[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
Feb. 22 - March 1, 2001


LA confidential

American Hi-Fi's trip to the top

By Brett Milano

Ask Stacey Jones what his life is like these days and he'll tell you it's a lot like running for president. He jets from one city to another, hitting as many as 10 in a weekend, meeting and greet- ing radio programmers and other influential folks in each town. Occasionally he'll even get to play some music with his band, American Hi-Fi. But when you've been tapped as the next big thing to break out of Boston, sometimes you barely have time to pick up your guitar. "I still live in Boston. It's just that I'm never there," Jones tells me over coffee. We're sitting on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, at that city's version of a coffee bar: owned by Hustler, it may be the only porno shop that will sell you a double espresso. On the next block is the Viper Room, where American Hi-Fi are about to play their first show in two months; they've been booked for a radio interview as soon as they get off stage. Their single "Flavor of the Weak" is on both the city's modern-rock stations, and the video has just been added to MTV -- no small feat for a debut album that isn't even in the stores yet (the release date for American Hi-Fi's homonymous Def Jam/Island debut is this Tuesday). Mötley Crüe's Nikki Sixx and Guns N' Roses' Gilby Clarke asked to be on tonight's guest list; so did two members of one of Jones's favorite LA bands, Redd Kross.

Fortunately, he's been down this road before, as the drummer for Letters to Cleo and Veruca Salt, so he knows enough to take the attention in stride. "We're not going bonkers because we're getting played on KROQ -- I mean, it's great, but it's just a start. And MTV added our video, which basically means they're playing it at 4:30 in the morning. But what the hell, somebody will be awake."

Still, he's the first to admit he's having a blast. "To me this isn't like being in a real band; it's fantasy band camp. I get to play music I like with three of my best friends. I'm still waiting for someone to knock on the hotel door and tell me I've been voted off the rock-and-roll island." So he's not complaining that he's barely seen the new Fenway apartment he signed a lease on last summer. "We're totally on the campaign trail with American Hi-Fi. I've basically spent the last six months on a plane. There was one day we had breakfast in Fort Lauderdale, lunch in New Orleans, and dinner in Portland. But it really helps to get on the radio, and our label [ordinarily a rap stronghold] really wants to break a rock act for a change."

And that's the catch, because American Hi-Fi isn't by any means a slam-dunk radio record in the current climate. It might have been 10 years ago, when all sorts of loud, hooky, guitar-driven albums were being released in Nirvana's wake. But if you take even the poppiest bands from that era -- say, Teenage Fanclub and the Candyskins -- American Hi-Fi are still just a shade poppier, pulling off the time-honored mix of shimmering hooks and tough guitar sound. "Flavor of the Weak" is a perfect example: its sentiments are classic pop, boiling down to "What's she doing with that insensitive jerk instead of me?" And if you take away the big, Nevermind-esque guitar sound, you've got a song that the Raspberries or Cheap Trick might have cut in their heyday. It's the kind of album that will usually get you good reviews, an indie-label deal, and a gig at the Middle East.

"People keep asking, `Where do you fit in?'," Jones explains. "The answer is that I don't know and I don't give a fuck. The music on the record is the kind of music we wish we were hearing more of. I just say it's big-guitar rock, though I don't mind being called power pop, because I like that kind of music. But we're still talking about a band that started as a drunken jam in the old Letters to Cleo rehearsal space."

That jam took place three years ago, when Jones had temporarily rejoined the Cleos between tours with Veruca Salt. He and drummer Brian Nolan (then of Figdish) sneaked into the practice space and blasted through a handful of Kiss and Nirvana songs. Guitarist Jamie Arentzen (from the Sky Heroes, who were signed to the short-lived Q Division/MCA label) and bassist Drew Parsons (late of Tracy Bonham's band) were pulled in soon after. So the line-up was complete, save for one problem: Jones had never sung or played guitar in his previous bands, and save for a couple of stabs with the Cleos ("Little Rosa" was written with Kay Hanley around one of his riffs), he'd never written any songs either.

"I'm only the frontman because Brian didn't want to do it," he notes. "It's not like I'd been sitting behind the drums waiting to get out. It was more like, `Fuck it, I'm going to give it a try.' Than I started seeing bands on stage, and it got me saying, `I could do that.' So I learned to play guitar on the road with Veruca Salt; I bought one of those Mel Bay instruction books and taught myself on the bus."

Veruca Salt, whom Jones had left Letters to Cleo to join, fell apart soon after the initial Hi-Fi jams started happening. It's no secret that frontwomen Nina Gordon and Louise Post fell out with each other in a big way, and the stories from that era will probably be great once someone starts telling them. "I knew the situation was volatile. Even when I joined, their management told me, `This band is a time bomb.' I said, `Yeah, I know, but I really want to play with them.' All I'll say is that Nina and Louise are both really strong women, and they were going in different musical directions. Mix that with a lot of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and you've got a VH-1 special waiting to happen."

But the Veruca connection didn't wind up hurting. Jones and Nina Gordon became a couple during his time with the band, and they maintain a long-distance relationship since she still lives in Chicago. "That's another reason I spend so much time on planes. The good part is that we have the ability to go where the other is whenever we're not working." Another plus was that star producer Bob Rock, who did the last Veruca album and Gordon's solo debut (along with various Metallica and Mötley Crüe discs), liked the American Hi-Fi demos enough to put the band up at his studio in Maui, where the heavy work got done. "We played golf every afternoon, then played in Bob's garage at night. That's how we swindled him into doing our record."

Meanwhile, Jones made one last stab at returning to the drumkit: he auditioned for Smashing Pumpkins during Jimmy Chamberlin's absence but wasn't surprised when he lost the gig to Kenny Aaronoff. "I pretty much knew they wanted him. In fact, I'd heard that Billy Corgan had told his manager, `I want a pro; I don't want some kid from some dumb alternative rock band ' -- which was basically me. The audition was pretty funny -- for one thing, Kenny was already there and I had to audition on his kit. We were playing `Rhinoceros,' from Gish, but we stopped halfway through because the band didn't remember it. Then Billy started playing this Pink Floyd space jam. In the middle of that, D'Arcy stopped playing her bass and started rooting through this Barney's bag she had from shopping. So I figured, okay. I know where this is going. I heard through the grapevine that Billy Corgan liked my playing but didn't think I was hitting hard enough. And by then I was glad that I could just go ahead with this band."

The one thing American Hi-Fi never did was play much in Boston. So far they've done only two low-profile shows at Bill's Bar, plus a couple of impromptu songs one night at T.T. the Bear's Place. "We never made an effort to avoid playing in Boston. That's just the way it's worked out. And I have to admit that I feel really distanced from the whole Boston music community. I really miss those days, when I was playing with the Cleos and bands like Orangutang and the Gigolo Aunts were always hanging around. I'm not sure that kind of community is still around, and we're not part of it if there is. But I'd still like to be."

Part of that community is certainly present when American Hi-Fi play their set at the Viper Room. Despite its hotspot reputation, the place is tiny -- with its red-curtained décor, it looks like a more compact version of Lilli's -- and tonight it's packed, with the band in the early-evening opening slot of a five-set ASCAP showcase. I don't spot Nikki Sixx or Gilby Clarke in the crowd, but I do see a handful of Boston pop figures who've emigrated to LA: all four members of the last Gigolo Aunts line-up, plus ex-Cavedogs drummer Mark Rivers. So a few hands are already ready to clap when the band announce themselves, with a proper flourish, as "American Hi-Fi from Boston, Massachusetts!"

On stage American Hi-Fi have no problem re-creating the big guitars and clean vocal sound from the album, with Arentzen slinging that most rock-looking of guitars, the Gibson Flying V. Jones has a frontman's confidence and good looks but avoids a frontman's mannerisms. One telling moment comes at the end of "My Only Enemy," the loudest and most Nirvana-esque track on the album: Jones strikes his one rock-star pose by dropping his guitar and shouting the title into the mike before hurling the mike stand to the floor. But then he breaks into a grin, takes a swig from a Bud bottle, and bobs his head while Arentzen plays a solo. At this point they look very much like the kind of band who would have formed to play Kiss covers in the rehearsal space.

American Hi-Fi get to work most of the debut album into their 45-minute set. They leave to fervent applause but still get whisked off, no encore, to make way for the next band. So it doesn't feel like a career-making moment, just one night in a long stretch of hard playing and hard work before they head off to the next city. The campaign goes on -- but this time the good guys are winning.

| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 2000 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.