The Sugarplastic / A Bio     By Ben Eshbach NEWS HOME DISCOGRAPHY LINKS




 

This is how I recollect the ten year history of The Sugarplastic.

Every event in the course of my love affair with The Sugarplastic is colored by subsequent periods of recollecting. Exactly what's transpired in the last ten or so years can't be gotten at with any firm and irrefutable accuracy - and this, the most recent act of recollection, is just another reflection.

I met Kiara Geller when I was, I think, 19 or 20 years old during the summer of that year. We became friends pretty quickly. I remember being attracted to his certain unselfconscious and unaffected personality. We both liked the same music and, as boys are, this served to bond us. The music we gabbed about was gloomy stuff; Bauhaus and Sex Gang Children and Dead Can Dance and other things of this sort. I think at the time I was smack in the middle of a ten year infatuation with Killing Joke (a band which I will still swear by) and so I got the opportunity to bring another person into the fold. Kiara didn't play an instrument at the time but seemed a bit impressed with my guitar playing (God only knows why). He would show up at my parents' house on occasion armed with a tape recorder and coax me into playing into the microphone. What he did with these tapes I found out much later; he'd play them for friends of his, trying to get musicians together to form a band. I had no idea this was going on. Maybe Kiara had asked me if I wanted to be in a band at one time and I wrinkled my nose. Perhaps he thought this sneaky way of making things fall into place would make me cave in. Eventually it did.

Back when college radio station KXLU played palatable stuff, I heard a song called 405 Lines by The Monochrome Set. The guitar sound in that song inspired me. It was a clean, yet un-Chet Atkinsy, sound. I wanted to sound like that, I thought - and so out went my MXR Distortion Plus which forced me to learn how to play. (I was really surprised years later when Jason Faulkner came up to me after an in-store and asked "Hey, have you ever heard The Monochrome Set? You guys remind me of them.") It was during this period that Kiara was surreptitiously trolling for musicians and plotting to recruit me. Eventually, in November of 1989, he told me he had met a friend who was a drummer. "You wanna get together and jam or something?" he asked me. I said I wanted to meet this drummer before I committed myself to any playing; so Kiara arranged a get-together and I met Josh Laner.

Josh recalls me screening him before we played (I don't remember this but Josh swears by it). Apparently I asked him, "Do you play the drums or do you work them?" Josh said he played them. In December of 1989 Kiara booked our first "jam".

 

I have to admit it was terrible. It was really terrible. We sounded awful. After about an hour of "jamming" (which amounted to something between Can and a tennis shoe in a laundry dryer), I asked Kiara and Josh if they wanted to learn a song. That day we learned Euripides the Jaguar. After that day (and after experiencing the thrill of hearing one of my songs played by enthusiastic musicians), we got together and played music steadily - twice a week for one year before we played live for anybody.

Kiara, Josh and I have stacks of tapes from those early rehearsals. We recorded almost every rehearsal. They are all mono recordings. They are awful. The sounds on those tapes are almost not music at all. Not having a band name yet, every rehearsal we named ourselves something different - and the tapes are thus labeled. We were called Dynamicron one week. Next week we were Broccoliesque. Microscopic Rocket, Beefwhistle, Full Again, Moonweed, Jo-Jo Lollypop Groover. There were dozens of them. At one point we called ourselves The Sugarplastic Apple; then we called ourselves The Sugarplastic Afro.

These first years were spent rehearsing and learning songs in Josh's Dad's workshop, The Appliance Doctor, on Vineland near the corner of Magnolia in North Hollywood. There now stands at this location a Ralphs supermarket parking lot. I think my fondest memories of The Sugarplastic are from those days. We didn't have a singer yet. None of us wanted to sing. Kiara recruited his friend John Wilmers to try out singing. John had been in the speed metal/progressive punk band, Guillotine, with Kiara a few years earlier. John had good pitch and all but I described him as having "too much testosterone" for our sound. So for the first year, The Sugarplastic was an instrumental band. Eventually, however, I wanted to record some of these songs in order to listen to them in my bedroom and so I was forced to volunteer for the job of vocalist. Jesus I hated that. I mean I really did not want to sing - but someone had to, and as long as nobody would ever hear it except me and Josh and Kiara then I guess it was ok.

Our first recordings were done in a garage 16 track studio in Van Nuys by a fellow named Pat Lydon. Pat was a cool guy who was friends with The Red Hot Chili Peppers - and he kind of looked like one of them. We recorded a four song tape: Stephanie, Brownly Corduroid, Euripides the Jaguar and In the Hole. I remember going home and listening to them in the most narcissistic way imaginable. Play - rewind - play - rewind, over and over again. I was completely hooked. All I wanted to do from that moment on was to record songs. We made another trip to Pat's and recorded our second studio session: Waterfront, Dunn the Worm, Grasshopping, Ingersoll and Marsha. Looking now at the tape I have from this session I see that it is labeled 1/14/91 "The Sugarplastic Afro."

What happened next is scandalous. Kiara and Josh began to suggest that we play a live show. In front of people. In front of boys and girls who would jeer at us and throw things at us and giggle and point and say nasty things about us. In front of girls! Girls who might otherwise be friendly or at least civil! There might be people in the crowd that I knew. What if some friends found out that I was going to sing songs at a club? They might show up. Then what? What would I do? What if someone saw me?

This was entirely out of the question. I was not in for this. I remember sitting Josh and Kiara down at Josh's pad and telling them the whole story. I felt that I was being tricked into doing something that I really did NOT want to do. I remember using the word "manipulated" in describing their subtle hints and sorry glances. I remember telling Josh that if I was in an audience I would leave before The Sugarplastic Afro got past their third song. But I felt I was stuck with them because they were the only chaps willing to learn songs and record them for me. Honestly, this period is marked with horrific nightmares involving Josh and Kiara drugging me or tying me up and sacrificing me to the Devil or chasing me down and killing me in some Wickerman ritual.

I really don't remember how it happened but we eventually had to play a show. Rob Zabrecky of Possum Dixon asked us to open for them at their record release party at Jabberjaw. Possum was releasing a boxed set of singles for Pronto Records and Zabrecky was a fan (having, I guess, heard the Lydon session tapes - I wonder if he remembers; did I give them to him?) So I decided we needed another guitar player and another vocalist. We recruited Brad Laner (Josh's brother) and Mary Grubbs. Brad played rhythm guitar and Mary sang backup vocals. This is when we settled on The Sugarplastic as our band name. Our first show was really a surprising success. For that show we performed the only cover we've ever played - Television's Marquee Moon. We've never covered it again.

 

At this point things get hazy. Things started going fast. Around this time Kiara introduced me to his cousin, Casey Neiditch, who was learning to operate recording equipment. I remember being invited to Casey's house to meet him. He'd just bought an Emu sampler. I'd never seen a sampler before and so I got a kick out of making noises on it and saying things like, "Wow! Sounds like real drums!" Casey offered to record us, at first thinking us quaint. Eventually Casey would fall as deeply in love with The Sugarplastic as the rest of us and today we consider him the fourth member. He's recorded hours of music for The Sugarplastic and has learned to read my mind in the studio. He's the only person in front of whom I feel comfortable singing.

During this period we were asked to release something on Pronto Records. We compiled six songs and Pronto released a boxed set on colored vinyl titled Ottawa Bonesaw. The tracks on Ottawa Bonesaw were a combination of recordings made at Pat Lydon's and Casey Neiditch's. It immediately got airplay on KXLU and one of the disc jockeys, Ben Knight, asked us to release a single on his own label, Small Fi. For Small Fi we released two songs, Superball and Sheep. This was a limited pressing of (I think) 200 copies. At this time I was introduced to Will Glenn of Mazzy Star who offered to record us (for free!) at a local studio. Will recorded Broccoliesque and then went on to record Sheep and Where Dead Bullies Go at Mazzy Star's studio in Santa Monica (it was this version of Sheep which was released on Small Fi). We began to play more and more shows around Los Angeles and eventually hooked up with Chris Apthorp who owns a recording studio in Chatsworth. Chris recorded four or five songs including a version of Ottawa Bonesaw, Polly Brown, Magnificat and Where Dead Bullies Go (which was eventually released on Minty Fresh).

   
 

Folks started talking about us behind our backs; it was mostly good stuff though. We started getting press and reviews here and there and got the L.A. Weekly pick which really surprised me. We started playing even more live shows - a practice which I loathed and loathe to this day. I always felt that The Sugarplastic was invading a club - wasting the audience's time. I couldn't wait to get off stage so the audience could stop having to be patient with us. This resulted in my commitment to very short sets. We've never played longer than 25 minutes (or thereabouts). Even to this day I can't stand being onstage longer than this. Folks started coming up to us after the shows and complimenting us; I thought they were lying - I mean really lying in order to make us play again so they could have a good laugh. My hatred for playing live shows evolved into a paranoid suspicion that even my bandmates were making faces at me on stage when my back was turned. I remember the first time we videotaped a show I watched it with suspicious anticipation. I held my audience in intense contempt. Compliments sickened me and made me retreat from the crowds and I almost always left the venue the moment we were off stage. I hated it when people wanted to talk about "the band." I remember being introduced as "Ben from The Sugarplastic" time and time again and I felt sick when they then showed interest.

 This whole anti-audience thing eventually fell from me. I don't remember exactly how or when, but I began to believe the compliments (at least when they came from someone who wasn't trying to jump our train) and I began to actually like the people who came to see us play. In fact I found that many of them were pretty cool people. A lot of comparisons got thrown around at us. We were compared to Gentle Giant (!), The Kinks, The Pixies, 10cc, The Talking Heads and, of course, XTC.

About XTC. It was sometime around 1993 or 1994 that some interviewer surprised us with the news that we apparently did not like to be compared to XTC. We weren't (and still aren't) sure where that rumor began, but it began strong and hasn't ever let up. Interviewers now always preface their XTC comparisons with, "Now I know you guys don't like it when your compared to XTC but..." This is always sure to get an eye-rolling from the band - and this eye-rolling is almost always misinterpreted as "Yep! That's right! Enough with the XTC comparisons." The fact is, though, that we've never been bothered by the comparison; not a single bit. We love XTC. They were an inspiration for the band, and anyone familiar with their stuff can hear that. I've sung about Mr. Moulding in the song Arizona on our first record, (the song itself is a weak parody of Life Begins at the Hop.) Occasionally a writer will parade his musical acumen (perhaps for the benefit of his fellow writers) by making the comparison in a derogatory, even mealy-mouthed, way. That's bothersome. We've read some articles by people who go overboard. My experience has been that the biggest XTC fans are the least likely to see this exaggerated likeness.

We traveled to San Francisco to open for Mazzy Star at the Kennel Club and then returned home to begin recording a full length album. While we were in Neiditch's studio recording Radio Jejune, Todd Sullivan from Geffen Records approached us and offered to sign us so we said yes. It was really all very out of the blue. I really didn't know what signing was all about but Josh and Kiara were excited so I thought it must be a pretty good thing. Plus, there was a lot of money talked about and apparently some of it would go in our pockets so it couldn't be all that bad. As it turned out, it wasn't all that bad. We made Geffen allow us to release Radio Jejune with Sugarfix Recordings and to allow a sufficient incubation time before we released a DGC record. Geffen allowed me to produce Bang, The Earth is Round which I thought generous. We were required to hire an engineer, and after screening a few candidates we decided on going with England's Colin Fairly. We recorded the record at Alpha Studios (per the advice of Will Glenn) in 1995. Geffen had only heard demos for four of the songs before getting us in the studio. Most of the record was a surprise for them. This was all very accommodating and I remember it as an exciting and laid-back time.

The record was released in 1996 and then we hustled around trying to sell it. This is the part that I never fully understood - and I mean that in a sincere way. I never fully grasped the "urgency" of selling records - how each day counted and how Soundscans meant something and how CMJ charts were important. I'm not trying to be coy or "artistic" in some "I'm-just-an-artist" way, it just never sunk in that I had to do something other than make a record. This "showbiz" thing was really a pain in the ass. Playing shows in front of people was a pain in the ass. Kiara and Josh were attentive to these things and would fill me in now and then but I was never delivered from my apathy.

The Sugarplastic has never had a manager. Consequently, we've never had a booking agent or a publicist (outside of the Geffen publicists who were pretty good). Things were always handled pretty low-key. There was a bottleneck at Geffen, however. He was the radio promotions guy. He didn't like The Sugarplastic. I think he liked Beck instead. My theory is this (and correct me if I'm wrong and call me bitter if you don't know better): The radio promotions guy takes the promo of a new album home and puts it on the player just about the time his "hot date" comes over. "Check it out baby," he says with a snap of his fingers. He then watches closely - if she throws her clothes off and takes him for a ride, the disk gets sent to radio with superbowl tickets. If, instead, his date sits up until four in the morning talking about her cats or about how she cried at the end of E.T. then the disk gets thrown on a heap. It's a groundhog thing.

At any rate, Eddie Rosenbladt (the president of DGC) overrode some lower-down's decision and insisted that Polly Brown be sent to radio. But even Rosenbladt can't monitor the follow-up calls (that guy has one heck of a bear handshake. Ever shaken hands with the man? Good God!) The only commercial station that picked up the record on regular rotation was a station out of Florida; they discovered it on their own - and when we went on tour we were not supported to go to that city.

Soon we were back in Neiditch's studio recording demos for the next record. We recorded almost 30 songs before Geffen began to allow us to go back into the studio and begin recording. During this time Kiara and I began to notice that Josh was losing enthusiasm for rehearsing. King Crimson drummer, Pat Mastelotto, had seen The Sugarplastic play in Austin and had called me to say he was interested in working with us. Pat had been the drummer on XTC's album Oranges and Lemmons. When the time came to record some high-quality songs for Geffen, we flew Pat to L.A. to drum for us. We hired producer Andy Metcalfe for the job. Metcalfe is the bass player for Robyn Hitchcock and has been in Squeeze. He was also an original Soft Boy. We recorded two songs with Pat and Andy; Motorola Rocketship and The Tamarind Tree. Both Pat and Andy were terrific to work with. I've never worked with a musician as versatile and as professional as Pat Mastelotto. Geffen also hooked us up with John Avila from Oingo Boingo. We recorded an early version of Levitate at his private studio.

We were asked to do a small tour with Minty Fresh artists Papas Fritas. For this tour we needed a drummer who would continue to work with us and be dedicated to the band. I contacted my old friend David Cunningham. David is a pretty good guitar player and has an all-around good ear when it comes to music in general. Dave agreed and has been playing with us ever since. He toured with us on the Papas Fritas tour and then began recording demos for Geffen with us.

Around this time Geffen did some house cleaning and fired a good percentage of their staff - everyone from the parking attendant to the head of A&R. Bands were getting dropped left and right. Every time we showed up to the Geffen building there was a moving van parked out front. Geffen's new head of A&R was impressed with the recordings we made with Metcalfe and Mastelotto but now he wanted to "come see The Sugarplastic play live". Bear in mind that it had been a few years since Bang was released and now we felt we were auditioning for our own label. Word on the street was that Geffen had hit an iceberg and we quickly decided to find a suitable lifeboat and get the heck off this ship - us rats. We contacted our lawyer who negotiated us out of our contract. It was an expensive negotiation but it was a terrific feeling of liberty. We left with some of the master tapes and a bunch of cash which Geffen technically didn't owe us. We used some of that money to hire Metcalfe and Mastelotto again to record Levitate.

After we left Geffen we began to put together Resin. Resin is a culmination of about three years of recording. I feel it is the first real album we've made. Radio Jejune was a first effort and Bang sounds like a disjointed set of songs to me (though the fidelity is pretty darned good). At last we were experienced enough to put together a record which we felt was coherent from beginning to end. During the construction of Resin we were contacted by Craig McCracken, the creator of the television cartoon The Power Puff Girls. Craig asked us to go into the studio with Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh and record a song for a compilation album inspired by the cartoon. We recorded Don't Look Down for The Power Puff Girls in March of this year (2000) and Rhino will be releasing the record in July.

In the most general terms possible, this brings my recollections up to date.