The music comes crashing out of your speakers like shoppers out of a Macy's sale starting line. The band is Wallpaper, its trashy synth-pop riding garage-sale drum machine beats as a singer wails about "going big on the weekends."
You turn it up, bobbing your head at the lyrics. They're vague, bizarre, showing an obsession with high society and nice gadgetry. "This cellphone is lifetime/this cellphone is free," Wallpaper brags on "Remix," while "So Hot" boasts, "I never lose a Wall Street wife/but on occasion I lose yours."
You wonder what the hell these songs are about, and you do love your Nokia. Is Wallpaper making fun of you? If so, its members won't admit it. "I'm a different person than the dude who sings on the project," says Wallpaper mastermind Eric Frederic over coffee near UC Berkeley, where he recently graduated with a degree in music composition.
"I mean, the words come out of my mouth, but it's a different character," he explains.
That character is Ricky Reed, a flamboyant send-up of celebrity culture. He was invented by Frederic as the mouthpiece for Wallpaper, a solo electronic project augmented with drummer Arjen Singh when the group plays live.
At first glance, Wallpaper is just a benign dose of retro party music, the kind of thing that could slip by without a raised eyebrow at '80s nightclubs. Synthesizers whirr, drum machines thwap, and Reed (who sounds as if he stole the Vocoder from Cher's "Believe" session and implanted it in his larynx) rattles on about text messages. If Justin Timberlake were broke and had a sense of humor, he'd probably sound like this. Dig deeper into the lyrics and things get a little strange, Reed poking fun of everything from dance remixes ("The Remix") to ring tones ("Txt Me Yr Love").
"In a lot of ways, Wallpaper is a really angry project," says Frederic, who in person offers a laidback vibe. "All the lyrics are very focused, spiteful, sarcastic. There's a certain element of Wallpaper that needs to take people out of their comfort zone."
What started in 2005 as a way for Frederic to blow off steam while recording with his prog-rock band Facing New York soon slipped a social critique into the party. The character of Ricky Reed grew more cartoonish, an outlandish distillation of everything Frederic decided was wrong with Americans. Song lyrics — which on the self-titled first Wallpaper EP were mostly whimsical bits of pop art — took on a darker hue. "T Rex," the party-anthem title track to the group's new T Rex EP with a synth melody straight from Planet Rock, spoofs weekend warriors and those who hold down regular jobs: "I pay my bills right upon time/you know it turns me way on/and then I go big on the weekends/I go T Rex."
Of course, that description fits a sizable chunk of Wallpaper's audience, and Frederic himself cops to an obsession with electronic gadgets. "It's hard for me to not have my hand on my cellphone at all times," he says. "I hate that part of my personality and that part of Americans. I think that sort of conflict is evident in the music."
But what if it isn't? What if those same materialistic consumers snap up Wallpaper's funky dance tracks like the latest iPhone, never recognizing — or caring about — the ironic social critique that lurks among the drumbeats?
Frederic — or is it Reed? — looks out the cafe window and thinks for a moment. "I think it works on a lot of levels," he says. "Some people just think it's fun, and some people listen to the lyrics and don't get it. When you're getting the message and also having fun, that's ideal."
Is it still parody if no one knows it? Like Wallpaper's lyrics, the answer is a bit vague. But either way, at least you can dance to it.