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Singer PJ Olsson Is Building Career, One Club at a Time

July 01, 1999|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"When you show up to play gigs in places outside of L.A.," says singer-songwriter PJ Olsson, "the club owner is cooking you pasta and handing you a carnival-sized roll of drink tickets for the three guys in the band." Here in his adopted hometown, "you get one drink [each], and you don't ever get fed by a club."

But that doesn't upset the 29-year-old Michigan-born artist, because L.A. clubs have given him something more substantial than a spaghetti dinner: enthusiastic support. He has steadily built a following through residencies at LunaPark and the Viper Room, not to mention frequent appearances at the Mint and other local venues. Currently preparing for the August debut of his self-titled Columbia Records album, Olsson's summer mini-tour of the area brings him to the Opium Den on Monday.

Olsson occasionally bubbles with nervous energy, his shaggy bangs flopping in his eyes. But he's low-key and sincere, which may be part of why he has charmed so many clubs' staffs. "When you say thanks for letting us be there, and you carry your equipment off stage as fast as you can, you end up getting more gigs," he says modestly.

Of course, it helps to have appealing music, but that's not a problem for Olsson, whose material has been compared to the sliced-and-diced, offbeat pop of Beck. Indeed, such songs as "Visine" and "Dandelion" recall Beck's 1996 album, "Odelay," with its strong '60s-pop sensibility and blend of folky guitar jangle, swirly samples, surreal lyrics and surprisingly soulful vocals. Also, when he wields his acoustic guitar and a variety of sonic gizmos on stage, backed by bassist Matt Fitzell and drummer John Wolf, he vaguely evokes Beck's primitive early live blending of the technical and the organic.

But Olsson is less a clone of Beck than a kindred spirit. The son of an orchestra conductor and a trained vocalist, he spent his late teens and early 20s tinkering with recording equipment, for instance blending Middle Eastern music and hip-hop beats.

"There wasn't enough depth in it," he says. To put together a music career, he had to become slightly more conventional, so he taught himself acoustic guitar and began to write actual songs. "I was so limited," he says. "I'd think, 'Whoa, I know these two chords, so this week I'm gonna go, "Oh, baby, baby, what d'ya think you've done to me lately?" ' "

He soon discovered that, at least for audiences, simpler was better. "The next thing I know, I play a gig and someone says, 'Hey, you know that song you played, the one where you said buh-buh-ba-ba? That was a good one.' . . . No one ever said that before. It was always just, 'Wow, your show is really weird.' "

Olsson's recent tour with Rufus Wainwright provided more eye-opening, if occasionally brutal, responses. Although Wainwright's fans were usually attentive and kind, he says, "sometimes someone would say, 'Hey, did you write those songs?' And I'd say, 'Yeah!' And then they'd say, 'God, I hated every one.' "

His own fans follow his club dates, he says, and his audience has suddenly expanded. A younger group picked up on his song "Ready for a Fall," from the "Dawson's Creek" soundtrack, but Olsson also credits airplay on KCRW-FM. Wherever they're coming from, Olsson and his bandmates consider it their job to capitalize on the growing buzz. Literally.

"When we walk out on stage, me and the guys always go ca-chunk," he says with a laugh, pantomiming the act of punching a time clock. "Then we say, 'Howdy, Sam. How's it going? Hope the gig's good today.' "

BE THERE

PJ Olsson plays Monday at the Opium Den, 1605 1/2 N. Ivar Ave., Hollywood. $5 cover (includes one drink.) (323) 466-7800.

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