The early winter air is crisp, but Robin Wilson is looking for a spot in the sun. Settling down on a bench, clutching a cigarette and coffee mug in one hand and a cell phone in the other, he's about to hold court in front of his Tempe Mayberry recording studio.
Unshaven and wearing a tattered sweater held together at the shoulder by a strategically placed safety pin, the former Gin Blossom and current Gas Giants main man has the disheveled look of "Blank Generation" spokesman Richard Hell. But Wilson is the furthest thing from a punk nihilist. Especially on this day, with all thoughts focused on his latest project, a concept album he hopes will one day immortalize him and his buddies as cartoon characters.
Set for release this week on his own Uranus Laboratories label, The Poppin' Wheelies is, in Wilson's words, the "soundtrack to a proposed animated series about a rock 'n' roll band in outer space." He's not kidding. With the help of his wife, Gena Rositano (a Saturday Night Live staffer who commutes between the Valley and New York City), he's penned a pilot script and fleshed out the characters -- many of whom will look very familiar to anyone who's spent time on the local music scene.
For Wilson, an avid collector of action figures, lunchboxes and other pop-culture fetish items, the project is a natural. "It combines rock 'n' roll, sci-fi/fantasy, comic books, animation -- everything I love," he says.
The singer was on tour with the Blossoms in 1995 when the inspiration for the Poppin' Wheelies first came, but his love affair with Saturday morning rock 'n' roll has been a lifelong romance. "When I was five years old, my favorite song was the theme to The Banana Splits," Wilson says, citing the psychedelic kiddy variety show. "I had a single of it that I cut out of the back of a box of Sugar Crisps cereal."
The merger of rock 'n' roll and children's programming began with the Beatles' 1965-1968 animated series on ABC and continued throughout the late '60s and early '70s with other shows based on real-life acts like the Jackson 5 and the Osmond Family. By the time Wilson was old enough to stare slack-jawed at the screen, network programmers -- pressured by critics and parent groups decrying Looney Tune-style violence in the wake of Vietnam and civil unrest -- were flooding the airwaves with programs that combined bubblegum music and genteel fantasy.
Wilson looks back fondly on the Poppin' Wheelies' Me-decade progenitors. "There was Captain Kool and the Kongs, Josie and the Pussycats, The Banana Splits, The Bugaloos, The Osmonds. Even in the Brady Kids cartoon, they were a band," he adds, laughing. "There was so much rock 'n' roll on Saturday morning TV. The closest thing to happen to that in the last 10 years was when Kid 'N Play had an animated series."
After sketching out the initial concept, Wilson engaged in brief talks with prospective dealmakers. He then went to work -- albeit over a two-year period -- recording an album to accompany a series that doesn't yet exist.
"Originally, I didn't conceive that I would put out a record before I had it created as an animated series," he admits. "But as I began the process of pitching the thing, I realized that having the record would be a very useful tool. It would give me an opportunity to help define the characters through artwork and clue people in on what the music was supposed to sound like. So being able to walk into Cartoon Network with an already completed album and a well-defined concept makes it a much more valuable property."
Wilson is looking to sign with an agent to help him further pitch the idea to TV and cable networks and comic book companies, as well as online and independent animation houses. However, the sometimes airy singer says he's well-grounded in the realities of selling a TV show. "I know there are thousands of animation properties in development," he says. "It's going to take years to get this produced. But the thing that I believe separates the Poppin' Wheelies is the fact that I have a really cool record already done."
Wilson can make a solid argument for that last point. The 11-song Poppin' Wheelies disc is an enjoyable, lighthearted pop confection. It's also a significant improvement over the Gas Giants' 1999 debut, From Beyond the Backburner -- an album encumbered by the weight of heavy expectations and a dearth of quality material.
One reason for The Poppin' Wheelies' appeal is that more than half of its tracks are cover songs, most of those coming from the catalogue of Tommy Keene, the patron saint of neglected and overlooked power-pop stars. Keene, a touring mate and Gin Blossoms collaborator, was touted early for stardom, releasing a pair of critically hailed EPs on the Dolphin imprint, then later two seminal albums for Geffen Records in the mid- and late '80s before disappearing from the public radar. He reemerged almost a decade later as a bona fide cult hero with the 1996 release of Ten Years After, and continues to be an active presence on the pop periphery.
"I've been a big fan of Tommy Keene for years," enthuses Wilson. "And I thought of him as soon as I was thinking about a Poppin' Wheelies series. At one point, I was listening to The Real Underground [a 1993 compilation of Keene hits, rarities and B-sides], and it occurred to me that the Poppin' Wheelies was a great place for other songwriters' unused material. Here were these perfect songs for my concept just sitting there."
Wilson has recorded a trio of Keene compositions for the album: the signature "Places That Are Gone"; "Back Again," from a 1984 EP of the same name; and "Babyface," a soaring, gossamer ballad also written during Keene's fruitful Dolphin Records reign. Wilson's voice is in good form throughout, even as he apes Keene's signature singing style on a sped-up take of "Places," which also features a nice bit of guitar work from former Blossom, current Peacemaker and sometime Keene sideman Scotty Johnson.
(As a side note, Keene will be recording a new album at Mayberry studios next month. The record, a follow-up to his critically praised 1998 effort, Isolation Party, is tentatively slated for a mid-2001 release and will follow on the heels of a live album, which Keene is currently mixing in Illinois.)
The Poppin' Wheelies also plunders the songbook of the late, great Starclub, a Brit-pop combo whose single "Hard to Get" penetrated the lower reaches of the American Top-40. The Londoners released but a single album, 1993's self-titled debut, before breaking up. A pair of cuts destined for the group's never-completed sophomore effort find their way onto Wilson's album. The high point comes with Steve French's "Ella Doesn't Care," a swooning, crashing slice of three-minute jangle euphoria. French, now a New York-based producer, also co-wrote a track on the Gas Giants record and contributed two songs to Wilson's Uranus Presents compilation.
Fellow Starclubber Owen Vyse (most recently a touring member of Echo and the Bunnymen) also checks in with the languid "Alone Again," a florid weeper with an insistent, drawling riff -- a surefire hit in an alternate universe where the Plimsouls' watercolor pop still reigns.
Wilson himself wrote five of the tracks on the album. Most are tied closely to the cartoon's story line. "Time 4U" and "Little Stars" are typical of other songs in his canon -- simple, bouncy nuggets that recall early acoustic forays and Blossoms B-sides. The slightly plodding "Danger Girl" -- inspired by the popular comic of the same name -- and the more sprightly "Radio Summer" are tips of the cap to Gary Numan and the Buggles, respectively.
The final song, "Spaced Out," is a bonus track that features production from internationally renowned Tempe-based DJ and Plastik Records label head Markus Schulz. Wilson calls the cut "a conceptual number by the Techno Pops, the evil New Wave robotic dance band that's after the Poppin' Wheelies' magic guitar."
Apart from a smattering of guests, the bulk of the tracks feature backing from the rest of the Gas Giants -- guitarist Dan Henzerling, drummer Phil Rhodes and bassist Mickey Ferrell -- and crystalline production from Wilson and engineer Chris Widmer.
Integral to the presentation and the disc's elaborate packaging are eight panels of artwork drawn by Alejandro Garza (the man behind the popular E.V.E Protomecha series) and inked by Liquid! Graphics colorists Christian Lichtner and Aron Lucen, three of the top names in the comic book industry. But more striking is the fact that the characters in the Poppin' Wheelies are modeled after some familiar local music figures. The fictional band's drummer bears a striking resemblance to Henzerling, right down to the goatee and wire-rim glasses, while the lithe, boyish-looking singer is something of a cross between Wilson and Keene. The band's guitar slinger, "Otis," with his lanky frame, long bangs, prominent nose and gold-top Les Paul (the "magic guitar" in question), is a spot-on caricature of late Gin Blossoms founder Doug Hopkins.
Though the appropriation of Hopkins' image could be viewed as an opportunistic bit of grave robbing, Wilson insists his motives are pure. Despite the public feud that raged between the two from the time of Hopkins' firing from the Blossoms in 1992 until his suicide in 1993, Wilson's early hero worship of the guitarist is well-known.
"I mean, I don't want this to seem like some gigantic tribute to Doug Hopkins and to dig up all that stuff again," Wilson says. "But it's no secret that the Poppin' Wheelies are based loosely on me and my friends. And that these characters are amalgams of people that I've been in bands with.
"They're named for people I care for -- Otis is named for Doug, Tommy is for Tommy Keene, Danny is for Dan Henzerling," he continues. "And the bass player, Tennessee, is an amalgam of rock 'n' roll cowboys that I've known."
Wilson's being disingenuous on the final count. The fact is that Tennessee is also based on another former bandmate and estranged friend, bassist G. Brian Scott, who was forced to leave the Gas Giants last year. Earlier drawings of the character bore an even closer resemblance to Scott -- and in the final version, there are also touches of Black Eyed Susans singer Jay Stevens, another local rock 'n' roll casualty who committed suicide in 1990.
The Poppin' Wheelies has provided Wilson with a pleasant distraction from the Gas Giants. And frankly, the way things have been going for the group, he's needed it. The band's been fraught with record-company woes, legal battles and personnel problems from the start, and the latest bump in the road came when its label, upstart online indie Atomic Pop (headed by industry bigwig Al Cafaro) went belly-up last month.
After Atomic Pop's demise, the band managed to secure the rights to its record, which has sold a disappointing 8,000 copies nationally. Wilson is contemplating a rerelease of the disc with another label, or he may simply put it out himself on the Uranus imprint. In the meantime, the combo has begun work on a new batch of material. "We've recorded one song, and I have bits and pieces -- parts of lyrics, chords, song titles -- for 12 more," Wilson says.
The Gas Giants will be showcasing at next year's South by Southwest festival in Austin, adds Wilson, who says the group will promote both themselves and the Poppin' Wheelies in the hopes of drawing the attention of a major label. More pressing is The Poppin' Wheelies CD release party, which is scheduled for this Friday, November 24, at Long Wong's in Tempe.
Wilson will begin his regular acoustic happy hour set at 6 p.m. Midway through, he'll be joined by the Gas Giants for an electric run-through of the entire album. The show will feature special appearances by a host of local luminaries including Peacemakers Roger Clyne and Scott Johnson and Pistoleros Lawrence and Mark Zubia.
Don't Ask Me No Questions: "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?" "Will you still love me tomorrow?" "Why do fools fall in love?" These are but some of the great musical questions that have been asked over years. From Bob Dylan to the Shirelles to Frankie Lymon, the history of pop music is colored with important artists asking important things. And none more vital than the Baha Men and their plaintive cry of "Who Let the Dogs Out?"
Snicker if you will, but there's much more to this jock-rock anthem turned Billboard smash than meets the eye.
"Who Let the Dogs Out?" is not merely an infectious ode to canine escapism. No sirree. Like some divine tablet or scroll, all the secrets of life, death, love, God and salvation are in there, buried just beneath the layers of "Woof. Woof."
Frankly, I've become obsessed with unlocking the song's mysteries. Playing the track over and over again, deconstructing the lyrics "American Pie"-style, I've driven away friends, family and co-workers -- all of whom have come to regard me as a crank on an insane and highly implausible quest. But dammit, I'm a seeker by nature and I must find the answer.
Over the past months, my mania has grown so overwhelming, it's even driven away a longtime girlfriend, who, upon breaking up with me (and subsequently shacking up with a far less inquisitive construction worker), said, "It doesn't matter how hard you try. You're never going to find out who let the dogs out. And I can't love someone who doesn't know that."
Amid this very personal drama came the shocking and heartening news: The Baha Men were coming to Phoenix. Their appearance at an intimate Valley venue guaranteed that I would be no more than 75 feet away from them when they launched into their siren song. At last, I was going to find out "Who Let the Dogs Out?" firsthand.
If you go -- and why wouldn't you? -- the smart money says to expect multiple versions of the group's signature (and only) U.S. hit. There will be the original version, the single version, the extended club mix, the "Barking Mad" mix, the "Pooper Scooper Mix" and on and on. Every color of the "Who Let the Dogs Out?" rainbow will represented that evening.
Yes, the place will be jumping. There will undoubtedly be grown men barking, booties shaking and all kinds of people getting jiggy with it. But for at least one fan, it will be a sacred and profound moment.
The Baha Men are scheduled to perform as part of KZZP's Jingle Ball on Saturday, December 16, at the Celebrity Theatre. Showtime is 9 p.m.
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Working On a Deal: A quick reminder on the joint CD release being staged by the Piersons and Pistoleros (both of whom were profiled on these pages last week). The bands' pre-Thanksgiving bash is being held this Wednesday, November 22, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Showtime is 9 p.m. Cover for the event is $15, but that charge allows patrons entry to the show plus copies of each of the groups' new albums. Five bucks will get you in the door, sans discs.
Also, the two groups are scheduled to make a dual in-store appearance at the Tempe Zia Record Exchange on Sunday, December 3, from 1 to 3 p.m.
Clearing Up: A couple corrections and clarifications are needed for a pair of stories we ran recently. First, in our profile of local alt-country combo Chicken ("Fowl Play," October 26), we incorrectly identified guitarist Scott Hinkle as "Steve." We regret the error and can only assume it was due to the fact that the author was completely drunk when he wrote the piece.
Also, in the November 2 edition of Bash & Pop, we printed an item about local radio that should have listed ASU student-run station the Blaze as being 1260 on the AM dial. The same article also should have mentioned that Michael Beck, DJ with 100.3/106.3 KDGE-FM does have a nightly local music spotlight. The feature profiles a different Valley act every evening at 11:20.