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Woodentops: New Crop Of British Pop Stylists

November 12, 1986|STEVE HOCHMAN

"Right at this moment I'm in an absolute panic because I don't know where I'm going to be at Christmas," said Rolo McGinty, singer and songwriter of the English rock group the Woodentops.

"Normally, I only don't know whether I'm going to be at my parents or my grandparents. Now I don't know what country I'll be in."

If that's the biggest price of success McGinty has to pay, he'll be quite lucky. Right now, his band seems poised on the brink of the kind of fame that can bring much more serious consequences.

In its three-year existence, the Woodentops (McGinty, guitarist Simon Mawby, keyboardist Alice Thompson, bassist Frank deFreitas and drummer Bennie Staples) have gone from being what McGinty calls "inexperienced non-musicians" to a leading entry in what's being viewed as the next generation of British pop music.

The band's name is used almost as a generic term for a burgeoning style of music that shares the Woodentops' heady folk-pop sound and optimistic viewpoint.

In America, the Woodentops' two recent LPs ("Well, Well, Well," a collection of English singles, and "Giant," the group's first real album) have become alternative radio favorites, and a brief summer tour inspired some "next big thing" comments in the press. (The band returns to Los Angeles for a show Thursday at the Palace.)

But can the band retain its charming simplicity as its arena grows? McGinty has already observed changes in his own perspective. For one thing, there's his relationship with his friends in similarly-minded bands in England.

"I don't understand why the Woodentops are more popular than them, because when we get together we seem to be about the same thing," he said during a phone interview from San Francisco.

"But I seem to be spending more and more time telling them where we've been. We're getting the pop star treatment. It's a funny feeling, but it's enjoyable. To take so many airplane trips in one year is strange."

It would seem, too, that as the band's audience grows, so do its ambitions. A recent four-night stand at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts--complete with multimedia enhancements--seems a bit strange for a band that has been more likely to be criticized as precious rather than pretentious. But McGinty insists that the Woodentops are not going to turn into some sort of overblown art-rock band.

"When I think of that, I think of massive lights and huge stadiums," he said. "I think about lasers and stuff like that. What I see the Woodentops doing is very homemade and cheaply done. We're not trying to knock 'em dead. We're trying to give people something to interpret, not whack 'em out."

McGinty also disdains the kind of hype that often accompanies a band's ascendance--even relatively mild cases.

"When we played the ICA, there were posters that said, 'The triumphant return of the Woodentops,' " he recalled. "We didn't like that. In some ways it's exciting, but it looked tacky on paper."

The most irksome thing to McGinty, though, has been seeing how myths can grow around a band as it gains fame.

A widely circulated story, for instance, recently made the rounds about McGinty earning the wrath of the Smiths' singer Morrissey when the bands were on tour together--something to do with a practical joke involving an exploding cigarette pack.

When the incident was mentioned, McGinty's cheery demeanor audibly darkened.

"That's never going to go away," he groaned. "It doesn't exist, it never happened. It was the figment of a writer's imagination. I think he took a sarcastic joke seriously. As far as I'm concerned, it makes us look like a load of pranksters. It just irritates us when we find everyone thinks we did that. We're not so stupid."

Is this a chink in McGinty's optimistic armor? No, he maintained.

"If I let everything that went on around me affect me, I wouldn't be happy at all," he said. "But I'd say I wasn't so wrapped up in my happiness that I was blind."

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