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Testing the Vertical Hold with the Color Bars

Jason Thompson

PopMatters speaks with Color Bars' Gerald Slevin about the new disc, the music business at large, and that often-hallowed New York scene. Just what is it about that city that makes it so musically special?

If you haven't checked out fabulous New York group the Color Bars, please drop what you're doing right now and give a listen to their great new release Making Playthings, out now on Paranoiac. Recently PopMatters spoke to band member Gerald Slevin (other members John English and Dave Spelber bowed down to Slevin and entrusted him with the authoritative answers) about the new disc, the music business at large, and that often-hallowed New York scene. Just what is it about that city that makes it so musically special? Read on to find out in this light-hearted conversation.

PopMatters: All right, you tell me what the deal is. Here you guys are, another dashing group from the hub of NYC. Seems like most every group I'm digging these days is always from your fair city. But then you're doing a sound that's completely different from most of the other groups that I know. How does that gel in a place where the whole garage rock revival bullshit is sucking the hipster teats dry? I'd take the Color Bars over the Strokes any damn day.

Gerald Slevin: I think there's a lot more musical diversity in this town than people give it credit for. I mean, the Strokes and the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs and all that got a ton of press all over the place. But it's pretty easy to catch a folk singer or a metal band or a decent jazz band or anything else here, too. And of course there's always been a lot of rap and hip-hop coming out NYC, and also electronic music, but I guess the media just happened to make a bigger deal about the "New Rock City Renaissance." I suppose it sold magazines. Anyway, the Color Bars have always fit in fine here. It's home.

PM: Making Playthings is, to me, a phenomenal piece of work. The songs are wonderful, the playing top notch, and the arrangements just mind-blowing. And I've heard other groups on the indie circuit attempt to do this exact same thing, but they always blow it because the talent just isn't there. Had you guys known each other for a while and just decided to create the group, or did you have to seek each other out?

GS: We all come from the same suburban row-houses of Nassau County, Long Island. Dave and Johnny went to elementary school together, playing drums and sax in the school jazz-band. That was all the way back when their speaking-voices probably sounded a lot like the falsetto harmonies they now painfully squeal with the Color Bars. I met them later on. Dave was playing drums in a hardcore band called Pyre. I liked to go and see them because they specialized in Rage Against the Machine covers.We had a close friend in common, and after a few years we started getting together to play. Dave introduced me to Johnny, and the Color Bars just kind of came from that.

PM: It's all too easy for me to sit here and say OK, you guys have a Beatles/Brian Wilson influence running through your sound, so tell me, are there any albums or artists that influenced you that are just outright overlooked? Maybe something odd that the listeners wouldn't suspect you enjoyed? At the same time I'd like to add when I listen to Making Playthings I'm often reminded of Jellyfish's great second album Spilt Milk that was -- and still is to a degree -- unfairly pissed on when it was originally released. And I thought it was much better than Bellybutton.

GS: Well, you're right about those '60s pop influences. In fact we were listening to the Beach Boys' Smile outtakes quite a bit while we were doing the record. The Kinks and Zombies are big favorites, too, but really we're influenced by anything and everything that we hear, which is really all over the place. Big Star, Robert Johnson, Kraftwerk, the Muppets, Nina Simone, the Shins, John Cage, OutKast, Pete Seeger, whatever's done well, we take from it. Even terrible music that you just haphazardly hear in a grocery store can leave a significant impression. Like Creed or N Sync, or elevator music. It all gets in there, even if it's negative. You can pick up a new perspective on what not to do. Which is equally valuable, I think. Pretty vague answer...

PM: Is it difficult to replicate the songs in a live setting? There's just so much going on in them that I think you'd essentially need a few other folks onstage to pull it off. Is this what you do, or do you just play the tunes in a more stripped down style?

GS: That's actually never been much of a problem, because we treat the live show very differently. I think it's good to deviate from the record a bit, which keeps the songs fresh anyway. Besides, what fun is just going around re-creating the record you made six months ago? I realize plenty of people do that, which is fine, but we're trying to do something different I suppose. When we play live, we try to get the most out of our three mouths, six feet and 30 fingers, and it usually works. Three people singing really fills things up, and then there's always lots of guitar pedals and thick keyboard effects. Plus the inherent energy of loud, live music, and also the involvement of the crowd. People have a good time, I think. It's just a different experience than the record.

PM: Is there any current music you're sick of? I sometimes ask this and the respondents either dodge it, or are polite. Hey, the truth hurts as they say, so I want blood and guts here if you've got it.

GS: Obviously there's plenty of crap out there, so yeah, there's stuff that I just can't stand, but what disturbs me more than the actual music is the constant barrage of images of bad artists everywhere you turn. Like that Chris Carraba guy on the cover of Spin magazine with that perfect little pike of hair on the top of his head. He looks like he should be making toys in Santa's Workshop. You're just inundated with pictures everywhere you go, and then when you hear the music, you can't believe how bad it sucks.

PM: Do you think it's difficult to have the eclectic sound you guys have with all the fine high style pop arrangements and whatnot and not be pigeonholed? Do you ever have a problem with folks saying, oh they're too derivative of so and so, and they won't be around for long? Now dammit, I want you to eventually release a ten-album catalogue. How could the music world live without the Color Bars? I cannot fathom it.

GS: Most people who pigeonhole artists like you're saying do it for their own reasons that have nothing to do with the music, and shouldn't be taken seriously. They either hold some position where it's their job to do it, or they've been so indoctrinated into that line of categorical thinking that they can't think for themselves. So no, it doesn't bother me at all, because people like that aren't very credible, and are easy to ignore.

PM: I'd like to say how much I fucking love the solo in "We're A Tag Team". I love the whole song, but that thing sounds decidedly Wings-ish. Kind of like that wacky solo in "Jet". How did you get that sound for that particular solo?

GS: I've had this tiny beat-up amp since high school. The overdrive setting is permanently stuck on max which gives anything you plug into it a really wide sound. Add a crunchy distortion pedal and a Stratocaster with the treble/bass switched to full bass, and spread those Wings, baby.

PM: Do you think the music industry as a whole, given its current situation with its supposed drops in sales and all that shit, is finally getting what it deserves? Do you think the major labels' greed has finally turned the situation into such a complete business structure that record buying consumerism has become as nonchalant as buying a pair of jeans or a Coke? I've been saying for a long time now that these people need to look towards the indies; not to overtake them, but learn what good music is all about once again and that bands can in fact survive with good music and zero videos and Mad Dog 20/20 instead of Cristal.

GS: I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that the music industry is finally getting what it deserves. Anytime the technology evolves into a new species, the parasites freak out because they have to evolve, too. I'm sure it was utter chaos in the sheet-music biz back when the phonograph came out, but eventually the business parasites evolved along with the technology, and they were able to commence sucking the blood out of the artists until the next stage. Then came the 45, the 8-track, the compact disc, and so on and so on. So I don't really think there's that big of a change occurring. But maybe I'm wrong. It would be nice if I was wrong. It would be nice to think that this could be the dawn of new age, in which the standard protocol for artists would be to put their music out on the internet independent of label representation or large-scale record distribution companies and get their music out there themselves. I guess we'll have to wait and see. I mean, there's some of that happening, like people who sell sock monkeys on Ebay for a living and stuff like that. But as for the music world, there's a long way to go before that becomes "the norm." In fact, the major record labels are still some of the largest grossing corporations on the planet, even with all the "naughty" downloading going on. So no, I don't think they're getting what they deserve. What they deserve, in my opinion, is to be completely and totally abolished. Unfortunately, I don't think that is even close to happening.

PM: Let's pretend for a moment that I'm really working for Seventeen magazine and you're the group being featured as the current heartthrob band of the moment, complete with glossy pics that the teen fans can tape to their walls. What advice would you give to those girls out there whose boyfriends are in a band and whose guitars are taking up all their time?

GS: Dump the rocker boyfriend. Draw a Salvador Dali mustache on Dave's poster, a Groucho Marx one on mine, and an Abe Lincoln beard on Johnny. Then fold all three pics into origami frogs and flush them down the toilet. Burn the rest of the magazine and cancel your subscription immediately. Tell all of your friends to repeat the same procedure, and tell them to tell their friends the exact same thing.

PM: Now let's pretend I'm from Newsweek and we're all in suits sitting around a mahogany table drinking Taster's Choice or Sanka, whichever you like. Maybe even a Tab and some Twinkies. Tell me how you feel about downloading songs off the Internet and the RIAA's recent bloodthirsty subpoenas targeting those who dare to dabble in such risky business.

GS: They sued a 12-year old girl who lives in a housing project. She's 12 years old. They sued her. How do you feel about it?

PM: Exactly my sentiments. Moving along, do you have a full-length project in the works? It's funny. In the olden days of vinyl and cassettes, eight songs would have been an album! I think 70-plus minutes as a standard is just too long. Too many bands trying to fill their CDs these days with hardly enough material for a good half of an album.

GS: We weren't really sure if we should call [Making Playthings] an EP or not, because it kind of flows like an LP. Not that it matters. It is what it is. There are eight songs, which is a nice, solid listen. One more than seven, far less than 12, can't go wrong with good ol' eight. Eight is the number of the day, eight makes your cares go away... dear, dear, sweet eight.

PM: Was "Eliza" written for or about someone specific? Those big-wigs can't believe real songs can be written without ten studio hacks behind the words and music, you know!

GS: Yes, "Eliza" was written about someone specific. I dated this person in college, but I changed the name slightly because it seemed inappropriate to use her real name in such a class-conscious and slightly scathing diatribe about a girl who doesn't seem very nice. I try not to change names, like in "Slivers of Green" I say "Rachel", who is my real girlfriend, but with "Eliza", it seemed like the right thing to do.

PM: And finally, what would be the best way to discourage Celine Dion from ever singing again? I keep hoping she'll go insane and record an ego trip like Garth Brooks did when he decided he was "Chris Gaines" and made a pop album. Remember that? He was going to do a whole movie to go with it as well.

GS: Maybe she can do a Christmas album with the Olsen Twins. I bet they could pitch-shift a few harmonies out of those two...

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