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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
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First-Name Basis for Now

Wisconsin Quartet the Benjamins Are Building on Airplay Success of New CD but Remain Wary of Industry's Fickleness

March 20, 2001|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With their Weezer-like power pop barreling out of the starting blocks, the Benjamins have good reason to rejoice.

Found on the Wisconsin quartet's new "The Art of Disappointment," the track "Sophia on the Stereo" was the most-requested single on the College Music Journal chart during its first week of release (Feb. 27-March 6).

Next month, the Benjamins will gain more exposure on selected dates opening for Orange County's Homegrown and Houston-based Fenix TX, the up-and-coming ska-punk band that earned a coveted spot on last year's Warped Tour.

In their early 20s and preferring to ditch their surnames, the members of the Benjamins--singer-songwriter Jay (Stys), lead guitarist Dan (Hinz), bassist Ben (Perlstein) and drummer Jon (Phillip)--are delighted with the buzz surrounding them.

But at the same time, the mere mention of the word "success" makes them cringe. Having stalled in other rock, punk and ska bands, and still living at their parents' homes in the Milwaukee suburbs, each player has come to understand the fickle nature of the music business.

"Things are going real well right now, but we know they could always turn around in a flash," Jay said by cell phone en route to Salt Lake City. "Right now, we're just trying to make sure we have enough money to tour and live off of. We want to push the record, expand our fan base little by little, and hopefully we'll be able to move out on our own--sooner rather than later."

"From where I'm sitting, it just feels great to be driving this brand-new, 15-passenger Ford Club Wagon," Ben added, taking a turn on the phone. "We've always been a part of the grass-roots scene, and that's how we'll continue to be. We just had this record-release party at the Rave, our favorite club back home, where we must have spent less than 10 minutes backstage. We just wanted to hang out with our fans and friends who were all in the audience."

The Benjamins--whose name was inspired by Puff Daddy's pro-money rap, "It's All About the Benjamins"--started by playing bars and clubs around the Midwest in 1998. On Labor Day 1999, they recorded a six-song EP, "Bordering on Boredom," and within six months, a duly impressed artist-and-repertoire scout who caught a gig in Green Bay signed the band to the MCA-affiliated Drive-Thru Records in Sherman Oaks.

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Now, the foursome finds itself reaping the best of both worlds, that is, working for an indie label that has the far-reaching distribution arm of a major label. In other words, they face little or no creative interference and are assured that fans can easily find their product at mainstream retail outlets.

Critical for their full-length debut, according to Ben, was snaring a producer who understood the proper balance between the new and old, and harder-edged rock textures and a warm, more bouncy pop. They got their man in Nick Raskulinecz, whose production credits include albums by Superdrag, Dave Grohl, Bill Corgan and Marilyn Manson.

"We told Nick to use our favorite album, Weezer's 'Pinkerton,' as a blueprint for what we wanted to sound like," said Ben, who also cites the Beatles, Pixies, Cure and Blur as other influences. "We wanted hummable tunes that had a sonic kick behind them, and he didn't disappoint.

"He was a real steadying influence, someone who encouraged us to take our time and analyze every note. Nick also engineered the album, and he has this great ear for getting certain sounds. It was really cool how he brought in all of this vintage gear, like some old Marshall amps and these Les Paul guitars. Jon even used this old snare drum of [Foo Fighters front man] Dave Grohl's that was made in 1980."

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The catchy, if crunchy, "Sophia on the Stereo" exemplifies a sound and style equal parts Cheap Trick and Foo Fighters with hook-filled melodies and chunky, fuzzed-out guitar licks. Other sonic splendors include the high-octane "Clover," a sparkling little pop ditty called "Shine" and the unsettling, Twin Peaks-feeling "Riverwest Creeps."

Thematically, the album's songs testify to the ups and downs of relationships, particularly those experienced by Jay, the band's lyricist. Coloring his heartache and longing with a dash of self-deprecating humor, he uses imaginative wordplay in several songs, including "Weather's Here, Wish You Were Beautiful" and the irony-laden 'Wonderful," which includes the line: "My Ts are dotted and my eyes are crossed."

"A lot of the lyrics are drawn from personal experience, and I guess it's just easier for me to write about unrequited love," Jay said. "I think cheery songs get boring after a while, and it's just more interesting to sing about the not-so-happy times. It's stuff we can all relate to, like trying to talk to somebody you think is out of your league, or just plain trying to talk and discovering you don't really have much to say."

So does the title, "The Art of Disappointment," refer to the album's generally miserable outlook?

"No, it's actually an answer to our critics," Jay said. "Between the four of us, there have been so many friends, teachers, family members, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends . . . you name it . . . that are not entirely thrilled with what we're doing. We hear stuff like, 'It'll never last' or 'Why don't you get a real job?'

"Nothing about what we're doing is negative to us. Sure, touring can be tough when you're away from home for six to eight weeks at a time, but I'm not going to give you any sob stories. The initial reaction from fans and radio has been outstanding, and we're working our tails off to not be a disappointment--to ourselves or anybody else."

SHOW TIMES

The Benjamins, Code 415, Cousin Oliver and Jimmi Rigg, Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. $7. All ages. (714) 635-6067. The Benjamins play a return engagement April 13.

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