do a super-fast sound check, and play a 45-minute set to a packed house.
The band's a big hit. People crowd in front of the stage, dancing. A blonde woman in a black-and-white polka-dot dress does The Monkey next to a longhaired guy who's doing The Swim. A girl with long, black braids does The Mashed Potato. A goateed guy in a black tee shirt with some skull designs on it pours beer all down the front of his shirt and does a really wobbly version of The Twist. The area in front of the stage and all the way back to the bar is so full of screaming, bouncing people that clearing a path just isn't possible. But somebody does manage to toss a pair of black men's boxer shorts onstage. They land on Nicole's Farfisa.
The glaring stage lights, combined with the body heat of a couple hundred people packed into the venue, create an inferno onstage. The band's stage attire long-sleeve jackets for the guys, thick polyester dresses for the girls doesn't help, and by the time The Love Me Nots finish their set, they're dripping.
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The band hasn't even put down its instruments before the crowd starts screaming for an encore. Some are hollering "One more! One more!" while others are chanting "Love Me Nots! Love Me Nots!"
The audience wants more, but there will be no encore tonight. Not because The Love Me Nots are too tired, but because they've already played all 13 of the songs in their repertoire.
"That's it," Nicole tells the audience. "Thanks for coming out."