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.