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Pop Goes the World 

Will Schwartz and Hey Willpower want you to think about why you like pop, or, barring that, get your booty bouncin'

Wednesday, Feb 16 2005
It's weird for a musician to choose to be interviewed over breakfast on a Saturday, when even the best of us are dozing into noon. But then again, full-time musicians don't have a regular schedule and probably don't know when it's the weekend anyway. And to be fair, we meet at 11, so technically we're talkin' brunch.

"Oh please," he says, "let's not call it brunch. Please."

So we call it breakfast, and settle into a table at the Atlas Cafe on 20th. The musician in question, one Will Schwartz, is here to discuss his new project, Hey Willpower, formerly just Willpower until he received a cease-and-desist letter from a guy named Will Power. (At press time, the band Will to Power of "Baby, I Love Your Way" fame had yet to get a lawyer involved.)

"I like the name," Schwartz says with a chuckle. He likes to chuckle, and he does so in an endearing, happy-go-lucky way. "But Willpower does have its connotations."


"You know," he replies. "It's like Shakespeare in the park or like the 12 steps." Chuckle. "Then there's a part of it that sounds little and cute. Hopefully that part comes through."

Hey Willpower is a side project for the multi-instrumentalist, who has been a member of San Francisco funcore band Imperial Teen since its inception in 1995. That band is still together, but at the moment the members are all off doing their own things.

As we all know, the basic MO of any side project is to go in a "different direction." Well, Hey Willpower took that idea and ran with it, like, really far. The band strays not only from the Imperial Teen sound, but also from the sound of any other underground indie band. In fact, Schwartz is doing something quite radical. In a scene where synthesizer sounds are the musical equivalent of mesh trucker hats, where dance music has to be bawdy and oversexualized and people have to hide the fact that they enjoy an Usher record from time to time, Hey Willpower unabashedly wears its love of Top 40 pop music on its sleeveless, too-tight T-shirt. And we're not talking about some electroclash, new-wave '80s rip-off; this band's jams are informed by the mainstream pop of right this second. We're talking Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake.

"We've been playing indie rock shows, and I think that sometimes people are like, 'Whoa, what the fuck is this?'" says Schwartz.

It just goes to show you how self-conscious S.F. audiences are: A band comes out and plays fun commercial music and everyone stands there dumbfounded. Are we supposed to get the joke? Is the band being ironic? Do I do my contorted Tom Green dance, my blissful Madonna jig, or just cross my arms and scowl?

Settle down, gentle ones. It's not that complicated.

In many ways, Hey Willpower is like the Fucking Champs, whose busy guitar solos and cheesetastic homages to metal have been misinterpreted by many to be ironic lampooning. This is not the case. The Champs are not trying to be ironic. They love the music they play. So does Hey Willpower.

"I love pop music. My entire life, I have loved pop music." Schwartz is not chuckling when he says this.

Will Schwartz is from the East Coast, New Jersey specifically. When he was a teen, his family moved to Beverly Hills.

"You know that movie The Slums of Beverly Hills? That was us," he says.

Most teenagers would find it difficult to up and move in the middle of high school, but Schwartz was thrilled.

"I didn't fit in," he says. Apparently his schoolmates back east didn't appreciate his eccentricities. While everyone else was wearing OP, Schwartz chose to wear Fila sweat suits and fat-laced shoes. Once he moved to California, though, no one cared how he dressed. Even his classmate Monica Lewinsky welcomed him with open arms.

"She was nice," he remembers. After that revelation we spend a few minutes giggling at the fact that there were once three degrees of separation between Schwartz and Yasser Arafat. Then Schwartz digs into his bagel and begins to explain to me why he considers Hey Willpower to be an art project more than a band.

"We're making pop music," he says, "but I guess in the way it's presented, I want to make people think about their relationship to pop music and why they like it, why it evokes certain feelings, and why it speaks to certain subcultures of people."

Schwartz isn't exactly sure how his band is doing this, but he thinks it has to do with holding a mirror up to the audience or something. "I don't want to punk it up, but I want to present [pop] in a different context. And that's why we use something like synchronized dancing."

Oh yeah, the synchronized dancing. In addition to Schwartz on vocals and local whiz Tomo on electronics, the band features background singers/dancers Justin Kelly and Erin Rush. In the video for the song "Double Fantasy II," Kelly, Rush, and Schwartz move with an entourage through a hotel, stopping to do robotic, Broadway-esque dance moves. "I'm OK with you playing Truth or Dare," sings Schwartz standing on a bed, "as long as you end up in your underwear."

Whether or not this music makes you pause to ponder the meaning of pop in your life depends on the kind of person you are; if it doesn't make you want to walk the dinosaur, though, you may consider checking to see if you have a pulse. "I definitely want that to be a big huge part of it," says Schwartz, "losing yourself in fun dance music." Can't hang with that? Well, as the song says: "We can dance if we want to/ We can leave your friends behind/ 'Cause your friends don't dance and if they don't dance/ Well, they're no friends of mine."

See, the thing is, Schwartz writes melodies the way that that Cyrano de Bergerac guy wrote love letters. And they aren't electro or synth-pop or even electronica melodies; they sound like smooth R&B, like teeny-bopper boy bands and Babyface. Really, the only thing that keeps the music of Hey Willpower from being, like, completely mainstream is the DIY production. The tunes are crisp and beat-heavy, with more hooks than a nun's brassiere, but they're definitely low-budge.

"People say, 'Man, you sound like Justin Timberlake. Maybe you should make it edgier,'" explains Schwartz. "But to me, it's much more subversive to keep it the way it is."

Not surprisingly, mega-pop wack jobs the Scissor Sisters have tuned in to what Hey Willpower is doing, asking the band to open for them on their recent tour; Schwartz and friends just finished up a tour with the subversive sirens of Le Tigre as well. These not-so-minor achievements -- which are all the more impressive considering the group has yet to even put out its debut (look for it in the spring) -- raise an odd, slightly ironic question: What if Hey Willpower's postmodern pop becomes the next big thing? Will the 14-year-old studio audience of TRL be screaming Will Schwartz's name one of these days?

"If that happens," he says, with one of his self-effacing chuckles, "then we'll just have to take pop music further."

About The Author

Katy St. Clair


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