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The WondermintsThe eclectic mix of influences blended with their innate talents is what makes the Wondermints' art not just special but so different from other power pop practitioners. Like all greats they don't merely tower over their genre, they transcend it.
an interview with Darian Sahanaja by Stephen Ridley
"We find the less we play the more of an event it becomes," says Darian, explaining how the Wondermints, unlike most bands, were primarily a studio band who eventually, in the mid 90s, began the live grind in LA dives and bars. One suspects there were few bands of their ilk on the circuit.
"I would hope not. Apparently we were doing our thing and a lot of other musicians came out of the woodwork and thought 'well a pop thing may be worth pursuing.'"
When considering the first album, people are quick to point out lots of Beach Boy references but overlook English sources of inspiration - Grapefruit or the Zombies' Odyssey & Oracle.
"One of my top three albums!"
Yet, despite that Englishness, there's also evidence of what we'll call 'the Barbarella syndrome,' that lounge-core style of say Global Village Idiot... a first inkling of that Hanna Barbara, James Bond aesthetic...
"Well what happened, I don't wanna pat ourselves on the back but when we played those early shows we had a side alter-ego band we called the After Dinner Mints - this side of us as fans of incidental music - John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith, TV themes and British stuff - UFO, the Gerry Anderson stuff and that all came out of that and hopefully it is all a continuum. So again not to over congratulate ourselves, a few years after that that whole lounge thing exploded with bands like Combustible Edison which led, especially in the States, to that whole swingers thing."
It takes confident people to say 'hey, there's interesting values here.' So many people suddenly embraced it having previously rejected it as 'cheesy.'
"Well music goes in cycles right? I'd imagine after hearing a lot of grunge and hard dance, rap etc. its just another sound, vibe, an attitude and 20/30 year gap in trends. That 'playboy after dark' mentality paved the way for Austin Powers - so popular - we had no idea."
The Wondermints were invited to contribute to the soundtrack of the first Powers movie...
"Early on," Darian begins,
"we had submitted a track for a Henry Mancini tribute - Shots In The Dark - a great record! We did the theme to The Party. Mike Myers loved that compilation and he singled that song out. Apparently we captured the vibe of this character he had forming so much he called us and said 'hey I've got this script - let me know what you think.' It was totally up our alley so I wrote a song on the spot and...they loved it. People think it was very calculated and it wasn't. That was the most natural and successful thing ever to happen to us."
For their second album the 'Mints took the unusual step of releasing a collection of cover versions (The Wonderful World Of) for the Japanese market.
"It was an idea of theirs. They won't make you do them but...the Japanese... they always have an agenda...[adopts Japanese accent] 'Ah ok, first originals album, second covers album and third originals!' But it was fun."
It is. Here all their influences are laid out before us: the theme song from Barbarella, rare Brian Wilson, Turtles, The Smoke. Abba's Knowing Me Knowing You is a real garage power pop liberty-taker but most of the songs are so close to the originals its bizzare: try their Arnold Lane or their My Friend Jack.
Which brings us to Bali, a record championed particularly in Britain and one, alongside Cotton Mather's Kontiki, largely repsonsible for keeping the pop flame burning brightly in the music press.
"Bali we consider our first proper album," Darian admits.
"The first is a collection of demos. It has no overall concept. We were proud of them but... We are trying to overcome that demo limitation, trying to inject some energy."
At this point I feel the desire to ask this LA muso and resident what he makes of the rap metal scene there - violence, suspect direction...
"If Nick [Walusko] were here he'd go on a ten-minute diatribe!" he begins, before offering his own appraisal.
"I think there's always going to be the rock'n'roll element which is rebellion but there's not much to rebel against these days. It doesn't feel justified; it's like it's nasty and bitter for nasty and bitter's sake, which is so phoney. Which is why I feel this, us, is being more punk. Brian Wilson is more punk," he continues, namechecking the influence who hand-picked the 'Mints for his recent Pet Sounds 'comeback' tour.
"Just him on stage - you can see teenagers going 'whoahh!' as he says things off the top of his head. At Neil Young's Bridge Benefit Concert for disabled children he'd say - 'OK this is for all the crippled children...' Whoaah...There's no irony there.
Really there's so many better ways to be different than to tattoo yourself and snarl at people. Arnaldo Says [from Bali] is my comment on all that: how the real enemy in the world is indifference. It's survival you gotta be concerned about. An asteroid can hit us. You gotta put your existence in perspective - if more people knew that they'd be a little wiser than to constantly pick fights and be bitter. We are not living through world wars, famine or depression. I just have to say if that's how you feel that's how you feel."
We live in a world with a short attention span. If you want to do anything useful or worthwhile - be an art critic, play the banjo - it takes time.
"And with music too...it's convenience. 'I got a machine. I can programme a groove. I don't have to earn any musical talent.'"
Two days later the Wondermints play to an enthusiastic sell-out crowd at London's Borderline. A 1000 people compressed into a 500 capacity joint. The heat is dangerous, music biz faces abound and our heroes play a set as tight and classy as vintage Steely Dan or Wings at an Emperor's birthday party. The applause is both noisy and respectful and a beaming Darian says he feels like the band could play the whole country for free. Maybe the Brian Wilson tour will make it across the water. But, while the thought of playing Pet Sounds with an orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall may be Darian's dream date, the Wilson camp needs to be convinced [the US tour has lost money, in no small part 'thanks' to the Marlboro Man communities of, say, Dallas, where an 8000 seater saw a mere 2000 seats filled].
With or without Wilson, viva Los Wondermintos.
CWAS #7 - Spring 2001