Freeks and Geeks

Thanks to their cool world-music electronica and some major help from the Internet, the Supreme Beings of Leisure may become the first rock stars born on the Web.

After something of a deer-in-the-headlights reaction to the emergence of the Internet, the record industry finally seems to be realizing its important contribution to the future of music enjoyment and delivery. A number of established artists have already endorsed the use of MP3 technology, but it's taken big-buck mergers and high-profile takeovers to finally convince the majors that it's time to get with it. Alas, there's been a lot of talk but relatively little action so far, leaving the field wide open to Web-savvy indie renegades and new online music ventures to reap the benefits the Internet has to offer less mainstream artists.

As anyone who's typed "MP3" into their search engine may have noticed (and more people are typing in those letters as opposed to that other popular three-letter word, if recently published reports are to be believed), the Web is now overflowing with sites offering instant music downloads, audio and video streaming, and increasingly varied sales and promotional opportunities for unsigned or up-and-coming musicians. While the Web hasn't yet generated its own real star -- despite the efforts of garageband.com, UBL.com, and a host of other A&R oriented Web sites -- it has become increasingly valuable as a means of creating a buzz for emerging acts. A case in point is a fledgling Southern California band, signed to one of the more forward-thinking independent record labels, that's been getting more attention in cyberspace than most groups thus far.

It's rumored that L.A.'s Supreme Beings of Leisure came together via an AOL chatroom, but the reality is far more straightforward than that. Three years ago, they were all recording demos in the same studio; one thing led to another, and they ended up collaborating. The outcome was Oversoul 7 -- a musical quartet of three programmers-instrumentalists, including Ramin Sakurai, Kiran Shahani, and Rick Torres, and vocalist Geri Soriano-Lightwood. After a short-lived deal with local electronica indie Moonshine Records and a demo deal with A&M, the group -- now renamed Supreme Beings of Leisure for no other reason than someone else had trademarked the name Oversoul -- eventually found a home at Palm Pictures, the label formed two years ago by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell.

Blackwell's proven reputation as a music industry visionary and his positions as founder of the online video/audio broadcast Web site Sputnik7.com and director of Listen.com, the Web's largest MP3 directory, has prompted one of the first "underground" promotional campaigns (literally of global proportions) for a newly signed band. In the three months since completing their self-titled debut album, the Supreme Beings of Leisure's Web single, "Strangelove Addiction," has consistently been one of Listen.com's most downloaded MP3s as well as having reached the coveted number-one slot on one of MP3.com's neighborhoods. Banners for the band have cropped up on music sites all over the Web, while their recent live shows have typically involved tie-ins with Internet and new media companies. (In fact, they played to packed houses at Listen.com's party at LunaPark during last November's Webnoize '99 Internet music conference and at the El Rey during last winter's Rezfest digital film festival.)

Even though they got together unspectacularly, and being a part of the Internet music revolution certainly wasn't part of their original game plan, the group members seem completely at ease with their Web associations.

"We're all total geeks," says Soriano-Lightwood, who, in fact, comes across more as an intelligent and fashion-conscious businesswoman than you might expect of a singer in a nerdy Web band.

"Yeah, we were the loners in high school," acknowledges the more bohemian-looking Sakurai, the group's keyboardist and main programmer.

They're teasing, but there's more than an ounce of truth in what they say. Soriano-Lightwood, it turns out, is from a whole family of Web heads. Her brother-in-law is a Clio Award-winning Web designer and her husband is a programmer; the three of them worked together on the Supreme Beings of Leisure's Flash-enhanced Web site. And Sakurai, Torres, and Shahani are all self-confessed computer nerds, each with their own living-space/computer-music setups. ("It's very non-feng shui," says Sakurai of his Studio City apartment turned home studio.)

The four also admit to sharing a sense of exclusion in their formative years -- and not just due to their geeky solitary pursuits. All of them were brought up in America, but their bloodlines stretch from India to the Dominican Republic, through Japan, Puerto Rico, Ireland, and Iran to Hawaii.

"We're basically mutts," quips the Indiana-raised Sakurai who has an Iranian and Japanese-Hawaiian heritage.

"We didn't really fit in where we were raised," agrees Soriano-Lightwood. "But all of our cultural references have been filtered through white middle America. I think it gives us a broader mind-set and larger influences to draw upon."

This is certainly true of the songs on their new album, which presents a unique hybrid of laid-back electronica, jungle rhythms, dance floor funk, and a wide variety of classical ethnic and Western styles. Subtle nostalgic touches flavor songs like the down-tempo ballads "Never the Same" and "Last Girl on Earth," on which Soriano-Lightwood's easygoing vocal style evokes images of cocktail lounges and steamy Pacific island nights, all within an up-to-date electronica framework.

The single "Strangelove Addiction," a current favorite on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, is less subtle, kicking off with a haunting 60-second sitar solo played by noted Iranian instrumentalist Fahrang Shariff, before launching into crunching electronic rave and ultimately settling into a straight dance-pop number with a distinct Middle Eastern twist. Elsewhere sitars and tablas make appearances, alongside tastefully arranged strings and horns. There perhaps was never a band more suited to KCRW's flagship radio show.

"We really wanted to meld the organic with the electronic -- to humanize the sound but within a pop aesthetic," explains Sakurai, crediting their world-music influences to their parents' diverse record collections. "You go to Kiran's house, and there's Indian music on in the background all the time. My mum's the same with Iranian music. Rick's dad has an enormous record collection. He'll play something on guitar you've never heard before, and it'll be from an obscure record he heard his dad play years ago."

All this reflects the band's global philosophy; their association with Palm (a label whose roster includes some of the more diverse electronic artists and international filmmakers) seems a perfect marriage and a divinely coincidental backdrop to their Internet world. Their fans span all four corners of the globe, evidenced by a steady stream of e-mail from the unlikeliest locations. They've apparently even developed a healthy following in Portugal, thanks to a local radio DJ supporter who found them on the Net.

"The people out there on the Web seem to really dig what we're doing," says Soriano-Lightwood. "Our music tends to appeal to people who have computers at home, tech-savvy types. I really think it's our market."

"It's part of the reason Chris Blackwell wanted to really exploit us on the Web," adds Sakurai. "We were saying: 'What about billboards on the Sunset Strip?' And his reaction was: 'Why? You can have a banner on the Internet instead and everyone around the world can see it.' It makes perfect sense."

Music-loving cyberdudes who surf their way into the Supreme Beings of Leisure's Web site (www.sbleisure.com) are guided to the lounge area, where they can access real audio and video samples of many of the songs from the new album. They're also given information on obtaining free MP3 downloads of the band's current and forthcoming Web singles.

Cynics would say they're shooting themselves in the foot by posting their wares for free on the Web, but the band and its record company see it differently.

"Yes, it's a wild frontier out there, and record companies still don't know how they're going to control it, let alone make money from it," says Sakurai. "But we're just looking at it as a great opportunity to gain exposure. Palm has a different mind-set from most of the other labels out there. They see MP3s are a great promotional tool, and for a band like us, that's perfect. Because when all's said and done, nobody really knows who we are."

But success in the virtual world -- especially when you're giving away your product for free -- doesn't necessarily guarantee real-world celebrity. Whether the band's impressive score of Web hits will actually translate into chart hits remains to be seen. If that were to happen, what would become of their Web fan base?

"We're not done yet," assures Soriano-Lightwood. "We have a game we're developing for our Web site. We also have a Flash video that's coming out that's going to be showcased on Macromedia. And we're sending out digital postcards, which will probably be the Flash video cut up into episodes. We haven't really launched our full-on campaign yet. There's still a lot more to come."

Meanwhile, their album is due for release this week. As of this writing, management and label still haven't decided on the first single; it's a toss-up between the already much downloaded "Strangelove Addiction" or the smoother, more straight-ahead pop song "Golddigger." Finally, world radio is taking some precedence.

In terms of live appearances, they've kept it pretty low-key over the last few months with just a smattering of L.A. gigs, but they're planning a tour in the spring.

"We're currently looking at ways of developing our live show," says Soriano-Lightwood. "We're still experimenting because we want to make it as live as possible, yet we can't really afford to hire a 10-piece band, which is what we'd need to re-create the sound of our record. Right now, we're working on incorporating visuals and other eye candy. We want a cinematic approach to our live show."

Could L.A. be the city that spawns the first successful music group born on the World Wide Web? If Supreme Beings of Leisure have anything to do with it, virtually anything's possible. Hey, e-clectronica anyone?

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