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The Hippos Wade Into Big-Time Rock World

Pop music: The San Fernando Valley sextet has had some major breaks while pursuing its career.

August 27, 1999|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's easy to get the wrong idea about the Hippos. With roots in the trendy Southern California punk-ska scene and a slew of peppy songs dominated by boy-meets-girl themes, the youthful, party-minded band appears to be just another lightweight entry in the pop music sweepstakes.

On closer inspection, the San Fernando Valley-based sextet may indeed come up a winner. Exhibiting a refreshingly healthy outlook on the business and musical aspects of their career, the Hippos have the potential to make a long-lasting statement.

So far, the group has caught two big breaks: playing the second stage on this summer's nationwide Warped Tour and signing with an influential major label. Even so, lead singer-guitarist Ariel Rechtshaid readily admits that there's still much to learn.

"There was so much to take in from the whole Warped experience . . . picking up things here and there from bands we admire," he said recently in a telephone interview from his Van Nuys residence.

"The guys in Face to Face kept telling us, 'Make sure you're having fun because this is a very unstable industry. If you're in it for the money, you'll probably be disappointed in the end.' "

The Hippos did, however, formulate a profitable business strategy. "We had to get out to the [concert] venues by 8 or 9 each morning in order to get a decent 'merch' spot," said Rechtshaid. "We didn't get paid much for playing our sets, but it gave us some great exposure. That led to fans checking out our merchandise, which is where we actually made our money."

When the Hippos--who play record release parties today at the Troubadour in West Hollywood and Saturday at Chain Reaction in Anaheim--formed four years ago, they were a rarity in the Southland; a pop-ska band not from Orange County. Unable to crack the blossoming O.C. scene, the band, which also features trumpeter Louis Castle, trombonist-keyboardist Danny Rukasin, keyboardist-trombonist Rich Zahniser, bassist James Bairian and drummer Kyle Briggs, stayed close to home, playing at nearby clubs like the Cobalt Cafe in Canoga Park.

A friendship with the members of the pop-ska band Less Than Jake led to the recording of the Hippos indie-debut, "Forget the World," which was released on the Vagrant/Fueled by Ramen label, which is co-owned by Less Than Jake drummer Vinnie.

In another smart business move, Rechtshaid, the Hippos' youngest member at 20, graduated high school a year early so the band could tour the country.

The live performances helped.

"Forget the World" sold a respectable 25,000 copies, and the band was subsequently courted for nearly six months by Mojo Records, home to the Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Reel Big Fish. But when no agreement was reached, the Hippos signed last year with powerhouse Interscope Records. On Tuesday, Interscope released the band's major-label debut, "Heads Are Gonna Roll."

The brand new album ventures into more diverse sonic terrain de-emphasizing its horn section and percolating ska rhythms in favor of a catchy pop-rock base, and bringing more guitar and vintage keyboards into the mix. Their use of two Moog synthesizers and a Farfisa organ stretches into '80s-era new wave and techno-pop territory.

"Playing ska was the most fun when we started out, and I still love the sound and scene," says Rechtshaid. "But I'm into a lot more music than that, and this time, we tried not to restrict ourselves at all stylistically.

"I think our sound has grown, but at the same time, you wouldn't be shocked by the evolution. We got to mess around with more of our influences, from pure pop to the higher tech sounds of Gary Numan, the Cars, the Talking Heads . . . groups like that."

As for sticking to the familiar coming-of-age subject matter, they offer no apologies.

"It's honest. . . . There's nothing contrived about the lyrics," says Rechtshaid, the group's primary songwriter.

"Each song I write reflects a certain period in my life . . . that's why there's so much stuff about the awkwardness of growing up and relationships, and looking to gain respect from others."

Rechtshaid believes songwriting is the key to an enduring career.

"The material I write begins on the acoustic guitar, and it has to stand on its own before we decorate it with the arrangement. I would never let anything get in the way of the song."

Rechtshaid, whose diverse influences include Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Clash, the Police, Fishbone, the Specials, Weezer and They Might Be Giants, says he's always wanted to combine ska and reggae rhythms with the fury of rock 'n' roll and the catchiness of pop.

But will the corporate eye of Interscope, and its parent company, Seagram Co., mean less creative independence for a band that's used to a do-it-yourself approach?

Rechtshaid doesn't think so.

"When we turned in 'Heads Are Gonna Roll,' I knew the label didn't get quite what they were expecting. But they were pleasantly surprised

"It's a good relationship on both sides because we're still a low-maintenance, low-budget band that's fairly self-supporting. We're busting our butt on the road in order to expand our fan base. Yet we have Interscope's support if and when we need it. So far, it's been very cool."

* The Hippos, Rx Bandits and Slow Gherkin play tonight at 8 p.m. at the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. $10 (310) 276-6168. The Hippos also appear Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with Limbeck at Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim. $8 (714) 635-6067.

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