By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
Under the parking lot misters at the Greens Hotel in Sacramento, models with stilettos longer than their shorts are practicing their swagger across the stage. It's a sweltering July afternoon, and this gated motel is an oasis of beautiful fashionistas. Retailers spill out from ground-floor motel rooms. They're all here for Launch, a music and fashion show with an Astroturf VIP bar.
The ladies are hot and all, but San Francisco's Wallpaper. is the event's biggest attraction. In the past year, the dance-pop duo has become a big player on the California club circuit by poking fun at scenester artificiality. Mastermind Eric Frederic performs onstage, on record, and on camera as his alter ego, Ricky Reed, a star-screwing douchebag who dresses like Michael Jackson on food stamps and dances up a storm.
Draped in layers of sequined jackets, Ricky exaggerates stereotypes you'd normally despise. He brags in Wallpaper.'s songs and video blogs about getting wasted and his calculating hookups. Sample lyric from "Celebrity," a deliriously upbeat number with an incessant thump and funky saxophone snippet: "Everybody is a nobody trying to be somebody/I'm not just anybody/I slept with a celebrity." But this fake frontman is so flagrantly clueless that his act is more goofy parody than condescension toward weekend warriors. Frederic wants to bring some social critique to the dancefloor. The name Wallpaper. is a rebuttal against pop music as simple window dressing; the period at the end emphasizes that there's a statement being made here. Think of the group as a cheeky sentence about keeping superficiality in check.
Inside all that shiny fabric is a needy character who desperately has to be liked. And inside that wannabe rock star is a songwriter, producer, and amateur comedian who likewise craves respect — from the music establishment that has thwarted him for a decade.
At Greens, Frederic is a different sort of outsider. Lounging among the intricately tattooed and carefully coiffed, he's a self-identified fashion misfit, proudly displaying a farmer's tan and the untrimmed facial hair of a 27-year-old living an alarm-free lifestyle. Wallpaper. drummer Arjun Singh, who flew into Sacramento from the San Diego pop culture convention Comic-Con in a yellow Star Wars shirt, is his wingman in geekdom. "Me and Arjun are big nerds at stuff like this," Frederic says. "We have serious girlfriends and we just sit around and drink Diet Coke."
Frederic pulls Singh into a motel room to excitedly unveil a video on his MacBook. It's the final cut for "I Got Soul, I'm So Wasted," one of many instant anthems off Wallpaper.'s full-length debut CD, Doodoo Face, which came out Sept. 22. Shot at San Francisco club Harlot, the video evokes giddy, boozy spins and reckless highs. Ricky is wearing shades and stumbling through partygoers — including founder Kevin Rose and CEO Jay Adelson of aggregate-media site Digg, who are big Wallpaper. supporters. There's a robotic lilt to Ricky's vocals from his use of the trendy Auto-Tune software made popular by rappers T-Pain and Lil Wayne, and the music is a bubbly techno-funk blend raging with thunderous strikes of deep bass. The song follows a Wallpaper. formula that has worked for the group's previous three EPs: It's deceptively simple, incredibly fun, and flip in attitude. (Prime lyric example: "I've gotta say I'm looking good/I'd hit on myself if I could.")
Commercial director Jason Zada shot "I Got Soul, I'm So Wasted" after falling in love with Wallpaper.'s music and tracking Frederic down via Twitter. The clip will eventually land on MTV's gay cable channel, Logo, and give Wallpaper. a chance at further MTV exposure, but for now Frederic is ecstatic just to have this new tool in his viral media arsenal.
Frederic is on a quest to have something he's created earn lasting attention. To that end, he has produced a deluge of singles, remixes, and videos to post on the Internet. These pieces channel people toward the larger Wallpaper. packages of CDs and performances. He is a one-man pop culture conversation that refuses to shut up— which is a good thing for his music and career. The duo caught the attention of Adelson, who calls the group "ridiculously catchy" and hired Wallpaper. to perform at Digg events in Seattle and New York.
Wallpaper.'s hyperactive aesthetic is a perfect match for today's social media sites, which trade on instant humor gratification. Two of the group's videos have become hits in the last two months alone. The goofy "BootyTweet (Is the New Booty Call)" and "Pool Party," featuring Ricky running around San Francisco in flip- flops, have earned more than 11,000 and 4,000 YouTube views respectively. These low-budget morsels give Wallpaper. an international presence while also building local ranks at San Francisco's tastemaking dance clubs Popscene and Blow Up — where Wallpaper. evangelists pack the house and follow Ricky's commands. "Eric will say, 'Put your hands in the air,' and the whole place will put their hands in the air," Blow Up's Jeffrey Paradise says. "He has the crowd in the palm of his hand more than any other act I've seen."
But a strong Web presence and fervent regional fandom don't add enough dollar signs to Frederic's income. He gives occasional music lessons, and mostly lives off credit cards and his mom's Trader Joe's care packages.
His debt increases every time he's struck with inspiration for enriching the Wallpaper. experience. Every video or remix he records (and is not paid for) is time spent that could be used to earn money elsewhere; every studio visit subtracts cash from his bank account.
Luckily, live shows still bring in paychecks. At Launch, Frederic arrives on the catwalk loaded with props: sunglasses, whiskey, a white fedora, and sparkling jackets in iridescent green, white, and black. Dark threads hang off his tattered sleeves; he's a shabby Justin Timberlake with twice the spirit.
The drunken fashionistas press close to the stage to cheer on this fantastic spectacle the minute Wallpaper.'s electronic jams fill the air. Behind Frederic, Singh adds to the propulsive attitude. He smacks at his drum kit underneath jumbo video screens showing random YouTube lip-synching clips, scenes from Saved by the Bell, and Ricky Reed's pager number. All of the other instrumentation, recorded by Frederic, is hidden in mixers behind the curtain so Ricky is free to shimmy and clap.
The performance includes Ricky's awkward comedic banter between songs, which sometimes falls flat. In Sacramento, that means clichéd jokes about keeping your guy friends away from a party crowded with lovely ladies. As witnessed in a few Wallpaper. video blogs, some of these punchlines could use a good editor. But minor flops are secondary to the group's dazzle factor. Frederic is a skilled producer whose songs play off hyphy, P-Funk, R&B, and Afrobeat with panache. Within his catchy choruses, the spoofs on narcissism and celebrity culture are much funnier than his spoken bits.
Electro-funk closer "Evrytm We Do It" becomes the event's great elevator. As Ricky repeats the banal lines "Every time we do it, I wanna do it again," the blossoming beats and Space Invaders sound effects lift fans straight onto the catwalk. The fourth wall between Ricky and the models — and the dudes who love them both — is trampled. Partiers clamber onstage.
Driving back from Sacramento at 3 a.m., Frederic is careful to keep the enthusiasm he generates in check. He spent his late adolescence in progressive rock bands, being promised record deals that never materialized as his older peers — Papa Roach, Hoobastank, Alien Ant Farm — made it big.
He is now an intrepid hustler using every social media site, club night, and business connection he can to his advantage. He's determined to make it in a new music world, which means he also refuses to sit still, even if he's occasionally racing toward dead ends.
"I don't believe in luck," he says. "Everything I've gotten, I've gotten from hard work. I'm always going to be the underdog."
At San Rafael's PopSmear Studios, Frederic is multitasking long past midnight. In the control room where he once apprenticed for owner Scott Llamas, he switches among a remix for local indie-poppers Morning Benders, a cover he's recording of a Michael Jackson demo, and a mix of a friend's rock record.
Frederic is an unusually versatile songwriter and producer, seamlessly fusing disparate musical styles. His remixes are complete, distinct singles, in large part because he records all the instrumentation live instead of simply sampling tracks, re-creating the songs from scratch around the original's vision. Live 105's Aaron Axelsen calls Frederic San Francisco's Danger Mouse, referencing the megaproducer behind Gnarls Barkley and the last Beck album. But Frederic's gift for weaving genres together earns him more respect than it does bank. Many of the remixes he creates are done on his own dime to connect his name to larger acts he believes in. Only the rock record he's mixing this evening will generate the gas money he needs to drive to the next Wallpaper. show in two days. The week before, Frederic sheepishly borrowed cash from another musician to buy two tacos when the taqueria didn't take credit cards.
Frederic's various musical iterations are on full display along the control room walls at PopSmear. There's a framed photo of Locale A.M., his high school progressive rock band, with a quote noting the group received offers from "Elektra/Atlantic, Arista/BMG, and Hollywood/Disney."
It's unsurprising that the labels took notice of him at an early age. He grew up understanding the world through the recording industry. Peg Frederic says her son refused to fall asleep without music playing when he was a year old. By age four, he was earning Slurpees on the way to daycare by answering her challenging classic-rock quizzes or by clapping on the correct beat to a '70s funk song.
In his junior year of high school, Frederic spent a sick day cold-calling all the major labels he found listed in an A&R directory. Locale A.M. had recorded an album called Groove Heroes. He got through to Hollywood Records, and, shockingly, received a callback from the president of the label, who sent a representative to see the band perform. Nothing came of that connection at the time, but Peg was impressed. Her son's combination of naiveté and tenacity actually got him noticed.
By 2003, Locale A.M. had a manager, a lawyer, and an offer for a record deal of $75,000 — which Frederic was advised by his manager and lawyer to turn down and wait for a bigger jackpot. Label interest in the band immediately disappeared, as did its representation. He was hung out to dry. "I felt helpless," he says. "At that point, I thought all you can do with your career is to be on a major label."
Now he thinks differently. He'd rather be broke with total creative control than take a dime from a source he can't trust.
Farther down the wall at PopSmear hangs a glowing review for Facing New York, the funk-rock act Frederic still maintains. The band was only a few months old when it was invited on the Warped Tour in 2004. The members drove straight to New York in 54 hours, only to be told the shows were overbooked. They stayed on the tour anyway, waking up at 7 a.m. to pitch kids waiting in line their EP, Swimming Not Treading, which they played through a Discman. Facing New York sold an average of 250 CDs a day that way. It was an impressive feat for an unknown act. It was also an indication of Frederic's hustling work ethic and his direct-to-fan approach when it comes to marketing his music.
Frederic became wise early to the inner workings of the music world, a world that has recently fallen into financial jeopardy. For the past two years, the industry has been making headlines for continuously tanking. The big labels are fracturing as CD sales plummet. Insiders are scrambling to figure out how anyone makes money on music in an era of rampant free and illegal downloading. The key seems to lie outside record deals, with artists finding the greatest financial reward in concerts and merchandise; or through licensing, which pays for individual songs to be used in commercials, films, and television shows. Little bands no longer really expect $75,000 deals to help lift them out of obscurity. We've entered an era of minivictories, with do-it-yourself measures of success.
Wallpaper. has a label — Los Angeles–based indie Eenie Meenie — but Frederic is primarily focused on online networking to build support. The Bay Area doesn't house a mega music industry, but our social media sites help musicians. When Frederic posts a new remix, as he's done for Massachusetts buzz band Passion Pit and local indie act Music for Animals, his hope is that it'll gain traction by echoing out to established music sites through Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. This past spring, he recorded a remix of "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell," a hilarious single by Brooklyn rappers Das Racist. The song spoofs two friends trying to find one another in a giant maze of fast-food places. Frederic spread the word of his remix through Web blasts and e-mails to two dozen individual tastemakers. "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" spiraled out into hype paydirt a few months after its release. MTV.com and Pitchfork raved about Wallpaper.'s remix, and the song became the most requested single of the summer on Live 105's indie-focused shows.
Frederic continued to strike while he was getting attention, cleverly remixing Jay-Z's "99 Problems" into the rapper's anti–Auto-Tune screed "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)", creating a mashup where the megastar performer employs the voice-alteration software he claims to detest. The remix ended up on the front page of Digg for a couple of days, earning Frederic no cash but plenty of cred.
Jonathan Coulton, a Brooklyn songwriter and Internet success story, notes that loyalty from enthusiasts is crucial as the music industry models are being reshaped. "You get support in a number of different ways from fans," he says, "only one of which is money." An active base willing to spread the word about your new material to its friends is a powerful public-relations force to have.
At the PopSmear studio, Frederic glances at his favorite VH-1 reality show, Real Chance of Love, which is playing with the sound off. He says he would love to have Wallpaper.'s music licensed for television placement. To that end, he's fired up about news that the "I Got Soul, I'm So Wasted" video has been entered into the Freshmen, an online contest where viewers vote weekly for new videos to be played on mtvU, the network's college channel.
Days after Frederic pulls an all-nighter in the studio, he'll be pulling all-nighters to vote Wallpaper. on to mtvU. He isn't sure whether people watch videos on MTV anymore. What matters to him is getting on the radar of the suits at the networks, increasing his own real chances at Love.
Wallpaper.'s headquarters are listed as West Oakland — a nod to the East Bay's extensive rap history. But in reality, he lives with four housemates, two of whom are also musicians, in a two-story apartment in San Francisco's Panhandle. At midday on a Monday, none of his housemates seem to have changed out of sweatpants.
It's clear from the aging coffee-colored splatters on the wall and carpet that Frederic does not inhabit the same lush bachelor lifestyle as the one he imagines for Ricky Reed.
Frederic revels in his gold-chained alter ego. He dreamed up the frontman in January 2008, three years after launching Wallpaper., as a way to lose inhibition in the studio and onstage. Oddly, he's always taken the role extremely seriously. In Ricky's early days, he'd spend half an hour before shows alone, getting into character. Still, Frederic gets to leave behind the soft-spoken guy who graduated with a music composition degree from UC Berkeley and take on the pompous rock star none of his other music outlets — or his own modesty — have allowed him to become. Frederic never fully becomes the asshole he talks Ricky up to be, though. He's far too nutty and music-nerdy to come off as mean, even in a world of make-believe.
Frederic is starting the week by using the camera embedded in his MacBook Pro to film the video for "The Doodoo Face?" It's a clip that opens with Ricky on the toilet explaining the Doodoo Face CD title. It's a tricky album name that his most loyal supporters seem hard-pressed to comprehend. Frederic's girlfriend, Megan Canto, and his mother warned him that it'd be a challenging sell. Even bandmate Singh was skeptical. He says he Googled "doodoo face" and discovered an Urban Dictionary entry about "someone who rubs poo on their face and kisses someone." "I was like, 'Oh man,'" Singh admits with a laugh, "but it was too late."
Along with the infectious electro-funk beats, a huge part of Wallpaper.'s draw is in the jesting, which occasionally gets self-effacing. The lyrics make fun of our dependence on electronic gadgetry and social media sites, yet Wallpaper. leaves no shortage of Twitter footprints on this planet. But Frederic's best skits are curveballs of total absurdity. A prime example is "Wallpaper. video blog #4," where Ricky is "floating" in space with cheap special effects, using Auto-Tune to ramble on about how "Jupiter is a gaseous planet." It's stupidly hilarious and addictive; perfect for the viral media generation.
Frederic realized long ago that humor has a strong disarming quality. While music snobs can set boundaries based on genres they think they like, comedy cuts to people's core reactions. "No one's ever like, 'This would be funny but I don't really like dry humor,'" he says.
But the more offensive-sounding punchlines risk turning people off. One prominent indie buzz-band publicist, Daniel Gill of Force Field PR, refused to work on the new Wallpaper. CD when approached. "Basically, I couldn't envision pitching a record around with a title like Doodoo Face and having anyone take it seriously," he says. Spin magazine concurred, including the CD in a recent roundup of the "15 Worst Album Titles of 2009."
If the criticism gets to Frederic, he doesn't show it. He counters that he loves the attention. "It just shows my album title is making its intended splash," he says.
Even San Francisco club owners and promoters admit initial reluctance in hiring Wallpaper., fearing too much of a Weird Al novelty factor. "Every show, there's people who just don't get it," says Rickshaw Stop's Waldo Williams. "Like, 'Is this stupid or is this so right on I really can't tell?'"
But they say Frederic's skilled musicianship, which pays homage to Prince, P-Funk, and contemporary R&B, and his charismatic stage presence, win over people in the end. "Eric works at a high conceptual level," Williams adds. "He builds the whole package at once."
The comedy, the songwriting, and the flashy performances blend into a mixture that encourages good times. To that end, Wallpaper. was an easy fit with both contemporary club titans Dan Deacon and Girl Talk as well as old-school commercial R&B act Boyz II Men, all of whom he's opened for in the last year.
More than anything, Frederic is a huge funk nerd, and for the video shoot, he explains from his porcelain throne that "doodoo face" isn't about taking a dump. "The Doodoo Face is not literally about dropping deuces, dummy," he chides from behind black sunglasses, white cutouts of the album title glued to the lenses. "When something's hella funky ... it makes you do a doodoo face, like something stinks."
He washes his hands of such bad "box-wine BBQ funk" as "Funkytown," "Play That Funky Music," and "Low Rider," and struts into his bedroom. Suited up in a shiny Price Is Right jacket and two fedoras, he reveals his winning picks: D'Angelo and P-Funk. The best part of the video? Watching Frederic make the stink face, pop his collar, and dance like a Las Vegas wedding singer.
Not every Wallpaper. video is this tongue-in-cheek — or this lowbrow. "I Got Soul, I'm So Wasted" is the group's glossy apex, thanks to director Zada's slick production work.
On a Monday morning in late August, that clip has yet to appear on mtvU's Freshmen, due to technical difficulties with the Web site. It's 9 a.m. on the first of a five-day contest among half a dozen up-and-comers in pop, punk, hip-hop, and funk.
Frederic is freaking out. He's resorting to typing some of his missives to supporters in ALL CAPS.
He's been at his parents' house in Pinole all morning, having driven up from back-to-back Wallpaper. shows in Southern California the night before. He's sitting alone in his old bedroom, laptop glowing in the dark as he snacks on tortilla chips. "I'm being a real weirdo right now," he says with a laugh.
The glitch in the contest is fixed by late morning. Ricky sounds the call for action across Twitter: "you can VOTE as MANY times til ya FINGER BLEEDS. Voting ends FRIDAY morning lets GO."
Frederic is planning the next couple of days with the precision of an army commander waging war. He's organizing voting blocs among relatives, roommates, Eenie Meenie's street team, the big guns at Digg, superfans, a buddy who is Twitter pals with Miley Cyrus' bestie, and lots of friends' little brothers and sisters on summer break. MtvU allows voting as often as possible — the contest seems to be more about bombarding the music site with hits than anything else — so Frederic is unimpressed with anyone volunteering fewer than 100 clicks on Wallpaper.'s ballot.
The race is tight all week, with the heat of the battle between Wallpaper. and Portland, Ore.'s Sandpeople. Despite having a video titled "Hate Aside," the hip-hop act resorts to calling out Frederic's use of Auto-Tune trickery. It's a criticism he is used to hearing. He even admits it's probably time to phase out the computerized vocals. "It's getting annoying," he says of the trend. Then again, Auto-Tune helps him hit the long funk notes, allowing him to feel like a "crazy virtuosic dude."
The Freshmen contest ends at 11 a.m. on Friday. Wallpaper. has a concert in Las Vegas that night, and Frederic needs to drive for nine hours to get there. He refuses to start his engine, though, until the fate of this contest is sealed, even though the only prize is playing his video on mtvU for an unspecified amount of time. It's a perfect example of the way he refuses to lose any shot — no matter how minor — at publicity that could lead to something real. He'll lead the Wallpaper. troops into their final march to overcome Sandpeople starting at dusk.
"This is total fucking military stuff," Frederic says. "We're going to bring the heat last-minute."
The Frederics are early risers that last morning of the contest. Eric's dad, Dana, fires up the computer at 5 a.m. He launches five tabs at once, just as his son has taught him. As one screen refreshes, he clicks on the next, and on down the line. By 6:45, Peg, Eric, and Canto open their five screens. They spend the next four hours and 15 minutes clicking and refreshing.
At 11 a.m., mtvU posts the headline "Wallpaper Wins the Freshman." Within minutes, news of the victory is on Wallpaper.'s Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter feeds. Frederic has directed Eenie Meenie to post a free MP3 of "Doodoo Face" as a reward for fan loyalty. He jumps in the car with a bagel sandwich from his mom, heading toward I-5 for Vegas.
Once on the road, Frederic is relieved. He hates contests.
But the game is never really over.
During the next couple of weeks, mtvU will fade in importance. There's no word from the MTV suits. But Frederic's carpal-tunnel pain wasn't for naught: After the video went live on mtvU, the YouTube views for "I Got Soul, I'm So Wasted" skyrocketed to more than 14,000, with 38 comments. His MySpace friend requests jumped significantly, more evangelists spreading the Wallpaper. gospel.
Frederic is also called to Los Angeles for unrelated nibbles from the record industry he once cursed. For this round, the focus is on songwriting for other artists, an exciting networking and revenue stream possibility. Sri Lankan–British MC M.I.A.'s fiancé, Ben Bronfman, who runs Green Owl Records, asks Frederic to pen tracks for up-and-coming rapper Theophilus London. That same week, Frederic alsos brainstorm songwriting ideas for rappers Flo Rida and Pitbull — and drinks cognac for the first time — with Kane Beatz, a producer who has worked with Lil Wayne. An old BMI connection from his Locale A.M. days is matchmaking Frederic with producers who could use his songwriting skills. Wallpaper.'s frontman also further procrastinates on his promise to do nothing but relax and eat kimchi for a couple of days.
Frederic feels like he's at the tip of an iceberg, but he's unsure what that iceberg looks like. If Wallpaper. had a major label or big management company, the future would be more predictable. "Since the music industry changes every day, I don't even know what it means to 'blow up,'" he says. He still refuses to wait around for a nod from a record executive to move ahead with his ideas, though. It's harder this way. But he says the successes are more personally gratifying.
Nothing's for certain, but there's always hope a new minor victory will eventually lead to a major one for San Francisco's biggest indie hustler. Frederic is now prepping for Wallpaper.'s big Doodoo Face release show at Rickshaw Stop on Saturday, Sept. 26. He also hopes to catch a break soon, at least financially speaking. "I'm looking at my 30s on the horizon and thinking, 'Dang,'" he says with a laugh. "I can't live like shit forever."
For now, he's content to dance along the schizophrenic border between Ricky Reed's club life glitz and Eric Frederic's credit card debt. The more doodoo-faced Wallpaper. fans he can rally to storm the Web along the way, the better.