Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Interview with Mike Doughty

By George A. Paul

(This article originally appeared in North County Times)

Doughty and his band perform at the Belly Up in Solana Beach on May 1.

Some musicians are content to release an album, tour and then lay low until the muse strikes again.

Not Mike Doughty. When self-described “deep slacker jazz” band Soul Coughing broke up in 2000 after nearly a decade and some unique alt-rock hits (“Soundtrack to Mary,” “Super Bon Bon,” “Circles”), the singer/guitarist immediately embarked on a solo career and ventured outside music for extra work.

He put out the poetry book “Slanky,” wrote an Aquaman story for DC Comics’ “Bizarro World,” dabbled in theatre for The 24-Hour Plays and shot travel and erotic photography for Web sites.

“I’m always trying to stay busy and do more creative stuff,” said Doughty, 37, from a tour stop in Dallas.

Those inspired activities extend to live gigs. Last year, he busked at a New York City subway stop and recorded the proceedings. Fans who purchased new disc “Golden Delicious” at indie retailers got it as a bonus EP.

“I didn’t tell the record company or anything. We just went ahead and made it.” Doughty collected $3.10 in donations and was only recognized when “a couple old friends of mine passed by. They didn’t give me money.”

Next was the Question Jar Tour. “I just wanted a way to interact with the audience during the show. I thought it would spice it up and make it interesting…There were a lot of weird, funny and philosophical questions. Not so many personal, probing [ones].”

The Aquaman assignment was a result of Doughty’s stint as a music contributor at alternative newsweekly New York Press.

“‘Bizarro World’ is where they get people who normally aren’t involved in comics to write stuff. I just got a call from them. The editor didn’t really know my music; he just read me in the New York Press and asked me to write something. I [did] it pretty quickly and it was just a blast to do, man. I definitely was a huge superhero fan when I was a kid.”

“Golden Delicious” is the Brooklyn-based hipster’s second studio effort for Dave Matthews’ ATO Records. The pair – casual friends since Soul Coughing supported Dave Matthews Band on a couple tours – joined forces after a chat backstage at the 2004 Bonnaroo Festival.

Matthews dug the “Rockity Roll” EP and was impressed enough by an unfinished copy of Doughty’s next CD to sign him. 2005’s “Haughty Melodic” proved a moderate success and included the Adult Rock radio/“Grey’s Anatomy” fave, “Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well.”

Dan Wilson (Semisonic, Dixie Chicks) returned to produce the more spontaneous, pop-infused “Delicious.” Instead of layering sounds over a long period like before, they adopted what Doughty called “dude theory” – the vibe of a bunch of guys playing for the fun of it.

“I enjoyed what the [live band] sounded like and I wanted a record that profited from their styles…it was just a different way of working. I wasn’t trying to remedy anything. ‘Haughty’ was done piece by piece. I wanted something that was a little faster and looser.”

Doughty’s way with wordless phrases and knack for funky melodies (“Put it Down,” “I Just Want the Girl…”) are in full effect. Flashes of humor (“I Wrote a Song About Your Car,” the reworked “27 Jennifers” - a recent top 10 on AAA radio) and literary influences (epic closing jam “Navigating By the Stars at Night”) add up to his strong album to date.

“I cut words out of a Garcia Marquez novel and sort of jimmy jammed them up in different configurations, like a little art project exercise,” said Doughty, on the latter tune.

But the standout track is “Ft. Hood,” inspired by a visit with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C. “I wondered what was going through their minds,” recalled Doughty, an Army brat born at Fort Knox and raised around West Point. Here, thought-provoking lyrics are coupled with optimism as he sings the familiar refrain from 1969 musical “Hair,” “let the sunshine in.”

The song was both “a need to transcend the horror and confront my own guilt about the reality of what these guys are going through.”

Friday, April 18, 2008

A chat with Mike Peters of The Alarm

By George A. Paul

Mike Peters is one of the friendliest musicians I've ever had the pleasure of talking with. He is a true inspiration, having battled cancer twice and survived. The singer/guitarist/songwriter for The Alarm plays Riverside on Saturday and Temecula on Sunday.

Q: I read that the infamous 1986 Alarm gig at UCLA is now readily available to fans.
A: [The MTV film] was reissued and just came out on DVD. We restored all the footage, re-edited it to fit the modern 16x9 wide screen format and remixed the audio from scratch, which is great. Back in the day, we all remember it sounded terrible. I hadn’t even listened to it or watched it in 20-odd years, other than except for glimpses. It’s quite a thing to watch it all the way through. It now sounds like we all remember it.

Q: I’ve caught you play acoustic shows a few times over the years. In fact at one of the Coach House, you played like a man possessed. It kind of reminded me of Bruce Springsteen. You had so much energy live.
A: That sounds like me [laughs]. I saw Springsteen in 1984 and loved the way he packed so much into his shows; so much electricity, mixing it up with fast and slow and acoustic and full-on rock. I was always thought he was the consummate live performer. I took a lot from seeing him and sort of added it to the punk rock energy that I was inspired with to start music.

Q: Will these acoustic shows run the gamut of your material, from solo to the Alarm?
A: Yeah. You’ve seen what I do. I always play it by ear.

Q: In preparation for the interview, I was re-listening to the blue and red acoustic CDs. Something you said in the liner notes about acoustic performance stuck with me: that your whole approach is like a one man band, you throw your entire being into every syllable, word, melody, etc.
A: I think you have to make the most of all the elements you go up there with, which are the acoustic guitar, the lyrics and then the timing. You can leave pauses in songs to accentuate a lyric. And you’re thinking about what you’re singing far more when you’re playing an acoustic than when you’re driving the band forward...When you’re on your own, you emulate it in a completely different way. You really have to bring out everything that you’ve got into those songs. All the emotions. I try to connect with what inspired me to write it and look for the things in the song I didn’t realize were there...Some of the songs from our ‘Strength’ album from ’85 were far more mature than we realized when they were written in the first place. We were young, gung ho and excited about rock ‘n’ roll. There was a depth to it that passed us by at the time. I discovered it a lot more when I started playing it acoustically. Going through life, some of the things loomed much larger for me in recent times that it ever did when it was first conceived in 1985.

Q: The Alarm had several memorable gigs in Orange County during the mid-'80s.
A: We played Cal State Fullerton around that time and I remember that as being one of the greatest gigs we ever played. Some of it was filmed for MTV’s “The Cutting Edge” [a precursor to “120 Minutes”]. I just remember it being a fantastic night.

Q: What initially prompted you to resurrect the Alarm around 2000?
A: Eddie MacDonald and I reconnected as old friends, nothing to do with music. I thought it would be nice to get some string arrangements on the soundtrack and asked Eddie if he’d like to get involved in the project. And he did. We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be good to play some Alarm gigs again?’ We put the word out to Nigel [Twist] and Dave [Sharp]. They didn’t want to do it. So Eddie and I went forward. Everyone was cool with it as long as we put the suffix after it of the year. We went out on tour and played a set of shows with Big Country in the UK. It was fantastic. We really enjoyed it. We went out and played the best of the Alarm stuff. It was great fun. We went to do more and Eddie decided he didn’t want to go on tour. He enjoyed it for that moment, but didn’t want to give up his life again to go on the road…it ended up being me and the new guys, well we’ve been playing for [nearly] 10 years.

Q: All the current Alarm members' musical resumes (Generation X, Gene Loves Jezebel, The Mission, Sisters of Mercy, Stiff Little Fingers) are impressive to say the least.
A: In some ways, The Alarm is a better band now because of that. The energy is still really strong. It’s a different energy. It’ll never be the camaraderie of the original four guys who’d grown up and gone through success. There’s a new, fresh energy to it...We do have a real chemistry. I always say, ‘wow, lightning definitely struck twice on the Alarm.’ We had an amazing chemistry the first time and we have an incredible chemistry now. OK, there’s a lot of barriers to overcome when it’s not the original lineup. People are very purist about that. I understand that. I think the challenge for me as an artist is how you take that on. A lot of people won’t even go there. They would say, ‘you’ll never repeat it again.’ I love a challenge and think we have taken the Alarm on a notch. The new music we’re making has proven it.

Q: You did get back together with the other three guys briefly a few years ago for VH1’s “Bands Reunited.” Was that a good way to sort of tie up loose ends with everyone?
A: Absolutely...Everyone’s walked away from it with good memories. You can’t be in a band for 10 years and not have an argument, fight and fallout. Bands are always trying to cover that up. You want to present a united front to your fans at all times. It’s like a family thing – you do the fighting indoors. You stand there and put on a brave face. There was a lot of that going on in the latter days of the Alarm. We were all putting a big brave face on it, but underneath we were all hurting. Now we’ve been able to deal with that. Everyone has walked away with a great feeling in their heart about how good it was. None of us have any illusions that we could get the original four back together and conquer the world again. We know that is unrealistic. But we always leave the door open for the opportunity to play again at some point. It might well happen. The Alarm MMVI did a tour last summer with Psychedelic Furs and Twist came onstage in San Francisco and got on the drum kit and played with us. Eddie always pops up and plays; so does Dave. We have a great relationship. Everyone is happy with the way I’ve taken it forward and know it’s done respectfully to the past and we’re carrying on the lineage in a good way. We’re not trying to pretend what went on before didn’t happen.

Q: Now that your latest studio CD “Under Attack” has been out for a couple years are you happy with how it turned out and was perceived by the public?
A: Definitely. It wouldn’t be an Alarm gig without some of those songs now. They’re a massive part of the gig. That’s always what you’re looking for in any album. When we play live, there’s four songs on ‘Declaration’ you have to do if it’s to be an Alarm gig. The same on ‘Strength.’ I think ‘Under Attack’ is one of those records for the Alarm. There’s key songs we have to live whether we like it or not.

Q: Some of the faster ones, like "Cease & Desist," "Superchannel" almost have a punk edge. It’s like getting back to the early days of the Alarm in a way.
A: That’s right. That’s what we’ve been able to do with this band is reconnect with the original energy that kicked the band off. In the ‘80s, because of circumstance and the way things went, we got lugged into being compared to U2 more often than not. We got thrown in with that U2/Simple Minds/Big Country thing. Really, the Alarm’s roots were much more of a punk rock band. When we first came out, we were seen as a punk rock band with acoustic guitars that sounded like The Clash meets Bob Dylan. Being led by me solely these days that comes out more in the music than the echo-drenched sound we ended up with in the mid-80s. Dave’s guitar style with the delay unit. Also U2 started to play harmonicas and acoustic guitars and wear cowboy hats. There were a lot of things incestuous from the days of us playing a lot of shows together. U2 brought us to America, so we were always grateful for that. They’re an amazing band, but I never understood why we got compared to them.

Q: People looked at you both on a surface level, but really didn’t dig deep enough to see the differences.
A: The songs that fitted that sound at the time – U2/Simple Minds/Big Country/The Fixx – they’re the songs people would pick out of the Alarm’s work to put on the radio. That became our signature sound by default…that’s one of the things that creates a lot of frustration in bands making music: they don’t get the change to have it heard anymore because they’re frightened to move beyond the realm of what they can get played on the radio. With the Internet, there’s a great sense of freedom I feel as an artist. You’ve got the world at your feet now. If you write good stuff and keep putting out quality music, eventually it’s going to get across and people will discover what you’re doing. It’s much more of a level playing field than there ever was before...I understand with our audience, some people are out there having children, building their careers and don’t have time for rock ‘n’ roll anymore. As long as we’re here, doing what we do, they’ll come back to it at some point and rediscover it all over again. It’s amazing how many times we see fans getting back into it. They’ve dusted down an album they found in the loft, got on the Internet to find out ‘where’s the Alarm there days?’ It’s like a second coming and it’s great to be there for them in that way. They can find I’m as committed as I ever was and doing things exciting.

Q: Were you satisfied with how the whole "45 RPM" single experiment went with using The Poppyfields pseudonym, young stand-ins for the music video and watching it race onto the British Top 40 chart?
A: It just shows you what we’ve always known that if the music of the Alarm today was being made by the Alarm of 1983, we’d have eclipsed most bands on the planet. It’s so valuable to have youth on your side in today’s modern music world. The music industry that [still] exists is obsessed with youth and newness. We’ll never be that ever again. But our music will always be fresh and exciting. We proved it by putting out ’45 RPM’ under the guise of a different name and video. The industry in Britain fell for it hook line and sinker. All the DJs who were saying it was the greatest record of the last 10 years, stopped playing it the instant they found out it was the Alarm. It was a huge thing for us, but also like cutting our own throats. It proved a point and we’ll always know that.

Q: How is your health these days?
A: I’m not cured by any means, but it’s under control and as long as I stay on the right side of response rates to the drugs, I’m going to be good. At least it’s something I’ll die with rather than of. That’s all you can ever ask for.

Q: Your Love Hope Strength Foundation has raised $250,000 in America so far. Do you think you've got the word out now through your high profile climbs up Mount Everest, Snowdon in Wales, etc.?
A: Now people see what we’re doing, a lot more want to get involved. I can only see it growing from here on in. We can do a lot of good. As well as raising money, I want to spread the good news that there is a chance to survive cancer. There are ways to overcome it now and people have made huge breakthroughs. It’s not the death sentence it used to be. We want to get that message across. Nobody thinks about cancer until it walks thru your front door. Nobody’s ever prepared. Nobody has a cancer survival pack tucked away in the back of the house. We’re trying to prepare people. It is going to affect 1 in 3 people.

The Alarm is expected to tour the U.S. again in late summer/early fall with a new studio expected in 2008.

Says Peters: We’re just stepping it up again. We really believe in what we’re doing and all is good in the world.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

BIlly Bragg CD review

(Originally appeared in IE Weekly)

Billy Bragg
Mr. Love & Justice

When Billy Bragg assembled backing band The Blokes close to a decade ago, his music suddenly took a loose, pals-playing-at-the-corner-bar turn. It was a far cry from the Brit’s captiving agit-pop of the ‘80s. But we all can’t stay angry young men forever. 2002’s "England, Half English" contained world beat and soul elements that sounded forced alongside a handful of political numbers. In the interim, Bragg wrote a book and drew attention for his complaints to MySpace about its proprietary rights clause.

Now he has returned with ninth studio effort "Mr. Love & Justice," a mature album which often recalls the folk rock of "Mermaid Avenue Vol. 1-2." Bloke Ian McLagan (ex-Faces) adds shimmering organ to the title track and Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine provides lovely backing vocals on the relationship minded “I Keep Faith.” Elsewhere, a rambunctious “I Almost Killed You” borders on skiffle, the humorous “Johnny Carcinogenic Show” gently takes on Big Tobacco (and reminds of Peter Gabriel’s similar lambasting of tabloid TV) and the haunting “O Freedom” (about rendition) recalls the Bragg of yore. Still, little here will have you singing in the shower. Go check out the Yep Roc Records reissues instead. (George A. Paul) Grade: C+

Gin Blossoms interview

(Originally appeared in North County Times)

By George A. Paul

When Gin Blossoms – best known for the ‘90s pop/rock hits “Hey Jealousy,” “Found Out About You” and “Follow You Down” - perform at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach this weekend, the gig will serve as a homecoming for Jesse Valenzuela.

“North San Diego is actually one of my favorite places in the world,” said the guitarist/vocalist/songwriter, in a phone interview from his home recording studio in Los Angeles. “As a kid, I was there a lot. My sisters live in San Diego; my mother is down there too. They’ll probably be at the show.”

The musician and his band mates are quite familiar with the Solana Beach venue, having played there numerous times over the past 20 years.

“Sunday is such a great night at that club,” Valenzuela enthused. “It will be a really joyous event because we really love playing down there…I certainly like to walk over to Roberto’s [Very Mexican Food] in the afternoon. Their tacos are fantastic.”

Valenzuela, 45, used to frequent area clubs on a regular basis to see blues act the James Harman Band, cow punk group the Beat Farmers and others.

Gin Blossoms are currently touring in support of 2006’s solid “Major Lodge Victory” (Hybrid Recordings). “New music keeps our live shows vital,” affirmed the guitarist. “But we’re proud of our catalog. If somebody can yell loud enough [at a show] and we can hear it, we’ll usually try to play it.”

The current Owen Wilson comedy “Drill Bit Taylor” features one of the Blossoms’ new tunes. “It created some buzz and keeps the band fresh in the minds of people. A lot of our music fits really well in movies. We’ve been fortune enough to garner some great spots.”

Despite a decade-long span between “Congratulations, I’m Sorry” and the latest effort, fans should find it was well worth the wait. With longtime producer John Hampton and Valenzuela at the helm, the quintet crafted another inviting slice of jangly pop/rock that easily stands up to earlier material.

One noticeable change is a heightened emphasis on harmonies (“End of the World,” “Someday Soon,” sublime Beach Boys homage “California Sun”). Valenzuela co-produced the latter with Danny Wilde of The Rembrandts (“I’ll Be There for You,” “Just the Way It is Baby”). Wilde also provided background vocals and helped pen various tunes.

“We may have been fostering that sort of harmony and trying to cultivate melodies a little more than we used to,” said Valenzuela. “Melody has always been strong with the Gin Blossoms though.”

Among the other standouts are slow-churning rockers “Long Time Gone” and “Heart Shaped Locket” (where vocal effects and programmed drums are briefly utilized). Psychedelic guitar touches are heard throughout.

“When you’ve been making records for so long (you realize) every solo doesn’t have to knock you over the head and give you a black eye…there’s a lot more nuance and flourish on the record. We’ve given into it.”

Formed in Tempe, Ariz. during the late ‘80s, Gin Blossoms put out the indie release “Dusted” in 1989. The group made their major label bow with 1992’s “New Miserable Experience,” but received little attention amid grunge rock’s domination.

After a year of steady touring later, MTV and radio finally took notice.

“A&M Records were very gracious,” recalled Valenzuela. “They gave us money to stay on the road even when nothing was happening. We were really lucky and fortunate. We were probably one of the last bands where a label would stand behind you for that long because they believed something was going to happen. I think the kids coming up these days have a real uphill climb.”

The album spawned five hits on various formats and was certified quadruple platinum. “Til I Hear It From You,” heard in the 1995 film “Empire Records,” became the band’s biggest smash to date. Follow up album “Congratulations, I’m Sorry” went platinum on the back of more chart singles. Then Gin Blossoms suddenly called it quits in 1987.

These days, Valenzuela writes songs for television shows (“Ghost Whisperer,” “Judging Amy”) and movies (“The Heartbreak Kid”) between Gin Blossoms commitments. He has released a solo CD (“Tunes Young People Will Enjoy”) and another with Vancouver singer/guitarist Craig Northey of The Odds.

That partnership resulted in the theme to successful Canadian TV sitcom “Corner Gas” (it airs on Superstation WGN in America and is syndicated in 26 countries worldwide).

Valenzuela said he is “really thankful” for the continued support of Gin Blossoms fans. “I didn’t know that many people would stay with us. Now we can have a wonderful time, entertain people and make music. It’s a real blessed life.”
Gin Blossoms perform April 20 at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach.
Bonus Q&A
Q: Does Robin still go into the audience and hand a fan a tambourine or sing into their cell phone?
A: Yeah, of course. That big gag from the ‘90s is still around.
Q: Was the making of 'Major Lodge Victory' easier than 'Congratulations' a decade before?
A: It was a long process recording. Everybody has recording equipment at their home so a lot of it was done on the Internet, sending it back and forth. It was different than in the past. It used to be like Ice Station Zebra. We’d be locked away in Memphis for 4-6 weeks. Nobody really has the time to commit that way anymore...Robin’s in Long Island and Phoenix; the rest of the guys are in Phoenix. One of our guys is in New Mexico, so we’re all spread out.
Q: Is being in the band better now than in the mid-‘90s when everything going at a frenzied pace?
A: I think it’s very enjoyable now…I wrote a song yesterday for a movie and I’m writing one today. I just enjoy the work. With maturity, you realize all the great benefits you get from a job you actually enjoy.
Q: Last year, you had a brief cameo in the Farrelly Brothers’ “Heartbreak Kid” starring Ben Stiller during the nudist colony sequence.
A: It was just some shenanigans; kind of hokey [sounding embarrassed it was brought up]. I’ll never be an actor. It’s only in the realm of my imagination. Having the song in the movie was fantastic. I love that movie. We have another one [‘Spark,’ from Jesse’s solo CD] coming out in a National Lampoon movie called “Bag Boy.” The Farrelly Brothers have used a lot of our songs over the years.
Q: How did you get involved in co-writing the theme song to the hit Canadian show, “Corner Gas”?
A: I released a record a couple years ago with my good friend Craig Northey...a song we wrote over the phone six years ago has taken on this huge life. That’s a real joy for me. Something that was so wonderful to do – a conversation with a friend in the afternoon – he called and said, ‘they’re looking for a song, let’s write something.’ We literally did it over the telephone over the course of a couple hours. We quickly cut it and got it to them. And they chose it for the show, which was a thrill…it’s funny, some of the guys in the Gin Blossoms didn’t know about that song. Our drummer called me a couple weeks ago and said, ‘why didn’t you tell anybody?’ I just forgot. Through the years, there have been a lot of TV shows – a sitcom on NBC that lasted two episodes. Another sitcom that lasted four episodes.
Q: Nowadays TV theme songs are short if there is even one at all.
A: [Networks] have cut back because the payment to AFTRA and ASCAP started cutting in. During the writer’s strike, it got difficult, so we had to cut corners for awhile. I hope there isn’t an actors’ strike. That would be a drag for everyone too. There’s probably not going to be a pilot season this year. Generally this time of year is it and they start looking for songs. The clarion call goes out to the 3600 songwriters here in Los Angeles and everybody starts cutting tracks. It’s very exciting; I like it. It would drive a lot of people crazy. I did a song for a Fox TV show last year. All those shows in the early 2000s like “Dawson’s Creek” – there were a lot of placements in those. There’s a lot of work if you enjoy the hustle.
Q: Back in the early days of the band, you cited influences like The Byrds, Replacements and Tom Petty. Do you still find yourselves going back to those classic reference points when making new music?
A: I was talking to our bass player the other day about favorite bands of all time and I still think for me, it’s The Byrds. I can go back and listen to a specific record, like the Gene Clark solo records, which really touched me. I always listen to those over and over again.
Q: Were you surprised in the ‘90s when “Hey Jealousy” and some of the other singles became multi-radio format hits?
A: They put us on some alternative stations. We were never really an alternative band and had very little in common with the bands from Seattle. We just eked in.
Q: With hindsight, what do you think made the debut album click with so many people?
A: I don’t know. I’m just thankful that people love it. I think it was fresh and didn’t sound like anything else that was going on at the time. What we were able to create through whatever alchemy happened spawned a lot of music afterwards. We were probably at the forefront of it. But we robbed from everybody.
To purchase Jesse's solo CD "Tunes Young People Will Enjoy," go to or

Autumns CD review

The Autumns
Fake Noise From a Box of Toys
(World’s Fair/Bella Union)

By George A. Paul

In these days of digital download dominance, a CD cover isn’t as important as it used to be. Yet the artwork can still offer hints about an artist’s creative direction. Fake Noise from a Box of Toys, The Autumns’ fourth full-length effort, is a good example. The street graffiti-inspired image by noted Orange County, Calif. painter Aaron Kraten is quite edgy and different than some elegant covers used in the past. A similar jarring effect comes from the band’s newly abrasive sonic textures.

When the Los Angeles quintet emerged with debut disc The Angel Pool in 1997, it owed a stylistic debt to such English dream pop and shoegaze acts as My Bloody Valentine, Lush and Cocteau Twins. Glistening guitar sounds were wrapped around atmospheric tunes that frequently stretched past the six-minute mark

Former Cocteau bassist/producer Simon Raymonde helped The Autumns expand their sound on 2000’s In the Russet Gold of This Vain Hour, which topped the college radio charts and received airplay on both commercial alt-rock stations and MTV. The band scored music for a 2004 documentary (“Searching for Angela Shelton”) and garnered critical praise for another album that year.

Originally released last fall on Raymonde’s U.K. label, Fake Noise finds The Autumns crafting more immediate songs than before. “Boys” comes off like a noisy cross between Thrice and Muse, especially when frontman Matthew Kelly’s dramatic falsetto kicks in. “Glass Jaw” proves equally intense and “Clem” opens with crunchy guitars before transitioning into a gorgeous melody. A languid Sigur Ros vibe envelops “Midnight Knock” and an ominous “Night Music” (complete with jazzy breakdown). Both are highlights here.

On “Uncle Slim” and epic closer “Oh My Heart,” the frenzied triple guitar assault recalls “Mellon Collie”-era Smashing Pumpkins, while Kelly’s high voice meshes well with female backing vocals during the chiming “Beautiful Boot.” Old fans might be surprised by the beefier sound, but The Autumns should gain plenty of new admirers with this solid effort. Grade: B

Simple Plan interview

Canadian band adds hip-hop flava to usual pop/rock mix on latest album

By George A. Paul

The following music biz scenario is all too common: a band hits big with their first CD, immediately records a second one that’s nearly as popular and goes out on a limb for the “difficult third album.”

Simple Plan’s career trajectory would appear to run along those same lines - except it wasn’t that calculated. Formed in 1999, the Montreal-based pop/punk group put out major label debut “No Pads, No Helmets…Just Balls” in 2002, but received little attention.

Steady touring throughout America (300 gigs over the course of a year) resulted in a Billboard chart entry for “No Pads” eight months later. Pogo-worthy singles “Addicted” and “I’d Do Anything” found favor with MTV’s “TRL” audience and radio in ’03, while “No Pads” and the ballad “Perfect” reached the top 40 in ‘04.

That CD and the follow up effort, “Still Not Getting Any,” went platinum on the strength of more insanely catchy pop radio faves (“Shut Up!,” “Welcome to My Life,” “Untitled”).

Now the quintet is back with “Simple Plan” (Lava/Atlantic). Produced by Timbaland protégé Nate “Danja” Hills (Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado), Dave Fortman (Mudvayne, Evanescence) and Max Martin (Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson), it is a more mature effort where hip-hop, pop and rock elements combine into one satisfying sonic brew.

“The whole point for us was to try something new and keep things fresh,” said drummer/co-songwriter Chuck Comeau, in a phone interview from his home in Montreal. “Once you make that decision, you can’t really look back. You have to go for it. I think we did that.”

Although the guys came up with a solid batch of tunes a few months after their 2006 tour ended, the results were predictable. Instead, Simple Plan discarded the rule book.

“It was important to do things that would really stand out,” explained Comeau. “We took a hard look [at the songs] and said, ‘we need to push ourselves further.’ That’s why it took so long to make this record. We gave ourselves a chance to experiment.”

A Miami trip to collaborate with Hills proved fruitful right off the bat.

“We went there on the fly with nothing and started to jam together. After the first session, we had a bunch of ideas and ended up with two songs. We were so excited that we came back, did it again and worked on another two songs.”

Hills’ stamp is evident on leadoff track “When I’m Gone” (celebrity blogger Perez Hilton makes a cameo in the video). Boasting a loping rhythm, chanting chorus and bouncy keyboard melody, the tune is a real departure. Same goes for the intense vibe of Martin co-production “Generation,” which contains both a nod to the Ramones and “The Final Countdown,” a 1987 hit by Europe heard in the film “Rocky IV.”

“Dude, I love that song,” Comeau, 28, said with a laugh about the Europe comparison – one of his childhood favorites. “It just feels like a call to arms. When we first heard Nate play that riff, we thought, ‘that’s so rad.’”

Percolating sounds and Pierre Bouvier’s layered vocals dominate “The End” before transitioning into full-on rock mode. Hills and DJ Lethal (Limp Bizkit) also contributed a drum loop and programming to “Your Love is a Lie,” about a cheating partner.

“Nate is so creative,” Comeau enthused. “It was a different environment for us [in Florida]. It got us to think outside the box and write from a different perspective. That was really inspiring.”
Longtime female fans will gravitate toward the soaring ballads (“What If,” “No Love,” “I Can Wait Forever”), enhanced by a 16-piece string section.

The highly personal “Save You” shows how Simple Plan has progressed from juvenile fare like “I’m Just a Kid.” Comeau called the former tune “touching” because it was inspired by lyric writing partner Bouvier’s brother and his battle with cancer.

“With every record, we want to be honest, like an open book. On this one, we said, ‘let’s not shy away from any topic.’ I think there are more love songs. That’s something we really didn’t write about before.”

Elsewhere on the new disc, guitarists Jeff Stinco and Sebastien Lefebvre delve into some U2 and Guns ‘N Roses-styled riffs and Comeau adds counterpoint vocals a la Linkin Park.

Now that the band is closing in on a decade together, Comeau wants people to know Simple Plan is here for the duration.

“I think longevity is how you earn respect and prove you’re not some flavor of the week. When we started out, people thought, ‘they’ll be another one hit wonder.’ It feels good to earn your place…There’s so much more we have to accomplish. In a way, I feel like we’re just getting started.”

BONUS Q&A with Chuck Comeau

Q: Perez Hilton makes a cameo in the “When I’m Gone” video. Is he a fan?
A: It looks that way. He always has good things to say (about us). So far, he hasn’t trashed us. So hey, that’s good. We met him at the Much Music Awards in Canada and kept in touch. I’m a big fan of his page. I’m there every day. Gossip used to be this thing where you were totally ashamed to admit that you were into it. I would never buy an Us Weekly. Now that’s its online, nobody sees you. You can know everything and you don’t have to be embarrassed behind the counter. Much better. It’s like pornography – a lot easier to get your hands on. I love it.

Q: With some loops and programming on the new songs, will you take a keyboardist on tour?
A: Right now, we’re just doing sequencers. It adds a whole dimension to the show. At first we thought it might make the show a little sterile, but quite the contrary. It makes it more exciting and fun and challenging for us to play. Keeps you on your toes and it’s really coming out great (live). Down the road, we’d love to have a piano because we have a lot of songs (with one), so we’ll see.

Q: The band has utilized string arrangements in the past, but this time, you went a bit further.
A: It’s always magical when you’re in the studio and hear your songs played by people who never heard the music and they just come in and nail it. It adds a whole new dimension to the sound and makes every sad part sadder and adds such emotion to the music. That was one of the coolest things for me.

Q: Pierre’s vocals are very impressive on this CD, especially on the ballads.
A: Pierre really stepped up to the plate in my opinion. He took it very seriously and wanted to try different things. For example, he sings in falsetto, which he’s never done before. I think it sounds amazing. I don’t think he was super-confident about it at first because it was something he’d never done. He embraced it and said, “I’ll go for it."

Q: You and Pierre work on lyrics together. How has that working relationship evolved?
A: We each have our strengths and help each other out. I think Pierre is an amazing songwriter and is really great at finding words that sound good with a melody. In some ways, maybe I’m better at finding the big line that people can remember. We work as a team. I’ve known the guy for 15 years...There’s obviously a comfort level there.

Q: To me, “Holding On” has a panoramic, U2-ish sound. What vibe were you going for there?
A: The intro sounds a little like vintage U2. That was sort of intentional, coming up with that riff. We loved it so much. It took us a long time to figure out where to take it. We reworked it and finally came up with something we were really stoked about. It’s definitely different from the rest...On this song, I actually have a spoken word part, which is really cool. It’s the first time I sort of sing on a record. That was exciting.

Q: I also hear a few more prominent guitar solos, especially on “I Can Wait Forever.” Is that something Jeff pushed to do in the studio?
A: It just felt right. There was no lobbying from one side or another. I think we’ve grown more confident so we can do these things. We’re less worried what people will think…it definitely has an old school ‘80s feel. We grew up loving Guns ‘N Roses. They had great ballads. It felt like a throwback to that – us growing up, being 13-14 and in love with the sounds of Slash and Axl.

American Idol watch

Last week's "American Idol" elimination was jaw-dropping to say the least. Aussie Michael Johns had a good voice, stage presence and sense of humor. And Ryan Seacrest's tease - "Last year after we did 'Idol Gives Back,' there were no eliminations...but not this year!" - was cruel.

Why the bland, dreadlocked Jason Castro hasn't been cut yet is beyond me. He's this season's Sanjaya. Speaking of bland to the extreme, Mariah Carey was a useless mentor this week. How convenient that her new CD just happened to come out on Tuesday.

One constant irritant about the show is how Seacrest (or the judges for that matter) frequently neglect to tell viewers whose song is being sung. Sure, "Without You" was a hit for Carey in '94. But the oft-covered tune was originally a No.1 hit for Nilsson in '72 and written by the guys in Badfinger.

A couple weeks ago, David Archuleta covered Robbie Williams (and Guy Chambers') magnificient "Angels." Archluleta didn't mention it and neither did Simon Cowell, who praised the original.

Kristy Lee Cook deserved the boot this week. And David Cook did a brilliant job making a Carey song interesting.