Everybody loves them:
(l-r) Jay, Merrin, Slettedahl, Torres, and zimmitti with some
Wolf sang it: The men dont know, but the little girls understand.
In 1979, L.A. rockers the Knack took the latter half of this line
from Willie Dixons blues classic Back Door Man as the title of
their second album a joke of sorts, but the joke was on them, as
that slab generated far less pop heat than its debut, Get the
Knack. The little girls may understand, but they dont always
The lyric came to mind while I was interviewing another L.A.
band, the 88. But where this groups own second album the witty,
dynamic, and luxuriously melodic Over and Over is
concerned, both the men and the little girls understand quite well.
The men part isnt surprising. Singer-guitarist Keith Slettedahl,
keyboardist Adam Merrin, guitarist Brandon Jay, bassist Carlos
Torres, and drummer Anthony Zimmitti get the trainspotters swooning
by blending the brainy tunesmithery of the Beatles, the Kinks, Elvis
Costello, and Pavement with the rock n roll swagger and creativity
of the Stones, the Band, and T. Rex. Released in late September on
the 88s own EMK label, Over and Over is buoyed by clever,
deceptively cheerful music and weighted with brooding-yet-catchy
lyrics that can veer from reassuring to unsettling in the span of a
No wonder music men like KCRWs Nic Harcourt (of Morning
Becomes Eclectic fame) and 103.1s Steve Jones (of Jonesys
Jukebox notoreity) have featured the 88. As far as obsessive
rock guys (and gals) are concerned, this band would be worth a
listen whenever it popped up on the postmodern-rock continuum.
But the little-girls thing is a whole other universe, one tied
more specifically to The Now. For the 88 is among the growing number
of artists gaining listeners the new-fashioned way: via television.
Five of its songs have been used on Foxs teen drama The OC,
which also included it on the shows first soundtrack album last
year. The 88s tunes have also been heard on MTVs Laguna
Beach, CBSs sitcom How I Met Your Mother, and many
The OC exposed us to tons of kids who would normally not have
heard of us, or maybe not even be into us, says the bespectacled
Slettedahl over dinner with Merrin and me at a vintage mid-Wilshire
restaurant/bar. Theyve been friends since high school in Calabasas,
a longtime bond that shows in subtle ways, like how Merrin
patiently, attentively waits for Slettedahl to continue, rather than
talking over him, during the short pauses the singer takes between
expressing his ideas. Ive always thought we could have a broad
appeal, Slettedahl says, but it did kind of catch us off guard,
like, Wow, 15-year-old girls are into our band.
Many younger fans, he says, contact the band through
ever-more-popular music-oriented cyber community Myspace.com, saying
they heard the 88 on The OC. But Myspace is not the only
place youll find the 88, nor are teens their only admirers. The
quintets been featured recently in the Los Angeles Times and
Spin, profiled on syndicated entertainment show Extra, and
even written up in Playgirl. Hmmm it seems that the women
also understand, although the photo showed Slettedahl fully clothed.
As far as their teen fans go, Slettedahl recognizes a past self
in them. They are at that age I was, where theyre discovering the
Beatles and all the music that my parents listened to; it changed my
life. And their excitement is infectious. Any time we play an
all-ages show, he says, its like, this is who we wanna play for:
people who are there to like music. When I was their age, that was
the highlight of the month, week, year to go see a band you
Still, the 88s inventive rock and spiffy on-stage suits might
seem at odds with casually attired, rap- and metal-obsessed U.S.
teendom. But the songs arent as shiny-happy as the bright music
first implies. Theyre as moody as any teenager: shot through with
uncertainty, insecurity, and anxiety, and full of adult emotions
that nevertheless resonate with youth.
People always talk about how happy our music is, says
Slettedahl. But its kind of deceiving. Its definitely not dark,
but its I mean, Ive always been more interested in trying to
paint a real picture of how I think. Like relationship stuff. Its
not all, I love you, I know were gonna be together forever, this
is great. Its full of doubt, why does she like me, and all
that. Even the naturally upbeat, budding-romance celebration All
Cause of You acquires a disturbing undercurrent with the Elvis
Costello-esque line I caught you kneeling in the alley with the
Such tracks as the propulsive, fuckup-fearing Hide Another
Mistake and the plaintive, dizzy waltz Bowls simmer with angst,
often drawn from Slettedahls own struggles. The latter, he says,
is very Kinks-ish, longing for when things were innocent and a
little simpler. Written five or six years ago, it came out of this
feeling of being really messed-up and unsure, he says. I was newly
sober, so I just didnt know who I was, or why I was angry, or what
I was confused about, or why I was so uncomfortable.
Slettedahls songs tends to be emotionally impressionistic. My
favorite writers like Dylan, Ray Davies, Paul McCartney, John
Lennon tell these amazing stories, he says. You feel like you
really get to see it and touch it. I cant do that. So, out of
necessity, the songs are the way they are. Sometimes a tunes
genesis is easy to pinpoint, like the spare, pretty You Belong to
Me, a love song for his girlfriend. Other times a more fleeting
sensation causes a spark. Ill be kind of upset, and Ill jump on
that moment, he says, because Im feeling something kind of
strongly, so I dont have the ability to talk myself out of writing
Working on Over and Over with producer Ethan Allen at the Village
in West L.A., Stag Street in Van Nuys, and Allens Silver Lake home
studio, the players were encouraged to record live more than
layering together the musical components, as they did for their 2003
debut, Kind of Light. That was a big difference, says
Merrin. Ethan got us to keep that live energy.
During a recent Amoeba Music in-store, the musicians did build up
an enthusiastic momentum on their give-and-take, closely watching
each other and Slettedahl, out front with his big smile and bookish
glasses vaguely evoking Buddy Holly. They clearly enjoyed being on
stage which is good, because theyve been touring more than ever.
Indeed, all this mainstream exposure has enabled the 88 to continue
on its little indie way. It attracts bigger audiences out of town
now, and gets a lot of college gigs, which pay relatively well.
Theres more money for tour essentials like a van, gas, and hotels.
Playing nightly has psychological benefits as well. I start to
get into a different mindset, says Slettedahl. Its not like the
one show of every month at the Troubadour. My head quiets down a
little more, and I think it brings the band together.
It was great, he continues, enthusing about a recent jaunt
through the Pacific Northwest. We were all sick Merrin snickers
and it was brutal, and we overbooked the crap out of it.
And this is a good experience? We did, like, 12 shows in 10
days, Slettedahl explains. It was ridiculous. But we learned so
much. Like, what not to do. Heh. More seriously, he says, the group
was reminded of what really matters. Theres so much about being in
a band and playing music that has nothing to do with playing music
in band, says Slettedahl. Breaking into a sudden, buoyant grin, he
says, We get back to that place of, when we play, people like it.