Jason Smith gets a lot of records in the mail. As one of the producers of the "KALX Live" program, he's bombarded with submissions from local bands hoping to get some precious air time on the UC Berkeley radio station. So when a friend dragged Dealership's Jane Pinckard over for an introduction one September evening last year at San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill, he was polite -- if not entirely enthusiastic.
"I took my friend aside later and said, 'You can't go asking me to put people on the program. They might very well suck,'" he says in a friendly tone that belies the weary sentiment. But for Smith, Dealership and its debut EP Secret American Livingroom were an exception.
"To be honest," Smith says, "I think Secret American Livingroom is the one album that I've listened to the most, out of any records that I've previously owned or since purchased, within the last several years." Smith's KALX peers echoed his enthusiasm for the band, keeping Livingroom -- a self-released debut by a previously unknown local band -- in the KALX Top 35 for eight weeks.
Full of fuzzy guitars, buzzing hooks, and sublime girl-boy vocals, Livingroom was recorded with a punch that's missing from many debuts. There are a myriad of influences at play on the album, including the Pixies, X, the Poster Children, and a slew of lesser-known bands, including the band's local friends, Secadora, Lunchbox, and Bitesize. Bottom of the Hill booker Ramona Downey heard a track from Livingroom one day on KALX; despite being inundated daily with demos from struggling local bands, she fired off an e-mail offering Dealership a show. Similarly, Aaron Axelson, music director of KITS-FM (Live 105), San Francisco's modern rock station, recently offered the band a coveted slot on the second stage of the upcoming BFD festival at Shore-line Amphitheater. How did he hear Dealership? Bassist and singer Chris Groves sent him a tape, on a whim.
A lot of things about Dealership happened on a whim -- from choosing the name on down. "Dealership came about because all the cool band names were taken," says Jane Pinckard, sipping a beer with bandmates Groves and drummer Chris Wetherell at an East Bay watering hole. "I think coming up with a band name was harder than learning how to play guitar."
That's an interesting comment, considering that none of Dealership's members could play their respective instruments until three years ago. In fact, no one in the trio even thought about being in a band until three years ago. Jasper Johns once told an interviewer that one day, instead of trying to be an artist, he decided he was one. In early 1997 the three friends who constitute Dealership decided they were a rock band.
A few years before, Wetherell, then studying classical composition at UC Berkeley, heard a song one evening blaring out of the jukebox at a local bar -- Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." "I whipped my head around and said, 'That sounds unlike everything I've been hearing ... and listen to the chromatic thirds!'" Several days later, armed with his tuition money, he marched into Guitar Center and bought the basic ingredients for a band -- so many, in fact, he had trouble getting them all home.
Groves had been keeping a keen eye on his friend Wetherell and the young composer's budding appreciation for tunes requiring less than a 30-piece orchestra to perform. So when he got a call from Wetherell requesting his help in getting his newly purchased equipment home, he wasn't surprised. Nor was he surprised that a certain four-stringed, low-frequency instrument was missing from Wetherell's cache of shiny new gear. "I didn't buy a bass because I knew that Chris had one and I was kind of hoping that he would want to do this," says Wetherell, 28, with unconvincing coyness. Luckily, his friend wanted in. "To us it just seemed perfect," explains Groves, 26, "Like, 'Let's start a band.'" Wetherell chose to play the drums, which left one minor technical problem: all the bands they loved featured guitars, but they didn't have one.
Enter Jane Pinckard, who used to greet Chris Groves with coffee every morning while working at a cafe near his house in Oakland's Rockridge district. She was also the girlfriend of Chris Wetherell's roommate and often found herself at his house, turning up the television's volume to drown out the racket coming from the garage. "They would play in the garage like three or four nights a week," she says with genuine amazement. "And [Wetherell] would always say things like, 'We auditioned some really weird people today. Are you sure you don't want to be in a band?' I was always like, 'Ha, ha. I can't play guitar.'"
That excuse didn't last long. Inspired by late-night conversations with Wetherell about their favorite bands, and feeling sorry for his and Groves' plight, she finally relented. "I just thought it was a huge joke," she says. "I never thought we would actually go on stage."
Slowly, the joke turned into a full-blown sitcom. Regular practices were convened, songs were written, and the newly minted Dealership began wondering what it would be like to leave the garage. "We didn't know how to get a gig," says Pinckard, 26. Wetherell, the only one with experience -- albeit in the classical realm -- thought he knew. "I thought it was just like in school," he says. "You formed a classical quartet and then you just asked the provost or the dean or whatever for a gig." With no provosts running Bay Area clubs, the band did a little research and booked a show at Club Boomerang on Haight Street. Pinckard is unashamed to admit that she shed real tears at what happened that night. "I think I cried the next day 'cause we sucked so hard," she says. Wetherell is more succinct: "It was a nightmare."
Regardless, they began to think about recording a single. Unschooled in the logistics of such an undertaking, they sought guidance in the form of a bimonthly local music magazine known more for its lopsided ads-to-content ratio than any editorial revelations. Flipping through the scads of studio advertisements in the back, they literally dropped a finger and came up with Guy Higbey.
A one-time guitarist for Metal Blade recording artists Epidemic, and producer of local metal heroes Old Grandad, Higbey isn't the first person you'd think of to elucidate Dealership's brainy, fuzz-pop sound. Higbey himself was confused. "My first reaction wasn't bad, but they were definitely different," he says over the phone from his Locomoto Productions studio in Menlo Park. "But I've always looked forward to doing different things." What began as two-song single project quickly grew in scope. "It sounded really good, and we were like, 'Why the hell not?'" says Pinckard. When the dust cleared the band had enough songs for a self-released EP, Secret American Livingroom.
For all of the band's fuzzy bluster and hooks galore, it's in Livingroom's lyrics that Dealership's real brilliance is borne out. Defying typical rock 'n' roll rhyme schemes, the album's words read more like letters to friends, lovers, and enemies. Pick a song, any song. From "Nerdy Girl": "Sits just seats away with his back to her/ The fictive love of the class monitor/ The thrill is there and at night she conjures: I can feel it/ I know you want me, I see it." "Green" seems to be a simple tale of high-school lust, but on closer inspection becomes a mini-discourse on the sexual politics of the 10th grade. "I touch your face 'cause I don't know where else to touch/ Yesterday on the bench we shared your hot lunch," Groves sings.
The images are so forceful that it's almost a letdown to hear the band insist on the impersonal nature of what's being sung. "We don't want to impersonalize our music, because obviously there's going to be a lot of us in there," says Groves. "I think the way that we might go about it is to start with the idea of personal experience and then extract it so that it's not specific."
"It's sort of ridiculous," says Groves of the band's haphazard growth. "In the same sort of clumsy way that we went about forming, we've gone about making Secret American Livingroom. Only in February did I realize the whole strata of industry people, like publicists, managers, and booking agents." Currently Dealership is completing work on the follow-up to Secret American Livingroom, tentatively titled T.V. Highway to the Stars. Like other upstart bands, they plan to send it out to smaller labels in the hope of finding a home. Meanwhile, they're playing out and trying to remain calm in the face of increased attendance at their shows. They're happy playing to smaller crowds because, as Pinckard explains, "we don't get freaked out." When asked about their goals the charming trio explains that they've already been met: forming a band, releasing an album, playing shows.
"One thing that really strikes me about them is their knowledge of theory and the way things work," says Higbey. "They definitely know what they want things to sound like." Or as KALX's Smith puts it: "I think quality is just inherent in their songwriting ability," he says. "They just pen wonderful pop songs.