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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND

Band's Hit Is Almost a Miracle

Chris O'Connor took a very long shot and scored with 'Rocket.' Now he and Primitive Radio Gods are building on that success.

July 04, 1996|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MTV posers, air guitarists and finalists in Bon Jovi look-alike contests all know the recipe for not getting that elusive record deal: Make an album at home in your spare time for, say, about a thousand bucks, then send it to everyone in the record business you can think of and sit back and wait to become a big hit. That never works; well, nearly never.

Providing heaps of hope to the hopeless, Primitive Radio Gods have managed to pull it off. The band has a hit album, "Rocket," and a hit song featuring a scratchy B.B. King sample and a long title. "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" is all over the radio and MTV, and is blasting up the charts. The Gods--formerly the I-Rails, one of Ventura's fondly remembered but underappreciated bands--will be making their only local appearance with the original lineup plus one Friday night at Toes Tavern in Santa Barbara.

Primitive Radio Gods began, basically, as a one-man band, and Chris O'Connor is that man. That's probably why it says "produced and performed by Chris O'Connor" on the CD. He made the album on the cheap, got signed and revived the old I-Rails band plus a guitarist for touring purposes. The quartet has been practicing in Ventura in a nondescript room a few blocks from the blue Pacific, shaking the walls as efficiently as the nearby passing trains.

While most rock wannabes spend their quality time dreaming MTV dreams, O'Connor did it his way. Nowhere in "How to Be a Rock Star" does it say to throw away the TV, smoke lots of cigarettes, get a high-stress job and quit writing new songs. But that's basically what O'Connor did.

"I was an air traffic controller," at airports including LAX, he said at a recent practice session. "You get up early in the morning, smoke a lot of cigarettes and drink a lot of coffee to get wired, then try to get through the day. Then at night, you use alcohol to come down. Then you get up at 5 a.m. and do it all again. It was a thankless job where you get really burned out."

*

During that same period, he was trying to get his band the I-Rails on track. Based in Ventura, the I-Rails played all the usual local dives. They opened for Toad the Wet Sprocket; Toad opened for them.

Two-thirds of the band, O'Connor and Jeff Sparks, were childhood pals in Visalia who moved to Ventura in 1986. The drummer, Tim Lauterio, was a Ventura local. By 1990, the group had released four tapes, the last one called "Panharmonium." But after four years and a lot of gigs, the I-Rails broke up.

"It just seemed like we were spinning our wheels in the band," said Sparks. "No one seemed to be very interested in us. I got married, moved to Humboldt and went back to school."

At that point O'Connor moved south, taking with him what started out as two tracks of the fifth I-Rails release. Five years later, it became "Rocket."

"I wrote something like one song in three years. I didn't have a TV. I didn't have the energy to do it with someone else. I didn't want to play live, just finish the record," said O'Connor. "I didn't have a band around, so I didn't have to worry about what they thought. I pressed up about 500 copies of 'Rocket,' and got all the lists and started to send them out to assistants of A&R guys--people who might listen. But I was still working at the time. You have to get on the phone to follow up these things, and I just didn't have the time. I hoped something would happen, but nothing did. A year went by."

Usually, if you send stuff through the mail, what you get back are rejection letters, if anything at all. But O'Connor's music found the right guy at the right time, one Jonathon Daniel who worked for London-based Fiction Records, which had opened an office in New York.

"The song got played at a listening meeting and Kip Kronos of Sony UK calls me up and tells me he wants to release it as a single," said O'Connor. "Later, here I am in London working on this very low-budget video, which still cost more than the album that I made for a thousand bucks. I still had my job, so I called in sick three times from London."

These days, the Primitive Radio Gods' future is considerably brighter than that of I-Rails six years ago.

In addition to the original band members, the group has on lead guitar Luke McAuliffe, formerly of the Mudheads, another great Ventura band that went away. Lauterio has given notice to quit driving a beer truck, and McAuliffe is quitting his gardening gig. A tour will begin in mid-July, most likely a number of club dates, according to O'Connor.

"It worked itself out. I made 'Rocket,' but as for the live stuff and merchandising and the next record, we split the money," he said. "I guess we're about as good as we're gonna get. We have about 19 songs so far. The band sounds a lot like, well, like 'Rocket.' "

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And "Rocket" sounds a lot like a hit. The single, which is featured on the "Cable Guy" soundtrack, is getting over 2,000 spins per week on the radio, according to New York-based Sony music publicist Howard Wuelfing.

"The song will be No. 1 on the Billboard Alternative Radio Charts this week. The album will chart around No. 60 of the Top 200 albums," said Wuelfing. "Is that good? Well, let me put it this way, Hole debuted outside the Top 200, and for a band that no one has heard of outside a small area, and wasn't married to anyone in Nirvana, Primitive Radio Gods are doing really good."

O'Connor did quit his day job, but there are no rock-star trappings in evidence yet. He still drives to practice in a Falcon older than he is. And the band is drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, on sale for eight bucks a case at Von's. The check isn't in the mail--yet.

"Even after I got signed, I kept getting rejection letters: 'Thank you for submitting blah-blah, but we really don't get it . . . .' "

DETAILS

* WHAT: Primitive Radio Gods, Spitting Bull.

* WHERE: Toes Tavern, 416 State St., Santa Barbara.

* WHEN: 9 p.m. Friday.

* HOW MUCH: $6.

* CALL: 965-4655.

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