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