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Creative Powers

Pure Pop for Now People
The 88 makes witty, dynamic, melodic music that the newest little girls (and boys) seem to understand

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Pure Pop for Now People
The 88 makes witty, dynamic, melodic music that the newest little girls (and boys) seem to understand


Photo by Steve Appleford
Everybody loves them: (l-r) Jay, Merrin, Slettedahl, Torres, and zimmitti with some prehistoric pals

owlin’ Wolf sang it: “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.” In 1979, L.A. rockers the Knack took the latter half of this line from Willie Dixon’s blues classic “Back Door Man” as the title of their second album – a joke of sorts, but the joke was on them, as that slab generated far less pop heat than its debut, Get the Knack. The little girls may understand, but they don’t always stick around.

The lyric came to mind while I was interviewing another L.A. band, the 88. But where this group’s own second album – the witty, dynamic, and luxuriously melodic Over and Over – is concerned, both the men and the little girls understand quite well.

The men part isn’t surprising. Singer-guitarist Keith Slettedahl, keyboardist Adam Merrin, guitarist Brandon Jay, bassist Carlos Torres, and drummer Anthony Zimmitti get the trainspotters swooning by blending the brainy tunesmithery of the Beatles, the Kinks, Elvis Costello, and Pavement with the rock ’n’ roll swagger and creativity of the Stones, the Band, and T. Rex. Released in late September on the 88’s own EMK label, Over and Over is buoyed by clever, deceptively cheerful music and weighted with brooding-yet-catchy lyrics that can veer from reassuring to unsettling in the span of a measure.

No wonder music men like KCRW’s Nic Harcourt (of Morning Becomes Eclectic fame) and 103.1’s Steve Jones (of Jonesy’s Jukebox notoreity) have featured the 88. As far as obsessive rock guys (and gals) are concerned, this band would be worth a listen whenever it popped up on the postmodern-rock continuum.

But the little-girls thing is a whole other universe, one tied more specifically to The Now. For the 88 is among the growing number of artists gaining listeners the new-fashioned way: via television. Five of its songs have been used on Fox’s teen drama The OC, which also included it on the show’s first soundtrack album last year. The 88’s tunes have also been heard on MTV’s Laguna Beach, CBS’s sitcom How I Met Your Mother, and many others.

“The OC exposed us to tons of kids who would normally not have heard of us, or maybe not even be into us,” says the bespectacled Slettedahl over dinner with Merrin and me at a vintage mid-Wilshire restaurant/bar. They’ve been friends since high school in Calabasas, a longtime bond that shows in subtle ways, like how Merrin patiently, attentively waits for Slettedahl to continue, rather than talking over him, during the short pauses the singer takes between expressing his ideas. “I’ve always thought we could have a broad appeal,” Slettedahl says, “but it did kind of catch us off guard, like, ‘Wow, 15-year-old girls are into our band.’”

Many younger fans, he says, contact the band through ever-more-popular music-oriented cyber community, saying they heard the 88 on The OC. But Myspace is not the only place you’ll find the 88, nor are teens their only admirers. The quintet’s been featured recently in the Los Angeles Times and Spin, profiled on syndicated entertainment show Extra, and even written up in Playgirl. Hmmm … it seems that the women also understand, although the photo showed Slettedahl fully clothed.

As far as their teen fans go, Slettedahl recognizes a past self in them. “They are at that age I was, where they’re discovering the Beatles and all the music that my parents listened to; it changed my life.” And their excitement is infectious. “Any time we play an all-ages show,” he says, “it’s like, this is who we wanna play for: people who are there to like music. When I was their age, that was the highlight of the month, week, year – to go see a band you loved.”

Still, the 88’s inventive rock and spiffy on-stage suits might seem at odds with casually attired, rap- and metal-obsessed U.S. teendom. But the songs aren’t as shiny-happy as the bright music first implies. They’re as moody as any teenager: shot through with uncertainty, insecurity, and anxiety, and full of adult emotions that nevertheless resonate with youth.

“People always talk about how happy our music is,” says Slettedahl. “But it’s kind of deceiving. It’s definitely not dark, but it’s … I mean, I’ve always been more interested in trying to paint a real picture of how I think. Like relationship stuff. It’s not all, ‘I love you, I know we’re gonna be together forever, this is great.’ It’s full of doubt, ‘why does she like me,’ and all that.” Even the naturally upbeat, budding-romance celebration “All ’Cause of You” acquires a disturbing undercurrent with the Elvis Costello-esque line “I caught you kneeling in the alley with the baby talk.”

Such tracks as the propulsive, fuckup-fearing “Hide Another Mistake” and the plaintive, dizzy waltz “Bowls” simmer with angst, often drawn from Slettedahl’s own struggles. The latter, he says, “is very Kinks-ish, longing for when things were innocent and a little simpler.” Written five or six years ago, it “came out of this feeling of being really messed-up and unsure,” he says. “I was newly sober, so I just didn’t know who I was, or why I was angry, or what I was confused about, or why I was so uncomfortable.”

Slettedahl’s songs tends to be emotionally impressionistic. “My favorite writers – like Dylan, Ray Davies, Paul McCartney, John Lennon – tell these amazing stories,” he says. “You feel like you really get to see it and touch it. I can’t do that. So, out of necessity, the songs are the way they are.” Sometimes a tune’s genesis is easy to pinpoint, like the spare, pretty “You Belong to Me,” a love song for his girlfriend. Other times a more fleeting sensation causes a spark. “I’ll be kind of upset, and I’ll jump on that moment,” he says, “because I’m feeling something kind of strongly, so I don’t have the ability to talk myself out of writing it.”

Working on Over and Over with producer Ethan Allen at the Village in West L.A., Stag Street in Van Nuys, and Allen’s Silver Lake home studio, the players were encouraged to record live more than layering together the musical components, as they did for their 2003 debut, Kind of Light. “That was a big difference,” says Merrin. “Ethan got us to keep that live energy.”

During a recent Amoeba Music in-store, the musicians did build up an enthusiastic momentum on their give-and-take, closely watching each other and Slettedahl, out front with his big smile and bookish glasses vaguely evoking Buddy Holly. They clearly enjoyed being on stage – which is good, because they’ve been touring more than ever. Indeed, all this mainstream exposure has enabled the 88 to continue on its little indie way. It attracts bigger audiences out of town now, and gets a lot of college gigs, which pay relatively well. There’s more money for tour essentials like a van, gas, and hotels.

Playing nightly has psychological benefits as well. “I start to get into a different mindset,” says Slettedahl. “It’s not like the one show of every month at the Troubadour. My head quiets down a little more, and I think it brings the band together.

“It was great,” he continues, enthusing about a recent jaunt through the Pacific Northwest. “We were all sick” – Merrin snickers – “and it was brutal, and we overbooked the crap out of it.”

And this is a good experience? “We did, like, 12 shows in 10 days,” Slettedahl explains. “It was ridiculous. But we learned so much. Like, what not to do.” Heh. More seriously, he says, the group was reminded of what really matters. “There’s so much about being in a band and playing music that has nothing to do with playing music in band,” says Slettedahl. Breaking into a sudden, buoyant grin, he says, “We get back to that place of, when we play, people like it.”

The 88 plays an all-ages show, Fri. at the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, at 7:30 p.m. $12. Info: (310) 276-6168 or


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