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For the 88, success isn't about selling out

The band has a big label and is getting popular, which could turn off indie fans. Not that the group worries.

October 31, 2008|Scott Timberg | Timberg is a former Times staff writer.

Since releasing its 2003 full-length debut, "Kind of Light," the Los Angeles-based band the 88 has seemed, with polished, Kinks-inspired songs and tailored suits, the group most likely to end up in a Wes Anderson movie. Frontman Keith Slettedahl, 35, who is often photographed in horned-rim glasses and a slight scowl, has become an ambassador of power pop, perhaps rock's most self-conscious and history-obsessed style.

But this singer of unbelievably harsh lines -- "Nobody cares what you've been through, nobody cares how much you do, and nobody cares what kind of drugs you're on" -- turns out to be a friendly, slightly bashful, tongue-tied guy. He casts around, trying to describe his writing style and the band's new album, "Not Only . . . But Also," but is not quite able to put any of it into words.

"I like a good part, and hooks are hooks," he says, almost drowsily, at a cafe in the Valley near drummer Anthony Zimmitti's house. "But I love the Band's records -- they just sound like dudes playing."

Few living bands use bridges and verse-chorus structures as well as the 88, but a discussion of song structure evokes not a digression into the Beatles' "Rubber Soul" or Squeeze's "East Side Story," but a bit of discomfort.

"Definitely with this last record there were a lot of talks like that," says Slettedahl. "For the next one I don't ever want to have another one of those talks."

"We've had past members of the band who were analytical," laughs Adam Merrin, 35, whose Beatles-y piano is an important part of the group's sound and one of several inspirations, for its 88 keys, for the group's name. "But definitely this formation is not like that, which is great."

A new label and 'Babyface' too

The latest chapter in this band's story is the new album, its first on a major label (Island) and with some production by Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, a name associated more with Paula Abdul than the neo-British Invasion sound of the 88.

It should be a step forward for the 88, who are slated to perform Saturday at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. The group is hoping to tour Europe for the first time and will get a promotional push that previous label EMK could only dream of. But it could also alienate the band from its early fans, just as Rilo Kiley angered its following with 2007's "Under the Blacklight."

The 88 members aren't worried. "We were never part of any indie scene," Slettedahl, now a Pasadena-dwelling dad, says of the often garage-y L.A. indieland that collects around Silver Lake and Echo Park. "I wouldn't say we listen to any of that music, to be honest with you. There are connotations to that word, to a certain sound. We've always been in between -- a little too poppy for the indie world, but a little too weird for pop."

A decade of decadence

Conceived during the high school friendship between Slettedahl and Merrin at Calabasas High, the 88 was not born until a decade later, after years of drink and drugs and one jammy, R&B-ish band called the Freeloaders. In their mid-20s, the guys heard "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society" -- people kept telling Slettedahl his songs sounded like Ray Davies' -- and it blew their addled, self-destructive minds.

Part of what sets the group, originally a five-piece, apart is Slettedahl's voice. It's so much more flexible and expressive than the usual indie-rock mumble: At times he veers from the emotion of David Bowie or T. Rex's Marc Bolan into the showiness of metal.

"I've always hated my voice and I don't like listening to it," says Slettedahl. He enjoys the flatness of indie types like Stephen Malkmus, but, "I can't be that cool, that detached." Most of his models, he says, come from the more emotive world of soul music.

Soon after launching, the 88 began landing songs in TV shows -- "The O.C.," "Weeds" and "Grey's Anatomy" -- as well as commercials, like the Sears ad that uses "Coming Home," a song remade on the new album.

Another case of the band treading close to calls of sellout?

"It doesn't bother me too much," says Merrin. "I'm sure people think it, but it doesn't bother me because we don't change our music to fit in to commercials or TV. We made the records and people started using them. I think I would feel bad if we wrote certain songs to get into that world."

These questions of the band's temperament and integrity would be unimportant if it wasn't in the habit of creating some of the finest, catchiest songs of any band in L.A., full of unexpected turns and unforgettable choruses.

Songs that stay in people's heads

Detractors sometimes say the group just mixes the Beatles with Davies and T. Rex and doesn't add anything of its own. But to write songs that people can't stop humming is not easy: If it were, everyone would do it.

When the group's members talk about recording "Not Only . . . But Also" -- about all the "outside opinions" that come with working with a major label, about the dissipation of that first spark that marks the emergence of a song -- it doesn't sound like much fun.

They have their most fun live, which is easy to see in their performance at Sea Level Records in 2005. The shoe box acoustics of the late, lamented record store do no damage to the craftsmanship of the songs and the enthusiasm behind them. "Because they are kind of traditional, they're kind of crafted, when it is a little messy, it gives them the rough edges," says Slettedahl.


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