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POP MUSIC

Talk About Your Mob Hits

Larry Love and his band A3 are suddenly in demand thanks to their ties with a certain 'waste management consultant' on HBO.

March 12, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN

Larry Love is probably the first singer in the history of the record business to admit he owes his success to a New Jersey mobster.

No, we're not talking about a belated confession about the payola and mob control associated with the early days of rock.

Love is the leader of A3, a colorful techno-country band from Britain with outrageously theatrical pop-rock sensibilities. And the mobster is Tony Soprano.

In HBO's series "The Sopranos," A3's "Woke Up This Morning" is played over the opening credits as Soprano drives from the grit of the city to his peaceful suburban home. The lyrics, served in an ominous grumble, carry the tension eating at a man whose work is filled with intrigue and violence: "You woke up this morning/Got yourself a gun. . . ."

The song was originally released on A3's 1997 debut album, which generated so little attention that the band was dropped in May by its U.S. label, Interscope Records, in the reorganization after Seagram's purchase of PolyGram. But the TV exposure has suddenly made the group a hot property again. It is now in contract talks with Columbia Records.

"Woke Up This Morning" is the centerpiece of the "Sopranos" soundtrack album, which has been getting rave reviews and sold more than 200,000 copies in three months. The version on the show and the soundtrack is a remix of the recording on A3's debut album, and Jay Leno is such a fan that he flew A3 over from London to perform it on "The Tonight Show."

Love's story tells a lot about the uncertainty of the record business, and how easy it is for something once ignored to be toasted later--a tale that is especially important during a time when record companies seem increasingly impatient for immediate results.

"I must say it's nice to finally be wanted," Love says during a brief visit to Los Angeles. "After years of being in the wilderness vis-a-vis record companies, it's a bit of vindication now.

"The thing that the labels kept saying was you can't mix country with dance music. But it seemed natural to us. Hank Williams hung out in after-hours country juke joints, where drinking was illegal--which isn't all that different to a warehouse party in South London, where police are trying to bust it up. There's the same kind of illicit feel to the music--which is probably why it works so well in a TV show about mobsters."

*

Love, 35, is one of those pop stars who can talk a good line as well as write one in a song. The hyper singer-songwriter prepares for an interview much as an athlete warms up for a game. He paces his Universal City hotel room, then lays out a row of cigarettes on a table before settling into a chair. He lights one of the cigarettes, takes a long, hard puff, then begins describing his background in the kind of detail that suggests he has an eye for history.

Born Robert Spragg in a village in Wales, Love describes himself as the "son of a preacher man" and says he heard mostly church music until he discovered punk during his early teens. All these years later, he still seems to delight in recalling his parents' horror when he started bringing home records by the Stranglers and the Sex Pistols.

"All my family were Mormon, descendants of the massive influx of American evangelists who moved to Wales in the late 19th century and brought all this fire-and-brimstone imagery with them to these tiny Welsh villages," he says, already onto his second cigarette.

As he got older, Love was caught up in the British dance scene. In the mid-'80s, he moved to London and worked as a DJ in clubs. Love drew on these memories when he put together a group he called Alabama 3 with a bunch of other "stray lunatics." Love's main cohort in the band is Jake Black, a Scotsman who calls himself the Very Reverend Dr. D. Wayne Love, the self-proclaimed minister of the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine.

Love can fill a couple of tapes talking about the connection in his head between the religious ceremonies and dance-club and rock celebrations--and the humor behind the whole First Presleyterian concept.

But all you need to know at this point is that the music itself is no lark. There may be humorous and theatrical edges to some of the songs, but the tunes on that debut album are compelling tales built around identifiable themes and emotions.

As Love tells it, the unlikely connection between A3 and Tony Soprano began two years ago when Love woke up one morning in London to learn that a song by his band was going to be used in a series on what he thought was some obscure U.S. cable network.

All it meant to him at the time was a $40,000 check, most of which, he recalls, went to his British record company to help pay off some of the band's debt.

So Love was jolted a few weeks later to get a call from friends in New York telling him that the show was the talk of the town--and that "Woke Up This Morning" was one of its signature elements.

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