Art of the Dealership

Wherein one East Bay trio gets acclaim and attention the old-fashioned way: by accident

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."

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