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That song from TV? Probably by the 88

June 26, 2008|Kevin Bronson

YOU KNOW the 88, even if you don't. You've heard the Los Angeles band's sticky melodies, and maybe tilted your ear toward Keith Slettedahl's gravity-defying vocals for, oh, seconds at a time -- the group's songs having found their way into films, television shows and commercials some 40 times in the last five years.

Yet for people whose music has been sliced and diced, reduced and recontextualized, The 88's three-man brain trust remained purists when they set about writing songs for their forthcoming third record.

"An album's still an album to us," Slettedahl says. "Having our music used in this way was definitely nothing we ever set out to do."

Neither the pressure for commercial viability nor the arrival of Island Records, which signed the band last year, caused Slettedahl and bandmates Adam Merrin and Anthony Zimmitti to stray from what made them a by-the-bootstraps success story over their first two albums: timeless pop songs performed with panache.

If the group's new album, "Not Only . . . But Also" (due Aug. 26) sounds a bit more leviathan, check for the fingerprints of heavyweight producers Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds (Eric Clapton, Fall Out Boy, Madonna) and Matt Wallace (Maroon 5, Paul Westerberg), who beefed up the sound of these scrappy local guys who earned their following by handing out free CDs outside L.A. clubs and, once onstage, playing their stylish suits off.

The 88 begins the build-up to its album release by playing a show at the Roxy on Saturday (as part of the Sunset Strip Music Festival). But they're still the same guys who convened at a rented house at Lake Arrowhead in the autumn of 2006, when major labels and name producers were still a pipe dream and they simply wanted to write a follow-up to 2003's "Kind of Light" and 2005's "Over and Over."

"We were just hoping we didn't waste a lot of money and have nothing come out of it," Slettedahl remembers.

Instead, what drummer Zimmitti jokes "started with caffeine" turned into something special. "There were times," keyboardist Merrin says, "we'd be listening back to something we were working on and we just got a lump in our throat."

Slettedahl surprised even his bandmates with stream-of-consciousness lyrics he made up as the music was being hashed out. "Some of the obvious songs are about my wife . . . others about fears that I have, that as much as you love something, you always run the risk of losing it. Sometimes I channel that side of feeling inadequate and scared."

During the time at Arrowhead, the band was invited to showcase for Island. The group's management hooked them up with Edmonds, who recorded two songs, and the label made them an offer they couldn't refuse.

"They have an unnatural ability to write amazing pop songs," says Alex Shenitzky, A&R manager for Island Def Jam. "But there's a real depth to their lyrics which sets them apart from other people who do similar stuff."

The 88 had the stuff to conquer the likes of "The O.C.," "Grey's Anatomy" and "How I Met Your Mother" -- heck, one of its songs, "All 'Cause of You," has been in three movies. But can the band make waves on radio? The first single is a muscled-up reworking of "Coming Home," a veteran of two TV commercials now ready for its full four minutes.

"Obviously, because of the reputation they've built . . . they're in a position to do things in a way other developing bands only wish they could," Shenitzky says. "But what they've made is certainly an album, and 'Coming Home' is just a piece of that puzzle."

The bulk of "Not Only . . . But Also" was recorded with Wallace. "It was a great experience that, five years ago, I would have probably been too insecure to do," Slettedahl says.

Once the process began, however, the band's commitment to its music took over. "You've got to keep your head down," Zimmitti says, "and do what you've got to do."

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-- Kevin.Bronson@latimes.com

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SUNSET STRIP MUSIC FESTIVAL

FULL SCHEDULE: www.ssmf.com

THURSDAY HIGHLIGHTS: Everclear, Soul Asylum, Camper Van Beethoven (House of Blues); L.A. Guns (Whisky)

FRIDAY HIGHLIGHTS: Hot Hot Heat (Roxy); Dilated Peoples (House of Blues); Hellogoodbye (Key Club); Juliette & the Licks (Viper Room)

SATURDAY HIGHLIGHTS: The 88 (Roxy); Louis XIV (Viper Room); Mickey Avalon (Key Club)

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