Beer-Fueled, Fence Humping Music
The name of the new album says it all: seven years into their domestic beer-fueled run, the Wannabes are still just suckers for a pop song.
Popsucker is the purest expression to date of the Wannabes' bar-friendly brand of pop/punk fence-humping. It's an unaffected, no-frills compendium of two and a half-minute bursts of warm, hopeful energy. Unfortunately, such an approach has often proved almost too obvious to be appreciated by the Next Big Thing-minded pundits.
Since their 1988 inception, the Wannabes have been witness to the rise and fall of countless local buzz bands and retrospectively embarrassing musical trends. Although they've built a comfortable local following and snippets of national attention over the years, the Wannabes have never captivated Austin music in the manner of a Poi Dog Pondering or a Sixteen Deluxe. Which is perfectly fine with bassist Hunter Darby, the man who coined the album Popsucker. "I'd say we're like the Tom Petty of the Austin scene," says Darby. "You never think of Tom Petty being the new, cool guy on the block, but he keeps on putting out consistently good material. Tom Petty's always there."
I ask guitarist Jennings Crawford how he feels about the Tom Petty comparison.
"I don't like Tom Petty at all," he states flatly.
The conversation then degenerates into an interesting discussion about the divergence in pop preference among band members. Darby favors Petty, Crawford is partial to the Buzzcocks, and second guitarist Kevin Carney is a big Kinks fan. Such subtleties in taste give the Wannabes' song catalogue breadth without breaking the universal chord that connects Ray Davies to Pete Shelley. "We're like three bus drivers," explains Darby. "We're all on the same bus, but we all drive it with a different slant."
The band's origin can be traced back to Darby and Crawford's fifth grade class in Fort Worth. Their budding interest in music culminated in the formation of Humans from Toledo, a high school band that lasted for one show. "We were hell-bent on doing anything to entertain people in an effort to cover up our musical inadequacies," says Crawford. "It was actually a lot like the Wannabes in the early days." Later, Darby and Crawford came to Austin expecting the vibrant scene portrayed on MTV's "The Cutting Edge" back in 1986. "We came here because we'd seen all these cool bands like Zeitgeist, Wild Seeds, and Doctor's Mob play in Dallas," says Crawford. "Then, right when we got here, the Beach closed and all these bands broke up.
"For a while, Austin was just a wasteland of bad white funk bands. I couldn't stand it, and it was the same thing when we'd go out on tour. There were a few cool bands like the Pocket FishRmen and Happy Family, but it was all lost in a sea of white funk." Amid the slappy bass riffs of 1988, Darby and Crawford formed the Wannabes with Carney and drummer Thad Swiderski. Within a few months, they had unknowingly fallen into the role of "relief band" at the Cannibal Club. "We were the band they'd call whenever someone canceled at the last minute," says Crawford.
"They knew where they could find us 'cause we were always hanging out at the Lodge," adds Carney. "There was one time when we were at different bars and they found all of us. We opened a lot of shows and played a lot of Monday and Tuesday nights, but at least we got to play there for a long time."
After a year of residence at the Cannibal, they recorded the Lucky Pierre cassette in 1990. The tape, combined with a well-received showcase at South by Southwest, firmly established the Wannabes as a contender for bigger and better things. David Fricke praised the band in Rolling Stone and it appeared as though the band might be scooped up by a major label at any moment, but this scenario didn't play out. "Everyone was comparing us to Soul Asylum and the Replacements," recalls Crawford. "Those bands were doing okay at the time, but they weren't getting played on the radio, and I think the record companies saw it. Then grunge became the next big thing and we didn't fit into that at all." Darby carries this reasoning even further. "If I was pretending like I was Mr. Record Company Executive out to sign bands that would make lots of money, I wouldn't sign us," he says.
Many bands consider such flirtations the pinnacle of their brief careers and break up when things aren't looking happily ever after. The Wannabes, however, just kept writing pop songs and refused to allow themselves to be let down. "I really don't know what would've happened if we had been signed at that point, but I'll bet we would've done one major label album and imploded immediately," Crawford says. "We really didn't think of it as that big of a deal. We just stayed busy by writing new material. It's stupid to think of this in terms of getting signed because so much of that is out of your control. We're not sitting around waiting for Columbia Records to call."
"And if they do call," Carney hastens to add, "we'll tell 'em, `The record's in the store. Get it yourself.'"
Between 1990 and 1994, the Wannabes released one 7-inch and appeared on several compilations, but no full-length release was forthcoming. "That was really the big let-down because we were always writing new songs that we thought were cool," says Carney. The drought finally ended last year when DejaDisc released Mod Flower Cake. While DejaDisc hasn't exactly built its reputation on the Wannabes' brand of music, the band feels right at home on the San Marcos-based indie. "We're a pop/punk band on a small folk label, but that's us," says Carney. "We're used to being in a weird, in-between situation.
"For a small label, DejaDisc has really done a lot for us. They got us on some syndicated college radio show in New York where this big, fat sweaty guy in an office asked us questions. Later, the questions he asked were dubbed in by MTV's Kennedy. That was pretty cool."
Of course, touring to support an album on a small label is the perennial "feast or famine" proposition. For Crawford, the most memorable moment of famine came in Lincoln, Nebraska. "Some girl came up to us after the show and said we were a lot like the band that does the song `Breakfast at Tiffany's,'" he recalls. "That was disheartening."
It's difficult to fathom how someone could make such a judgment, especially after being whacked on the back of the head with Popsucker. As on Lucky Pierre and Mod Flower Cake, the Wannabes utilized the ear of producer/ex-Reiver John Croslin. "John was one of the 15 people in the audience who came to see us when we first started," says Darby. "After working with him, we really started thinking about how our songs are arranged." Extra attention to arrangement gives melancholy weight to a tune like "Ronsonolreg.," not to mention an ample squirt of piss and vinegar to "Ex-Girlfriend Record Review." At the same time, the Wannabes throw in someone-broke-a-string covers of ELO and Fleetwood Mac songs to preserve some of the raw irreverence of their live sets. The net result is a cycle of songs that seems to parallel all the glories and heartaches of progressive inebriation. "My brother calls it a four-beer record," says Carney.
But all the four-beer records in the world can't keep a band together for seven years. It also takes at least a doctorate's-worth of skill in interpersonal relationships. Much like any happily married couple, the Wannabes have learned when to agree to disagree and when to shut the fuck up. "One thing we have in common is that no one likes to be embarrassed," says Darby. "If you have a problem with one of the guys, you don't go and turn it into some three-on-one fight. Everyone kind of knows when they've fucked up and a line has been crossed. If someone has a problem, they get pulled aside and it's taken care of.
"Whenever we go on tour, everyone has a freak-out. Everyone gets to a point where they're like, `Fuck this! I can't take it anymore!' But it never happens to more than one of us at the same time. Each person freaks out and they're left alone while they're doing it."
Although Darby says he thinks the band has entered its "twilight" period, Popsucker is a strong statement of the band's vitality in the face of their occupation's transient nature. "We're never gonna be the most popular band in town, but we've never totally run everybody out of the fucking club, either," Darby says. "Every year we've been together, we lose an old audience, but we always seem to gain a new audience at the same time."
While they may be suckers for a pop song, the Wannabes' motivation seems to lie somewhere beyond popularity in the realm of friendship driven by shared creative passions. Or, as Darby might put it: "If you're gonna play music, it's easier to be in a band 'cause you've got three other fuckers up there doing it with you." n