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The Perfect Mugs

Savage Garden unabashedly melds image, music into a nifty package.

May 11, 1997|Sara Scribner | Sara Scribner writes about pop music for Calendar

It's only fitting to find the members of Savage Garden, the Australian duo whose futuristic/Gothic "I Want You" is one of the hottest videos of the year, at another video shoot. These guys have faces that were made for the camera.

The danger of this kind of exposure is that an act can be quickly stereotyped as lightweight--especially when the music is the kind of throbbing synth-pop played by this team from suburban Brisbane, Australia.

But singer Darren Hayes and keyboardist-guitarist Daniel Jones aren't lowering the stakes as they film the video for their second single, "To the Moon & Back."

Inside a downtown L.A. warehouse, Hayes is encased in a huge plastic cube and surrounded by objects that could be props from the Starship Enterprise. Nigel Dick, director of Guns N' Roses' "Paradise City" and "Sweet Child O' Mine" as well as "I Want You," asks Hayes to angle his face toward the light and tilt his head upward. "That's perfect, beautiful," Dick finally says, gazing into his monitor.

"Beautiful" is the operative word. Hayes, 24, has brooding eyes, porcelain skin and hair dyed midnight black. Jones, 23, was born in Essex, England, has the dual look of a nocturnal dance-club maven and a sun-loving surfer.

On top of that, Hayes has a natural affinity for the camera and a very '80s kind of knack for creating an image to go with his music. An intelligent, ambitious musician who manages to be soft-spoken and fast-talking at once, Hayes doesn't apologize for Savage Garden's carefully crafted Euro-pop or the attention-grabbing videos.

"I'm happy to bring in all the theatrics and the circus show, everything on board at the same time," says Hayes, sitting with the quieter Jones in a conference room at their West Hollywood hotel. "I'm not interested in having to prove my musicality to anybody. I know I can sing. I know we can play. We want it to be something theatrical."

It seems to be working. Savage Garden is on top of the pop world in Australia, where "I Want You" reigned as the best-selling single of 1996, and "To the Moon & Back" hit No. 1. In the United States, the song is No. 6 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart.

Hayes and Jones seem surprised that it's "I Want You," which they've self-deprecatingly dubbed the "chic-a-cherry cola song" for one of its lyrics, that is bringing them fame. A sexy, sing-song slice of electro-pop from the band's self-titled debut album, "I Want You" revolves around Hayes' rapid-fire rapping about unrequited desire.

Hayes says the song took mere minutes to write and that it came to him in a dream.

"I used to fall in love in my dreams--still do every now and then--and the person's so real to me that I'll smell their perfume," he says. "When I wake up, for about 10 minutes it feels so real that when I realize it was all a dream I'll go through a mourning process. That's why 'I Want You' starts off, 'Every time I need to see your face, I just close my eyes.' . . . It's that dreamlike ranting."

The song that succeeded might have surprised the pair, but their success has not. Hayes says that he had an eerie feeling almost five years ago when he spoke to Jones on the telephone in response to the musician's ad for a singer.

"This sounds really corny," Hayes says, "but I think there are only a few times in your life when you meet key people and go, 'Wow, this is amazing.' We clicked on the phone. When I went over to his house and auditioned, I left with this feeling, the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I had goose bumps. I actually remember walking around for a few days and looking at my neighborhood in this small town and thinking that my world was never going to be the same."

Despite his premonition, Savage Garden started out like many other groups in small towns, slogging through rock classics as a bar band in Brisbane.

Says Hayes: "After two years of this, we just said, 'Hang on, something is definitely wrong about this picture, because I don't enjoy this at all. The sort of music that I want to write, I don't see it in clubs and I don't see it in pubs.' "

So the two "went underground," cocooning with their music and tossing out the rocking guitar for more atmospheric, keyboard-driven dance-pop that took inspiration from Depeche Mode, U2, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and--for her tragic vampire stories--Anne Rice.

Naming their band after Rice's description of the private world of vampires, they worked for a year and emerged with 40 songs on demo tapes, sending 150 copies to record companies. Only management firms called. "There was a lot of confusion," Hayes remembers. "You have to remember that three years ago, music, especially in our country, was very Nirvana, Pearl Jam. People would call us and say, 'The tape's fantastic, but do you dance?' "

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