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The Peels Sessions 

They're San Francisco's hottest garage band -- in Los Angeles, anyway. Will their hometown give them the respect they deserve?

Wednesday, Apr 7 2004
"It knows!" the Peels' singer, Robyn Miller, says cryptically about her hotel room's electronic minibar as she removes a Hershey's bar from the top of the unit's infrared sensor. Bassist Josh Vieu has a solution to Miller's dilemma: Placing an empty Budweiser can where the candy used to be, he tricks the high-tech gadget into thinking nothing has changed. This ploy brings the members of the Peels immense pleasure, and they all burst into howls of laughter.

To say that the musicians are drunk is something of an understatement. On the 18th floor of Hollywood's swank Renaissance Hotel, the bandmates -- Miller and Vieu, plus Lane Rider (guitar) and Kenneth Small (drums) -- are drinking up a storm on Capitol Records' tab (the band just signed to the label). And why not? The Peels are rock stars. That they've only been playing together for about a year and have yet to release a record doesn't deter the L.A. press and several major record labels from frothing at the mouth for the group's poppy garage-rock revival shtick. The only catch is that the Peels aren't from L.A. They live in San Francisco, where hardly anyone has heard of them.

While the Peels have what it takes to grab the attention of A&R types, it's unclear whether they can win over an arguably tougher audience -- jaded S.F. music scenesters. The band only recently moved here, after receiving a somewhat frosty reception from Seattle critics, despite its healthy fan base, built up as it formed its sound. The Peels knew they could move to Los Angeles and prosper, but they split the difference between L.A. and Seattle and settled on this town ("We just love it here," says Vieu). What remains to be seen is whether San Francisco plans to give the Peels the warm L.A treatment or the chilly Seattle one.

One local pundit recently described them as the "Candlebox of garage rock." Harsh words, to be sure, but the Peels are easy targets. Miller's lyrics aren't exactly original, yet the band does have talent where it counts. Rider's guitar work alone could take this group anywhere it wants to go -- and live, the Peels simmer with energy. Though they seem to bring out the player-haters in droves, more than a few of those folks would come around if they'd just catch a show.

The Peels' performances have always been the source of their strength, and people nationwide are starting to notice. The band just signed on with the Agency Group (the same booking agency that handles the White Stripes, among many others), which hopes to have the Peels out supporting some big bands this summer in Europe. While a San Francisco groundswell of support for the group hasn't yet materialized, that shouldn't stop it from "making it." In fact, many local acts that seem to do well, especially in the overseas press, aren't particularly well known in their own town. From Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (which eventually had to move to L.A. to get signed) to Vue, S.F. produces plenty of bands that draw heavier crowds outside the bay than they do here. But what's most amazing is that the Peels even have the luxury of examining such issues. They almost didn't become a band at all.

Miller and Rider are clearly different types. Miller is brash and opinionated; Rider is soft-spoken and calculating. Still, Rider had played in several Seattle bands that Miller liked. They shared a similar musical taste and agreed to start a band -- even though they'd met on a failed blind date. "It was fucked up," Miller laughs. "I should have known the date was doomed, as we met in this restaurant where I once tripped over a guy who got stabbed. ... We basically hated each other. He was like, 'That girl is such a bitch!'"

While Rider certainly didn't fall in love with Miller that night, he did see in her a musical soulmate. The two started practicing together, and eventually Miller recruited Vieu to join them. They settled on the name "The Peels" at a friend's suggestion: They were all big fans of the Peel Sessions, groundbreaking radio broadcasts by John Peel of U.K. bands like Gang of Four. Small was recruited later, also by Miller (she dated him, too, and he's a well-known drummer in Seattle rock circles), and the lineup was set.

The band started out with modest ambitions -- playing parties and small venues and working its way up the local ladder. But things happened faster than the quartet could have imagined. Miller gave a demo of a few songs to a friend who managed the Crocodile bar in Seattle, and within a week the group was playing on some of the top bills in town. But the Peels weren't entirely happy with being so hyped, so quickly. A backlash ensued, and the bandmates felt they needed a change of scenery.

"We were dying to get out of Seattle," says Rider. He claims the band had always planned to leave for San Francisco. "Everybody was so supportive of us in Seattle -- when we were leaving," he deadpans.

It's not surprising that some cynical Seattlites may have had a beef with the Peels. The band members have the right clothes, the right haircuts, and the right hipster sound. Though their influences all seem to be bands from 1985 and before -- their music blends the urgent, ringing guitar of early U2, the loud rock 'n' roll fury of the Bellrays, and the cool pop sensibilities of Blondie -- and despite the fact that Miller's powerful, soulful vocal stylings draw from the glory years of new wave, their sound is almost too "now." It makes for a band that's just a little too perfect for the former grunge capital of the world. One Seattle journalist even got a bit personal with Miller, calling her the "queen of the scene."

"I can't control what people think about me," says the tattooed brunette somewhat defensively. "Women writers especially seem to beat me down. It sounds kinda cheesy to say, but hopefully the music transcends all that. ... In the end it's not about me, it's about the band."

While Miller prefers to play down her role in the group, it's easy to see why she's the polarizing figure in the Peels. Quick-witted and attractive (she once dated Nick Valensi from the Strokes), she has a presence and soulful vocals that separate the Peels from a hundred other rock bands trying to be the next Yeah Yeah Yeahs. She's the one who has the major labels scheming and dreaming of their very own Karen O, and her bandmates know it.

Which is not to say that the band doesn't have some great songs. "Only Son," from the unreleased demo EP, is a catchy slab of aggressive guitars on a Sex Pistols tear, balanced by singsong-y pop verses straight out of 1983. The tune cries out for modern-rock airplay. Equally engaging is "Push You Away," a heavy minor-key rocker that draws from the sound of early-'90s grunge or even early Guns N' Roses.

And when you see them live, it's evident that the Peels are only getting better. Rider's relentlessly catchy guitar work, in particular, shines. Seeing the Peels in a club is more akin to taking in an MC5 show fronted by Missing Persons' Dale Bozzio or the Motels' Martha Davis than it is to the constant new wave comparisons their recorded material seems to elicit. Though the group might still get a bad rap in certain circles, such grumbling should die down as the act tours. It may be easy to dismiss the Peels as pretenders to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' crown or to write off their authenticity, but it's impossible to dismiss the talent on display every time they take the stage.

While things are looking up for the Peels right now, they're smart enough not to break out the champagne just yet. Vieu and Rider have recently taken day jobs as garbage collectors for 1-800-Got-Junk. "We all still gotta work," sighs Vieu. "None of us have seen any big checks from labels just yet, although I did find this awesome '70s recliner on the job the other day. I think it must be worth around $600."

Miller is also flirting with the idea of getting work, but so far, she has resisted. "Robin refuses to get a job," laughs Vieu. "I totally respect her for it, and I wish I could do the same, but she has lots of friends that she has been living with, not paying rent, and she always just seems to get by."

Chances are, the only job the Peels will have in the next year will be staying focused. Hotel rooms across the country await future rock stars -- and the Peels are ready to raid the minibar.

About The Author

Charlie Amter


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