BOOKS FULL OF WORDS UNDERLINED
Feature: Billboard - Road Trip Lands Minibar A Deal
By Chris Morris
The hybrid sound of U.K.'s Minibar -- whose T Bone Burnett-produced debut album, Road Movies, arrives from Universal Records April 10 -- should appeal to a diverse audience, according to Universal director of marketing Derek Simon.
"I think the band's combination of love for American rootsy music with their British pop sensibilities has really put us in a pretty interesting place," says Simon. "The fact that they grew up listening to both kinds of music has made their music a combination of the two things. It's allowed us to keep enough of the pop sensibility in the record so that it does open up radio play in multiple formats."
Although Minibar is well-schooled in the pop basics, it was the quartet's love of American roots rock that led to its emigration from London to Los Angeles a couple of years ago, according to lead vocalist Simon Petty.
"It was the tail end of Britpop, and we were playing three-part-harmony pedal-steel-guitar songs," Petty recalls. "Everyone was like, 'Well, that's good, but what are we gonna do with that?' I said, 'I dunno. This is what we like. These are the songs that we like, and this is how we sound.' Very unfashionable at the time, although it's probably quite fashionable now. Everybody seems to have a pedal-steel guitar player now."
Petty adds, "We were getting interest, but everyone said 'we don't know how to sell you' when it came to getting a deal with a record company. Me and [bassist] Sid [Jordan] were doing covers in pubs to stay alive, and we got this residency in a terrible Tex-Mex restaurant in London and saved up enough money for our airfare [to the U.S.] and a hotel for two weeks."
Petty, Jordan, steel guitarist Tim Walker, and drummer Malcolm Cross ended up playing just two dates in L.A., at the Troubadour and the Viper Room. Fortunately, a scout for Cherry Entertainment, the Universal-distributed imprint headed by noted film-music supervisor Jolene Cherry, caught the set at the latter venue -- and not a moment too soon.
Petty remembers, "We got a phone call on Monday saying, 'When's your next gig?' And we were like, 'Our drummer's flown home, and we're leaving in two days. We haven't got any more gigs.' And [Cherry] said, 'Well, come in the office and play acoustically, the three of you.' And we said, 'OK,' and went up there and played two songs. And she said, 'I'm gonna have to stop you.' And I'm thinking, 'Oh, God, there it goes again.' And she said, 'I've got to tell you, I'm going to offer you a deal. Have you got any more songs?' "
Minibar relocated permanently to Los Angeles, where it set to work recording with producer Burnett (who recently helmed the chart-topping soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"). "He really pushed us hard, but made us listen to stuff and forced us to be a better band, playing-wise," Petty says. "But he also allowed us to make more mistakes -- to loosen up, basically."
The 11 Road Movies tracks -- 10 originals, plus "Choked Up," a Ryan Adams-penned song from the upcoming Whiskeytown album "Pneumonia" -- reflect Minibar's familiarity with both pop classicism and contemporary roots music.
Petty notes that his group has opened for some prominent roots-rock combos recently. "We supported the Jayhawks in the early summer for a few gigs, and that was great," he says. "Our best gig ever, officially the best night of my life, we played with Wilco at the Fillmore in San Francisco, last July. That was something else. By doing that, people picked up on us."
"I guess we are allied with [roots groups]," he adds. "But I think we sound really different to that. There's nods towards it, but I think we sound really English."
Universal will launch Road Movies with the release of the track "Holiday From Myself" to radio in mid-March. "I think we can probably look to a certain part of the [roots] audience to start the project. The people who like the Jayhawks and Wilco, who are a huge influence for the band, the people who are paying attention to Whiskeytown and Ryan Adams' solo stuff -- I think that's a great place for us to start."
Minibar will initially tour out of its home base.
"The band has been headquartered in Southern California for a while," says Simon, "and that allows us to run up as far north as Seattle, and down through Phoenix, and into Colorado and Vegas, to play shows in markets where there's a built-in audience for this kind of band. The approach will be to continue to have them headline around the area and then jump on the bills that are appropriate for them to jump on... It's like we're dropping a stone in a pond, and we're hoping to have the effect just ripple out."
Originally published March 21, 2001