Around the L.A. offices of Polygram Records these days, executives are already referring to Saraya as the label's next Bon Jovi. And why not? Like Polygram's most successful act, its newest property is also a young five-piece band from New Jersey that produces catchy, hook-laden hard rock songs capable of crossing over to the Top 40 charts with ease. And like Bon Jovi, Saraya is fronted by--and named after--a lead singer with considerable sex appeal.
This one, however, is even prettier than Jon Bon Jovi.
Sandi Saraya, a small, raven-haired Jersey girl from a tiny town called Bogota, is a former high school choirgirl who learned the basics of vocal control and harmony before roughing up the edges singing rock 'n' roll. Saraya may be able to rock the house with the best of 'em, but she's also got something Melissa Etheridge and Natalie Merchant don't. She's got the look.
"A lot of people really feel that she is going to be the sex item, like a Pat Benatar," predicts Calvin Lew, Polygram's director of album rock promotions. "And that's something that'll surely help this band become big."
Record buyers won't be bowled over immediately by Sandi's looks, though. The album jacket for the band's self-titled debut release actually downplays her cutie-pie quotient: It features only two darkly lit photos of the singer surrounded--and shadowed--by her bandmates. "Even the video [for Saraya's first single, "Love Has Taken Its Toll"] isn't what I'd call overly sexy," Lew adds. "I don't think it goes out of its way to portray her as a sex goddess. You know, she doesn't dress provocatively."
All of this is, surprisingly, in accordance with Polygram's plans. Although Sandi Saraya's palpable sex appeal is, Lew admits, this band's secret weapon, the label doesn't want to deploy it right away. "We really don't want to push that too much at the beginning," he says. "Because any time you give someone that flamboyant image at the outset, there's a tendency that's all people will focus on. We want to establish this group strictly as a good rock band first without giving her that extra image thing. Which is what we did with Bon Jovi. We never really tried to establish Jon as a sex item. That just came gradually with the exposure."
There's also the concern that too much initial attention on Sandi might give the rising star a premature case of ego-itis and generate friction among the other, spotlight-shunned members of the band. To that end, Polygram has sent the band out on a long, grueling national club tour sure to keep them all humble. So far, it's working like a charm.
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In Tempe, where pre-day sales for their After The Gold Rush appearance last Sunday amounted to a paltry 21 tickets, the band members were initially turned away at the club's door because they weren't wearing collared shirts. In Seattle, they arrived at the club where they were scheduled to play only to find out the gig had been moved to another venue--an "old man's" gin mill with a faulty P.A. system and a stage the size of a dining table.
But perhaps the surest hedge against Sandi Saraya transforming too soon into a prima donna sex goddess are the guys in her own band. She may be rock 'n' roll's next beauty queen to record industry insiders. But to her four rowdy, raunchy musician pals, she's just one of the boys. The one who doesn't move her own equipment.
EATING WITH HER BAND at a Tempe Carrows restaurant just two hours before showtime, Sandi Saraya fearlessly endangers the hips a major record label is banking on to torment 18- to 24-year-old males everywhere. Her hearty dinner consists of a cheeseburger, fries, a chocolate milkshake and a sampling of quesadillas and nachos snatched from the appetizer plates delivered earlier. When a guest remarks that Saraya displays quite a voracious appetite for one so thin, she suddenly becomes self-conscious and pushes her half-finished burger aside. The gentlemen comprising her band, meanwhile, each rush gallantly to her defense.
"Sure, she looks thin," offers guitarist Tony Rey. "But she's really a whale. Under those pants, she's actually wearing heavy rubber shrink-wrap."
"She'll undo that top button and explode!" adds keyboardist Gregg Munier.
Drummer Chuck Bonfante joins in the festivities. "No kidding, she'll be all over the room!" he says, laughing fitfully.
Bass player Gary "Skid" Taylor, the wildest member of this decidedly wild bunch, grabs the punch line. "Like an airbag in a new car!" he hoots in a voice somewhere between Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man and Welcome Back, Kotter's Arnold Horshack.
By now, the boys in the band are hysterical--and the object of their jokes is laughing harder than any of them. Earlier, cornered in her private "non-smoking" section of the band's tour bus, Saraya stressed that her situation is "nothing like your average `star' chick singer and her anonymous back-up band. Nobody treats me with kid gloves. I have to take as much shit as any of them!"
Now, surrounded by four shaggy-haired rockers with a marked propensity for cracking lewd jokes and belching on command, it's clear she speaks the truth.
"She's great to work with," says Rey, lapsing into a momentary touch of chivalry. "She doesn't expect any special treatment because she's a girl. Except when it comes to carrying her suitcases." The tall blonde guitarist laughs at the thought of the nightly throng of would-be male groupies rushing to Saraya's assistance. "There's always some sap who gets stuck with those!"
Perhaps befitting Saraya's status as the sole woman in the band, the singer often acts as a kind of socially correct school marm to her sophomoric crew, registering outrage at their explicit tales of groupie conquests, groaning in response to their grossest gross-out jokes, at one point even calming things down enough to conduct a decent interview.
In that fleeting moment of repose, Saraya speaks lovingly of her family ("My dad used to tape Beatles songs for me when I was three. They were always so supportive of my musical ambitions") and waxes modest on her singing style ("I'll never have the technique of a Pat Benatar or Ann Wilson. All I can say for myself is I feel every note in my bones when I sing").
GIVEN THE GROUP'S fondness for frivolity, it's a wonder how the bunch ever settled down long enough to write the eleven well-crafted rock ditties on its debut album. It was the songwriting skills of Saraya and Munier, after all, that got the singer and keyboard whiz signed to their record deal after a Polygram V.P. discovered them playing original songs in an earlier Jersey bar band called Alsace Lorraine. Now, with the addition of Rey, Taylor, and Bonfante, songwriting chores are distributed throughout the band. But how does this crew get serious enough to put a few well-chosen words and notes down on paper? Alas, we may never know.
"There has to be a death in the family," Rey cracks without missing a beat.
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"Or impotence," tops Taylor.
Sandi Saraya just shakes her long black bangs and smiles with embarrassment at her guest.
"You guuyys . . . " she moans wearily.
"A lot of people really feel that she is going to be the sex item, like a Pat Benatar. And that's something that'll surely help this band become big."
Eating at a Tempe Carrows restaurant before showtime, Sandi Saraya fearlessly endangers the hips a major record label is banking on.