BOOKS FULL OF WORDS UNDERLINED
Feature: LA Music Scene
By Jenn Cassie
A Conversation with Simon Petty of Minibar
In the most recent issue of LA Weekly, Minibar joins four other talented nominees for Best New Artist for the publication's 2003 Music Awards. Simon Petty, singer/songwriter and acoustic guitarist of Minibar, couldn't be happier. He's thrilled that critics are recognizing his band's high-quality sound and musical perseverance, instead of focusing solely on commercial success and profitability. However, while the band may be "new" to many music fans who have yet to hear this phenomenal pop-rock/alt-country quartet, in reality Minibar has been playing together for over seven years. Originally hailing from London, England, the band is composed of Petty, Sid Jordan (bass, vocals), Tim Walker (electric guitar, vocals, pedal steel), and Malcolm Cross (drums, vocals, percussion). Minibar produced their critically-acclaimed debut Road Movies (Universal Records) in 2001, followed it up with their independent release of a five-track album called The Unstoppable e.p. in June of 2002, appeared on the Trampoline Records compilation CD later in 2002, has toured with the likes of Pete Yorn, The Wallflowers, and Wilco, and is ready to begin touring to support their new album Fly Below The Radar (Foodchain Records), set to release on June 10. In the midst of all this, Minibar has still managed to maintain a fairly low profile. In fact, Petty admits the new album title is a pretty accurate description of the band itself. "We were looking for an album title, and then Fly Below The Radar came up, and that's exactly what we do." But will that still be the case after its release? Petty muses upon that question, along with a few others, to tell the story of where Minibar began, where it's at now, and what the future holds.
Minibar formed in London in the mid 1990s. After playing in the local London music scene for several years, they were having a tough time breaking into the big leagues, mostly due to their inability to be classified as genre-specific. "The music that we do didn't really fit in with what was going on in London at all," Petty explains. "Lots of people said 'Oh, we really like you, but we can't sign you because we don't know what to do with it'." So they decided to try their luck in the States. They first came to LA on spec in 1998 for two weeks to play two shows at the Troubadour and the Viper Room, respectively. After their second show, they found themselves signed with Universal, a seemingly unbelievable feat. "We just played in their office, and that was enough to convince them to bring us back here nine months later. We were so fucking lucky. People were really pissed off about that, understandably! I mean, we had to play like 150 gigs in London before we got there, but people didn't see that... Maybe now people will start to see that we signed with Universal because that was the only deal we had. We didn't choose to be on a major label to piss everybody off."
It wasn't hard to convince these Englishmen to make the move to California, either. Aside from the obvious advantage sunny California has over dreary England, Petty and his band were eager to make a permanent shift to LA for more personal reasons. "We were all living under pretty strained circumstances (laughs). London's not a great town to be hard-up in. We were very keen to come out here and start making records." More importantly, Minibar was drawn in by the LA music scene itself. "Musically speaking, there's an inclusiveness to the music here. The people are much more prepared to play with each other and experiment." The collaborative efforts between Minibar and other local musicians provided a strong foundation of connections and friends that helped Minibar move up the musical ladder. Petty met Marc Dauer of Jukebox Junkies at a recording studio, and through him met Pete Yorn, who became a huge supporter and friend of the band. In fact, Yorn's and Minibar's first CDs were scheduled for release on the same day, and Petty notes, grinning, that at the moment of both releases, "our career trajectories differed instantly, shall we say." Through another musician, Ben Peeler, Minibar met Rami Jaffee of The Wallflowers, who not only joins Minibar on stage on a regular basis, but also guests on the new album as well as co-produced it. "Finding great like-minded people quickly" gave Minibar a supportive frame within which to grow some LA roots. "That's the thing I probably love the best (about LA). There's a real respect for the bands in general, and between the bands. I think we found an openness here." Petty holds strong admiration for his peers, as well as other established artists like Beck, The Flaming Lips, and the Jayhawks. In regards to most commercialized music on the airwaves, Petty isn't exactly a fan. "I find it depressing," he admits. "It pisses me off a bit, actually."
Commercialization wasn't something that Minibar would have to face just yet. The loyal fan core that Road Movies generated failed to impress the label giant Universal, who dropped Minibar after it failed to garner enough profit. Minibar has since signed with the lesser known label Foodchain Records, and Petty isn't worried. "Working with Foodchain is a low level thing, and honestly that's the way it's going to work." Looking at the music industry today, Petty isn't anxious to jump back into the circus just yet. "I think there's a lot of scared people out there, and that's never going to work with music. I'm not saying we won't ever want to be on another major label, but I know there would be elements of it that we might be even more shy of this time. I mean, if there was an incredibly far-sighted, extremely pro-active, risk-taking major label, great! (laughs) Can you name one? There really isn't that kind of launch pad at the moment. And it's probably due to the way radio is set up. It just makes it extremely difficult to get something off the ground, and even more difficult if it's something that doesn't readily fit into a demographic, which we don't. And I'm fucking happy about it! We're not 'pop' enough to be on a 'pop station', we're not 'country' enough to be on a 'country station', we're not 'rock' enough to be on a 'rock station'. Well, there should be more stations! (laughs) Or, alternately, if something kicked off for us, then we'd be on all of them. That's the other way of looking at it. We're not being exclusive, the radio stations are being exclusive."
But Petty isn't arrogant. He is more than willing to concede that a major label can provide big benefits. "I don't think that we necessarily know best about our music. Especially in terms of selling it. That's not my department." But when it comes down to it, the sacrifice just isn't worth it at this point. "After our last experience, it's better for us to say 'well, look. If we just do it ourselves, with the help of some great production people, essentially to have creative control of at least which songs go on the album, what mixes get chosen, what order they get put in...if we have that, at least we stand by something we believe is a true reflection of where we are as a band'. There's a validity in that."
Along with a fresh new label for Fly Below The Radar comes a refreshed and slightly more upbeat sound that still preserves their pensive lyrics and introspective harmonies. Foodchain calls the album "a melodically mesmerizing album about life, love, and loss". No Depression says its "a pleasing combination of easy going twang and vigorous pop rock". Even Pete Yorn gives his own endorsement of the band in reference to the new album, calling Minibar "one of the greatest bands I've ever heard." So what does Petty think? "The new album is broader, in terms of where our musical influence is drawn from. I think that's important because that's something that we as four people making music together have pushed outwards on, individually as well as with the group." The album was recorded in stages at various locations over the course of two long years, yet Petty calls the CD "coherent. Lyrically, there are a lot of songs that are questioning. Either in the context of a relationship, or even in the broader picture, there's a searching and a yearning going on." He specifically points to the song "New Mexico", which he says "uses the geography of America to show wanting to get lost, because it's so huge, and also wanting to define yourself by the nature of the landscape and the way you find yourself in it."
Petty's lyrics have a consistent push/pull mentality. Focusing on "where we are, to what we've done, and who we are, going back in the past to define what's important", Petty is constantly exploring the past in terms of the present, and a step further, in terms of the future, looking at the connectedness and interweaving of our lives and what builds and shapes them. "I hope the listener is pulled around a little bit," says Petty. "I hope there's a little journey within the album." Juxtaposed to this exploration is a song like "It Is What It Is" (heavily played on KCRW rotation), about not trying to think too much, and just letting it be. "We're going towards California zen territory there (laughs). It's calming and reassuring." Petty's lyrics are also largely autobiographical. He references "Snake Buckle Belt" as the most autobiographical song on the album, and his personal favorite. "It puts me in a good place." But the song he's most proud of musically is "Unstoppable", a love song that "recognizes it doesn't come easy. I really love the chord structure in that one (smiling)."
With the release of this new album comes big changes, Petty believes. "It's definitely going to move things on for us, I know that, and I'm excited about that... There's an integrity to it that I think might not have been perceived in the first album, when we got a bunch of chances and we were coming out, playing American music to Americans, and didn't know what we were doing. I think that's going to be a big help to us, because in the end, I don't think we're interested in across-the-board airplay and being in this or that film. The thing is to try and cultivate a fan base that will come and see you play gigs. When you can fill a place three nights in a row, that's a band, you know? That's what I would like for this band. When it works live, when you're playing really well, that's the best feeling you can possibly have. That's the addictive bit."
Fly Below The Radar goes on sale Tuesday, June 10. Grab a copy sooner rather than later, and you'll get a bonus CD of three live tracks from KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" session with Minibar from October 2002, plus two other tracks, including a cover of "Ask" by The Smiths. Check your local record store, or jump onto www.minibarfans.com and click on the album icon to buy.
As for live appearances, Minibar will be at Tower Sunset on June 10 at 6:00pm for a live in-store performance. Head over, check out this great (free) show, and get yourself a wristband** for the VIP lounge at Minibar's Record Release Party presented by KCRW, happening Friday night, June 13, at The Troubadour. Minibar is headlining, along with special guests Gary Jules and Zachariah. Tickets will go fast, so grab yours now (www.troubadour.com).
** Sorry, due to limited availibility VIP wristbands will not distributed at the in-store performance.
From LA Music Scene (.com)