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Feature: Atomic Life

By Celeste Moure

There's hardly a shortage of American musicians who emulate the sound of the English bands they were raised on -- whether it be the Beatles or the Stones, the Smiths or My Bloody Valentine. Los Angeles-based B.R.M.C., which not only sound like the Jesus and Mary Chain but even look like them, have even gone on to become more popular in the U.K. than in their own homeland. A bit less common is the tale of a British band (with a singer from Manchester, no less!) who foregoes the ethereal guitar and keyboard effects for the country flavored acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies. This is the story of Minibar, an English band who now calls L.A. its home.

Taking their cues from artists like Jimmy Webb and Neil Young, Minibar formed in London and would occasionally play at a local Tex-Mex restaurant before they decided to pack their bags and move to sunny California. "We'd been playing together for years in England. We came here and got a deal rather quickly in 1999," lead singer and primary songwriter, Simon Petty, says over the phone from the L.A. apartment-cum-recording studio he shares with his three bandmates. "It's always been said to us that we sounded American even though we're English. The Southern California influences that are in our music are more open and sort of obvious. People were extremely confused by the three-part harmony, the pedal steel guitar, and so forth, so we thought we'd come out here and play a couple of gigs just to see what happened." Indeed, their manager got Minibar a couple of gigs at the Troubadour and the Viper Room and soon the foursome found themselves with an offer from Cherry Records. "We would have signed anything at that time. We definitely wanted to live here," he says.

While many an L.A. anglophile dreams of moving to England, bassist Sid Jordan, guitarist Tim Walker, drummer Malcolm Cross, and Petty longed for SoCal. But why? "If you saw the place we lived in South London you'd know why," he laughs. "In Manchester there's like thirty inches of rainfall a year. That's why all the bands that come from there are miserable sounding," he adds. "Anyway, musically it made lots of sense to move here. We used to get the pedal steel guitar out in soundchecks in England and people didn't know what it was; it was incredibly unfashionable." Here, meanwhile, bands like Beachwood Sparks were making a name for themselves with their brand of alt country psychedelic music. But things, as Petty admits, have changed since they left England in '99. "Two years later it's like everybody's got a pedal steel. And Ryan Adams is huge there now." But they don't hold a grudge. "We have no regrets about leaving. L.A.'s fantastic despite the fact that we may be more cynical. We know how it all works and we don't particularly like it," he says, referring to the beast that is the music industry.

The problems for Minibar started soon after they inked their deal at Cherry and were merged with Universal. "I think we were signed with the best of intentions. But the relations were already stale before we started recording the album," Petty confesses. "We were much more unwilling to compromise than they were expecting, probably. They tried to force producers on us that we didn't like the sound of. They couldn't believe it when we said no." When it became apparent to Universal that Minibar could not deliver their idea of a hit song, they asked them to cover "Time In A Bottle," which Petty describes as "the wettest song ever written. If you imagine Cat Stevens only much softer. It's like that, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the kind of songwriting that we presented to them. Major labels generally have very set ideas of what should happen to get a song on the radio. Their whole objective was to get our album played on KROQ." While Minibar's debut, Road Movies, was ignored by KROQ it did get played on L.A.'s nominal radio station, KCRW.

The pressure that Minibar was put under to deliver a hit song is something that Petty says all bands experience. "They hammer the hit thing. They don't care anything about the rest of the album," he says. The label played Minibar many CDs by various producers, none of which the band was impressed with. When they heard the Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse they knew they had found their producer, T Bone Burnett. "We got to record a very expensive old-fashioned album with a big producer and we didn't have to pay for the damn thing, so fuck them. I'm happy with that," Petty says, despite the fact that Minibar was eventually dropped. "We got to live here and we played with Wilco and the Wallflowers and the Jayhawks at all these amazing venues. It worked out really well for us whatever the shenanigans with the record label. I think we came out intact because we're still a band. We're still writing and recording. We're much more resilient and self-sufficient than we ever were, so I don't regret coming here at all. I think it was a good thing," he asserts.

God, no. I just buy something and it gets thrown in a pile on the floor.

In the band we play a game called Guilty Pleasures where we all write down ten songs or albums that we have owned that we still secretly love but it's very bad stuff. We out the names in a hat then we have to guess whose they are. Mine is "We Will Rock You." I have some pretty terrible stuff. I was gonna say Discography by the Pet Shop Boys but I don't think that's embarrassing. I'll tell you though, I always really hated Erasure. How fickle am I? I might have some AC/DC album in there, but the thing is I don't find that embarrassing. I like some cheesy stuff. It's not easy to find the embarrassing CDs when you have to look through the stuff on the floor. Here's a copy of Disintegration by the Cure. That's embarrassing but it's not mine.

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.

That was Queen. We will rock you! I was twelve or something. Actually, it was Teardrop Explodes because they were on the same bill and went on first. They were a fantastic band. Early '80s band from Liverpool, Julian Cope was the lead singer. They were really great. Julian Cope is pretty outrageous, an acidhead. So he came out wearing a pair of running bottoms and not much else. It was in this big football stadium, so of course they got pelted off the stage by a bunch of sweaty rockers. Then Joan Jet came on. She was the second person I ever saw in concert. Finally Queen comes out. I had brought my ten-year-old brother with me. It was very cool. And of course, Freddy rocked the house. Although, they were getting into their '80s bollocks stage at that time.

Fucking hell. There's too many to choose from. I was a voluntary drug counselor at a heroin rehab in London for a year and a half. I lived in a rehab as a staff member, that was the problem. You know, I thought, live with some heroin addicts? Yeah! At that time I decided I wanted to be a social worker. Then I had a nervous breakdown. One good thing is that I realized that if I ever tried heroin I would be the worlds worst junkie 'cause I would just love it so much. So having talked to people about endlessly for a year and a half I think I learned that, you know, I don't think I'm gonna do that. The thing was, while I worked there I stopped playing and writing, which is a very bad idea for me. It was a hard job. I'm not saying it was the worst job in that sense. It was a good thing to do and I'm glad I did it. But the effect it had on me was the worst. I don't know if breakdown is the right word, but I got very depressed.

An interesting one. No one's ever asked me that before. I did loads of non-paying gigs -- a Simon & Garfunkel tribute band with my mate Tim when I was fifteen. Then we went to Switzerland. We left school and had no plan whatsoever, we just went there. And I think that was the first paying gig we did. We just went door knocking and found a bar that let us play. You know, when you're eighteen it's all easy, it's brilliant! Wait. Do you consider busking to be a gig? Being a street musician? 'Cause you know, I made more money from that than I have from most other gigs. It's really true.

"You're the One I've Been Waiting For" by Nick Cave.

* * * * *

Have you gone back to listen to Road Movies?
Very recently I went back and listened to it because we're doing this EP. We're mixing and mastering it so I kind of did a compare and contrast kind of thing. I'm very proud of it. The funny thing is that it depends on where you hear it. It doesn't sound great at home for me; overall it doesn't sound brilliant. But I heard it at a local bar the other day, they've got a copy of it, and it sounds pretty righteous. It's mixed and mastered for certain systems, which is great. I think the playing is pretty good and I like the songs. The least favorite for me is "Holiday From Myself" by a long way and I'm sorry that it begins the album. But I know that that's the price you have to pay for recording it in the first place. But the rest of it is pretty cool. I think "Cool Water" is pretty cool and I had fun recording that. That was a good moment. I'm still happy with it, I think everyone is still proud of it.

Must be a very different experience to not have to answer to anyone and do things your way.
It is different. But there's pros and cons basically. T Bone was a really good thing for us in that he has a very good ear for stuff, whatever the techniques. And he has a certain authority, which is very useful. He brought his own way of recording to the band and it worked, it was we needed. He wanted us to play live and made us play live and would tell us when it was good, basically. And we needed that at the time and I think that it was the right way to record the album so I'm very happy about that. And he dealt with the record company because he was very much on our side about the way things sounded, and the way the whole thing was approached, which was as experimental as possible, basically. I mean no one records albums live anymore. They might say that they do, but they really don't. Five of the songs were recorded live, with a bit of percussion overdubbed over the top. All the slow songs are live takes with the band playing together, including live lead vocals, which is pretty unusual.

How did you approach work on the new EP?
We just couldn't do it live on the EP because we were recording in our apartment. I love recording live so I wish we could have done it like that. Instead, it's all done on ProTools with the drums cut in a tiny little studio somewhere, and that gets dumped in and we overdub some records. So it was done piece by piece and put it all together experimenting with stuff.

Do you see a change in the music industry?
I think the public is way more sophisticated and diverse an entity than corporate America gives it credit for. I think that's the real problem here. And yeah, obviously if you market certain things a certain way, it's going to sell. But that's an exercise in marketing and it's really tedious. And the whole point of music is that it's vibrant and doesn't obey the normal rules, so don't try to control it. Let the weird things happen.

* * * * *

Currently, Minibar is putting the finishing touches on the EP, which they will self-release in September. "I just draw inspiration from Wilco and what they went through. They turned in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and were told it wasn't commercial enough. It's like, these people are mad. What do they want from Wilco? It's obviously a great record for people who like Wilco. So they got kicked off a label, kept the record, got a cool label, and sold shitloads of records. Good for them! That's the right way to do it," Petty says and is quick to point out that Minibar's not in anywhere near as good a position. "And obviously we're not nearly as good a band. But I do think that that's a telling story. Just to avoid those traps, not run into them again." The Wallflowers' Rami Jaffee and Greg Richling helped produce Minibar's EP, and encouraged them to be as sonically daring as possible to start with, and then go back and pull stuff out. Petty adds, "The flavors around the core of the sound may be more adventurous. We were interested in trying to make sounds using weird delays and making things sound more trippy, I suppose."

Meanwhile, Minibar continues to play around town, including support dates for Pete Yorn. "We knew him and he was really nice, we'd bump into him at parties and stuff," Petty explains. Coincidentally, Yorn's album was released the same day as Minibar's. "And then our career trajectories differed somewhat from the moment his album was released. But it was great because he was like a template of what you should do: your publicity people, this is how they should be; your promotions department, they did it exactly right. The sum total of our label's expenditure on advertising was an advert in the New Times. So basically the expression in the band became, To Be Yorned. We'd walk into Virgin Megastore and there's six huge pictures of Pete Yorn looking cool and we'd look at each other and say, Yorned again. And then it'd be like who's doing the Coldplay support? How can we maybe get on that? because they weren't that huge at the time. Then we'd hear, actually Pete's doing it. Yorned again! And from then on it would become sillier and sillier. But he's a really a very good guy and he said he'd try to get us on tour him, which he is. I know the kind of pressure that Pete is under so it's very cool that he sorted this out for us. We're dead happy about it," he says. Minibar's visa runs out in February but they're determined to make the most of it. "I feel like we've done the hard bit, which is making the record. We would consider a good distribution deal with a label that would help promote the band and offer tour support. That would be fantastic! I think that's the role of a record company, to actually support the band and nurture them and help them build a small loyal fanbase. And that's eminently possible," he says enthusiastically. "I think the climate is changing in the songwriting favor. In three years time maybe the radio will be covered in English alt pop bands. I doubt it, but you never know."

From Atomic Life Online Magazine © 2002

Last updated: Oct 01, 2006 - 04:51 PM PDT

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