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Feature: New Times LA - Minisuccess
Alt-country rockers Minibar spent half a decade toiling in obscurity. Turns out all they needed was a little sun.
Call it the ultimate American dream. England's Minibar came to L.A. for one week, played two shows and were offered a record deal -- this after the band had been slogging it out virtually ignored in Britain for more than six years. "We tell our musician friends that we got signed off two gigs and they can't believe it," says bassist Sid Jordan. "Yeah, but we played like 150 shit gigs in London before this!"
While the band is now planning tours and preparing to release the first single off their debut album, Road Movies, paying their dues and learning their craft was something that didn't come easy. Simon Petty (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Tim Walker (pedal steel guitar, banjo, mandolin, vocals), Malcolm Cross (drums, keyboards, backing vocals) and Jordan (bass, piano, backing vocals) emerged from England's trendy Camden scene in the height of Britpop, when bands like Blur and Oasis reigned. But in a time of polished pop sounds and haughty British attitudes, Minibar focused more on raw, earthy textures and emotionally exposed thinking. "We had nothing to do with Britpop," Jordan says. "That scene is about 'Fuck you, we're kings of the pop world.' We're not like that. We had pedal steel guitar, three-part harmonies, and we didn't write stylish music. So we weren't part of anything in England."
And if the timing was all wrong for Minibar's gentle, mood-setting tones and introspective themes, the club venues proved no more hospitable. "The places aren't built for that," adds Petty. "The PA systems are all crap, the places are tiny. There's not a place to play to sound like how you want to sound."
Amid these challenges, it took seven years and several incarnations for Minibar to arrive at the sound they wanted. Prior to that, the band members admit, they were "rubbish," not only because they hadn't yet begun to incorporate effects like vocal harmonies and pedal steel guitar, but simply because they had nothing to say. "We would have six words in a whole song," laughs Jordan. "Something like 'I wish I could fly...' That would be it."
It wasn't until the band hit rough personal times that they learned to channel more emotion into their music. "We had a lost summer around 1997," recalls Petty. "I split with my long-term girlfriend, I didn't have anywhere to live. I lost my job and didn't have any money. I didn't have anything. I was emotionally distraught but in a way it was good, because I started writing. That's where 'Holiday From Myself' [the band's first single] came from. I was writing about honest emotion."
Jordan said the band members began to encourage each other to write and use it as therapy. "If you're emotionally exposed, then phrases and images are very resonate. You are charged with all these feelings and you walk down the street and suddenly everyday objects take on the symbolism of how you feel. That's ideal for songwriting."
They also credit the time they spent playing covers in local pubs with helping them find their sound. Much of their set list consisted of American rock and pop. "We sang a lot of Neil Young, Dylan, some Tom Petty, Lou Reed," says Petty. "It kind of influenced our sound. Sid was singing harmony, and it was really important that our voices blended. We got years of training by singing in bars."
The bandmates eventually went on to write a solid set of material they were happy with -- much of which appears on their debut album -- and yet, they still weren't getting anywhere. "The whole process was taking so long," says Jordan. "In 1998, record companies were telling us that they didn't know what to do with us. We told our manager we wanted to go to the States."
The rest, as they say, is history.
The band's management booked two shows in Los Angeles, one at the Troubadour and one at the Viper Room, where they were spotted by a representative from Cherry/Universal Records. A few days later, Minibar were sitting in the label's offices and being offered a deal. After a move to Los Angeles and signatures on the dotted line, the wheels were set in motion to begin recording.
The band targeted legendary producer T-Bone Burnett after hearing his work on the Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse. But it took some convincing to lure Burnett after the band learned he was no longer working on production projects. "Our manager tracked him down, found out where he was working and had him listen to our CD," explains Petty. "He rang up the next morning and said he wanted to work with us."
The end result is Road Movies, a rootsy, heart-on-their-sleeve journal that shows off the band's infatuation with American classic rock and their ability to express themselves freely. Their modern take on earthy harmonies and soul-inspired songs may soon see them aligned with like-minded bands such as Wilco and the Jayhawks. If nothing else, the album is a testament to the band's evolution and finally seeing their hopes fulfilled.
"We were trying to do something that nobody was interested in [in London]," says Petty. "We'd been doing it a long time with no tangible results. To suddenly come here and get a record deal and record in an expensive studio with T-Bone Burnett...it really is a dream come true. I'm gonna start believing it soon!"
Originally published May 17, 2001
©2001 New Times, Inc.