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POP BEAT

Jellyfish Fashions Its Musical Philosophy : Retro: Building on the past but with a de-emphasis on clothing, the band expands its tradition of classic musical values and stylistic diversity.

April 03, 1993|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"It's hard to sit here in bell-bottoms and deny that we're retro," says Andy Sturmer, the co-leader of Jellyfish, a band whose undisguised allegiance to the legacy of such pop touchstones as the Beatles, the Beach Boys et al has earned it an unwanted reputation as a nostalgia-driven revival group.

So Sturmer, who is indeed wearing bell-bottoms during an interview at a Hollywood hotel, doesn't try to deny it. But he would like to qualify it.

"I think everything's retro, really. . . . It's the way art works. I have this giant Van Gogh book, where in the first half he's copying these Japanese-style paintings. I mean, he obviously developed his own unique, amazing thing, but he was drawing from all these elements. So was Van Gogh retro? No, he was an artist."

While Jellyfish makes no apologies for its musical philosophy, a certain re-evaluation has come into play at this crucial second-album point in its career.

The San Francisco-based group's debut album, "Bellybutton," came out in 1990, winning critical acclaim for the sophistication of its craft and the wit and emotional punch of its songs. Jellyfish also built a cult following through heavy touring, and along the way became increasingly immersed in its madcap image and the exaggerated, '70s-era fashions that started as a trademark and became a millstone.

"Halloween's always been my favorite time of year," says Sturmer's bandmate Roger Manning, explaining the look's appeal. "I just like colorful clothing, basically."

But both admit that it finally got out of hand.

Recalls Sturmer, "We'd done our first headline tour, and we had this photo session. We came off the road and we had this wardrobe case and we were throwing things on--hats four feet high that bent over, things like that. I got the proof sheet back and I just went, 'What have we become? This is insane!'

"Someone said later on that we had put a clown nose on a beautiful painting. That rang true for me. So I'd say it's been turned down a notch. . . . The new rule is no stripes in both directions."

Fashion restraint isn't the only change for Jellyfish, which plays two shows today at Magic Mountain's Golden Bear Theatre and headlines the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Sunday. Sturmer and Manning's original two bandmates are gone, and the duo has brought in one new full member, bassist Tim Smith. Guitarist Eric Dover is aboard for the current tour.

Sturmer, 27, and Manning, 26, who first bonded through a common love of jazz in high school in the East Bay community of Pleasanton, have expanded Jellyfish's tradition of classic musical values and stylistic diversity on their second album, "Spilt Milk." The group's frequent pigeonholing as "alternative rock" is more a matter of convenience than accuracy: There's really nowhere else to put them. As a result, they're not exactly storming the charts.

"We don't fit anywhere, and we're up against a wall all the time," says Manning. "It would be very easy to slip into whatever the current fad is and cash in on that movement for as long as it lasts. Fortunately, we're not associated with anything like that. Hopefully, we're gonna have some lasting power that way."

"I think musically we totally fall through the cracks," adds Sturmer. "But I think there's a lot of people out there that also fall through the cracks, meaning that they listen to all kinds of different things. We've never tried to suck up to any genre of music. We just did what came naturally to us and didn't worry about it."

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