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Navel Gazing 

John Conley and Verna Brock trade the serious quietude of Holiday Flyer for the kitschy power-pop of California Oranges

Wednesday, Mar 14 2001
Not every songwriter can get away with adopting the persona of a comic book hero, but somehow John Conley of California Oranges pulls it off.

On "So Much to Do," one of the catchiest tracks on his band's self-titled debut, Conley ably imagines himself as Spider-Man, the "web-slinging vigilante." The song -- driven by Conley's crunchy guitar and the melodic bass lines and backing vocals of his partner-in-crime, Verna Brock -- has a clever lyrical twist beneath its hooky fun: Fighting evildoers, Conley suggests, is hell on your love life.

The Sacramento power-pop group's songs are full of pop culture artifacts of suspicious merit -- corduroy jeans and roller rinks, Olivia Newton-John, film director John Hughes -- but under the skilled hand of the band's two songwriters, the era of feathered hair and cocaine sounds almost, well, sweet.

As California Oranges gather round macchiatos in a Lower Haight coffee shop, Conley admits that he was concerned the band's retro kitsch might rub listeners the wrong way.

"When we did ["So Much to Do'] we didn't want to be real obvious about [the lyrics], but I guess if a comic book fan listened to it, they'd get it right away," says a bespectacled Conley, 31, who looks more like a mild-mannered accountant than an indie rocker. "But I was thinking that maybe we took it too far [with that song]."

As if to exonerate himself, Conley adds that it was actually Brock's idea to write the song from the superhero's point of view (although they wrote the lyrics together).

"I felt that way about "Olivia,' too," Brock, 28, says of the record's closing homage to the star of Xanadu.

While Brock fretted that telling the Australian star she "captured my heart the first time I saw you in the summer of '78" was a little weird, she says it was easier than writing a more straightforward pop song.

"I have a hard time coming up with typical lyrics," says Brock. "I guess you could write a million songs about breaking up, but sometimes it's hard to come up with lyrics that to me seem different. I've never heard a song about her, so it's kind of easy because it's a clean slate."

Not to be outdone by Conley, Brock is quick to add that the song "was actually John's idea."

The couple, who have been involved for seven years, began California Oranges as a four-track project two years ago. Although Conley and Brock had both played in Holiday Flyer -- a quieter combo that Conley and his sister Katie started in 1993 -- they realized they had rarely written together.

"In Holiday Flyer, John writes all the songs, and I obviously wrote all the songs for my Beanpole [solo project]," says Brock.

The duo recorded its first collaborative effort, "Roller King," at home, with Conley on bass and Brock on guitar and tambourine. When Holiday Flyer's label, Darla Records, included the song on the Little Darla Has a Treat for You, Vol. 13 compilation in the fall of 1999, Brock and Conley decided their side project deserved more attention.

Anyone familiar with the twee-ish sounds of Holiday Flyer will be surprised by the straight-ahead rock and quirky humor of California Oranges. Next to Holiday Flyer's pretty, serious melancholia, the new combo acts like a goofy younger sister. Though California Oranges has its moodier songs -- the "I miss you" lament of "Weekends & Holidays," for instance -- much of it is lighthearted. On numbers like "John Hughes" and "I Just Knew," Brock and Conley intersperse melodic riffs with charming vocals about teen angst and love at first sight, like a bubble gum version of Sonic Youth.

Conley says the Oranges' sonic departure was deliberate -- and more true to his own musical tastes. "I've always been a big fan of power pop, more uptempo rock stuff. When I started Holiday Flyer, I had the idea that I wanted to do a band that was kind of slow and very quiet, because I had played in a bunch of rock bands before that and I wanted to do something different."

Conley says he couldn't find anyone to play drums or bass with him at the time, so he began writing for just guitar. "I had these songs, and I thought, "Well, I'm just going to record them very minimalistically.' I just started the style of the band, and I thought the style was working, so we just carried through with that."

Conley had far less trouble finding a drummer for California Oranges. Not only had Ross Levine, 27, worked with the Conley siblings at a Sacramento record store in the mid-'90s, but he also shared a Sacramento State music theory class with Brock. After Levine joined and the trio recorded its debut album, the members added Ross' twin brother, Matt, on second guitar.

If much of the scene surrounding California Oranges seems incestuous, that's because it is. Brock initially met Conley at the wedding of the drummer for her previous band, synth-pop group Rocketship. And the Levine brothers, who also perform with a pop-punk band called the Tank, have contributed to Holiday Flyer in the past.

Conley says that juggling various band responsibilities works out rather well for the close-knit group of friends since it gives each songwriter his or her own venue.

"In each one of the bands, one or two of the people are the main songwriters and everyone contributes to [those songs]," says Conley. "I think it's cool because a lot of time if you get too many cooks in the kitchen -- if you have a band and you have three or four songwriters -- it sounds like a hodgepodge. But if the band has one or two primary writers, it has more of a focus and has a singular sound to it."

California Oranges certainly has a cohesive focus, in both its sound and its lyrics. At the time Conley and Brock wrote the songs, they were listening to a lot of '50s pop music, and consciously tried to meld that period's street corner simplicity with more modern sounds.

This combination makes it difficult to categorize the band, even for Darla Records' owner, James Agren. "He finally came up with a cross between [English strummy rock band] the Wedding Present and [angular art-pop group] the Throwing Muses," says Conley. "In a lot of ways I'm happy [that our music is hard to define]. It's the ultimate compliment."

If California Oranges' music is steeped in the '50s, its lyrical focus is much more reminiscent of the late '70s and early '80s, the era in which the band members spent their formative years. While the popular culture of that period cannot be aesthetically justified outside of nostalgia, the members of California Oranges aren't ashamed of its effect on their songs.

"I was hugely influenced by pop culture as a kid," Conley says. "A lot of it was a big influence, not so much directly but indirectly, by being bombarded with it by TV. I mean, how much more '80s can you get [than John Hughes films]?"

He's referring to the Oranges song named for the film director who turned '80s teen angst into an art form with Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. Conley says he got the idea for the number after seeing Kevin Smith's film Dogma, in which two characters embark on a road trip to find Shermer, Ill., the fictional backdrop for Hughes' films.

"I thought that would be so cool to write a song about living in Shermer, Illinois. ... To take ideas from [Hughes] films and then throw Kevin Smith in there somewhere," says Conley. "It's basically about [a boy] trying to find a date in Shermer, Illinois."

Even if Conley could relate to his character's barren love life, he would have little free time to worry about it.

On April 15, Holiday Flyer will begin work on its fourth full-length, with Elliott Smith producer Larry Crane behind the boards. Then, starting in November, it's back to work on a California Oranges follow-up. Such schedules can be daunting with full-time jobs as well. But Conley says that, while it's a challenge, it doesn't take superpowers to juggle so many commitments.

"We're starting to feel like we've bitten off more than we can chew," admits Conley. "But we're learning how to manage it. It's something that we really love doing, so it makes it worth it."

About The Author

Elizabeth Montalbano


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