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."
"Yeah, most of the time," adds Wetherell. "We even have a term for it."
"Spontaneous genius!" Groves and Pinckard say together.
It's obvious that the bandmates enjoy one another's company, so it comes as no surprise that their songwriting has gotten more collaborative. On several of these new songs, Pinckard and Groves play different characters responding to each other. In "Spies," they're secret agents, one of whom is dying and the other who is regretfully responsible. In "Database Corrupted," they're lovers who're breaking up -- he's completely blindsided by the news, while she says he's simply oblivious.
Overall, the pair's lyrics have become far more narrative-driven. While there are plenty of love-gone-wrong stories, there are also fantastical tales about hostage situations and international intrigue. "I'm less into mining my own experiences than I am pretending I'm someone else," Groves explains.
"Your narrators always have a disability," laughs Pinckard. "There's the guy with Tourette's, the old man that's senile."
"I'm just trying to bring light to their plights," riffs Groves.
Dealership finished mixing the tunes in the summer of 2002. Having put out their first two discs on their own, the musicians wanted to find a label for their third one. But while there was lots of interest, no one would fully commit. Finally, Pinckard decided to go traveling overseas. With the band on hiatus and the album languishing unreleased, Groves and Wetherell started a new act, Citizens Here and Abroad, with pals from the group Secadora. Suddenly it seemed that Dealership's story would end like a Grimm fairy tale.
Enter Jeff Walsh, owner of Santa Clara's Turn Records. He'd been a fan of the band since 2002, but it was a live performance on KSCU-FM (103.3) in the summer of 2003, after Pinckard had returned, that finally won Walsh over. "When you see them perform live it's clear they make a connection with the audience," he says. "They have charisma as well as instantly infectious pop songs."
Over the next few months, Walsh lobbied to put out the recorded album, which the group had titled Action/Adventure. (Pinckard wanted Dealership: The Musical, but she was quickly vetoed.) With Pinckard recommitted to the project, Groves and Wetherell found themselves with two buzz-worthy groups and a lot less free time.
Action/Adventure -- finally released last month, complete with samurai video game-like artwork -- more than lives up to its name. With all the well-scripted metaphors, large-scale hooks, and soaring harmonies, the record feels gloriously widescreen, a Hollywood epic shot on digital video. The CD has something for all tastes, from wistful ballads and crunchy rockers to extraordinary love stories and astrophysical phenomena. It's inspirational, really. When, on "World," Groves calls out, "I'm telling the world/ I'm starting all over/ You heard me/ I'm telling the world/ I'm starting all over/ So get ready," you may be tempted to quit your job and go off on your own adventure. You know, spontaneously. Genius!