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Are You Coming With Us?

"I've just been in the hospital for the last couple of days," confesses Lo-Fidelity Allstars DJ Phil Ward, a.k.a. The Albino Priest. Ward (who like the other members of the group uses a ridiculously elaborate alias) has been recovering from a serious bout of road fatigue.

Speaking in a thick northern British accent, his voice is noticeably tired from a relentless string of concerts and promotional appearances that began late last year. "After five weeks on the road with this last tour, I think my body finally shut down," says Ward.

The group, which includes drummer Johnny "The Slammer" Machin, keyboardist Martin "The Many Tentacles" Whiteman and bassist Andy "The One Man Crowd Called Gentile" Dickinson, has spent several weeks in San Francisco, recuperating from the grinding road swing and demoing tracks for a new album (tentatively scheduled for a March 2000 release). Ward admits that the critical and commercial acceptance of their debut How to Operate With a Blown Mind (featuring the hit single "Battle Flag") has at times been overwhelming.

"It's been amazing so far. We've done a lot of these radio festivals; it's been a hundred percent rock bill apart from us. But the attitude and the energy we put in onstage, I think our approach is just as rock 'n' roll as any guitar band out there."

Despite all outward appearances, the Lo-Fi Allstars are deeply rooted in a rock 'n' roll ethic. Even before forming the group, Ward frequently incorporated the disparate sounds of punk and modern dance music as part of his club sets.

"I used to mix Nirvana's 'Lithium' with Future Sound of London's 'Papua New Guinea.' And the Stooges' 'I Wanna Be Your Dog.' I always used to start the DJ set with that no matter where we played," says Ward.

"Groups like the Stooges and MC5 were a big influence. We've always been into bands with that full-on, in-your-face sort of distortion stuff."

The fact that the Lo-Fi Allstars present a brand of electronic music that's less threatening to the hegemony of guitar-based rock 'n' roll is perhaps one reason for the overwhelmingly favorable critical response the group has generated since landing on American soil earlier this year. Glowing reviews in Spin, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Post and the New York Times have praised the group for its insightful mix of trad-rock and manic funk beats.

"I think it's easier for a pure rock journalist, that is, a journalist who's used to seeing bands--it's a lot easier for him to understand us because we can talk about the use of live drums and live bass and things like that. Somehow I think they're more receptive."

The group's unique mix has brought with it the obvious comparisons to other British alchemists like the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses.

"It's a great compliment because the Mondays and the Roses, especially, changed the way music was written in England at the time," says Ward. "They [Stone Roses] really mixed up dance and rock like nobody had done before and they did it well. I don't think musically we sound anything like them, but it's quite an easy link to make because of the way we mix up styles."

Signed by Britain's Skint Records after just one show, the group released a series of infectious singles before completing How to Operate With a Blown Mind--a genuinely remarkable effort that, in its expansive scope, touches on stylistic elements ranging from Philly soul to acid rock.

Last December, with the album already making an impact in the U.K. and with an American release imminent, lead singer Dave Randall abruptly left the group on the eve of their first major English tour.

"It was a bit of a blow, really. We felt extremely let down," says Ward. "He felt he had to do it, I guess. It seemed like he was never that big a dance-music fan anyway. He tried doing it just as a way to express himself, mainly.

"When we started, the voice was always treated as another sample--it was always there to be distorted and mutated. It was no more important than the rest of the instruments. Toward the end, Dave wanted to do more straight-up vocals, no effects, a singer/songwriter type of thing. And that's not the nature of this band."

While the departure of the lead singer could have been a fatal blow to a conventional group, the very nature of the Lo-Fi Allstars' setup made Randall's exit a temporary setback. "There was never any question that we would go on. We never expected it to carry on at this level. But we always intended to continue."

With Randall gone, Ward was forced to assume vocal duties, a task he was ideally suited for, although not initially comfortable with. "The English tour was one of the hardest things we've ever done in our lives. It was petrifying," says Ward.

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr