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The members of local noise-pop trio Dealership are resting backstage, when Oakland's Mile High Club owner Lisa Nola sits down next to them. There's a problem, she says. The opening act, a punk band that sings about video games, has only 15 minutes of material. "Do you think you guys could play a longer set? Try out some old songs or something?"
The musicians -- bassist/singer Chris Groves, keyboardist/guitarist/singer Jane Pinckard, drummer Chris Wetherell -- look at each other warily. Pinckard has just returned from France a couple of days before. They haven't practiced, even though they're about to go on their first extensive U.S. tour, and now they're being asked to play more material?
"Maybe we can just tell jokes between songs," offers Wetherell.
When the band takes the stage later, things don't go smoothly. The musicians sound rusty; one tune has to be dropped altogether, when Pinckard can't recall how it starts. The audience members shuffle their feet and offer polite encouragement.
Then something funny happens. When Pinckard switches from guitar to keyboard, she's caught in the direct line of a fan, and her hair starts swirling around her face, as if she were in a Lita Ford video from 1983. The effect seems rather laughable -- indie bands don't go in for those rock star clichés -- until the group kicks into a new track called "World." Suddenly everything sounds grander, more epic -- like stadium rock pouring out of a rinky-dink stereo.
Which is a pretty good summation of Dealership's new album, Action/Adventure: largely writ tales of good versus evil, love gone wrong, hostages and spies, all played with a simple, almost childlike pop feel. This is fabulous music, with the emphasis on fable.
Perhaps, then, it's not surprising that Dealership's back story sounds like a myth.
"God said to Chris, 'Start a band,'" Pinckard says. "Actually he said, 'Build an ark,' but [Chris is] hard of hearing."
Back in 1997, all three Dealer kids were attending UC Berkeley, with Wetherell studying hoity-toity classical composition. ("He hadn't even heard Depeche Mode until two years ago," says an amazed Pinckard.) Eventually, the fortuitous confluence of a Nirvana song, a Primus concert, and the arrival of a large student loan check sent Wetherell running for Guitar Center, where he requested all the equipment needed to start a band. Then he called up Groves to help him lug it home -- all of it except a bass, which he'd conveniently forgotten to purchase, since his pal already owned one.
The pair soon roped in Pinckard, who was dating Wetherell's roommate, even though she didn't know how to play guitar. Adding to their odd mythology, the indie musicians hooked up with a metalhead producer in order to record their 1998 debut EP, Secret American Livingroom. The resulting songs were exuberant pop, full of buzzing guitars, euphoric drum fills, catchy choruses, and lyrics about nerdy girls, jungle gyms, and awkward first loves.
As in all good fables, the disc met with unexpected success, scoring rave reviews and netting the group gigs opening for Apples in Stereo, Imperial Teen, and, um, Limp Bizkit (at Live 105's annual BFD event). Dealership then spent the next two years recording its follow-up, TV Highway to the Stars. "The second one had a lot of longer songs," says Groves. "More midtempo, more ... I never would say dark, but that was probably as dark as we can get."
Although there were some good tracks on TV Highway, the playful joie de vivre of the first release was missing. The tunes were heavier, more angsty, as if the band had been listening to too much Smashing Pumpkins. "Mixing took forever," Groves admits. "You realize that you can pick out all these little minuscule things and you can do that for an eternity."
After that Dealership decided to make some changes with its material. First of all, Pinckard began playing more keyboard parts, which altered her songwriting style. "I can't really sing and play [keyboard at the same time]," she says, "so I made up really simple parts."
Also, Wetherell started fiddling around with a sampler, adding electronic drums to the songs. "When we first started out, part of the novelty of playing was that we were all relatively new to our instruments," Groves says. "So going to these programmed beats was something new to try out."
"It reawakened that playfulness," Pinckard suggests.
Indeed, the new tracks on Action/ Adventure capture much of the first release's giddiness, while retaining the second LP's sonic details. On "Pure of Heart," the group melds a cascading keyboard pattern with fuzzed-out grinding guitar and gritty spastic beats; on "Spies," it weds gauzy, Cocteau Twins-y strumming to eerie organ swirls and chattering beats. On a cover of the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K.," Dealership turns the angry anthem into a pretty ballad, complete with cheeky keyboard melodies.
Of course, pop music doesn't have to be complex to sound nice. "Sometimes good things come out of utter simplicity," says Pinckard, in reference to the winsome two-chord number "Endless Affair."
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