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Building a Foundation on 'Cement' Steps : While Performing to Promote Their First Album, Trouble Dolls Will Be Keeping Their Day Jobs


SANTA ANA — The four members of Trouble Dolls are not daydreaming that their debut album will be a towering success in independent-rock circles.

Instead, they say they will be happy to lay a solid foundation and build from there. Given that philosophy, it makes a good deal of sense that they named the album "Cement."

"It's a baby-steps thing," bassist Mark Soden said as the band sat chatting Wednesday outside its stuffy rehearsal hall in a long, low-slung industrial building here. "We like baby steps."

Hence, it doesn't bother the Dolls that they are not yet a prominent local draw (they will play one of their highest-profile shows so far tonight when they share top billing at Bogart's with another good, rising local band, Standard Fruit). Nor do the four players regret that the release of their album on Doctor Dream Records won't be accompanied by a national tour of grass-roots alternative rock clubs--a customary strategy that, depending on how you look at it, can be taken as one of the great perks or harrowing ordeals of being in a rock band.

Soden took the album-then-tour approach a few years back when he was in another Doctor Dream band, Ann De Jarnett and the Falcons. The group toured for a while, then collapsed as the talented and charismatic De Jarnett decided she'd had enough of the rock 'n' roll life.

"One thing I learned with the De Jarnett band was that the (one-shot) national tour doesn't do it," Soden said. "If you can live with (extensive touring), that's fine. We've chosen a different strategy." The idea is to play mainly in California and neighboring states, making short trips to hit the same clubs repeatedly and build a following.

There's a practical issue at hand: All four Trouble Dolls have full-time jobs. Drummer Ron Cambra sells industrial supplies, singer/guitarist John Surge writes and lays out ads for a Santa Ana advertising agency, Soden is a longtime jack-of-many-trades member of the non-teaching staff at Fountain Valley High School, and guitarist/singer Michael Bay does quality control testing on Japanese-manufactured guitars for Fender Musical Instruments in Brea.

"Doctor Dream is saying that California is a country in itself, that if you can conquer California, go for it," Surge said. "I think some bands (tour nationally) just to do it. We'd rather play good shows. A Monday night in Dubuque, Iowa, doesn't sound too exciting at this point. Nobody knows us in the Midwest and East. Until people get the record and like it, I don't see the point of doing it."

The goal, then, is to create a regional buzz that will capture the attention of radio stations elsewhere that watch West Coast playlists, and to impress bigger record companies by winning fans show by show.

Trouble Dolls' main weapons in this conquer-California strategy are their knack for strong melodies and harmonies, both vocal and instrumental, and their ability to apply a punkish thrust to this pop element. That puts the band in the basic ballpark of the Replacements, the quintessential melodic guitar-band that could play it hard and fast as well. At various times on "Cement," you can hear echoes of R.E.M. and of such older pop-rock sources as the Who. Surge, the main songwriter, admits that one song, "Nevertheless," inadvertently nicked the familiar core riff of "Refugee," the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers nugget.

"It's the same chord progression, (in) a different key," the soft-spoken singer said. "I think (that echoing past rock) is inevitable, and we'll keep it if we really like it. There's two guitars, bass and drums, we're playing three-chord rock 'n' roll, and it's a very long tradition. Three-chord rock 'n' roll--that's what moves me, that's what I enjoy."

Life's less enjoyable side dominates Surge's lyrics, which are filled with ethical confusion, relationship turmoil and sundry other woes that prompt him, in the album's final chorus, to declare: "My head feels like a bucket of cement."

If the songs sound conflicted, perhaps that's because Surge's writing method is to imagine characters representing different aspects of himself arguing with each other. "I have voices fighting inside my brain," he said. No wonder it feels like a bucket of cement.

"It tends to be that when I'm happy, having a good time, I'm not writing songs. When I have to get something off my chest or work through a problem, or I'm just bummed out, that's when I'm alone and writing songs. It's a release."

Surge, who grew up in Southern California, earned a journalism degree at Humboldt State, then hooked up with Cambra in a Long Beach band, Nervous Touch. Cambra is a solidly built hot-rod fanatic whose toothy, dimpled grin brings Gary Busey to mind. He grew up in a musical family in San Francisco (his brother, Gary, plays keyboards in the Tubes), and came to Southern California six years ago to leave behind a soured marriage.

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