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Sponge Soaks Up Hard-Earned Success : Pop music: With a compelling, commercial sound, the Detroit band breaks out of the suburbs and onto national charts.

June 03, 1995|SANDY MASUO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From Motown's hits to punk precursors the Stooges and MC5, Detroit's music history is much longer and at least as varied as, say, Seattle's. But the Motor City hasn't fostered the kind of close-knit, supportive music community that has developed in Seattle and other rock outposts.

The members of Sponge, a Detroit band that's completed the long haul from the working-class suburbs to the national pop charts, acknowledge the inspiration of their Detroit forebears, but the picture they paint of their hometown is a daunting one.

"You gotta understand one thing about Detroit," singer Vinnie Dombrowski, 32, begins ominously. "People [there] don't embrace other bands. There's not this camaraderie thing going on, so right from the get-go you develop this sense of 'Well, I'm kinda out here on my own.' You're so used to being hated. You're just hated, and then all of a sudden for us it's been like, 'Oh, people like it!' . . . And you're like, 'Whoa! How did this happen?' "

"Detroit isn't a major entertainment town," bassist Tim Cross, 28, explains. "A&R people aren't flying there to see bands. You get in the studio and you record some stuff. You get it out to these people and you make them want to see you. You kind of shell yourself off and just concern yourself with yourself. You try and make like a missile to get out of this city."

That meant developing a hard-boiled pragmatism. The quartet deliberately set out to create a compelling, commercially viable sound: loud but not too hard, infused with just enough pop to make it catchy but not cloying, shot through with lyrics that allude to world-weariness without waxing anxious.

Sponge's single, "Plowed," for example, updates the exuberant, tuneful guitar-pop of the early '80s with post-grunge layers of grit as Dombrowski laments the "world of human wreckage" around him. It's driving and diffuse enough to appeal to a wide swath of listeners.

Indeed, "Plowed" was played on radio formats ranging from alternative to album-oriented-rock to rock, and the video was designated a "Buzz Clip" at MTV. The second single, "Molly," is currently among the most-played records on KROQ, and sales of the band's debut Columbia Records album, "Rotting Pin~ata," is approaching 300,000 copies.

Demonstrating that range, Sponge is booked to appear both at KROQ's "Weenie Roast" festival on June 17 at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre and at a free show sponsored by KLOS on July 2 at the Whisky.

Sponge's pursuit of a major-label deal was direct and unapologetic. The group never felt compelled to follow the often circuitous independent-label route that's become so crucial in conferring credibility on new bands these days.

"I think a lot of bands do the indie thing as a way to get to a major label," Dombrowski says. "So what was the main goal anyway? To get to a major. We're already at a major. Boom. We're there.

"Also, I think maybe they do it to establish a certain amount of control. They've proven they've done something on their own. . . . We've maintained a lot of control of what we do. It's actually amazing. They let us produce the record and the photos, artwork--all that stuff is subject to approval by the band. We work with everything. I think that's why some bands might go that route, but I see it as maybe a path that too many bands have taken."

So in a strange twist of events, Sponge's efforts to find an alternative to "alternative" led it to the kind of commercial success with which no one seems comfortable except the band itself. It's a paradox Dombrowski grapples with grudgingly.

"People talk about this indie stuff and 'selling out,' and I think about how many years I've been doing this, and I just get a payoff now?" he steams.

"I've put more years into it than a lot of these people that might be 20 years old and have 10 times the success I have. That might be more credible because of their punk-rock status or something, but to me it's ridiculous, man. It's a double standard.

"What do you think happened to all those flower children of the '60s, man? They're the conservative Republicans of today. To me that's the perfect example of what each and every one of us goes through. I mean, you can only go so long without having a car, or if you've got a car you can only go so long without insurance, man. After a while everything catches up with you."

Apparently, even success.

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